Get ready to smash your favorite city and bathe in the screams of a fleeing populace — this is monster movie mayhem.
About a month ago the Film School Rejects Fantastic Four — Brad Gullickson, Kieran Fisher, Rob Hunter and myself — decided it would be fun to rank our favorite kaiju movies in celebration of Pacific Rim: Uprising‘s imminent release. Sounds like a good idea, right? Yeah, we thought so too. Unfortunately we quickly hit a sour note, and our Fantastic Four was ripped into a Dynamic Duo and a Terrible Twosome.
On the side of truth you have Rob and I correctly understanding what qualifies as a kaiju movie. They’re basically Japanese monster movies featuring giant creatures — original monsters as opposed merely to big versions of existing animals — that destroy people and property with abandon. The specifics can vary, but it all boils down to giant monster movies with a Japanese origin. This of course means that King Kong, while a monster of sorts and certainly giant, is not a kaiju in part because he’s just a big, dumb ape. Rob and I rightfully agree on this.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Kieran and Brad. These outlandish hacks honestly believe Kong is the original kaiju, and if you ask them why their mouths just drop open and gibberish spills out onto their Crocs. It’s not a pleasant sight.
Our heated kaiju debate started in Slack, erupted across social media, and quickly ventured over into the real world with Fisher attempting a despicable series of long-distance tickle attacks. Needless to say, our plans for a kaiju list were crushed like so many screaming city dwellers beneath Godzilla’s feet. Giving up isn’t in our DNA, though, so instead we’ve complied a list of 37 “big monster” movies for your viewing pleasure. These are our favorites featuring big monster fun, so get ready to smash your favorite city and squash your nearby village — this is monster movie mayhem.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, USA)
Before Godzilla rose from the depths of the ocean to terrorize Japan with nuclear ferocity, America took advantage of Cold War hysteria and panic pertaining to nuclear advancement with its own monster-on-the-loose adventure. In this one, a dinosaur is awoken by atomic tests and it decides to make New York City its playground. Without The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the landscape of these types of pictures would be different today. It was a direct influence on Godzilla which introduced the nuclear anxiety themes that are commonplace in monster sci-fi. Throw in the revolutionary stop-motion special effects by the great Ray Harryhausen, and what you have is a certified classic. – Kieran Fisher
Godzilla (1954, Japan)
This isn’t my favorite movie in the King of the Monster’s canon, but it remains the most hard-hitting and powerful. Inspired by the nuclear terror that devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima in WWII, as well as the Lucky Number 5 fallout a few months before the film’s release, Ishiro Honda’s genre-defining masterpiece is a force of destruction with a message as powerful as its beastie. Here, our monster is a harbinger of destruction that’s hell-bent on punishing a nation for its own past. The film’s core message is “never forget.” Don’t forget the bomb. Don’t forget your cultural roots as technology and national psyche evolves. And don’t forget your nation’s own war crimes, either. There’s a lot to unpack here, but if you just want to see a monster destroy a city then you won’t be disappointed. – Fisher
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, USA)
Anytime you have a script written specifically to highlight the stop motion wizardry of Ray Harryhausen you’re very likely in for a treat. That’s exactly what happened in 1955 when George Worthing Yates wrote the screenplay for It Came from Beneath the Sea. In this sci-fi monster treat a giant octopus is turned radioactive and driven from his home thanks to hydrogen bomb testing. Now angry, deadly and homeless, the giant creature heads to the North Pacific to demolish some San Francisco yuppies. Featuring some spectacular effects, including an attack on the Golden Gate Bridge and the destruction of the clock tower at the Embarcadero, It Came from Beneath the Sea is as thrilling as monster movies get. – Chris Coffel
Rodan (1956, Japan)
Godzilla may have claimed the King of the Monsters title, but the moniker really belongs to Ishiro Honda, who directed several of the most iconic Kaiju movies in history, including this yarn about a giant prehistoric bird on the loose. This also marked the first Toho monster epic to be shot in color, and introduced a character that went on to become one of the most popular and recognizable beasts in Toho’s monster-verse. These days Rodan is perhaps more synonymous with Godzilla crossovers, but the winged menace’s first solo outing is a triumph in its own right. – Fisher
Varan the Unbelievable (1958, Japan)
Directed by the legendary Ishirō Honda, Varan the Unbelievable is your standard kaiju. A US Navy Commander is sent to Japan to test a new chemical on water. A small village in Japan is chosen because apparently the salt lake there is perfect. The villagers are against the testing for a number of reasons, but mostly because they’re fearful that it will awaken their ancient god that lives at the bottom of the lake. As is the case most of the time, the US does not care what the locals of another country think and decide to go forward with the testing. This of course awakens the ancient god, a sizable prehistoric monster, that quickly destroys the small town before heading for a larger city. USA! USA! USA! – Coffel
Behemoth, the Sea Monster (1959, UK)
Behemoth, the Sea Monster, a.k.a. The Giant Behemoth, is a British-American co-production about a prehistoric creature that appears off the coast of a small British town. This creature, which is basically a dinosaur, is slowly being killed by radiation from nuclear testing, and now he’s angry. Behamoth struggles at times, being bit slower than other monster movies with a bunch of stuffy British officers standing around talking about chaps and what not, but once the creature is unleashed the fun picks up. Special shout-outs to Willis H. O’Brien who was in charge of creature design. – Coffel
Gorgo (1961, UK)
Is Gorgo a Godzilla rip-off or a loving homage? Total theft. Attempting to beat the Japanese at their own game, the Brits unleash a titanic dino-creature upon their tiny island continent. The filmmakers attempt to ape the same combination of suit-mation and miniaturization as Ishirō Honda, and if you squint hard enough the creature-effects work. Gorgo does what giant lizards do best, gnash on sailors and topple big city circuses. The film is an oddity amongst kaiju films (or wannabe kaiju films), but the monster design gets the job done. The spin-off comic books are even better than the movie with art by Spider-Man illustrator Steve Ditko, and the 23 brief issues revel in devastation. Sometimes that’s really all you need or want. Gorgo smash! – Brad Gullickson
Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965, Japan)
Mash-up madness! A Nazi officer steals the heart of the Frankenstein monster and delivers it to Japanese scientists stationed at Hiroshima only moments before the atomic bomb obliterates the city. Years later, a wildling is found feasting on animals in the woods. It’s postulated that the boy has sprung forth from Frankenstein’s heart. The more meat he consumes, the larger he gets. Eventually, the kid grows too enormous to contain and breaks free from his confinement. Meanwhile, another gargantuan beast named Baragon is terrorizing the countryside. The Frankenstein Giant and Baragon duke it out until the Earth cracks open and swallows them whole. Mary Shelley could never have dreamed the depths her creation would eventually plunge. – Gullickson
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965, Japan)
Two astronauts are sent to probe the surface of the mysterious Planet X. There they discover an alien society called Xiliens. This advanced race is under constant threat by the three-headed dragon known as King Ghidorah. Recognized by the astronauts as the same monster that had tormented Earth in Monster Zero, they recommend that Godzilla and Rodan may be the cure to their ails. The Xiliens monsternap the kaiju and brainwash them to aid their evil whims. Lots of mind-control shenanigans ensue. King Ghidorah is easily my favorite beast, and even though his origins were altered many more times after this occurrence, Invasion of Astro-Monster remains my favorite incarnation of the creature. – Gullickson
Daimajin (1966, Japan)
This is a debatable entry as it’s not a traditional giant monster movie per se. You see, the monster in question is actually a giant statue, but it causes ample amounts of destruction just the same. Also, since it’s considered by many commentators whom I respect as a cornerstone of Japanese monster cinema, I’m counting it. Fight me irl. Anyway, the story revolves around a pair of children who are forced to flee from their village to escape an evil warlord during feudal times. They grow up on a mountain that lies beyond a haunted forest, spending their days hidden from the world. But, as you probably know from wrestling with your own troubled past, there comes a day when everyone has to confront their old troubles and fight back. It also helps when humongous statues join your cause. – Fisher
The Magic Serpent (1966, Japan)
This is one of the strangest and most overlooked movies to emerge from Japan’s swinging 60’s, which saw countless classic genre offerings of the monster variety emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun. This isn’t a typical monster movie, though. Based on an native folk tale, it’s a revenge opus set in feudal Japan which follows a man out to avenge the death of his father. But the movie also features dragons, heroic birds, giant toads and spiders, so it has plenty of monster action to satiate those needs. It’s a heroic adventure story with imaginative fantasy sequences, solid action beats, and charming special effects. Truly unique and wonderful. – Fisher
The War of the Gargantuas (1966, Japan)
The vast majority of “big monster” movies feature beasts that are decidedly non-mammalian, but once in a while a creature feature comes along with giant threats that are almost human. King Kong (not a kaiju) is the most famous, of course, but I’m a bigger fan of the sibling rivalry between these two hairy, color-coded behemoths. Gaira is green and homicidal, Sanda is brown and basically a hippie, and their reunion brings massive destruction for mankind. It’s a fun flick with guys in monster suits crushing miniatures and models as they brawl to the bitter end, and for those of you paying attention it’s also a very loose sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World. – Rob Hunter
King Kong Escapes (1967, Japan)
I had to get King Kong on here somewhere. While the American ’33 version was certainly an influence on Ishirō Honda’s original Gojira, I don’t really have the heart to label the 8th wonder of the world an actual kaiju (I’ll leave that up to braver FSR contributors or even Fisher). Now, the whacky ass ape we see in this film? Yeah, that primate is a kaiju. King Kong Escapes is Honda’s second and final attempt to bring Kong into his universe. The evil Dr. Who constructs a mecha-Kong to unearth the radioactive Element X, but when the robot shuts down, he attempts to lure the real Kong to finish the job. Mecha-Kong gets jealous and the two square off. Hot ape-on-ape action. It’s the stuff all pre-pubescent children dream of, right? – Gullickson
Destroy All Monsters (1968, Japan)
My Saturday afternoons as a kid were often home to TV double features featuring “kung fu” or kaiju movies. The latter always included a Godzilla picture and one other — Mothra, Rodan, etc — and while I loved them all my favorite of the bunch was always this late 60s battle royale featuring a bunch of monsters teaming up to fight an alien menace with their own flying, three-headed creature. We get to see the beasts destroying cities around the world before coming together to fight Ghidorah and the aliens to not only protect humanity but also to clear their names. It’s good stuff. – Hunter
Gamera vs. Guiron (1969, Japan)
I would argue that the Gamera franchise is better than the Godzilla franchise. Is that crazy? Maybe, but I like my giant reptilian-like creatures to be turtles and I like them to be friends of all children. And guess what? Gamera checks both those boxes! In this franchise entry, two small boys find a spaceship and are blasted into space and transported to a strange planet. Gamera, being the friend of all children, quickly comes to their rescue where he is forced to square off with Guiron, a giant creature with a knife for a head. This film earns bonus points for having Guiron also do battle with a Space Gyaos and for one of the boys being named Tom. – Coffel
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971, Japan)
To quote Roger Ebert’s immortal words in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Hedorah begins life as a tiny organism feasting on the planet’s pollution. As he stuffs his gob, he transforms into a gigantic smog monster and our only hope is Godzilla. The film is a psychedelic trip, goofy as all get-out, and an absolute blast with an audience. The sloppy black goop that is Hedorah has to be one of my top three favorite Kaiju designs. He’s weird, gross, and daffy. Built to be plastic, I have three mini-Hedorahs hiding throughout my house. – Gullickson
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973, Japan)
This one is all about Jet Jaguar. I love Godzilla. Absolutely. Jet Jaguar though… he’s the robot badass of my dreams. Makes sense since an actual child who entered a Toho concept contest created him. I’m pretty sure that kid time-traveled to my child self in the 1980s and stole the idea from my brain. Punk. The undersea nation of Seatopia unleashes their cyborg monster-god called Megalon upon the surface dwellers that dare to conduct atomic tests above their waters. Jet Jaguar is originally hijacked as a partner to Megalon but eventually is set free to team-up with Godzilla. Enter: Gigan. The four kaiju wage war against each other on Monster Island, and it’s a delightful battle royal. The climactic handshake between Godzilla and Jet Jaguar was made for infinite gifs and a true blessing to my Twitter lifestyle. – Gullickson