Whether its guys in big rubber suits, stop-motion camera trickery, or computer generated effects, there is something exciting, terrifying, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious about movies that feature a giant monster let loose in a major urban city. With the much-anticipated release of this weekend’s “Cloverfield,” I take a look back at ten of the best in the very specific “giant monster attacks” genre. For variety’s sake, I haven’t concentrated solely on the Japanese kaiju films, which are certainly the dominant type of movie in this limited field. Also, for variety’s sake, I have removed all “Jurassic Park” movies and decided that the monsters need not attack only modern cities. Enjoy! Links to related lists: Top 10 Scariest Movie Themes, Top 10 Overlooked Scary Movies, Top 10 Movie-Inspired Halloween Costumes, Top 10 Slapstick Horror Movies, Top 10 Movie Monsters
10. Gammera the Invincible aka Daikaiju Gamera (1965)
What in the world could be more frightening (or stupefying) than a giant fire-breathing turtle with tusk-like incisors that can hide inside its body and shoot sparks out its side, spinning like a flying saucer? Cold war tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union cause an American bomber to hastily shoot down a Russian bomber carrying hydrogen bombs. The impact awakens Gamera (as his name was spelled in all but the U.S. version of this first movie), a gigantic turtle that had been frozen in ice since prehistoric times. Guess where he’s headed? If you said Tokyo, you’re right on. The catch is—and this always made me like Gamera the best as a kid—he’s got a soft spot for children. As he destroys everything else in his path, he takes time to spare the little ones. This film was Daiei Studios’ challenge to Toho’s, which had a virtual monopoly on kaiju giant-monster movies, and was very successful, spawning scores of sequels. In one scene, as an inside joke, Gamera even destroys the New Toho Theater. In America, Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker were added a year later, along with some of the requisite bad dubbing. (Watch the U.S. trailer here.)
9. Clash of the Titans (1981)
Stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen was called in as the head of special effects for this Greek mythology-inspired headscratcher, and it would prove to be his last film in that role. Unfortunately for him, his throwback creations, like the evil, snake-haired, glowing-eyed Medusa, were onscreen way too little to make room for Perseus—the most bland and unconvincing hero ever—played by Harry Hamlin (“L.A. Law”). Laurence Olivier is also on board as Zeus. As awesome and creatively animated as the gorgon Medusa and the winged horse Pegasus were, the only thing that qualifies this movie as a giant-monster film is the finale. The Kraken, a giant sea monster, rises from the sea demanding a virgin sacrifice. Andromeda is just moments away from a violent death at the beast when—well, you can guess, I suppose. As lame as Hamlin was in the role, it’s still an exciting climax to an overly-long movie that was smart enough to utilize Harryhausen and thus is fondly remembered by many. A remake is scheduled for 2010, with Stephen Norrington (“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) directing. Ugh. (Watch the Kraken.)
Calibos: Release the Kraken!
8. Them! (1954)
Atomic paranoia was alive and well in America, what with all the testing in the Nevada desert, so is it any wonder that the radiation would cause a group of ants to grow to gigantic proportions and terrorize the citizens of the rural West? The ants keep getting bigger and bigger until they eventually overrun an ocean freighter and set up a nest in the Los Angeles sewer system. Despite its ridiculous premise (aren’t they all?), “Them!” actually has some fairly tense moments, as it gradually develops its unreal situation. Not to mention the fact that for its time, the special effects were pretty damned impressive. This movie used to be a Saturday or Sunday afternoon staple when I was growing up and it wasn’t yet old enough to be looked back on nostalgically. Even now, the efficient black-and-white giant-monster pic stubbornly refuses to not be taken seriously as science fiction, and credible turns by James Arness (“The Thing From Another World”) and James Whitmore (“The Shawshank Redemption”) help to keep audiences focused on the thrills. (The entire film is here, but it looks terrible.)
Dr. Harold Medford: When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What he eventually finds in that new world, nobody can predict.
7. Ghostbusters (1984)
Okay, I know this is technically not a giant monster movie, but the huge Stay Puft Marshmallow Man that rumbles through the New York City skyline is so iconic that one of the Web’s most popular mash-ups of late features that same timeless personage inserted onto the “Cloverfield” trailer. When the ancient Sumerian God Gozer the Gozerian asks what form the Ghostbusters would like their destructor to take, Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) immediately thinks of the one thing that could never hurt anyone— the fictitious Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Our fearless heroes eventually must break the rules and cross streams (“huh uh huh hu huh…you said streams”) to defeat the smiling maniacal sugar-fiend, causing a total protonic reversal and saving the day. The unfortunate side effect? His destruction rains down a mass of white, sticky goo all over the city. When I was a kid, I thought the Stay Puft marshmallow man was real and immediately wanted to find and eat some of his gooey treats. McDonald’s eventually featured him on some of their Happy Meals, and Kenner released some toys, but it was still a letdown to find out that he was entirely a creation of the “Ghostbusters” script.
Gozer: The Choice is made! The Traveller has come!
Peter Venkman: Nobody choosed anything! Did you choose anything?
Egon Spengler: No.
Peter Venkman: [to Winston] Did YOU?
Winston Zeddemore: My mind is totally blank.
Peter Venkman: I didn’t choose anything…
Ray Stantz: I couldn’t help it. It just popped in there.
6. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster aka Gojira tai Hedorâ (1971)
Out of all the Godzilla sequels and spawns, I’ve chosen this insane little oddity because it shows how far off the rails the series had gotten 17 years later. By now, of course, Godzilla was no longer the villain, but the hero of Tokyo. This film is an awful monster movie in the generally accepted sense, but wow, what a steaming pile of crap it is! Literally. Hedorâ, the smog monster, is a brown, corny steaming pile of pollution that grows larger every second until it splits into smaller crap-monsters, secretes a bunch of toxic acid, and hits the skies for a full-on attack on Mt. Fuji. If there ever was a psychedelic Godzilla movie, this is it (about four years after the craze hit America, of course). There are all kinds of colorful kaleidoscopic camera effects and a bunch of hip Japanese youngsters (who turn into drugged-out, lizard mask-wearing youngsters for a brief acid-tinged moment) signing an unintentionally hilarious eco-awareness song titled “Save the Earth” (watch video here) (“Animals, God’s animals/Don’t go away, don’t go/The sea has cobalt, it’s full of mercury/Too many fumes in our oxygen/All the smog now is choking you and me/Good Lord, where is it gonna end?/We’re movin’, we’re movin’, movin’ to the Moon now “). Somewhere across the ocean, an American Indian chief cried a solitary tear for the tainted legacy of poor Godzilla.
Yukio Keuchi: There’s no place else to go and pretty soon we’ll all be dead, so forget it! Enjoy yourself! Let’s sing and dance while we can! Come on, blow your mind!
Dr. Yano: It probably came from a sticky, dark planet far, far away. Now go to sleep.
5. Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl takes flight in New York City as a giant flying dragon in this freakish low-budget monster movie from writer/director/B-movie impresario Larry Cohen (“God Told Me To”). Instead of a typical heroic figure, Cohen gives us a shifty, neurotic crook named Quinn (played by Michael Moriarty from “Law and Order”) for a protagonist. What starts out as a police procedural featuring some ritualistic cult murders (people being skinned alive; pretty standard by today’s “CSI” standards) turns into to something even more bizarre—a noirish character study about a low-rung criminal who yearns to be a jazz pianist (Moriarty himself composed two of the film’s piano pieces). Quinn, being the upstanding citizen that he is, tries to extort money and a pardon from the city’s representatives for information on where the creature has laid his egg. Meanwhile, the giant stop-motion animated lizard bites the heads off of unfortunate New Yorkers for lunch. Eventually, everything leads to an all-out military attack on the Chrysler Building. David Carradine (“Kill Bill”), Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”), and Candy Clark (“American Graffiti”) round out an impressive B-movie cast. (Watch Q go fishing.) or (Turn down the sound and watch all the best attacks from the movie here.)
Jimmy Quinn: Stick it in your brain. Your tiny little brain!
Jimmy Quinn: Eat ‘em! Eat ‘em! Crunch crunch!
4. The Host aka Gwoemul (2007)
Taking a page from the social commentary of “Godzilla,” this South Korean creature feature from last year (released in 2006 in its home country) uses a ferocious mutated tadpole as a stand-in for the constant presence of U.S. military forces. Writer/director Bong Joon-ho mixes the quirky family road trip picture with the giant monster picture and comes up with a potent movie with unusual laughs, real emotion, and a biting attitude. An ugly American officer pours toxic formaldehyde into a river because they are “too dusty,” and after U.S. officials take control of the contaminated area, it turns out everything our scientists say about the virus is wrong. What’s worse, an American chemical weapon called Agent Yellow (again, not very subtle) is eventually used. “The Host” saves some venom for the South Korean government as well, however. Like the family portrayed in the film, they are a pretty inept and idiotic bunch altogether. The only thing worth counting on, it turns out, is family. Modern CGI is integrated seamlessly into the movie, and the monster’s first rampage down the riverbanks is impressively staged. A lull somewhere near the middle of the movie can’t stop “The Host” from being the best (and most intentionally funny) original giant monster movie in ages. (Watch the U.S. trailer here.)
3. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
More terrific Greek mythology stop-motion creations from Ray Harryhausen populate this fantasy/action/adventure film that’s sparsely populated by interminable to tolerable acting. An heir to the throne of Thessaly named Jason (a bearded and overdubbed Todd Armstrong) searches for the Golden Fleece to the amusement of the Gods at Mount Olympus. Along the way, he encounters some of master animator Harryhausen’s greatest creations. Jason is memorably plagued by winged female spirits known as harpies and a huge army of skeletons, but it’s Talos, the giant statue-come-to-life, and the impressively-animated seven-headed hydra that make this a kick ass giant-monster movie. “Jason and the Argonauts” took nearly two years to complete and, at a cost of $3 million dollars, it was the most expensive production for the Harryhausen up to that point. (Watch Talos come to life here.)
Zeus: For the moment, let them enjoy a calm sea, a fresh breeze and each other. The girl is pretty and I am always sentimental. But for Jason, there are other adventures. I have not finished with Jason. Let us continue the game another day.
2. King Kong (1933) (2005)
Yes, it is a cheat to include both the groundbreaking original and Peter Jackson’s epic remake together on this list, but I wanted to save room for other films. From Max Steiner’s score to Willis O’Briens’ amazing stop motion animation to detailed miniature sets to lifelike rear projection to its scenes of brutal, shocking violence, the 1933 “King Kong” is a true classic. Some scenes were so controversial that, upon its reissue in 1938, the Hays production code cut them out. The double-disc DVD from two years back features a beautifully-restored version of the original, and Jackson’s special effects team meticulously restoring a famous lost spider pit scene with old SFX techniques. There may be a lot of clunky dialogue (lovingly lampooned by Jackson in his remake), but the primeval primate still reigns supreme. In 2005, (we don’t talk about the 1976 version) Jackson amped up everything from running time to production value to super-extended action scenes, and somehow even managed to make the “love story” more convincing. In both pictures, the final scenes are desperate, tragic affairs that give the whole story its resonance. (Watch a modern remix of the 1933 trailer.)
Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Carl Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.
1. Godzilla aka Gojira (1954)
Toho Studios brought the most famous giant monster in the world (The King of the Monsters) to the big screen with this infamous movie, directed by Ishiro Honda. The original black-and-white film, recently restored on DVD, is a powerful allegory for the post-atomic devastation that Japan suffered at the end of World War II. All of the original film’s anti-American sentiment was removed and the entire movie was badly dubbed (and Raymond Burr inexplicably added) for the release of “Godzilla” in America. But all of that nonsense was still not enough to kill the immense worldwide popularity of Godzilla. The spectacle of a 400-ft. tall, pissed-off mutant dinosaur (?) with radioactive breath tearing its way towards Tokyo was enough to secure a seemingly never-ending series of sequels. Unfortunately, like the American release of the movie, the sequels would further trivialize what started as a legitimate, if uncomplicated, statement about the immense human toll of nuclear warfare from the country that suffered through it.
Kyohei Yamane-hakase: I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests… it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.