If you watch enough horror, eventually you start to realize that a monster isn’t just a monster. The supernatural is always a conduit for something completely natural in the real world, something still terrifying but blown into monstrous proportions by screenwriters, directors, make up geniuses, and special effects mavens. When Steve asked me to put together a list of my five favorite monsters, he surely didn’t realize he’d be getting a list straight from Durkheim or Foucault. But there you have it. Here are my five favorite movie monsters, and their contextual sociological meaning.
5. George Romero’s Zombies
The zombie genre has been overrun with a lot of brain-dead films. But at their very best, zombies are a wonderful vehicle for social commentary. Of course, sometimes this can be used in outrageous and embarrassing ways (see: White Zombie, 1932, and its interpretation of tribal culture). For George Romero in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies reached their apex of sociological meaning. Granted, it isn’t subtle but that’s not the point. Its lack of subtlety endows the film with gobs of humor as Romero mercilessly skewers 20th century America and its suburbanized mass-consumer culture. The timing was perfect, coming just as the baby boomer generation was departing the free-wheeling, rebellious hippie era and entering the United States of Reagan. With one brilliant decision- placing his film in a mall- Romero asks his generational cohorts, “What happened to you guys, man? You used to be cool.” Lousy yuppies.
The original Gojira (1954), and really all of the classic radioactive monsters cooked up by Toho Studios, are Sociology 101. In the post-World War II film world, Italy nurtured neo-realism to illustrate that, despite their involvement with Hitler, they too suffered on the homefront. The French fixated on the horrors of the war. However, in Japan, something else was brewing. Because of the atomic bomb, they took on real life horrors that no other civilization had ever witnessed. If ever a situation needed to be shrouded in metaphor before reaching the big screen, it was Japan in the post-World War II era. Enter Godzilla, a radioactive monster who arrives from the sea, then cuts a swath of destruction that includes several islands, the navy, and finally reaches the mainland. In other words, Godzilla was the US military, and the radioactive pollution is tied directly to it. Godzilla and the Monsters (which sounds like a band name created by Gary King) were a brilliant snapshot of exactly what terrified Japan in the 1950s.
3. Frankenstein’s Monster
What I find fascinating about the cinematic Frankenstein’s monster is that he has strong roots in at least two other places. The first and most obvious is Mary Shelley’s novel, which the film borrows from thematically quite a bit. The second is the classic Jewish golem. Both involve taking inanimate matter and re-animating it into new life. And in both instances, the new life wreaks havoc, most notably on the maker. The only major step from golem to Frankenstein’s monster is the involvement of science- in particular, the science of cutting open corpses and seeing how they tick in the 19th century- with just a dash of a God complex.
Both of those concepts were absolutely horrifying to people from the 19th century on into the early 20th century when James Whale brought the monster to life on the big screen. It resonated especially in America, a very devout Christian country whose moral sensibilities would rock to their very foundation at the notion of a mad scientist playing God. And tying medical science into the equation doubles down on fears of the era. While medical science had progressed reasonably well in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until doctors started opening up bodies and using corpses that real progress was made. To the average schmoe on the street in the late 19th and early 20th century, this is a horrific concept- taking a loved one and ripping apart their entire earthly being for corporeal knowledge. “MEDICAL SCIENCE IS ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! AND NOW IT’S GOING TO DESTROY US ALL!!!”
2. Japanese Ghosts
Ok, ok… a ghost isn’t a monster, per se. But it’s still a fun and scary enough concept to make someone go boom boom in their britches. The beauty of the Japanese ghost story is how deeply rooted it is in Japanese culture. Unlike Godzilla and the radioactive monsters, there was no natural disaster that created the folklore of Japanese ghosts. No, these supernatural beings are actually quite natural. They’re tied to the importance of family in Japan. Traditionally, Japanese families are protected by their deceased ancestors as part of a social bargain. The living family gives the deceased a proper burial, with proper funereal rites, and the deceased return to keep harm away from their living ancestors. If the dead aren’t given a proper burial, however, or if they die violently, all hell breaks loose.
As you can see, this process leaves a massive chasm open for ghosts in Japanese culture. They can be protectors, they can be harbingers of doom, and they can wreak havoc. And the entire theme is tied to something that every family deals with quite regularly. Everyone dies (not just in Japan, but everywhere, except for maybe Batman), and everyone must face the mortality of their family members at some point. It makes the whole concept enormously relatable. Since the Japanese have been perpetuating this mythos for centuries, they understand the entire ghost genre better than anyone. There’s a reason that 95% of the Japanese ghosts you’ve seen wear white and have jet black hair. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and has continued on through classic Japanese ghost films like Kwaidan (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) and even on to modern films like Ju-On (2002).
1. The Wolf Man (and werewolves in general)
I could write for days about the genius of The Wolf Man (1941). The entire film was allegorical for the Nazi regime. It was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jew exiled from Germany during the rise of the Nazi state. Thematically, it’s all about the way that his seemingly normal German neighbors and friends turned on him almost overnight. They were completely normal when the sun was up. But on the full moon, they turned hideous, seeking to destroy whoever bore the “mark of the beast.” It just so happens that the “mark of the beast” in Siodmak’s film was a pentagram, purposely designed to look like the star of David that marked Jews in Germany during the era.
Digging deeper, it’s biblical. It’s about faulty genes. It’s about the sins of the father, and his father before that, and his father before that, being visited upon the sons. Go another level down and you’ve got the heart of why I love werewolf films in general. They’re metaphors for transformation, for finding the deep, dark, terrifying parts of our own souls that we didn’t even know existed. These aren’t just monsters. They’re humans, wrestling with the better angels of their nature and ultimately losing in appalling ways. In Wolf (1994), it’s the depths that he’ll go for survival and success. In Ginger Snaps (2000) and quite a few others, it’s the shocking journey through puberty into adulthood. It’s a delicious built-in character arc that makes the characters more enticing to us, the viewer… and ultimately reminds us that the scariest thing out there is the damage that we can cause all by ourselves.
I did one of these last year for the “Five Films That Scare” me and when I made the short list for this year, I realized that I had a lot of overlap, especially since I only had three horror films on that list. I could easily put Tomie and the Gremlins on this list as well, but they are worthy of at least honorable mentions. Tomie is a long running series over in Japan and there are some pretty bizarre and monstrous versions of Tomie in some of the later movies, and who doesn’t love the Gremlins? But anyway, this year I’ve got an all-new list and it’s all tied to horror this time, no funny business.
5.) Ju-On: The Grudge
Ok so I lied, this list isn’t 100% all new since this made my honorable mention last year, and even though the girl/young woman with long black hair over her face is a bit of a cliché, at least in Asian horror, and Sadako from The Ring is often considered scarier, I like Kayako better as the vengeful spirit inhabiting the house she was murdered in before spreading out in the later movies. There are some great scares and images in the first English Grudge movie, not only that but the sound design on her haunting throat rasp is chilling. It’s hard to hear that sound and not get shivers down your spine. And Takako Fuji has a great presence herself with the way she moves, there’s a reason that the director brought her back for every installment of the movie, of which there have been many, I think three or four in Japan, as well as three in English.
This is my first, but not my last broad category of movie monsters. I’ve been a fan of the concept of werewolves since I was very young, and enjoyed reading many different sorts of stories about them. I’m disappointed that the main reason that I have this as a broader category, is that I have yet to see what I feel is the definitive werewolf movie. There are just so many bad ones out there, though I’m a little abashed to admit that I’ve missed one that’s considered a classic of sorts, American Werewolf in London. If I did have to choose, I would probably go with the werewolves in the Underworld series, especially Raze who was surprisingly played by the writer of the movie. Underworld is great because is makes the Lycans sympathetic without making them overly tragic, which is often the way they are handled.
3.) Jurassic Park‘s T-Rex
It’s been too long since I’ve seen Jurassic Park, but there is no substitute for the feeling that I got when catching that first glimpse of the T-Rex on the big screen. It’s visually impressive even by today’s standards, which is pretty amazing when you consider that most other CGI from this period doesn’t hold a candle to today’s movies. But Jurassic Park not only holds up, it’s even better than a lot of poor excuses for CGI monsters that they’ve churned out in recent years. The size of it, the detail, even the subtleties of using the ripples in the water to sell the incredible size and mass of this creature. Not only that, but the fact that it’s not just CGI, a lot of the time it’s an actual giant animatronic that’s physically there with the actors. And who doesn’t love a giant dinosaur?
This is another one where I had to make it into a broader category. There’s no way I can choose just one movie vampire as my favorite. The only downside of making this into a broad category is that there are plenty of movie vampires that I would want to exclude, including some recent angsty vampires that I refuse to even mention. Vampires have some of the best qualities to them, they can be sexy but also menacing, even downright terrifying in some cases. There’s so much you can do with the vampire mythos when you pick and choose which qualities you want to highlight. But it’s almost always about the mystery and allure of the night, the parallels of sensuality with caressing and sucking on the neck and the exchange of bodily fluids. There’s so much that can be done with it and so many great ones out there I can’t list them all but I will list a few of my favorites: The Lost Boys, Coppola’s Dracula, Rise, Vampire Hunter D, Underworld, Interview with a Vampire, and plenty more that are escaping my mind at the time.
1.) The Insane
Movie monsters like my previous four are all still really fantasy creatures, but when you come down to what’s really the most horrifying when you stop to think about it are the monsters that actually do exist in real life. The criminally insane, the monsters that are actual people driven to do horrifying things because of a mental instability or just general lack of morality. Hannibal Lector is the one that first comes to mind, but there are plenty others like John Doe from Seven, even someone like Jack Torrence from The Shining. It’s one thing to be scared of something that’s not real, it’s another to be scared of something that is.
Nathan Witrow aka Bubbawheat
Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights
To check out Bubbawheat’s celebrated website, click here.
by Steve Habrat
In the land of Atomic Age beasts, aliens, monsters, and blobs, one name makes all these other radioactive creatures quiver in fear: Godzilla. Made in Japan in 1954 by Ishiro Honda, Godzilla (or Gojira, as it was called in Japan), is perhaps one of the most significant science fiction films released in the wake of World War II and the Hydrogen bomb. It is even more essential because the country that witnessed the horror and devastation of the atomic bomb first hand made and released Godzilla. Over the years, Godzilla became more of a campy character rather than one that is meant to scare the pants off the viewer. He would rise from his watery habitat and stomp into downtown Tokyo to do battle with a slew of attacking mutant monsters (and King Kong), all while poorly dubbed Japanese citizens would dart around the dueling monster’s feet. They were a far cry from the suspenseful original, where the low rumble of Godzilla’s footsteps had the viewer holding their breath and gripping the arm of the couch just a little bit tighter. When the suspense and the downright impressive action sequences don’t have your attention, you’ll be transfixed on the intelligence of the script, which finds a country still reeling from the mushroom cloud devastation they witnessed in 1945. There is a reason the Criterion Collection picked this monster movie up, folks.
Just off of Odo Island, a Japanese fishing boat is destroyed by a blinding flash of light that appears to emerge from the bottom of the sea. Another boat is sent to investigate, but it meets the same fate as the first boat. As more boats are destroyed, salvage ship captain Hideo Ogato (Played by Akira Takarada) is called in for duty by the coast guard. Meanwhile, the villagers of Odo Island have been cursed with poor fishing and they blame it on a mysterious sea monster known as “Godzilla.” In the evening, the villagers perform ancient ceremonies to keep the beast at bay. That very night, a violent storm destroys Ogo Island, but many villagers claim that there was something else in the storm. Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Played by Takashi Shimura) travels to Ogo and discovers a giant radioactive footprint. He then travels to Tokyo and presents his findings. He reveals that H-bomb testing has disrupted Godzilla’s natural habitat, causing him to emerge from the bottom of the sea and come to land. As fear of Godzilla spreads and more sighting are reported, Dr. Yamane’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa (Played by Akihiko Hirata), who is also arranged to be married to Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Played by Momoko Kochi), has developed a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, a device that disintegrates oxygen atoms causing organisms to die of asphyxiation. As Godzilla’s attacks grow more and more devastating, Emiko and Ogato plead with the reluctant Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the destructive beast.
Director Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata transform Godzilla from a simple monster movie into a surprisingly intimate human drama. We genuinely care about the characters that Honda and Murata have come up with and we especially hang on the fragile love story at the core of the film. Emiko is engaged to Serizawa, but she wishes to break off the engagement and marry the brave salvage captain Ogato. Meanwhile, as this love triangle plays out with devastating results, Honda focuses his camera on Dr. Yamane and his exasperation with the military and media, who are hellbent on killing Godzilla rather than trying to capture and study him. He continuously drives the point home that this creature has been exposed to heavy levels of radiation and lived through it. He then warns that if the world (meaning America) continues to detonate these weapons of mass destruction, we are bound to face another Godzilla-like creature. The warnings against these experiments extend to Serizawa, who fears that his Oxygen Destroyer will draw the attention of the military and they will force him to further develop another weapon of mass destruction, something he swears he will never do. It’s these meditative conversations about H-bombs, destructive weapons, and violence that pulls Godzilla out of the B-movie realm and places it firmly on the A-list.
Then there is the monster of the hour: Godzilla. At times, Godzilla is obviously a man dressed in a heavily detailed rubber suit, but he signifies so much more. The first few glimpses we get of him are effective teases, leaving us wanting just a little bit more, but fearing the terrifying wrath that is sure to accompany those longer glimpses of the legendary monster. When he is finally revealed in all of his glory, we can’t help but be awestruck by how cool he looks, even if his movements are a little jerky. He breathes down smoke (which is meant to resemble fire but this is 1954, folks) on the Tokyo skyline and produces a sea of fire that brings to mind the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. When he stomps through the buildings, he begins to resemble a living, breathing nuclear blast that is leveling everything in his path. Honda then pans over the twisted wreckage left in Godzilla’s wake, eerie images that call to mind the black and white photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla may be destructive, but he is also a sympathetic creature. He has been chased out of his home and he appears to be wandering aimlessly, simply looking for a new place to hide away from the world that wants to destroy him.
As if a weighty script, likable characters, impressive monster, and a human core weren’t enough to make Godzilla a must see, the action sequences will certainly convince you to seek it out. Sure, there are a few moments where it is blatantly obvious that rubber-suited Godzilla is stomping miniature buildings, but there are several pieces that have held up quite well over the years. Godzilla’s battle with several Japanese fighter jets will get the adrenaline pumping and his demolishing of a gigantic electric fence is a pretty nifty demonstration of his sublime power. You’re obviously not going to see destruction like you saw in Cloverfield, but you have to give Honda and his effects team credit for crafting some chilling smashing and crashing (wait for the sequence with Godzilla attacking a building loaded with press). The action sequences are made all the more effective due to the tension slowly built between each attack. Our dread really begins to get the best of us and Honda plays with this every chance he gets.
If you are one of those individuals who have written off Godzilla as a campy drive-in relic of the 1950s, you really should consider revisiting this moody monster mash. I’ll admit that even I had forgotten the power that this film wields over the years and I was very happy that I decided to both revisit and add the film to my horror/science fiction collection. If you have surround sound lining your living room, you’ll be giddy over how great Godzilla’s roar and thunderous footsteps sound. Overall, Godzilla is a haunting and influential epic that rewards the viewer with multiple viewings. It will shake your house down and bring you to your knees with one mighty roar.
Godzilla is available on Blu-ray and DVD.