Burly beasts who give Kong a run for his money.
As we head into March, the entire movie geek world looks forward to the release of Kong: Skull Island. Are you one of those people who just can’t wait until the 10th to get your monkey fix? Perhaps you’d like to pre-game with some monster movies. Netflix is bursting with tons of films about beasties big and small (mostly big), and here’s a handy list of quality picks. Just click on the titles to be taken to their Netflix pages.
Pick of the Month: Jurassic Park (1993)
There’s likely not any other movie that’s done as good a job of recreating the magic of the original 1933 King Kong as Jurassic Park did. It wowed audiences with spectacle the likes of which they’d never seen. It pushed the limits of what was possible with the special effects that were available in its time. Heck, it even managed to find a way to make the big, scary monster at its center relatable come the third act, just like Kong. What a monster the T-Rex from Jurassic Park ended up being, too. Its introduction into the film – you know the scene, with the ripples in the water glass – is probably the greatest introduction scene a movie monster has ever gotten in the history of film. There’s a reason why Steven Spielberg is one of the five or so most respected directors of all time, and there’s a reason why Jurassic Park is one of his most beloved movies. That reason is quality, if we weren’t clear. Throw this one on, hum along to its score, and you’ll be whisked right back to the early 90s in no time. Promise.
Here we have a monster movie that brings a simplicity of concept to the table that’s easy to appreciate. Animal doesn’t waste any time explaining its creature to you or giving it an origin story. It opens with weird animal noises playing over its soundtrack and terrified people running through the woods, and then it keeps up that pace all the way through. You don’t need to get bogged down in the particulars of what’s going on here. All you need to know is that there’s a monster, it’s the terrifying sort of monster that has a big, nasty mouth full of millions of sharp teeth, and it’s killing people. Also, Keke Palmer, who got a bunch of attention after starring in Akeelah and the Bee, plays a character in this one and she steals the movie from everyone else while reminding the audience that she’s quite the capable actress. Plus, she’s gorgeous, to boot. So why isn’t she doing anything more high profile than starring in random, low budget monster movies? Pretty dumb, Hollywood, even if this is a fun little creature feature.
Let’s be frank here: Blood Glacier is a movie that owes quite a bit to John Carpenter’s The Thing. To be more frank: Blood Glacier is doing basically everything it can to rip off The Thing. You’ve got a group of scientists trapped in a remote location, icy weather, and a mutating biological beast that keeps taking on newer, grosser, deadlier forms over the course of the movie, as it mows through the cast with its claws and fangs. The good news about a movie ripping off The Thing is that The Thing is one of the best movies ever, so its a great thing to rip off. Also, there’s some gross surgery stuff in here that feels very Alien inspired. If nothing else, you have to admit that Blood Glacier is a movie that chose its influences well.
It’s true that David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly is the rare case of a remake that improves on the original, as well as one of the best body horror movies ever made, but it feels like that movie being so good has caused a lot of people to overlook the fact that the original The Fly is also really good, and really creepy. Yeah, yeah, the fly creature itself looks a little goofy because this is 1958, but that doesn’t change the fact that this movie builds to one of the most chilling final scenes in horror movie history, which features an iconic line that’s still being quoted almost 60 years later, and it doesn’t change the fact that the film features Vincent Price, whose presence on the screen is basically a security blanket for horror fans. Honestly, if there happens to be an afterlife, isn’t Price’s voice the first one you hope you hear after you go? You don’t want to get stuck making small talk with some Saint, or, God forbid, one of your dead relatives.
Stories about dark, spooky forests are a classic when it comes to giving people the heebie-jeebies, and if you’re going to have a spooky forest in your story, you might as well up the ante by also putting a deadly, mysterious monster in there that will brutally murder anyone silly enough to enter into its territory. That’s what From the Dark delivers. It’s a story set in the Irish countryside that pits an unsuspecting couple (Niamh Algar and Stephen Cromwell) against a deadly beast that’s thousands of years old and that attacks in the dark. This one is great because of the way it uses darkness and shadows to create suspense, and because of the way its cinematography in general is always really nice to look at. From the Dark is very well put together. Algar’s character kind of rules, too. She’s not the usual clueless dunce that gets tore up in these sorts of cinematic bloodlettings. She’s tough and she takes a stand. It gives you something to cheer for, between all the time you spend biting your nails.
I will admit to not having seen much anime and to rarely liking what I’ve seen. Their stories are so out there that they’re alienating, and they over sexualize their female characters to the point where you want to pull whoever’s responsible aside and scream at them, “You know that cartoons can’t be sexy? Right? Weirdo?” Well, this one has all of that stuff going on. The story is a crazy one about people going into some sort of video game purgatory to fight monsters after they die, and the main female character has impossibly impossible breasts that are always being shoved into the virtual camera, but the movie is also essentially just straight action, the quality of its animation is impressive, and the monsters that get fought tend to have really interesting and impressive designs, so there’s stuff worth checking out here. At one point they fight a monster that’s a giant naked lady who’s made out of hundreds of smaller naked ladies fused together and it’s ridiculous.
There’s a whole generation of monster fanatics who first dipped their toe into the world of the inhuman by reading RL Stine’s series of “Goosebumps” books, which were slightly sanitized versions of the usual sorts of stories that we’ve traditionally gotten from horror literature. Kids loved them, and this 2015 film of the same name is a love letter to those books, which tells a strange, Meta story where Jack Black cheeses his way through a portrayal of Stine himself, and a magical MacGuffin is making many of the more dangerous characters from the author’s books come alive and enter the real world. It’s like Last Action Hero, but not quite as awesome. It is pretty fun though, for safe family fare, and the story being told necessitates that the film be populated by dozens and dozens of different kinds of monsters, from giant bugs, to werewolves, to abominable snowmen, to killer puppets, to devious lawn gnomes, which makes it perfect for a list like this.
Here’s another movie that owes a lot to The Thing. Once again we’ve got a group of scientists trapped in an isolated location (this time a crab fishing boat), once again we’ve got icy weather, and once again we have a monster that gets loose and starts tearing everyone to shreds. This time around the monster doesn’t mutate though. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s one stationary form is really gross and really slimy, and the super-good news is that a surprising amount of tactile, practical effects are used to bring it to life. For a 2015 movie, at least. There are a couple of actors in this cast who are really bad, but that’s made up for by the fact that Lance Henriksen plays the captain of the boat. Any movie that features Lance Henriksen gets an automatic pass in my book. The guy is a genre movie legend, and he’s totally the sort of person who you want on your side when monsters start to attack.
Looking for a good monster movie? How about a movie about a monster who leads a team of other monsters, whose job it is to hunt down other, more dangerous monsters? That’s a lot of monsters for one movie. Truthfully, Hellboy isn’t director Guillermo del Toro’s best work, as it’s a little bit too much of a generic superhero origin story, and it took the guy until Hellboy 2 to really get the property right, but there’s still a lot of stuff to love packed away in here. This being a del Toro movie, of course the production design is on point. From the look of the creatures, to the sets, to the costumes, there’s just tons of great stuff to feast your eyes on almost every second that the movie’s playing. And then there’s Ron Perlman as the title character. He gets the gruff charm of this demonic anti-hero just right, and it’s really hard to imagine anyone else doing better in the role. Also, John Hurt playing a kindly old man is never a bad thing. That guy is terribly missed.
Korean filmmakers tend to make really strange movies. Lucky for us. This film about a rampaging sea monster has a ton of things going on in it at once. It’s got the scale of a huge Hollywood disaster movie. It’s got enough laughs sprinkled throughout to work as a comedy. Its monster action is exciting enough to allow it to stand up to any Godzilla flick. The most surprising thing about it is that it works really well as an inspiring tale about family and what it is that ties us and the people we love together though. This movie is about a giant sea monster, yes, but it also has a ton of heart. Director Joon-ho Bong made a movie here that’s silly and fun enough to stand up next to the most legendary monster movies ever made, but he didn’t stop there, he also made a really smart movie that’s probably the most interesting thing on this list.
The most high profile monster movie that’s hit theaters in recent years was 2014’s Godzilla. It wowed with its spectacle. It reintroduced the King of Monsters back to Western audiences after he experienced some image problems in the late 90s. It made lots of money. If you don’t know how a relatively unknown-at-the-time director named Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) got the job helming such a high-profile project, look no further than Monsters, his 2010 film where he managed to tell an effective story about gigantic alien monsters with very limited resources. There are some interesting political undertones in this story, and there’s some surprisingly effective character drama going on, but the most spectacular thing about Monsters is just how great Edwards was able to make it look on such a limited budget. This thing outclasses many of the crappier special effects bonanzas that come from big studios.
Not all monster movies have to be scary or gross. Case in point, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, which takes the most mysterious and scary creature featured in Disney’s Hundred Acre Wood Universe and finally puts it at the forefront of a film. What exactly is a Heffalump? Is it even real, or might it just be the latest hallucination dreamed up during one of Tigger’s drug-fueled manias? The answers are here in this film that’s probably a bit slight, but that at least rekindles some of the comfort and charm that’s always radiated out of every classic Winnie the Pooh story. Modern kids movies are always so loud and obnoxious and brutally stupid, but that was never the case with Pooh and his friends. The next time your kid is looking for a movie to watch on Netflix, why not sit them in front of a wholesome pick like this that might actually help make them a better person? Death to Minions. Long live the Pooh.
Is the beastie killing people in Rites of Spring a little too humanoid to really be considered a movie monster? Probably. He mostly just looks like a cross between an axe-wielding hobo and a scarecrow. Netflix itself has this classified as a monster movie though, so this isn’t cheating, and the film itself is really good, so it should definitely be mentioned. The characters here feel three-dimensional and real. The cast is strong across the board (especially AJ Bowen, who provides the film with a really complex, almost likable villain). What’s really special about Rites of Spring though is how its able to seamlessly blend genres together, and how bleak and brutal it’s willing to get without letting the audience see it blink. This thing is part kidnapping tale, part hillbilly thriller, part monster movie, and the turns it takes are always able to keep you on your toes. Be warned that the subject matter really is viciously dark though. This movie definitely doesn’t care about your feelings.
Trollhunter is the most fun movie on this list. Most found footage films are at best tedious and at worst irritating, but this one refuses to take itself seriously and instead focuses on creating as much insanity as possible involving giant, rampaging trolls. The film blends tones really well, because even though it’s full of goofy moments that work as effective humor, it can also be pretty dang thrilling when our heroes end up coming face to face with gigantic beasts. There are action sequences here that work better as action scenes than the ones in any legit action movie this side of John Wick. And though this was a relatively modest production, the giant trolls actually ended up looking really good. Trollhunters is a nice reminder that you don’t have to spend all of the money in the world in order to make a genre film that people can be entertained by. Let’s just go ahead and say it: this is the best movie about trolls since Ernest Scared Stupid.
As far as family films about monsters go, The Water Horse is there. It’s not really good, and it’s not really bad, but it’s pleasant enough. Its 1940s Scotland setting sets it apart, Brian Cox is playing the kooky old narrator, and he really leans into his role and chews up the scenery, and the sea monster the little kid finds and befriends is pretty cute, though brought to life through some fairly painful-looking CGI. Am I recommending The Water Horse? Not fully, but I am using it as an excuse to bring up the fact that family-friendly monster movies exist, because a truly great one is going to hit Netflix in a couple of weeks, and it should be mentioned. The new Pete’s Dragon hits the service on the 14th and it does pretty much everything The Water Horse does, but better. We just don’t have a link to it yet. Keep it in mind, because it’s awesome stuff, and maybe hold yourself over by watching The Water Horse in the meantime?