Cinema’s Greatest Movie Monsters: Slimy and (Occasionally) Sympathetic

Throughout cinema history, studios, directors, and production designers have created some of popular culture’s most memorable artistic endeavours. In all honesty, the visual aspects of any film, great or terrible, are worth noting. Over the course of several months, teams of people pool their resources to develop each production’s visual layout. Hungry for success, these teams work tirelessly to inform and entertain mass audiences. Nowadays, explosions, gunfights, and superheroes drive blockbusters. However, there was once a time when monsters and murderers commanded the screen. Their frightening aesthetic features and masochistic tendencies drew people in with baited breath. Every so often, big-budget extravaganzas like last year’s smash hit Pacific Rim pay homage to this valuable time in cinema history. With Gareth Evans’ Godzilla remake about to smash through the big screen, I decided to look back on a conquering aspect of Hollywood’s overwhelming resolve. These monsters – ranging from the grotesque to the misunderstood – have stood the test of time whilst connecting audiences to this visual medium’s majesty.

8. The Pale Man (Pans Labyrinth, 2006)

Pale Man - Pans Labyrinth
Guilermo del Toro’s Pale Man.

Inevitably, one of Guillermo del Toro’s creations is on this list. With the Hellboy series, Blade 2, and Pacific Rim showcasing his artistic talents and guile, his filmography pays tribute to a memorable time in cinematic history. Thankfully, del Toro never wholly mimics anything. His style revolves around taking his influences and creating truly original and confounding characters. In Pans Labyrinth, we see his greatest works crawl, wriggle, and fly across the screen. With its lead character, a little girl named Ophelia, discovering her true worth, the movie presents a kingdom hidden deep under the Earth. One of its inhabitants is the Pale Man. With eyeballs stuck in its hands, the creature’s mannerisms tell their own tales of heartache and despair. Testing our lead character’s resolve, this sickly creation whiles away his years in an immaculate dining room. In addition, to add to the terror, he waits for children to fall into his trap. Bloodcurdling and grotesque, the Pale Man is an amoral, skeletal villain unafraid of the afterlife or his kingdom’s future. Credit goes to character-actor Doug Jones for capturing this character’s more disgraceful yet captivating habits.

7. Cloverfield (Cloverfield, 2008)

Cloverfield Monster - Cloverfield
The unstoppable Cloverfield creature.

Captured by irritating twenty-somethings on their video camera, the Cloverfield monster is a mysterious and all-powerful creation. Much is kept in the dark about this particular creature. Before the final third, the video camera acts as a portal into an apocalyptic New York. Through the camera, we see segments of new reports and shadows swiping across buildings. The creature, a peculiar cross between Godzilla and a frog, holds several secrets under its slimy surface. Thankfully, we discover these features only when our characters do. Spitting out mutant tarantulas, the creature shows no signs of weakness throughout the movie’s brief run time. Fortunately, in the final few minutes, the movie pulls back to showcase the entire creature. Attacked by jet fighters, the creature fights back by attacking the helicopter our characters use to escape the city with. The lack of exposition and details delivers a guessing game for the audience to participate in. Chewing up and spitting out our cameraman, this vicious and angry creation illustrates director Matt Reeves’ visceral style. With the creature taking over New York, this creature feature proves that Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay’s filmmaking styles are unwarranted.

6. Predator (Predator, 1987)

The Predator - Predator
Predator in combat mode.

From the muscle-bound handshakes to the nuclear blasts, John McTiernan’s Predator is a kick-ass action flick unafraid to dabble in other genres. Here, placing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s abs and pecs in full view, the movie embraces masculinity unlike any sci-fi explosion fest of its type. Scarily so, this rag-tag group of tough guys must deal with CIA Agents, South American militia, and an even greater threat. From the opening frame, this action flick establishes itself as an exhilarating and enjoyable sci-fi epic. Keeping the scope, characterisations, and action sequences low key, the monster eclipses everything else lurking in the movie’s labyrinthine jungle setting. Picked off one-by-one by an invisible entity, the men begin to suspect one another of committing multiple atrocities. Here, unlike with the seceding Predator features, the titular alien is a terrifying and indescribable presence. With his claw-filled mouth and dreadlocks, his facial structure alone is cause for concern. Along the way, Predator’s suspenseful tactics and threatening motives keep us guessing throughout. It’s stocky structure, bizarre technological advancements, and durability push it toward its blissful showdown with Arnie.

5. Xenomorph (Alien, 1979)

Xenomorph - Alien
The Xenomorph.

Stopping critics and audiences dead in their tracks at the end of an already blistering decade in cinema, influential horror flick Alien bolstered the careers of director Ridley Scott and underrated actress Sigourney weaver. Despite the acclaim given to these two big-name personalities, its acclaimed visual effects supervisor Stan Winston’s visionary monster that defined this intensifying and eye-catching sci-fi thriller. Picking the mining ship Nostromo’s crew members one-by-one, the beast lurks in the ship’s darkest and dullest nooks and crannies. Luring people into its pulsating trap, the creature is a terrifying creation unlike other vicious alien counterparts. Winston’s vision results in catastrophic and everlasting obstacles for the unsuspecting crew. Complete with an oval shaped head, jet-black aesthetic, whip-like tail, and elongated tongue-mouth, its slimy presence wowed and scarred audiences simultaneously. On top of that, the creature’s acid-laden blood rips throughs the ship’s entangled systems. The creature, causing jump scares throughout, became a cult icon – resulting in three sequels and two spin-offs, and a prequel/relation. Before long, hopefully, we’ll be seeing more big-name directors, writers, and actors tackling this beast like Scott, Weaver, and James Cameron did all those years ago.

4. Brundlefly (The Fly, 1986)

Brundlefly - The Fly
Brundlefly – David Cronenberg’s groundbreaking creation.

Among the greatest intricacies of David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, the Brundlefly monster is a disgusting yet sympathetic character. Unlike the other monster mash features in this list, The Fly chronicles its monster’s descent into degradation and chaos. The plot kicks off with renowned scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). Interviewed by hot-shot journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), Brundle is eager to tell the world about his startling new invention. Brundle’s teleportation devices, intended for the good of mankind, accidentally lead to his horrific downfall. Cronenberg, fuelling his efforts on psychosexual tendencies, takes place during a valuable time in sci-fi horror cinema. Cronenberg’s vision takes shape shortly after Brundle tests the devices on himself. With Brundle’s DNA fusing with a fly’s genetic code, the amicable scientist transforms into a mystifying and terrifying hybrid. Brundlefly evolves over the course of several weeks. With Veronica watching on, strange hairs sprout out of his skin, his hair falls out, and puss-filled bumps form all over his body. However, with a love story crumbling under Brundlefly’s feet, this tragic narrative is aided by Brundle’s sickening downfall. The final shot, featuring Brundlefly accepting his fate, is a haunting and electrifying visual splendour that’ll live with you forever.

3. Jaws (Jaws, 1975)

Jaws - Jaws
Bruce the Shark.

Are you scared of the ocean? If you are, then Steven Spielberg’s hit blockbuster Jaws might have something to do with it. Kicking off the Summer blockbuster season trend, this action-thriller presents us with a real-life monster that still acts and reacts like its fictional cinematic counterparts. In Jaws, we see a cop struggling to protect people during his seaside town’s most popular time of year. Backed up by John Williams’ profound score (du-dun, du-dun, du-dun), the monster’s trained-to-kill behaviour is second to none. Created with practical effects, Bruce the Shark was a work of puppetry that nearly cost Spielberg his blossoming career. However, this ever-lasting concept paid off. The creature’s monstrous size and pinpoint actions are a testament to the work of Hollywood’s best and brightest practical effects artists. The subtle and intensifying antagonist keeps viewers guessing right up until the final act of bravery from our lead character.

2. Kong (King Kong, 1933)

Kong - King Kong
1933’s Kong.

How do you make a 50-foot tall gorilla a sympathetic character? By partnering him with a hot blonde. This may be a harsh truth about 1933’s action classic King Kong, but it’s nowhere near as simple as that. To obtain the correct balance between adventure-fantasy and touching love story, the original Kong touches on the fear of change. Here, the beast meets a woman who sweeps him off his big hairy feet. Toying with his ‘victim’ in the first third, Kong is presented as a mythical presence unable to be conquered. This awe-inspiring creation, a feat of stop-motion technology at the time, continues to hold Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking in high regard with critics and audiences alike. In the second half, we see a warrior fighting for the beautiful temptress he almost snacked on. Fighting off Skull Island’s more dangerous inhabitants, Kong’s commendable actions develop this gigantic creation into a likeable character. The final third, however, delivers Kong’s most tragic shades. Due to Carl Denham’s impulsive actions, this untameable beast is accidentally released onto the streets of New York. Before he is shot down, at around the 70 minute mark, the original Kong has delivered more impressive feats of greatness than its remakes could ever have hoped to accomplished. It may have been beauty that killed the beast, but it was Hollywood’s best and brightest that brought him to life in the first place.

1. Godzilla (Godzilla, 1954)

Godzilla - Godzilla
1954’s Godzilla.

Of course, the one and only devastator of cities, armies, and freedom tops this list. It may seem biased, given the remake’s imminent release, but the original Godzilla is cinema’s most intriguing, entertaining, and masochistic creation. Kicking off Japanese cinema’s monster-mash trend, the original sees Japanese cities reduced to rubble under Godzilla’s massive feet. However, despite the impressive and unique action sequences, its the design of Godzilla that stands out as truly confronting and awe-inspiring. With spikes running down his enormous spine, this predator’s aesthetic is as iconic as his name. Standing above skyscrapers, buildings are turned to ash and the cityscape is turned into a sea of fiery debris and destroyed livelihoods. Godzilla is one of cinemas most memorable creations. Hiding in ocean trenches and mountain ranges, the creature, despite its gargantuan size, lurks eerily before attacking. After his gravely roar is heard, our heroes look on in horror as the monster stomps through their towns. This particular imagery, though continually parodied after its release, are prime examples of the pristine and unconscionable moments these sci-fi/action/horror flicks can, and occasionally do, deliver. However, under the scaly surface lies a tale of sacrifice and political control. Choosing to use a specialised device to kill the monster, the movie’s scientist character wrestles with the ethical ramifications of his own creation. Understanding that Godzilla is a lost soul wandering our lands, the narrative looks to us for answers to its vital questions. Is he misunderstood? Does he deserve to die? Could we ever co-exist? These illuminate Godzilla‘s worth as a frightening cinematic gem and a mirror for us all to look into.

From murderous sharks to skeletal fairytale creations, these monsters represent one of cinema’s greatest eras. Sure, these aren’t the most intelligent or intelligible characters. Ripping through genres and emotions, these monsters are born from a sorely missed action/sci-fi era. Godzilla, soon to blessed with yet anther reimagining, stands tall as the genre’s most intriguing creations. Yes, the other monster in the list are all interesting, thrilling, and memorable. However, the big, bad Japanese lizard proves that practical and special effects are used for show and tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hi, I'm Tom Munday. I'm a Journalism graduate from Perth's Curtin University who's passionate about film, TV, music, theatre, and sport. Happy reading, folks!

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  1. Sharknado!!!!!

  2. Reggie Quinonez

    King Kong should definitely be #1. He appeared much earlier in the 1930’s whereas Godzilla wasn’t until 1954.

    • Just cause Kong came out in the 1930 doesnt really mean anything. Godzilla pretty started it’s own genere while Kong hasn’t really done much of anything. Its pretty much a romance movie with a giant ape where as Godzilla was a methaphor for the atomic age. Far more compelling than kong.

      • Nerissa

        If you really trace Kong to its inception, you will find it in a Mickey Mouse cartoon called “The Pet Store” which has the ape falling in love with Minnie Mouse and climbs to the top of a stack of boxes while holding her and Mickey imitating biplanes to take the beast down.Clearly before that was there was Doyle’s Lost World which was its influence. People had never experienced a true monster movie until then. Although, Godzilla may have taken the concept of giant monster terrorizing cities to new heights (pun intended), it was Kong who gave birth to the genre.

  3. The Thing deserves a spot.

  4. Ouida Barbee

    I have to state this. CLOVERFIELD SHOULD NOT BE ON THIS LIST!!!! The less is more approach would have been fine if at some point we actually SAW the goddamned monster. If we, the audience, just once got to see the monster in the movie. Pacific Rim deserves to be on this list more than Cloverfield does.

    I know I am going to receive hate for this, and I don’t care. Nothing Abrams does is good, and Cloverfield was the worst thing he EVER did. People will tell I just don’t understand the film, or the style. I understand perfectly, I just find the fact that the story couldn’t make up it’s mind over whether it was a love story, a giant monster movie, a survival tale, or a horror movie. The character’s were likewise Bi-Polar in their portrayals with the exception of Hud who was consistently stupid. Then there is my main complaint about the fact that at no point do you ever actually get to see the monster. Not ONCE does the audience get a clear view of the creature at any time. And for something 300 feet tall, even an amateur camera man could take 30 seconds of decent footage.

    • You saw the monster several times. You saw it at the beginning when it was rubbing off those ticks things on a building, then you saw it again just before they went into the subway, then you saw it again when they found Beth (one of the best looks at it when it’s walking towards their building. Then you see it again before they get on the helicopter, then you see it again when it gets bombed by the airplanes. (This is another great view as it is from the air) Then you get another great look at it when it kills Hud after the crash. SO if you honestly only saw the monster once then you are very blind.

  5. Kevin Licht

    I like the list, but where’s the love for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?

    Just kidding, nice job getting something in like this before Godzilla hits theaters.

    An interesting sidepiece to this could be something about the greatest men that were monsters on screen, i.e., Hannibal Lecter, Anton Chigurh etc.

  6. izombiheartzoey

    Seriously? The cloverfield blob? (for that matter where is the blob?) I’m not sure I buy that when that weird slither beast is missing from the list.


  7. PerkAlert

    Good list and excellent writing! I haven’t seen all of these movies, but I can’t think of any others to add! I like the idea that Kevin mentioned two comments earlier, about doing a sidepiece about “the greatest men that were monsters on screen.” That could be really cool too. And of course, TV has had a lot of great monsters (Steven Moffat has created a whole slew of sinister creatures). Anywho, I agree that the whole guns blazing, car chasing fad is getting a little old. It certainly speaks to talented actors/stunt doubles and filmography, but there’s such *rich* creativity in a good movie monster. I miss that… and I’m not even a huge horror person!

  8. Ryan Westhoff

    I love this list a lot, I’m glad to see the Xenomorph on here and Godzilla definitely deserves to be on the top. I’m confused though, where are numbers 3 and 4? I feel like I missed something on reading this.

  9. Clevenger

    This was a damn good list all of these except Monsters deserves to be on the list

  10. I wish they had listed The Leprechaun. I’ve never seen the movie but in Wayne’s World when Wayne is screwing with Garth saying ‘I’m the Leprechaun’ just cracks me up every time.

  11. Jemarc Axinto

    I love the list! I’m trying to think of other monsters I’d like to see on there, but then I realize they don’t fall into the “monster” category hahaha.

  12. Sean Buckley

    King Kong, Godzilla, and other iconic monsters such as Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Gamera all certainly forged the first pathways in the “giant monster movie” genre, but massive respect has to go to the Xenomorphs. The monsters previously mentioned are all known for their overall reputation but do not truly terrify on an individual level. They are always destroying cities and nondescript armies, while the Xenomorph (Along with Cold War-era monsters like The Thing) was the catalyst to the modern stalker-monster film. Picking off the crew members one by one, including perhaps the most iconic and traumatizing movie death of all time, the Xenomorph introduces the idea that a monster does not need to tower over buildings to seem indestructible. One can see a branch from Alien to the slasher flicks of the 80s and 90s, where a seemingly invincible menace faces down with a strong feminine heroine.

  13. Frankenstein’s Monster? Not slimy, definitely sympathetic.

    • Frankenstein monster is a wonderful contestant for this list. I doubt if any single character has had so much variation in presentation. The original book not only makes him sympathetic, it lets him narrate about a third of the text (with high-diction and intense emotionality). But the movies he is best known for took away all of his relatability and reduced him to a thoughtless destruction-machine. Every new version that emerges has to take a stand on maintaining his original sympathy or perpetuating the image of the scary-for-scary’s-sake undead.

  14. Adan Sheets

    Decent list, but everyone knows that Alien should have been No. 1

  15. How was the ranking set up? Did sympathy play a large part in determining which monsters were at the top of the list? Overall I really liked the list it brought back many memories and many scares. The Thing definitely should have been on the list, and Alien at no. 1

  16. CDK

    All of the monsters on the list are, well, monstrous, and deserve our justified dread and enmity.

    As Rougefighter9 noted above, there are a slew of great monsters in the post-World War II era: monsters created by nuclear bomb testing; monsters discovered in formerly inaccessible regions of the world; and monsters created by the same impetus that led to the hydrogen bomb.

    I hereby nominate the 1956 film “The Mole People.” It has a theory about the hollow earth; the discovery of a lost race of ancient albino Sumerians; loathsome mole people who have been enslaved by said albino Sumerians; a stunning Sumerian woman who is not an albino; and Hugh Beaumont, who will later become the Father in “Leave it to Beaver.”

    O, and it was written by a guy named László Görög. What could go wrong?

    The defense rests.

    Cristofre Kayser

    • Desdamona Bueno-Racheli

      Thanks for the suggestion. Can’t wait to see The Mole People!

  17. Nice list, Godzilla is the king.

  18. Wait. Where are all the Goosebumbs movies?

  19. THE FLY! creepiest movie ever.

  20. Giovanni Insignares

    Nice article! At first, I was questioning whether or not the Cloverfield monster should’ve been on the list, but I think that they way the movie was shot very much resembles Jaws. Both films tend to play up the suspense of the creatures by limiting their exposure and focusing more on their actions and the damage caused, rather than what they look like.

  21. Although I think this is a great article, I can’t help but feel bad about the omission of H.R. Giger (R.I.P.) in the description of the Xenomorph. Although the monster wouldn’t have been as great if it weren’t for Stan Winston’s SFX, Giger’s design is what really made it iconic.

  22. Liz Kellam

    Love the love the big monsters are getting. I think it’s amazing that most of these were created without the use of CGI and mostly depended on skilled artists and puppeteers. Awesome list.

  23. Desdamona Bueno-Racheli

    Excellent list and comments. Jaws stands out however, as the only monster on your list to be confused with reality. While based on SOME real events and people (Frank Mundus, Jersey Shore attacks of 1916), the film Jaws caused ocean-wide panic and sadly, a sudden interest in destroying every shark in the ocean. Peter Benchley was dismayed at the shark frenzy instigated by his work of fiction. The Great White in Jaws was in behavior a complete fiction, and a compilation of several sharks/attack events mainly committed by bullsharks. Still, Jaws is similar to many monster films in that it gives us a chance to examine human failings and evils. Despite wonderful shows like Shark Week, we continue to misunderstand the monsters of the seas, and fail to appreciate their beneficial role as apex predators.

  24. Good list but The Pale Man is a little questionable. Although I think he’s genuinely a good monster, I just wish we would have seen more screen time of him. That scene in Pans Labyrinth was quite intense.

  25. The original Phantom of the Opera (c. 1920s) would also fit the bill here.

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