10. Gremlins – “Gremlins” (1984)
Attempts to recapture the magic of “Gremlins,” even by the film’s director Joe Dante, have almost always been in vain. In part it’s because the film’s alchemy is a tough thing to replicate, but we’d argue that your “Small Soldiers” or “Goosebumps” or “Critters” were at a disadvantage by never having a monster as perfect as their inspiration. As Mogwai, they’re adorable, but after their food-after-midnight transformation, with their smirking, triangular faces and enormous wing-like ears, they’re delightfully mischievous while still being relentlessly, demonically evil.
9. Frankenstein’s Monster – “Frankenstein” (1931)
After literally dozens of films over the years (including the one where Aaron Eckhart played a sexy Frankenstein) the best, the most iconic, the one that informs all the others, remains Boris Karloff in Universal’s 1931 adaptation. Even “The Munsters” or “Young Frankenstein” parodies can’t take away from the perfection of the design, the hulking presence that Karloff brings, the sadness behind his eyes. Perhaps more than anything else, the monster movie was born here.
8. Godzilla – “Godzilla” (1954)
With “Kong: Skull Island” setting up an eventual showdown between the massive ape and the giant Japanese lizard, it’s interesting to look back at how a man in a rubber suit has endured so much. And while he’s been put to good use since (particularly in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot), it’s his original appearance that reminds us why. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film hold up beautifully today: he’s a creature that could only have emerged from a nation that had fallen into darkness, committed acts of war and then suffered the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its title character at once a relentless force of destruction and a powerful howl of anguish and grief.
7. The Monster’s Bride – “Bride Of Frankenstein” (1935)
Frankenstein’s Monster might be the greater pop-culture phenomenon, but somehow it’s his bride (played by the great Elsa Lanchester) who feels like the more purely cinematic creation. James Whale’s film somehow tops the original, a richer study of loneliness and science-gone-wrong. And while the Bride, all hisses and topped by that extraordinary hairdo with its shock of grey, only gets a fraction of screen time, she’s an instant icon for every second of it.
6. King Kong – “King Kong” (1933)
You can double the length to three hours, as Peter Jackson did, or stuff your movie full of other beasts, as Jordan Vogt-Roberts has done, but while those are both good films, it’s unlikely that the 1933 original take on the giant ape will ever be topped. From the ferocity of the dinosaur fight scene to the sadness of his capture and final escape, he, 84 years on, still feels like an utterly real and fully realized character — a monster, yes, but one that we love, understand and feel for throughout.
5. The Terminator – “The Terminator” (1984)
Does a robot count as a monster? Well, in James Cameron’s still virtually flawless sci-fi classic, absolutely, when it’s in the shape of “The Terminator.” Embodied remorselessly by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he has skin, and by Stan Winston’s instantly recognizable design, bringing demonic, skull-like qualities to the idea of the robot, when he doesn’t, he’s a relentless, unstoppable, terrifying killer machine, a true boogeyman, triply fearsome because he can’t be reasoned or bargained with. A shame that its success kept causing people to try to make it into a franchise — “T2” aside, this was best left as a one-off.
4. Count Orlok – “Nosferatu” (1922)
Unlike many of the enduring literary monsters which have only a single great screen portrayal, really — Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde, etc. etc, — “Dracula” has had a number of great portrayals over the years — Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Klaus Kinski, Gary Oldman, Gerard Butler (kidding), Luke Evans (double kidding). But if we had to pick just one, the most purely monstrous, for our purposes here, might remain Max Schreck’s portrayal of ‘Count Orlok’ in the copyright-defying 1922 silent adaptation by F.W. Murnau. There’s little that’s seductive about the performance here: he’s a hideous parasite, more rat than bat, and even his silhouette is enough to terrify. No wonder someone made a movie about Schreck being an actual vampire (the very good 2000 film “Shadow Of The Vampire.”)
3. Brundlefly – “The Fly” (1986)
The idea of the place where man and other species meet has been a staple of horror since the beginning of cinema, but trust body-horror king David Cronenberg to be the one to bring the idea to its apotheosis with the unfathomably disgusting, truly excellent remake of “The Fly.” The second half or so of the film documents the gradual evolution/disintegration of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum — and let’s take a moment to note how good Goldblum is here) until finally, his bloated skin falls off to reveal a horrific ‘Brundlefly,’ only described as humanoid because we know it was once human. It’s perhaps not as iconic as some of these monsters, but perhaps just because we’re so grossed out by the memories of it.
2. Jaws – “Jaws” (1975)
If “Frankenstein” and “King Kong” created the monster movie, Steven Spielberg created the modern version with “Jaws.” His adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel is textured, funny, suspenseful, shocking and very human, but it also manages to make a whopping great fish into one of the scariest things you’ve ever seen. Or rather, haven’t seen — Spielberg’s genius (in part aided by malfunctioning effects) was to keep it mostly out of sight, contributing to that sense that the ocean is a giant, dark void of things that want to kill you. But when he (or she?) arrives, it doesn’t disappoint, a hulking great thing that, you suspect, would eat every single last person on Earth if it had the chance.
1. The Xenomorph – “Alien” (1979)
As with “The Terminator,” people keep trying to make sequels to “Alien” because the second one worked, even though the bar has been so set high that it’s unlikely ever to be cleared again. But then, can you blame them? Ridley Scott’s film, and H.R. Giger’s design, found the perfect movie monster, one that still scurries around our imaginations for years. Complete with its own gross ecosystem and evolution, it’s a monster capable of continually surprising — huh, its blood is corrosive. Fuck, it has a mouth INSIDE ITS OTHER MOUTH — and that inspires truly primal terror inside us. More than anything else, it works because it’s so, well, alien — you can’t quite fathom that a mind could create such thing, and that’s what makes it the greatest movie monster ever.
This was a tough list to narrow down to even 50, as you might imagine, and that was even while excluding human, or nominally human, monsters too. Among those just bubbling under, even aside from additional vampires, zombies and werewolves, were the big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers from “Attack The Block,” Cyclops from “The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad,” the giant octopus in the more-fun-than-it-should be “Deep Rising,” the titular “Blob,” the creatures in “The Mist,” Audrey II from “Little Shop Of Horrors,” Mr. Hyde from “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (the Fredric March version), the Invisible Man, the Phantoms of both the Opera and the Paradise, the Reapers in “Blade II” and the Creeper from “Jeepers Creepers.”
We also thought about the so-called bio-raptors from “Pitch Black,” the piranhas from “Piranha,” Belial from ’80s horror-comedy “Basket Case,” Sammael from “Hellboy,” Kothoga from “The Relic,” the mutated Dr. Pretorius from “From Beyond,” the gargoyle dogs and Stay-Puft Man from “Ghostbusters,” the Metaluna Monster from “This Island Earth,” and Vermithax Pejorative from “Dragonslayer.”
And that’s not to forget the kaiju from “Pacific Rim,” killer tire Robert from “Rubber,” the faeries from “The Hallow,” the not-quite-monstrous-enough monsters from “Monsters, Inc.,” the Leper Ghost Pirates from “The Fog,” the gremlin on the wing in “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” Dren from “Splice,” the trolls from “Trollhunter,” the sheep from “Black Sheep,” the djinn from “Under The Shadow,” the Skeksis from “The Dark Crystal,” the Dark Overlord from “Howard The Duck,” the Dark Gods in “In The Mouth Of Madness,” Davy Jones from the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequels, Mothra & co. from the “Godzilla” sequels and The Crawling Eye from “The Trollenberg Terror.”
Any others we’ve forgotten? Shout out your favorites in the comments.