Thursday, October 14, 2010

Top 10 Movie Monsters

This particular list doesn’t need much of an introduction, except to say that I love monsters. If I had TV, I’d probably spend way too much time watching certain movies on the Sci-Fi (uh, sorry...SyFy) channel, in which somebody like Casper van Dien goes mano a mano with giant crayfish. I like the classic, plus-size critters. I like werewolves and mummies and demons and such, though I’m kinda sick of vampires and zombies. I’m not sure why these Things That Go Bump in the Night hold such appeal, but monsters have been prowling through the human imagination since we wore mammoth-fur undies, and they’re fun. Especially when conjured up by a special effects crew. Here are my favorite beasties ever to grace the big screen!

(Okay, one’s a TV monster. So sue me.)

The Beast of Gévaudan (Brotherhood of the Wolf)
Some of the best monsters are based on half-truth and local legend. Such is the case with the Beast of Gévaudan, the bizarre and tragic predator at the heart of one of my favorite films, Brotherhood of the Wolf. Based on a real-life series of killings that took place in rural France during the 17th century, this monster is one of the most unique creatures I’ve ever seen on film, which earns it tons of points. For much of the movie, it remains unseen, suggested. When we do see it, it elicits a “Whoa!” A hulking quadruped bound in leather and daggers, razor-sharp and vicious and enraged....yet strangely pitiable. This monster was made by man, you see, and serves as a hapless tool for human evil. There’s more to the Beast’s story that I won’t give away (Brotherhood of the Wolf is an absolutely nutso movie, bless its heart), but its death scene is really good. Kind of beautiful, really, with a neat revelation thrown in. Watch it and see! There’s nothing else quite like the Beast of Gévaudan out there.

Demon Boars (Princess Mononoke)
I dunno if these monsters have some basis in Japanese legend or if they sprang purely from the boundless imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, but they’re scary as hell and they rock. Using the power of classic animation, Miyazaki creates a truly nightmarish foe for the besieged humans in Princess Mononoke: giant boars, once noble gods of the forest, now warped and infected. Their flesh transforms into a new form of unholy life, a skin of writhing tendrils than can attack, infect, and absorb, leaving blight in its wake. Cursing all they touch, the demon boars are the opposite of growth and nature, so vile and unnatural that the feuding humans must put aside their differences to defeat this distilled embodiment of evil. These monsters aren’t only scary and unique, but so much is invested in their defeat. Godzilla must be toppled to save Tokyo, but if the demon boars are allowed to run wild, the balance of nature itself will be thrown off kilter, and the consequences could be too devastating to imagine. The scariest monsters are good things turned foul.

Elemental (Hellboy II: The Golden Army)
The Hellboy movies are bursting with cool monsters; Guillermo del Toro has a major fetish for them, and we love him for it. I think my favorite is the Elemental, a pissed-off forest deity that sprouts from a magic bean inside a clockwork egg (isn’t that freaking cool?!) to wreak havoc on the city streets in the faerie-centric second film. This beastie is like the world’s most terrifying chia pet, covered in leaves and tendrils with a head that opens like a flower; it’s beautiful and terrible, and gives Hellboy ample opportunities to be a badass while battling it. Ah, but behind the smackdown is sadness, for the Elemental is the last of its kind, and its extinction is inevitable in the midst of the cold, harsh urban hellscape. Here’s another really poignant monster who gets a really good death scene, which I won’t spoil, except to say that it’s lovely and poetic. Yes, monsters can sometimes be poetic, and they’re sad more often than you’d think. The Elemental fits perfectly in with the themes of alienation and loneliness that form the backbone of the Hellboy adventures, while still being one awesome, car-flinging, concrete-crushing behemoth.

The Han River Monster (The Host)
How does a monster flick get rave reviews from highbrow critics? By redefining monster-hood! The slithery, acrobatic critter that somersaults through this Korean horror/comedy like a hellish Cirque du Soleil performer is everything you don’t except a movie monster to be, and boy is it refreshing! Movie monsters are huge; this one is no bigger than a rhino. Movie monsters lurk in the shadows; this one prances about in broad daylight, charging through crowds of screaming picnickers like it’s having the time of its froggy life. And, in a delightfully pointed twist, this (relatively) pint-sized pest throws Korea into a panic and leads to lockdowns, quarantines, paranoia, and human rights violations that make the humans into the real monsters. The Han River Monster is quite the metaphor for the straw that breaks society’s back, and a sobering sign of our times. But it’s also gross, freaky, and funny. Funnier than you’d think, especially when it’s treating a bridge like its own personal Gold’s Gym. Rarely has toxic waste produced a more interesting specimen.

Judas Breed (Mimic)
Entry number two from Guillermo del Toro, because no monster list is complete without giant bugs. And these are no ordinary giant bug. The Judas Breed is a hybrid insect intended to infiltrate and kill cockroach populations, in order to stop a roach-spread epidemic. Created with good intentions, the “sterile” bugs evolve like crazy, growing to human size and...human shape. We become their prey and they learn to mimic us by folding their wings and standing on their asses, and if that sounds goofy, it’s actually fucking horrifying. That tall, shadowy “person” in the subway tunnel? It’s a bug, and it’s about to eat your face. When an autistic kid starts talking to the bugs by mimicking their own clicking sounds, it’s like a psychotic symbiosis that blurs the line between man and monster. Meanwhile, the bugs are spreading out, their population growing. Soon we really will be prey. Out of all the cautionary parables about playing God, this one makes my skin crawl more than most. Because we have met the enemy and he is us...just with wings, mandibles, and extra limbs.

Mbwun (The Relic)
This one’s kinda goofy, but belongs on this list for the sheer nostalgia factor. The Relic was the first true, bloody, rip-roaring monster flick I saw, at the tender age of thirteen (my parents were a tad film-prudish). What could be better to an adolescent than watching a big, hulking reptile/bear/kangaroo/beetle rip people’s heads off to feast on their brains? NOTHING. I couldn’t care less about the bad ’90s special effects or the silly premise that the thing was some sort of hyper-evolving mutant brought about by a type of fungus, or a South American curse, or something. What mattered was that hapless extras were running around the Chicago Museum of Natural History like corn dogs with legs, tasty SWAT team guys were rappelling through the skylights, and the monster was having a gory ball. Mbwun (also known as Kothoga) wins bonus points for originally hailing from a cool horror/thriller novel (Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child), and being done great justice in the cinematic version for once! I guess you could say this monster ate my brain too, ’cause I’ve been into film monsters ever since.

Scottish Werewolves (Dog Soldiers)
I can’t quite overstate how much I love werewolves. I’d even consider watching Twilight just for the werewolf scenes. Sadly, movie werewolves tend to be generic hairy lumps that look like neither wolves nor men. Not so in Dog Soldiers! Leave it to an indie Euro flick with a teeny-weeny budget to produce the gnarliest, most badass furry lycanthropes I’ve seen onscreen. These werewolves are literally just muscular guys with fancy wolf masks on, but damn if they don’t look like the real deal, and when they besiege a squad of equally macho soldiers deep within the Scottish woodland, all kinds of red plasma and beastly hijinks go down. It’s not just that they look legit, it’s that they’re actually scary and intense as they prowl through the trees and break down doors. These critters aren’t mindless animals; they’re people under an unspeakable curse who will do anything to satisfy their bloodlust. That makes them formidable foes indeed. Also, kinda sexy. But don’t tell them I said that, because werewolf rape isn’t as fun as the furries want you to believe.

Smoke Monster (Lost)
So, it’s bad enough being stranded on a desert island with a lot of whiny, dysfunctional hotties. There’s also something large and unseen crashing through the trees, making sounds like a New York taxicab, and occasionally turning some hapless victim into person jerky. It looks like a black, sentient mass of smoke, lives in old Egyptian temples, and can peer into your soul to determine if you are a good person. Oh, Lost, why do I love you so much? Maybe because you gave us (among many other things) a very distinct and intriguing monster with which to torment your whiny hotties. For most of the show’s run, the Smoke Monster remained a thing of mystery, a shape-shifting antagonist that could be onscreen at any time, when you least expected it. Is that really your dead brother, or is Smokey about to bash you to death? Who can say? Late in the series, the Monster got an identity and backstory, but everyone liked it better when it was that faceless, formless nightmare beyond the torchlight, implacable and inscrutable. The Unknown we all fear. Jaws would be proud.

The Thing
I’m usually more scared by ghosts and psycho killers than monsters, but The Thing terrified the everlasting fuck out of me and kept me up at night. It’s not that the premise is plausible -- shape-shifting alien lifeform in an Antarctic base, riiiight -- it’s that John Carpenter uses every trick of suspense and anticipation to milk his monster for all it’s worth. Because the Thing can be anyone, the characters and the viewers are sent into a maelstrom of paranoia, waiting for the next gooey, icky, fucked-up manifestation. The severed head with legs. The flesh like melting wax. And the dog...Jesus, that fucking dog! The big, quiet husky that the alien initially impersonates is seriously the scariest dog I’ve ever seen, especially when accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s flesh-crawling double bass chord on the soundtrack. When the dog turns into a snarling, greasy mound of meat and starts murdering the other dogs with barbed-wire tentacles, I may have whimpered and clutched someone. Maybe. The Thing is everything scary, wrong, and unnatural rolled into one horribly adaptable package, and the terror continues up to the very end, when the last two survivors ponder if they’re both still human -- and whether freezing to death might be the preferable option. The Thing put me through the wringer and invaded my fucking dreams. THAT is what I call a horror movie monster.

Xenomorphs (Alien series)
You may have noticed that my favorite monsters tend to be liminal in nature, things that change shape or have no obvious shape at all. So is it really a surprise that I love the ultimate adaptable movie monster, the Xenomorph? These predatory extraterrestrials are so hardcore that geekdom and moviedom alike can’t get enough of them. Are they reptilian? Insectoid? Or just a deadly mass of teeth, acid, and muscle driven by pure hunger? You decide. But over the course of six films, not to mention countless comics, video games, and trashy novels, they have racked up an unbeatable human body count and cemented their place on the altar of monstrosity. Whether it’s one alien duking it out with an undie-clad Sigourney Weaver, a hive of aliens chewing up space marines, or an army of aliens going tooth-to-mandible with the equally hardcore Predators, you just know that the shit is going to hit the fan. Lest we forget, the Xenomorphs procreate by literally raping your face. And then popping out of your ribcage like a hideous second phallus. Maybe they’re a twisted sexual metaphor, maybe not, but what matters is that Xenomorphs freak us out, gross us out, and make us squirm in the best of ways. And yet....when it’s them vs. dumb humans with guns, I root for the aliens! Everyone does! A good movie monster knows how to entertain, and these greasy, gristly guys just love the spotlight. And we love them for it. Hats off to the king...or should I say, the Queen.