A history of Hollywood's best and worst giant monster movies

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Mar 22, 2018, 12:30 PM EDT

With Pacific Rim: Uprising just around the corner and Rampage due to come out next month (not to mention the upcoming entries in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, slated for 2019 and 2020 releases), Hollywood's current cycle of big-screen giant monster movies is in full gear. Since America's interest in huge creatures demolishing civilization has gone in and out over the years, we thought now would be an ideal time to look back on Hollywood's dabbling with the genre.

Disclaimer: this article will not cover Americanized versions of Japanese Godzilla movies (Gigantis the Fire Monster, Godzilla 1985, etc.) or monster movies which were released straight to television or video.

The Beginnings

In what remains a template for on-screen carnage to this day, 1925's The Lost World climaxes with a huge animal running amok in the civilized world. A brontosaurus, stolen from its plateau in South America, rampages through London, smashing in the sides of buildings and knocking people over with its tail. Realized via live-action footage combined with stop-motion animation by the great Willis O'Brien, the sequence was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.

In the end, the brontosaurus wanders upon Tower Bridge, the animal's immense weight shattering the infrastructure and sending it crashing into the River Thames. Even though this sequence has been arguably overshadowed by films it inspired (some inspired perhaps unconsciously), it remains one of the most pivotal moments in the history of science fiction cinema. And despite its partial setting in England, The Lost World was an American production: produced by First National Pictures.

After the film proved successful at the box office, O'Brien and director Harry Hoyt set out to make a follow-up, called Creation. (In a sense, Creation could be described as a Lost World for the still-emerging era of sound film.) The film ultimately went unproduced beyond some test shots, but O'Brien's innovative special effects techniques hadn't gone unnoticed in the front office. As it turned out, RKO producer Merian C. Cooper had a dream project of his own — a movie about a "giant terror gorilla" — and he saw O'Brien as just the guy to manifest his vision on celluloid. This led to one of the most endearing Depression-era films and the creation of an undisputed pop culture icon.


Released in 1933 with effects even more groundbreaking than those in The Lost World, the original King Kong struck a chord with audiences. Its unique take on the timeless "beauty and beast" motif has become an ingrained element in pop culture. Not to mention its finale of the twenty-four-foot gorilla combating biplanes while perched atop the Empire State Building: even people who have never seen the film know this image.

King Kong enjoyed several re-releases in the ensuing decades, reaching and dazzling audiences all around the world — including Japanese special effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya, who would later handle the effects for the original Godzilla movies. And let's not forget the many, many young people inspired to pursue moviemaking subsequent to seeing this enormously influential film. Among this crowd of aspiring artists was future Academy Award-winner Peter Jackson. "If I hadn't happened to watch this particular movie on television as a nine-year-old, I probably today would be an architect or a plumber," the director freely acknowledges.

Despite King Kong's lucrative returns and its longstanding influence on the cinematic landscape, the film didn't exactly spawn an eruption of immediate imitators. RKO hastily produced a sequel, The Son of Kong, which appeared in theaters a mere nine months after its predecessor and which replicated virtually none of the raw energy and spectacle that made the original so impressive. A few other special effects movies turned up in the Depression years — the natural disaster movie Deluge (1933), for one — but giant monsters hadn't become a Hollywood craze just yet. Nor would they for some time.

The 1940s failed to yield very many giant monster pictures of note. The one exception might've been Mighty Joe Young (1949), featuring effects by O'Brien and a young Ray Harryhausen. (Joe was a definite misfit: an intrinsically harmless — rather good-natured — animal simply confused in a world in which he did not belong. He didn't set out to kill entire crowds on sight as Kong had done.) And this decade didn't have its own The Lost World to rejuvenate interest in large animals attacking humans; the occasional dinosaur picture — such as the bland and forgettable Unknown Island (1948) — would turn up, only to disappear into the woodwork. By and large, the '40s was a dry spell for giant monster movies.

The decade which followed, however, would go down as perhaps the most important chapter in the history of the genre.


The Golden Age of Monsters

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 changed the course of history; with such an astonishing new force unleashed upon the world, it was only a matter of time before it was replicated by other nations. Concerns over atomic technology expanded rapidly with the growing nuclear program in the Soviet Union and increased anticommunist sentiment spreading in the United States. In the 1950s, the movies, in their own way, reflected this concern. (For instance, alien invaders from this time period are often interpreted as crude stand-ins for communist superpowers.) But giant monsters hadn't yet reached fad status, and the artistic connection between huge creatures and nuclear technology hadn't really formed its roots.

That all changed in 1953. Ray Harryhausen, who frequently recounted his seeing King Kong at Grauman's Chinese Theater in 1933 (and how he was never "the same since"), helmed the stop-motion effects for Warner Bros.' The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, twenty years after the premiere of the movie that changed his life.

But more significant than the film's impressive visuals was its directly connecting the atomic age to the giant monster picture. The story opens with an atomic test in the Arctic producing a blast so powerful that it frees a long-dormant prehistoric reptile from the ice. The now-awakened monster, identified as a Rhedosaurus, goes on a wide-scale rampage: sinking ships, demolishing lighthouses, and eventually coming ashore in New York City — all the while establishing recognizable tropes and patterns which have been imitated many times since.

The film also presented a fairly ambivalent attitude toward nuclear technology, quite unlike Japan's Godzilla (1954), a movie which took the concept of a monster awakened by radioactive energy and went even further with it. (In the Japanese film, nuclear weaponry is all bad, with no redeeming qualities or uses.) For even though the titular Beast in Harryhausen's film was set loose thanks to an atomic detonation, it is a radioactive isotope fired into its body that brings the creature down. A menace freed by nuclear technology is ultimately done in by nuclear technology.

Tremendously successful at the box office, Beast produced — cheesy as it is to say — its own atomic explosion: of imitators. In 1959, the film's director, Eugène Lourié, made what is essentially a British remake called The Giant Behemoth. That film went a bit further in condemning atomic technology (showcasing the negative effects radiation has on marine life) though it was ultimately a pale retread of Lourié's previous flick — and similarly climaxed with a nuclear weapon (a radium-filled torpedo, in this case) disposing of a radioactive monster. Harryhausen himself returned to the basic concept of a nuclear monster with the flimsy It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). This time, atomic technology has disturbed an enormous octopus, which pulls down the Golden Gate Bridge. And, once again, the monster is defeated by a weapon empowered with the same energy that set it loose in the first place.

In the year previous, Warner Bros. had reworked the concept, with much better results, in the wonderfully entertaining Them! (1954). Nuclear tests are once more to blame — this time for a colony of man-eating ants — and when the creatures are defeated (with flamethrowers), the film offers a bit of orated philosophy. One of the characters ominously ponders at the end: "When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."

As the decade progressed, a Frankenstein-esque theme rose within the genre: man tampering with nature and facing the consequences for his recklessness. One such film was Tarantula (1955), in which a scientist's ambitious experiments cause small organisms to become massive, including a spider. (Future super-star Clint Eastwood gained one his earliest acting jobs in this film, playing the pilot of a fighter jet who ends up blasting the giant arachnid to kingdom come.) So widespread were the concepts of atomic technology and scientific study gone awry that it eventually reached the imagination of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon. The result: his laughably bad Beginning of the End (1957), about giant locusts spawned after consuming radioactive wheat (grown in an effort to end world hunger). Tampering with the natural order of things, even with good intentions, just leads to disaster.

And in other instances, in pictures such as The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Black Scorpion (1957), The Giant Claw (1957), and The Giant Gila Monster (1959), monsters are either awakened by Mother Nature or simply wander into man's world without provocation.

The Dry Spell

The 1960s fathered a few monster pictures abroad: England's Gorgo (1961), Denmark's Reptilicus (1961), a stream of wonderful films from Japan, etc. In regards to the latter: during this time, it was quite common for American studios to loan out U.S. actors such as Nick Adams, Rhodes Reason, Cesar Romero, Joseph Cotten, and Russ Tamblyn. But as far as Hollywood was concerned, the era of making giant monster pictures on their home turf had more or less come and gone. The 1970s was very much the same. By this time, audiences (and prone-to-imitation producers) favored man-versus-nature movies in the vein of Jaws (1975) — films such as Grizzly (1976) and Piranha (1978). Even Bert I. Gordon was keeping his "giant" animals relatively scaled down: the oversized rats pursuing Marjoe Gortner in The Food of the Gods (1976) are no bigger than cows.

Dino de Laurentiis' $24 million remake of King Kong was the major exception during this dry spell. Released in 1976, this (deliberately) campy version garnered dismissal from some Kong fans, who took issue with its lack of dinosaurs and wonky sense of humor. While commending Rick Baker's "marvelous gorilla suit," Ray Harryhausen was let down by the "lack of taste, showmanship, and general absence of dramaturgy" and condemned key action scenes such as Kong's "pathetic" fight with a giant serpent. And for Harryhausen, scenes such as leading lady Jessica Lange (in her screen debut) asking the gorilla his birth sign ("I'll bet you're an Aries, aren't you?") felt like a dagger between the ribs.


Though it certainly doesn't capture the same raw intensity as the 1933 original — nor does it break as much ground — de Laurentiis' Kong does far more right than wrong and deserves to be recognized as a clever and oftentimes wonderfully entertaining different take on the story.

The remake deals with still-timely subjects such as exploitation of the environment (Kong's island, in this version, is found not by an ambitious filmmaker as in the original, but by a greedy oil company executive). It is also very much a reflection of its time, with subtle references to the then-current political climate: in one scene, a company man reveals Kong's island was accidentally discovered by a NASA satellite whose original purpose was to monitor the aftermath of a Chinese Communist missile test. And while the humor may not be for everyone, de Laurentiis' King Kong is undeniably a feast for the eyes and ears: visually polished by Richard H. Kline's cinematography and empowered by one of John Barry's finest film scores.

The 1980s embodied a particular disinterest in the giant monster movie. Most revealing was director Steve Miner's attempt to make an American version of Godzilla — and never moving forward with his project due to lack of investors. Even the pitch of releasing the film in 3D couldn't excite much of anyone.

As for what was made, there were a few. Harryhausen's swan song, Clash of the Titans (1981), featured an enormous sea monster; a winged serpent menaced New York in Q (1982); a skyscraper-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow Man appeared in the hit comedy Ghostbusters (1984). But these films were exceptions in a time when most movie monsters were in the Aliens (1986) variety. It was also during this decade that de Laurentiis produced (of all things) a sequel to his King Kong. King Kong Lives hit theaters in 1986, ten years after the "original," and did not replicate its predecessor's financial success in the slightest.

A (Somewhat) Revived Interest

In November 1992, Sony announced plans for an American Godzilla movie, having successfully acquired permission to make one from Toho. The timing couldn't have been better: Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated Jurassic Park (1993) was in the works, and there was a definite fever for dinosaurs and dinosaur-like creatures (such as Godzilla) brewing in the public's veins as a result. Sony recruited Jan de Bont to direct the film, with a tentative release date scheduled for 1994.

Now, sources vary as to why this particular motion picture never got made. Sony reported de Bont's budget exceeded what they were willing to spend. De Bont himself claims he was actually let go from the project due to creative differences: as a Godzilla fan, he wanted very much to present the monster in the way that had made it a cultural icon to begin with; the studio, on the other hand, felt a purist adaptation of Godzilla would have limited box office appeal and demanded that de Bont "westernize" the character. But whatever the reason — it might have been a combination of the two described above — the film went unmade.

As Sony continued searching for a team to realize their Godzilla (contrary to popular misreporting, Spielberg was never asked), a few pictures with monster movie-esque moments made their way into American multiplexes. In 1995, the television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (itself a quasi-reworking of the Japanese Super Sentai series) made its way to the big screen; and Spielberg made a sequel to Jurassic Park, titled The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). The latter featured a third-act climax (absent in the original novel) of a tyrannosaurus rex running amok in San Diego. And then, in 1997, production on Sony's Godzilla finally commenced, under the guidance of Independence Day (1996) creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. The film came out the following year.

If the finished film can be counted as evidence, de Bont's claim that creative differences killed his Godzilla movie may very well have been true. This reimagined Godzilla bore precious little in the way of resemblance to the original. Instead of a fire-breathing behemoth impervious to mankind's arsenal, director Emmerich presented an oversized bipedal iguana whose skin was easily pierced by bullets and missiles. Furthermore, the film itself was very much a byproduct of the post-Jurassic Park climate, oftentimes imitating or directly stealing shots from Spielberg's dinosaur pictures. And just as Spielberg portrayed his dinosaurs as ordinary creatures acting on natural survival instincts, this Godzilla was simply a mortal wild animal whose only crime was wandering into a world it did not understand.

Sony's Godzilla enjoyed a terrific opening weekend, only to suffer from a subsequent plummet in ticket sales. So steep was the drop that Entertainment Weekly spoofed it with a cartoon: of Godzilla, sitting in a booth, with a string of unsold tickets, waiting glumly for moviegoers who would never come. Adding insult to injury, vast quantities of merchandise tied to the picture went unsold (the official novelization only sold one-third of its print run; toy companies took huge losses from action figures left on shelves) — a blunt indication of the public's dissatisfaction and disinterest. And so, despite having already secured permission to produce a live-action sequel, Sony instead moved forward with a short-lived animated series and quietly allowed their rights to the Godzilla character to expire in 2003. The other monster pictures of that year — Deep Rising and the remake of Mighty Joe Young — underperformed at the box office as well.

And with that, Hollywood's suddenly revived interest in giant monster movies virtually disappeared overnight.

The Current Era

The contemporary era of monster pictures was a few years in the making. In the early 2000s, Peter Jackson, having just finished his monumentally successful The Lord of the Rings trilogy (acquiring a few Academy Awards in the process), moved forward with his remake of King Kong. (The director had actually been attached to make a version in the late 1990s, but the then-upcoming productions of Sony's Godzilla and the Mighty Joe Young remake led to its cancellation — and the box office disappointments of the aforementioned productions undoubtedly did little to rekindle Universal's enthusiasm.)

Completed in 2005 and sticking fairly close to the 1933 original, Jackson's Kong performed modestly well at the box office; but the returns nonetheless fell very far short of what he'd enjoyed from the earlier mentioned trilogy. The watershed moment for giant monster pictures wouldn't make its way to the big screen for another three years.

In addition to utilizing the then-trendy "found footage" style, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams anticipated their picture's release with an undeniably brilliant marketing campaign. The gambit paid off; audiences were genuinely curious to see just what it was that decapitated the Statue of Liberty; and the movie's attempt to capture a 9/11 zeitgeist set it apart from other monster pictures, at least in theory. Since then, producer Abrams (perhaps the most prominent figure in modern American science fiction — as maker of The Force Awakens and two Star Trek movies) has shelled out, with different directors, two loosely related sequels, each attempting a different kind of story, with little jabs of attempting to capture the modern zeitgeist.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) served as a dramatized depiction of doomsday paranoia (referencing current strains between the United States and North Korea, for instance) and functioned so efficiently on that level that the movie's science fiction coda felt awkwardly tacked on. The Cloverfield Paradox was essentially the opposite: a spaceship-set horror story, with little bits regarding an international crew questioning each other's motives according to their respective countries' behavior. In between the first two Cloverfield movies, producer Abrams-directed Super 8 (2011), a Spielbergian fantasy with ideas of childhood and the creative impulse — and an alien creature.

Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim (2013) remains the most satisfying monster flick of the 2010s. Fully aware of its identity and ambitions, del Toro's movie paid tribute to his inspirations — namely Ray Harryhausen and Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda, to whom the picture is dedicated — and functioned spectacularly as straightforward entertainment. Pressing forward, there have been a few other pictures of some note: the Legendary MonsterVerse dawned in 2014; the underwhelming Independence Day sequel, with its gigantic alien antagonist, came and went without much impact; Power Rangers returned to the big screen in 2017.


There's no denying a great many of these recent monster pictures were made with special intentions... but executing them within the context of a good script has been an issue for some. The first Cloverfield invested too many minutes on paper-thin characters enunciating the most banal dialogue imaginable. Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) spent a great deal of time wagging its finger at reckless usage of atomic technology but ultimately opted for a Play-It-Safe Hollywood denouement in which an all-destroying nuclear weapon is pushed away from San Francisco just before it goes off, thereby causing no harm to the city. (That film might've learned something from Koji Hashimoto's 1984 The Return of Godzilla, in which a nuclear weapon is detonated before it can hit Tokyo but whose blast radius is so powerful that it still produces negative consequences.)

And sinking straight to the slime-infested bottom of the barrel was Colossal, an indie picture starring Anne Hathaway that encountered some legal trouble before arriving at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016 and in theaters in 2017. This was a film which smugly strove for (it would seem) "allegory" and drowned in its own delusional pretensions.

At least there's a new Pacific Rim out tomorrow.