monster movies

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms crawls out the river to make a visit upon New York City.

(10/08) One of my favorite films is entitled The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I first saw this on TV as a kid way after its 1953 release date and have been in love with monster movies (also known as "creatures features") ever since. Who couldn't love this film? A dinosaur, trapped in Arctic ice for a 100 million years, is awakened by an atomic bomb test and swims south to find his old stomping grounds - the Hudson River next to New York City - infested with pesky human beings. While trying to re-acclimate to his new surroundings, the beast makes a visit to Coney Island, where, amid a burning roller coaster, he falls victim to a scientist with a radioactive rocket.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a great film. It doesn't really matter that the dinosaur didn't really come from 20,000 fathoms. It doesn't matter that nothing could survive locked in ice for 100 million years. It doesn't even matter that the type of dinosaur in the story - a Rhedosaurus - never even existed. What does matter is the film captures the viewer's imagination and sense of adventure.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the first of a wave of science oriented monster movies that appeared in the late 40's and early 50's. The history of the monster movie goes back much further, however. All the way to the era of silent films.

The first commercial film appeared in 1898 and less than 20 years later movie makers had turned to monsters as their subjects. The first creature feature appeared in Germany in 1916 and was entitled The Golem. The Golem was based on an old Jewish legend about a rabbi who makes a figure out of clay and endows it with life to act as his slave. Though the film has been remade several times, we know very little about the original production as only fragments of the movie have survived.

[Just after writing this article I found out that an even earlier monster movie exists: a 15 minute version of Frankenstein done by Edison Studios in 1910. This was lost for many years but recently found and released on DVD.]

The Frankenstein Monster meets his future mate in The Bride of Frankenstein.

What Makes a "Creature Feature?"

Perhaps it is time we defined our terms. Just what makes a monster movie a monster movie? Well, creature features are not really an official academic genre like horror, science fiction or fantasy. It actually cuts across those categories. It is generally agreed that any film that involves a fictional creature (or creatures) who are in conflict with humans can be classified as a monster movie.

Now note the words fictional creature. That means that a movie concerning say something like your regular, everyday, average lion, wouldn't qualify. Lions are real, not fictional, so they don't count. However, if you were to make the lion several times its normal size (a monstrous size, so to speak) like the sabertooth in 10,000 B.C., you have a fictional creature and a monster movie.

In addition to including a fictional creature, many monster films, though not all, include these additional "classic" characteristics:

1) The movie almost always serves as a cautionary tale. Humans do something they shouldn't, or perhaps fail to do something they should, and unleash the creature into our unsuspecting world.

2) Often there is a character who warns either about how doing whatever they are doing will unleash the creature or warns that the creature has been unleashed. This person is met with disbelief or even ridicule.

Boris Karlof was not only the original Frankenstein, but starred in the 1932 production of The Mummy.

3) The creature often threatens the "love interest" of the hero.

4) The creature is in circumstances beyond its control and the viewers feel sympathy for it.

5) Some kind of new technology is used to defeat the creature.

Now, not all monster movies have all these "classic" themes, but most have at least some of them. Let's look at one of the earliest monster films, Frankenstein, and see how it stacks up.

The Universal Monsters

Frankenstein, released in 1931, was one of a series of classic horror films Universal Studios made starting in the 1920's and running through the 1950's. Some of the others include Dracula (1931), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Mummy (1932), Bride of Frankenstein (1933), The Wolfe Man (1941), Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). These were enormous money makers for Universal and most spawned one or more sequels. Even today, Universal continues to merchandise these critters for a tidy profit.

Probably the best known of these films is Frankenstein. Since it debuted over seventy years ago I really doubt that many people today have seen the actual film or any of its four sequels. However, pretty much everybody recognizes the unique makeup that Jack Pierce designed for actor Boris Karloff. With its flat-topped head, facial stitches and neck bolts, the creature's continence has become synonymous with horror movies. Look around your local store as Halloween approaches and try to count the number of products bearing the image of the Jack Peirce design.

A Harryhausen creature tears up the city of Rome in 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Frankenstein, of course, is based on the 19th century book by Mary Shelly. The story of a mad scientist who conquers the mystery of life by patching together a man from graveyard castoffs had been around for over a century before Universal made it into a movie, yet once the film appeared, Jack Pierce's vision of the monster became forever linked with the tale.

Does Universal's production of the film fit the monster movie mold? On most points it does. It is certainly a cautionary tale telling us that man should not play God by creating life (1). When Dr. Frankenstein ignores the warnings of his old professor (2) and gives life to the creature anyway, it runs out of control, frightening the villagers and killing a little girl (though accidently and not with malice). The creature even threatens Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth (3). Still, the audince feels bad for the monster as it seems only to be looking for a little love (4). The only part of the formula that doesn't really match is the idea that some kind of new technology is used to destroy the creature: Frankenstein is the victim of fire, probably the oldest technology of them all.

Giant Monsters

There is a second type of creature movie, somewhat distinct from the first, involving giant monsters. Though you might argue that The Lost World (a 1925 film based on the Arthur Conan-Doyle book about an expedition that finds dinosaurs alive in the remote reaches of South America) is really the first film to feature such oversized creatures, 1933's King Kong is easily its most famous early member of this sub-genre.

King Kong verses the airplanes at the top of the Empire State Building in the 1933 creature feature.

Kong was the brainchild of film maker Merian Cooper. Cooper was originally producing real-life adventure movies and had spent some time filming African gorillas. When he heard the story of Douglas Burden's 1928 expedition to a remote South Pacific Island to bring a giant Komodo dragon back to New York City, he realized he had the basis of a great story. He switched the giant lizard for a giant ape, threw in some dinosaurs, added a love interest in the person of a beautiful blond and soon had the script for King Kong.

Kong, of course, is the quintessential giant monster movie and fits the formula almost perfectly: a movie producer, instead of just filming the oversized ape, tampers with nature by bringing the creature back to civilization only to have it get loose. Despite warnings from the ship's first mate about letting the movie producer's star, Anne Darrow (played by the famous Fay Wray) go on the expedition, she is allowed to get too close to the beast and captures its heart. The beast then captures her body and she must be rescued from him not just once on the island, but also when he takes her to a romantic rendezvous at the top of the Empire State Building. Despite this, its hard not to feel sympathy for Kong lost in the strange world. Of course the characters in the picture don't see it that way and new technology in the form of the airplane sends the creature plunging to his death.

The film is probably the first special effect blockbuster ever made. Though many of the techniques used to make the film pre-existed Kong, this is the first film where they were brought together to such good effect. Kong and the dinosaurs were stop-motion puppets (perhaps 18 inches high) filmed on a miniature set. Though special effects wizard Willis O'Brien had used stop-motion on Lost World, he perfected the art on Kong. A new, larger and more effective back projection system was also used to combine O'Brien's monsters with the real actors in ways not seen before. Willis also used a similar method, miniature projection, to place previously filmed actors onto the miniature sets with his monsters.

Though the film's effects are impressive, the movie would not have been a success without a solid story. The "Beauty and the Beast" theme makes Kong a creature we care about, not just another marauding monster to be rid of. The film inspired a number of people to go into movie making including director Peter Jackson, who remade a sumptuous version of the film in 2005.

Ray Harryhausen Films

Ray Harryhausen used stop motion photography to give life to the giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea.

Another person inspired by Kong was a young man named Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was so fascinated by the stop motion effects in the film that he built a studio in his parents' garage to experiment with the technique. He took a demo reel to show to Willis O'Brien and got himself a job working with him on several Kong sequels.

By 1953 Harryhausen was ready to strike out on his own by doing the effects for the aforementioned Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The producers of the film got the idea from a short story called "The Foghorn" written by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury's story centered around a revitalized dinosaur that's attracted to a lighthouse's foghorn, thinking it's a possible mate and when he finds out it isn't knocks the structure down in frustration. The producers of the movie liked the idea and decided to build a movie around it, but didn't tell Bradbury they were using it in order to save paying him the proper fees. By the time they had the first draft of the script written they'd forgotten from where they had stolen the idea and hired Bradbury to do a re-write. Bradbury, of course, recognised the idea as his own and forced the producers to give him the credit (and the money) as the source of the story.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms fits almost perfectly into the monster movie structure: tampering with nature, warnings ignored, sympathetic monster and science prevails. The picture was a huge success leading to a rash of giant monster movies and a career in visual effects for Harryhausen. After that he worked on 15 monster movies over the next thirty years and his name on a film became, to connoisseurs of the monster genre, as important as those of the lead actor or director. His works include some of the finest monster movie ever made including: It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth Verses the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans.

One of the most famous of the 50's monsters, Godzilla, originated in Japan and spawned 27 sequels.

Space Monsters of the 50's

Giant Monsters weren't the only successful creature films of the era, however. While the public was concerned with atomic bomb (giving movie producer ample excuses to grow ordinary animals to preposterous proportions, as in Deadly Mantus, The Giant Gila Monster and Tarantula), the space race made aliens a hot topic. A number of monster/alien films appeared in the late 40's and 50's. The best included The War of the Worlds (based on the H.G. Well novel), The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Forbidden Planet. Numbered with the worst were Robot Monster (where the robot alien invader was a man wearing a gorilla suit with a space helmet) and Plan 9 from Outer Space produced by the infamous Ed Wood.

The 50's seem to be the start of a phase where many of the monsters seem less sympathetic and more mindlessly malevolent. Perhaps this was a reaction to the McCarthy Era/Communist scare. The American public seemed less tolerant of what was different and more fearful of anything strange.

The 50's also produced Japans classic entry into monster films: Godzilla. A three-hundred-foot-tall aquatic lizard who was made gargantuan by an atomic blast, Godzilla has stamped his way through 28 films from Toho studios. Japanese filmmakers decided not to use the stop motion approach, instead opting to put an actor into a latex Godzilla suit so he could demolish some of the most beautiful miniature sets ever constructed.

Toho Studios used a rubber suit and huge miniature sets to produce their Godzilla films. Here an actor uses a lower-half suit during close ups of the feet.

Over the years Godzilla has changed from trashing Japan to being its protector (some argue that the Japanese relationship with the outsized lizard is symbolic of the Japanese relationship with the United States). He often teams up with other giant monsters or finds himself opposing them as in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon like monster). He has even spawned a hole sub-genre called Kaiju (literally strange beast) which includes rival studio Kadokawa Picture's Gamera, a 300-foot-tall biped turtle.

The Coming of the CGI Monsters

The next major change in monster movie history doesn't really take place until the 1990s. By that time computers were becoming powerful enough to do image processing at the quality level necessary for motion pictures. The result were visual effects that are almost impossible to differentiate from reality. One of the first major pictures to employ this was 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The first Terminator film had used stop motion to animate the robot (once it had lost its exterior flesh and blood shell). Terminator II was all digital, though, enabling many startling effects never seen before, including a liquid metal robot that morphed seamlessly from person to object to person before the viewers eyes.

Jurassic Park (1993) was the first film to use digital computer effects to make dinosaurs come to life. No longer was a filmmaker hamstrung by the limitations imposed by stop motion. The computer, given enough time and memory, would visualize almost anything in perfect detail. Digital effects were also more flexible than previous methods. For example, in 1933 a scene from King Kong showing Fay Wray trapped in a tree while a battle between Kong and T-Rex rages in back of her was accomplished by stop-motion and back screen projection. The scene is wonderful, but the camera is by necessity locked down in a single location. Miss Wray is in the scene with the monsters but they are always in the background while she is limited to the foreground.

Jurassic Park introduced digitally created dinosaurs to the silver screen.

A similar scene from Jurassic Park III shows how powerful digital effects can be. Two dinosaurs confront each other in violent battle. The camera here is not locked in position but moves and zooms to cover the action. Actors are no longer stuck in the foreground, but scurry through the thick of the battle, dodging the monsters' feet.

As O'Brien once inspired Harryhausen, Harryhausen has inspired many of today's digital visual effects technicians. The monster movie is alive and well in their hands. Some claim though that CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has made it too easy to make monster movies, leading to films that seem to only be driven by their special effects. 2004's Van Helsing is an often-mentioned example of this problem. Though the film brings back Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Dracula, they seem too synthetic compared to the original characters.

Modern Monster Films

Hopefully as producers become more familiar with CGI, we will see more creature features where this powerful tool is used to advance the story, not replace it. There have been some hopeful signs in the last few years: Peter Jackson's King Kong, though a bit long, is true to the original story and the structure of the classic monster movie. The Korean film The Host explores a family's attempt to find their daughter after she is kidnapped by a slimy creature living in the nearby river. Cloverfield (2008) re-imagines the giant monster film for the YouTube generation, as we see the whole story through the lens of a video camera held by one of the victims during the creature's attack on New York City.

The Frankenstein monster from Van Helsing. Too much CGI?

Still, this Halloween might be a good time to find your way to the video store or library and check out the monster movies of the past. The original Frankenstein series, King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms hold up pretty well. Want a space monster? How about Forbidden Planet from 1957 or the Alien series that premiered in 1979? If you want something on the lighter side try Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein (1974) or the kid appropriate Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein from 1948.

Any of these should give you a screaming good time.


Copyright Lee Krystek 2008. All Rights Reserved.