A good movie monster is scary, unique, and memorable. But the best movie monsters are all of that and more. They are stand-ins for the film’s themes, the characters’ fears, or the world’s failings. They may tap into something primal or reflect the common childhood fears of the audience back at them, as they do in The Boogeyman.
A monster movie can be so much more than just the sum of its parts, and it can achieve this by exploring riveting and provocative themes with the creatures it creates. These themes may be global, as they are in Shin Godzilla, or they may be smaller and more contained, as they are in It Follows. Either way, it’s clear that there are few genres as versatile and fertile as creature features.
10 ‘Shin Godzilla’ (2016)
After sightings of a mysterious creature and reports of missing boats, Tokyo’s worst fears are realized when an enormous creature emerges from Tokyo Bay, destroying everything in its path. As the creature evolves and becomes more powerful, so does the red tape, political maneuvering, and painful bureaucracy associated with the human effort to manage a national disaster.
Godzilla as a monster has always been deeply linked with Japanese identity and hardship. In Shin Godzilla, the beast that originally represented the horrors of nuclear warfare evolves into a provocateur whose role is to highlight, criticize, and satirize government ineptitude in the face of disaster. Shin Godzilla is both a great monster movie and an excellent criticism of Japan’s failings to adequately respond to the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown of Fukushima.
9 ‘Colossal’ (2016)
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a mess. She’s barely getting by in New York City, and her alcohol abuse has damaged her relationships with those around her. Hoping to get things back on track, she moves back to her small hometown and gets reacquainted with a childhood friend. Shortly after, a giant monster attacks the city of Seoul in South Korea.
Colossal is a deeply unusual film that straddles genres and blindsides viewers with story beats and themes that are much more grim and challenging than the film’s premise would indicate. While it would be a spoiler to entirely outline what the monster in Colossal has to say about the film’s themes, it isn’t a spoiler to say that this film is one-of-a-kind and a must-watch.
8 ‘It Follows’ (2014)
After a strange and harrowing date with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weiry), Jay (Maika Monroe) has more than just emotional baggage to deal with. Hugh explains to Jay that he has passed a demon onto her. One that only she will be able to see, that can take the form of any person, and that will slowly pursue her forever until she is killed or passes it on to someone else.
“The death of the author” is a literary concept that suggests that an author’s interpretation of their work is no more or less valid than that of anyone who consumes their work. It Follows is the poster child for this concept. The film presents viewers with an evil entity passed from one person to another during sex, which can be read as a meditation on the inescapable trauma of sexual assault, the stigma around STIs, or the unstoppable march toward death that all humans experience.
7 ‘The Host’ (2006)
In the early 2000s, military scientists covertly dump large quantities of chemicals into South Korea’s Han River. Over the years, reports of something living in the drains near the river begin emerging. The presence of a creature is finally confirmed when an enormous monster bursts from the Han River and pulls young Hyun-seo (Ko Asung) down into the depths of the water.
The Host is thrilled to be an offbeat monster movie and could certainly be enjoyed on a literal level without further consideration of the film’s subtext. But, the film also has a lot to say about American military activity in South Korea and the carelessness that government and military entities show to the environment around them and South Korea and its people more broadly.
6 ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
Spain in 1944 is under the thumb of Francisco Franco, and in the early days of Francoism. It’s an ideology he created that is defined by its staunch authoritarianism, nationalism, and conservatism. During this time, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves with her frail and pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who is dedicated to the fascistic military values of the time. Among the surrounding strife, Ofelia discovers a magical labyrinth filled with otherworldly creatures.
Pan’s Labyrinth sharply contrasts the grim reality Ofelia experiences with a similarly intimidating yet engaging fantasy world. Ofelia’s experience within the labyrinth and with the creatures she meets along the way acts as an escape from her day-to-day life while also providing a young girl living in a vicious, fascist society the opportunity to exert control of her life and future.
5 ‘Barbarian’ (2022)
Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her short-term rental house in the middle of the night. Visiting Detroit for a job interview, Tess panics when she learns that the house has been double-booked and a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Things go from bad to worse when Tess and Keith discover that there is more to their situation than they initially thought.
Barbarian fires on all cylinders. On its face, the film is utterly thrilling and pulls the rug out from under its viewers over and over again. While the film’s text is doing a huge amount of heavy lifting, its subtext is doing even more. Exploring themes surrounding motherhood, victimhood, and gender norms, Barbarian is an already great horror movie enhanced by what lies beneath it.
4 ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997)
In the 23rd century, Earth is at war. The enemy is an alien species known as the “Arachnids,” and the citizens of Earth, which is now a global military state, not separated by countries with their own governments, are ready to fight.
Starship Troopers has a complex and ironic history. While the film was initially criticized for its seemingly overt endorsement and obsession with military power, colonization, and domination, it has since been reevaluated. Starship Troopers is a biting piece of satire that explores humanity’s obsession with colonizing and dominating those who are different and the thirst for violence that is heavily represented through military action.
3 ‘Annihilation’ (2018)
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist who signs up for a dangerous and mysterious expedition to explore the area known as “The Shimmer.” The Shimmer was created years earlier when a meteor crashed into a coastal area within America, and it has since had strange impacts on the landscape and wildlife of the area, as well as any people who happen to venture into it.
Annihilation is distant and inaccessible by design. Despite the stand-offish and cloudy nature of the film, Annihilation‘s monsters are a product of and representation of the film’s title. Self-reflection becomes self-destruction, and curiosity becomes a destroyer. All roads ultimately lead to annihilation.
2 ‘Raw’ (2016)
Justine (Garance Marillier) wants to follow in her family’s footsteps. She attends veterinary school like her older sister and parents before her and observes a strict vegetarian diet like they do. When Justine is forced to eat meat during a hazing ritual at university, she learns that her parents’ ardent vegetarianism may actually result from a sinister family curse.
Raw is a stripped-back and confronting film that uses violence and cannibalism to explore the coming-of-age experiences that would usually be depicted in dramedies or romances. Rather than relying on the typical means of discussing what it means to come of age and find one’s sexuality, Raw uses physical destruction, ownership, and blood to explore femininity and feminine desire.
1 ‘The Lost Boys’ (1987)
Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move with their mom to Santa Clara, California, also known as “the murder capital of the world.” As the brothers start getting familiar with their new town, they soon learn that the high murder rate and strange goings-on of Santa Clara are due to a nest of teenage vampires who live in the area.
The Lost Boys is a horror-comedy on its surface. But underneath the boilerplate genre tropes lies a simmering and tantalizing exploration of homosexuality, the powerful allure of subculture, and the tension and panic associated with the AIDS crisis. Released during the Regan presidency, it isn’t a coincidence that this film focused on male desire, sexuality, and familial bonds.
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