It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark…
Like most boys, I quickly developed a love for monsters and supernatural creatures, a morbid fascination only deepened by devouring the novels of Guy N. Smith (giant, man-eating crabs!) and James Herbert (dog-sized, man-eating black rats!) Blood-dripping fangs, wickedly sharp claws, terrified humans on the run, bodies being punctured… Mmm, yes, please.
Now in my fifties I guess I’m stuck with such proclivities. Here are five of my favorite movie monsters:
Medusa in Clash of the Titans
In much the same way it’s illegal for locals to criticize the Thai King, the Saudi royal family or the Chinese government, you will also get into a shitload of trouble for saying anything bad about Ray Harryhausen.
And by that, I mean I will turn up at your house and kick your ass.
In case you don’t know, Harryhausen’s the guy who took stop-motion animation to a whole new level, enriching countless childhoods in the process. His career began with the Kong knock off Mighty Joe Young before he found his startlingly original feet in the 1950s and delivered a heap of people-munching monsters in everything from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
He peaked with 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, a fantastic adventure that contains one scene after another of brilliant, awe-inspiring animation. Sensing his days were numbered with the advent of computers, his last work was 1981’s Clash of the Titans, which has become a cult favorite.
Despite a fairly strong whiff of Stilton throughout, its best bit arrives when Perseus and two soldier mates go up against Medusa in her underground lair. Lit by wall-hung torches and flickering fire pits, this is an intimidating place adorned with the gorgon’s stony victims.
We first see the tip of Medusa’s tail, casting its shadow against a wall. Then her silhouetted head (and its mass of writhing snakes) move into view. Before we see her in the scaly flesh she shoots one soldier in the back, which comes as a complete surprise. Not only does she have lethal eyes but she’s also armed with a bow and arrows! Perseus can do nothing but back up against a pillar, obviously unnerved by the sudden death and the sound of her creepy, rattling tail.
Then she pulls herself into view to reveal a slithering monster that’s half woman, half giant snake. Defiantly braless, projecting genuine malevolence and most definitely capable of instantaneous violence, she reminds me of the sort of terrifying older women I’d occasionally bump into during my student nightclubbing days in Cardiff.
Perseus can do little but watch the stalking Medusa’s reflection in his shield’s mirrored interior as the sweat beads on his face. She then takes out another soldier with her superb archery skills, finishing the poor guy off with a blast from her deadly eyes.
Two down, one to go…
Fair play, this is a well-directed, graphic and suspenseful encounter, the animation’s realism greatly enhanced by Medusa not directly interacting with any humans. She’s a magnificently nasty creation, perhaps even better than Harryhausen’s iconic fighting skeletons.
Fuck, I love this bare-breasted bitch.
Kong in King Kong
Kong’s an unusual monster in that he kills an awful lot of people but retains our sympathy right through to the end.
At times, he really is a mean bastard, either biting heads off or gleefully squishing people underfoot. Witness the scene where he’s hunting Fay Wray in New York, spies a woman in an apartment resting on her bed and reaches in to grab her. It isn’t his lady so he turns her upside down, sadistically dangles her over the street and lets her slip from his fingers. He could’ve just returned her to the safety of her bed, you know?
And yet we love Kong and feel saddened by the sight of his broken, bullet-ridden corpse at the foot of the Empire State Building.
This willingness to ignore his rampant destruction of life must be down to his extraordinarily vivid characterization. Kong is arguably the most memorable personality in 20th Century cinema.
We first meet him on Skull Island ripping trees out of his way to get at the bound, sacrificial Wray. If the movie had fucked up everything from this point onward, it still would have been worth the price of the ticket, such is this scene’s splendid power. Indeed, the lengthy island sequence, in which Kong battles a T-Rex, a giant snake and a pterodactyl before finally succumbing to a gas bomb on the beach, never catches its breath for thirty-five minutes straight. It’s a triumphant blend of action and imagination that trumps any Schwarzenegger or Stallone bout of mayhem you may care to name, making me suspect seeing Kong on the big screen in 1933 was an even more unforgettable experience than Jaws in 75 or Star Wars two years later.
At the end of it all, Kong is also an enduring testament to the dangerously seductive power of femininity. Everyone from the ruthless filmmaker Carl Denham and the ship’s first mate to the island’s native king and Kong himself fall under the original scream queen’s spell. Mind you, it’s hard to follow the big fellah’s train of thought when he decides against immediately turning her into a tasty snack. How on Earth did he think things were going to pan out? Daily banana sharing? Badminton on Thursday mornings?
Clearly, his sense of perspective goes out the window from the instant he (ahem) picks her up. Or as the first mate says: “Women just can’t help being a bother. Made that way I guess.”
Without a doubt, Kong is the perfect breakup pic for unhappy, discarded men. So what if your woman has just kicked you in the balls and run off with the postman? Look what happened to that all-powerful, dinosaur-slaughtering, train-wrecking alpha male, Kong. For Christ’s sake, man, why did you think you had a chance?
There’s no better movie out there to piercingly illustrate how a woman, one diminutive, fragrant, seemingly powerless piece of ass, can bring a guy to his knees.
The velociraptors in Jurassic Park
It’s a shame a pair of cute blonde kids feature in this scene because there’s no way that old softie Spielberg is gonna splatt them. Indeed, do any of his movies feature a darling kiddy-winky getting killed on screen? Probably not, although I would have accepted that gag-inducing tosser E.T. staying dead in lieu.
So, yeah, the suspense is undermined a bit by the hunting velociraptors trying to munch on the tenderest of flesh. The kids aren’t the best actors, either, which of course, only heightens your desire to see them torn apart. Still, these are minor flaws when there’s so much else to take pleasure in.
Spielberg manages a great introduction for his reptilian villain when the park owner’s bedraggled grandchildren Lex and Tim are left alone to feast at a food-laden table. They don’t get long to enjoy their yum-yums, though. The girl’s eyes widen and the glob of green jelly on her stationary spoon starts shaking as she spots a moving shadow of something that most definitely isn’t a guinea pig. The kids dash to the kitchen, shut the door, turn out the lights and sit with their backs against the end of a steel cabinet.
First we see the velociraptor’s snout fogging up the door’s circular window. Then it pushes its eye up against the pane to take a peek inside. I’m not sure about it managing to open the door, although this dubiously acquired ability enables us to get our first clear look at it framed in the doorway. It’s much smaller than the other dinosaurs we’ve so far met, which oddly makes it scarier. There’s a real sense of its mobility and lightning quick reflexes, not to mention a burgeoning intelligence and a fuckload of understated, but very sharp teeth.
Like Harryhausen, Spielberg knows the importance of giving his creations telling details and individual mannerisms. When it rears up the velociraptor makes rapid snorting noises, sounding just like a nail gun being fired. Its yellow, slit-eyes also communicate an acute lack of compassion. (Eyes are always a crucial part of a monster as they need an ultra-responsive, liquid sheen to convince. Spielberg’s beasty excels here). Its claws click on the tiled floor and it sometimes seems to smile at the thought of an imminent meal. This is one fucker you would not want to get stuck in a lift with.
Then it’s joined by a mate and the fun really begins.
Talos in Jason and the Argonauts
It’s hard to pick a best bit in this classic, but I simply love the goose-pimply moment when the giant statue of Talos (accompanied by a groan of metal) comes to life by turning his head and looking down at a pair of erring Argonauts.
So simple and yet so effective.
It’s a great example of how Harryhausen’s painstaking work is capable of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
The sword-wielding Talos really is a fantastic creation. With his empty eye sockets, v-shaped torso and muscular legs, this guy would be a handful even if he were regular size. As it is, he’s as tall as a cliff and the Argonauts no bigger than his little fingernail.
Effortlessly establishing a convincing sense of scale, Harryhausen gets everything right, immeasurably helped by not having to animate such troublesome features as skin, fur or feathers. Talos’ dull, weathered exterior with its green patches are particularly convincing. His slightly jerky movements also make perfect sense, given that he’s a man of bronze who’s probably in need of a few squirts of WD-40 after crouching on his pedestal for centuries.
Talos is arguably the star villain of this much-loved flick, getting a lengthy ten-minute sequence to straddle two outcrops of rock and reach down to wreck the Argo before Jason turns into the ultimate ankle-biter. The titan’s death throes are pretty cool, too. Mind you, he’s a bit of a dud at killing Argonauts, managing only one when he topples over.
The xenomorph in Alien
Some silly billies believe in a benevolent creator, but I find that awfully hard to reconcile with the existence of creatures like tarantula hawks. These little beauties sting a spider, lay an egg on its paralyzed body, and then fly off, confident its offspring will have a nutritious meal to enjoy from the moment it springs into life. The baby wasp literally eats the poor bastard spider from the inside out, saving the vital organs, such as the heart, for last.
I suspect Alien’s writer Dan O’Bannon was familiar with this appallingly gruesome behavior and simply applied the principle to an extraterrestrial species encountering humans for the first time. Whatever the case, part of the reason the xenomorph is so wedged in our imagination is because we learn so much about its life cycle. We follow it from the instant it starts kicking inside its leathery egg to its incubation within the unfortunate John Hurt’s chest. From there it sheds its exoskeleton to enable rapid growth before morphing into a seven-foot tall apex predator with a smooth, elongated head and acid for blood.
Perhaps O’Bannon and his co-creators further raided our natural world for inspiration when they dreamt up the xenomorph’s second set of jaws (a slime-dripping appendage that can punch through flesh and bone in the blink of an eye). Just take a look at the mantis shrimp, a marine animal whose raptorial claws can deliver blows with the force of a .22 bullet. Indeed, Alien stands alone among creature features by giving viewers such a wonderfully 3-D picture of its marauding baddie.
Perhaps the last word about its adaptability and lethalness should be left to its treacherous protector, Ash. He tells the Nostromo’s surviving crew members it can’t be killed before smugly detailing what they’re up against.
“A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.”
Hang on, isn’t he talking about Donald Trump?
Dave Franklin also writes books about monsters, although he prefers human ones like Jack the Ripper.