Total Recall

RT's Field Guide to Giant Movie Monsters

In this week's Total Recall, we help you identify filmdom's biggest, most destructive creatures -- just in time for Godzilla!

by | May 15, 2014 | Comments

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After wreaking near-constant havoc at the drive-thru during the 1950s and 1960s, Godzilla has been fairly quiet for the last 30 years — in American theaters, anyway. That’ll end this weekend, when director Gareth Edwards brings the big guy roaring back to life with an all-new Godzilla, and in honor of his return, we’ve compiled a list of some of the many other films to put supersized stars to good use. Go big or go home — it’s time for Total Recall!


The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

The Monster: The Beast.

It Came From: North of the Arctic Circle.

Stomping Grounds: Manhattan.

Approximate Size: 30 feet tall and 100 feet long.

Method of Mayhem: Given its size, the Beast’s mere presence in the big city was bound to sow destruction, but its overall bad mood spelled doom for any building (or foolish human) in its path. Also, it bled all over the streets after being shot in throat with a bazooka, poisoning the populace with a prehistoric germ.

Who tried to stop it? The U.S. military.

The monster is an allegory for… The dangers of nuclear weaponry.

Exceedingly rare is the giant monster movie that does not owe a giant debt to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Directed by Eugène Lourié and featuring some remarkable early work by stop-motion special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, Beast traces the aftermath of an Arctic nuclear blast that rouses a hibernating dinosaur from its 100-million-year slumber — and sends the beast rumbling toward Manhattan, where it wreaks hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage in retaliation. A major hit, it inspired a horde of like-minded subsequent releases — including the original Godzilla — and impressed critics like A.H. Weiler of the New York Times, who wrote, “Despite more than a suspicion of palaver, it generates a fair portion of interest and climactic excitement.”


The Blob

The Monster: The Blob.

It Came From: Outer space.

Stomping Grounds: Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Approximate Size: It starts small, but ends up being big enough that the Air Force has to use a heavy-lift cargo plane to drop it off in the Arctic.

Method of Mayhem: Blobbin’ stuff up.

Who tried to stop it? Steve McQueen. In other words, it didn’t stand a chance.

The monster is an allegory for… Plenty of people believe it’s a stand-in for the Communist threat that Americans felt in the 1950s, but it’s worth noting that co-writer Rudy Nelson, for one, has vigorously denied that claim.

Like a lot of the classic creature features, The Blob can be interpreted on a number of levels; one popular view of the Steve McQueen-led 1958 original holds that the titular gelatinous mass is a goopy stand-in for the Soviet Union. But you don’t need a poly sci degree to appreciate the spectacle of an alien ooze growing to enormous size while sucking the life out of small-town America; as Rob Humanick wrote for, “It’s exuberant and extraordinary, and just nasty enough.”


The Call of Cthulhu

The Monster: Cthulhu.

It Came From: Beyond the stars.

Stomping Grounds: All of Earth, eventually.

Approximate Size: Several hundred feet tall.

Method of Mayhem: Reducing all of human consciousness to a senseless state of jibbering madness; welcoming the return of the Great Old Ones.

Who tried to stop it? The Elder Things, who were ultimately responsible for sending Cthulhu to his watery (yet temporary) grave in the submerged city of R’lyeh.

The monster is an allegory for… “The most merciful thing in the world,” sneered H.P. Lovecraft, “is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

For a certain type of giant monster fan, nothing beats Cthulhu, the octopus-faced horror dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft and unleashed upon his hopelessly matched characters in various works. Although most attempts to bring the Cthulhu mythos to the screen have ended in embarrassing failure, the 2005 short film The Call of Cthulhu proved it’s far from unfilmable — and while it seems unlikely that the character’s cinematic destiny lies in fan-made silent movies like this one, it does hint at the possibilities awaiting filmgoers if and when Guillermo del Toro ever gets the green light on his proposed adaptation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-related At the Mountains of Madness. Until then, this remains what GreenCine’s Sean Axmaker called “more than simply a love letter to the stylized artificiality of silent expressionist horror… the most faithful screen translation of the author’s work to date.”



The Monster: Unnamed, though the production crew referred to it as Clover.

It Came From: The depths of the ocean.

Stomping Grounds: New York City.

Approximate Size: 25 stories tall — and it’s just a baby.

Method of Mayhem: Going nuts and smashing everything in sight. The only thing worse than an angry giant monster? One that’s freaked out.

Who tried to stop it? The U.S. military.

The monster is an allegory for… Uncertain. Perhaps the destruction soon to be wrought by the found-footage phenomenon upon just about every film genre?

Bring producer J.J. Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and screenwriter Drew Goddard together for a project, and odds are pretty high you’re going to end up with a fairly potent blast of filmgoing fun. Case in point: 2008’s Cloverfield, a found footage/giant monster movie mashup that depicts a catastrophic creature invasion through the panicked eyes of a group of young New Yorkers. The shaky first-person perspective is enough to send more sensitively stomached viewers into convulsions, but it also ramps up the tension by keeping much of the chaos, destruction, and visual horror off-camera while adding a bit of savvy 21st century commentary. “Cloverfield captures the chronic self-absorption of the Facebook generation with breathless, cleverly recycled media savvy, and then it stomps that self-absorption to death,” wrote Ty Burr for the Boston Globe. “These days, that’s entertainment.”



The Monster: The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

It Came From: An interdimensional portal opened by those creeps Zuul and Vinz Clortho.

Stomping Grounds: Manhattan.

Approximate Size: A little over 100 feet tall.

Method of Mayhem: Pounding the streets with his big marshmallow feet.

Who tried to stop it? Our friends Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddemore, who ain’t afraid of no ghost.

The monster is an allegory for… “The most harmless thing” Stantz can think of. Or possibly a physical manifestation of pent-up sailor lust.

Strictly speaking, Ghostbusters is more of a ghost movie than a monster movie — it says so right there in the title — but this classic 1984 horror-comedy isn’t without its share of giant beasties, including the nasty-looking Zuul the Gatekeeper. But Zuul isn’t the main reason we decided to make room for ghostbusting Drs. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) — plus their buddy Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) — on our list. That honor goes to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a monstrous manifestation of Ghostbusters villain Gozer the Gozerian, who makes his brief (yet oh so memorable) appearance in the movie’s final act before being blown up all over the streets of New York City, drenching the insufferable EPA inspector Walter Peck (William Atherton, owning the role he was born to play) in the process. As Richard Schickel wrote for TIME, “Whoever thought of having evil’s final manifestation take the form of a 100-ft. marshmallow deserves the rational mind’s eternal gratitude.”



The Monster: Godzilla.

It Came From: The Pacific Ocean.

Stomping Grounds: Tokyo.

Approximate Size: 164 feet tall.

Method of Mayhem: Breathes fire, swings a spiked tail, stomps on stuff.

Who tried to stop it? The Japanese army.

The monster is an allegory for… The dangers of nuclear weaponry — specifically those faced by the survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Before the slew of vs.-enhanced sequels, and long before the regrettable Godzilla 1985 and/or 1998’s Roland Emmerich-directed reboot, audiences cowered before the mighty original Gojira. If the special effects haven’t aged particularly well, the nuclear-powered subtext in Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic is still plenty powerful, lending the movie a degree of sobering potency uncommon in films starring dudes in rubber suits. Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy is just one of the many critics who have deemed it a “masterpiece,” adding, “even in its most generic elements, it’s never just a monster movie, but a fantastic depiction of how humans survive and struggle.”


The Host

The Monster: Unnamed, though director Joon-ho Bong referred to it as “Steve Buscemi.”

It Came From: The Han River in Seoul.

Stomping Grounds: We just told you.

Approximate Size: About the size of a large truck.

Method of Mayhem: Jumping out of the water to commit vandalism and murder; kidnapping children.

Who tried to stop it? The world’s baddest snack bar worker.

The monster is an allegory for… The dangers — and the moral wrongness — of pollution.

What if the Loch Ness Monster lived in Seoul — and was really ticked off? That’s kind of the premise behind 2006’s The Host, a killer South Korean import that imagines a giant, scaly water beast lurking in the depths of the River Han, waiting to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting populace. But the creature makes a bad move when it decides to kidnap a little girl whose father’s day job at the local snack bar belies a tenacious willingness to whoop monster butt. Enthused Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, “The film’s limber and inventive director Joon-ho Bong keeps The Host creeping and leaping for its entire two hours, which are filled with incident after incident, alternately terrifying, ridiculous, suspenseful and wry.”


Jurassic Park

The Monsters: The mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex and a bunch of sneaky velociraptors.

They Came From: The distant past.

Stomping Grounds: The tropical paradise of Isla Nublar.

Approximate Size: Dinosaur-sized, from the giant T-rex to the smaller (but no less lethal) velociraptor.

Method of Mayhem: Just kind of being dino-like and asserting themselves back at the top of the food chain.

Who tried to stop it? Paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern).

The monsters are an allegory for… There are any number of theories, but they all seem fairly far-fetched. Perhaps they were simply intended to get butts in seats — a goal they’ve more than fulfilled.

Modern CG-assisted monster movies have far better special effects than entries from the genre’s heyday, but they often lack the infectious fun that still makes those campy classics such a treat. Not so with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which adapts Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller about a scientist (Richard Attenborough) who finds a way to clone dinosaurs and decides it’d be a really great idea to breed a bunch of them for an island paradise amusement park. Things go horribly awry, of course, but his loss is the audience’s gain — Jurassic Park doesn’t skimp on thrilling visuals, but neither does it forget to anchor its gee-whiz moments with a smart plot and characters we care about. Even a seasoned vet like the Observer’s Philip French found himself in thrall to Spielberg’s spell, writing, “I loved every fascinating, suspenseful, frightening, skilfully calibrated minute of it.”



King Kong

The Monster: King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

It Came From: Skull Island.

Stomping Grounds: Manhattan.

Approximate Size: Kong’s official height for the original is listed as 50 feet.

Method of Mayhem: Have you ever seen that old commercial starring a gorilla who beats the tar out of a suitcase? Kind of like that, only bigger.

Who tried to stop it? The U.S. military.

The monster is an allegory for… That depends who’s answering the question, but one popular theory holds that the story offers veiled commentary on the slave trade.

The grandaddy of all giant monster movies, King Kong works on a purely visceral level, unleashing a torrent of awesome (and now iconic) images that include the titular ape battling everything from prehistoric creatures to a squadron of military biplanes. But like all the best creature features, it anchors its eye candy with a storyline rich in interpretive possibilities — which is why, long after the thrill of watching Fay Wray plucked from a skyscraper by a giant hand has worn off, we keep returning to the original Kong even though it’s been remade with color film, more naturalistic acting, and more expensive special effects. “There are very few works of cinema that stand up to repeated viewings and decades of changing film mores and audience expectations,” wrote Christopher Null for “Most notable among these is the classic King Kong.”


Monsters vs. Aliens

The Monsters: Let’s see… there’s a giant woman, a gelatinous blob, a giant cockroach, a fish-ape hybrid, and, oh yeah, some aliens.

It Came From: The pages of the comic book Rex Havoc, although the characters ultimately ended up being created more or less from scratch.

Stomping Grounds: San Francisco and outer space.

Approximate Size: The largest monsters, Ginormica and Insectosaurus, are 49 feet tall and 350 feet long, respectively.

Method of Mayhem: Varied.

Who tried to stop it? The alien warlord Gallaxhar, although he was the bad guy in the story.

The monsters are an allegory for… It’s a modern animated feature, which means everything is an allegory for learning how to accept yourself for who you are and respect other people’s differences.

In most movies, giant monsters are feared and hunted in equal measure, but if you had to choose between them and an alien invasion, you’d probably choose the former — and that’s the rather brilliant idea behind Monsters vs. Aliens, the 2009 DreamWorks Animation feature that rounds up some of Earth’s more cooperative monsters (including Ginormica, a 50-foot-tall woman voiced by Reese Witherspoon, and a 350-foot grub nicknamed Insectosaurus) into a government task force to help thwart the efforts of the alien king Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). Like most modern cartoons, it’s rainbow-colored and stuffed to the gills with madcap gags, but a lot of its best bits are really pretty funny, and it also serves as a fairly tender, surprisingly effective homage to 1950s sci-fi. As Mike Edwards wrote for What Culture, “As a child who loathed the wholesomeness of Disney and wholeheartedly embraced the madcap antics of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Daffy Duck, this film was perfect for me.”


Pacific Rim

The Monsters: The Kaiju.

They Came From: An interdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Stomping Grounds: Earth.

Approximate Size: Varied, but the biggest of the bunch, nicknamed Slattern, was estimated to be 596 feet tall and weigh 6,750 tons.

Method of Mayhem: Teeth, claws, spikes, sheer tonnage — you name it.

Who tried to stop it? The Pan Pacific Defense Corps, a multinational coalition representing the last of humanity’s military might.

The monsters are an allegory for… Allegory has no place here.

High art certainly has its place in the cinema. But when it comes down to it, there’s a cinematic itch that can only be scratched by indulging in the spectacle of giant robots duking it out with giant monsters while the fate of humanity hangs in the balance — and few films can scratch it as satisfyingly as Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. One of the most gleefully effective gateway drugs for 10-year-old movie geeks of all ages, Rim isn’t exactly the most well-acted or emotionally resonant entry on our list, but it boasts more than enough gee-whiz CG effects to make up for any highfalutin sociopolitical subtext — not to mention its fanboy-friendly director’s deft hand. “Del Toro is a dreamer,” observed Wesley Morris for Grantland. “He’s a visionary. If you give him a pile of money to make enormous robots fight enormous monsters at the end of civilization, he will work to make Pacific Rim a movie that makes you feel all the enormousness.”



The Monsters: The Graboids.


Stomping Grounds: The tiny town of Perfection, Nevada.

Approximate Size: 30 feet long and six feet across, weighing 10-20 tons.

Method of Mayhem: Bursting through the ground and messing you up.

Who tried to stop it? The intrepid residents of Perfection, including a survivalist played by television’s Michael Gross and an exquisitely mulleted handyman played by Kevin Bacon.

The monsters are an allegory for… You’ve got us. For the studio, they were an allegory for “direct-to-video sequels” and “spinoff TV series.”

A small desert town. A disgusting breed of giant subterranean flesh-eating worms. A cast full of outstanding character actors. Put them all together, and what do you have? 1990’s Tremors, which affectionately nodded to the corny B-movie monster flicks of the past with over-the-top acting and silly dialogue while keeping the audience on the edge of its collective seat with through-the-fingers thrills. It’s a tricky balance to maintain — just ask anyone who’s watched the progressively less effective sequels — and it still stands as one of the more effective, and purely entertaining, low-budget horror homages in Hollywood history. “I think there should be a lot more movies like Tremors out there,” wrote Scott Weinberg for FEARnet. “And no, I don’t mean more sequels.”



The Monsters: Giant trolls!

They Came From: The fjords of Norway. (Note: We’re not really sure whether that’s accurate, but this is probably the only chance we’ll have to use the phrase “the fjords of Norway” in a Total Recall, and we’re taking it.)

Stomping Grounds: The Norwegian countryside.

Approximate Size: Around 650 feet tall.

Method of Mayhem: Smashing, stomping, et cetera.

Who tried to stop it? A group of brave and/or stupid college students.

The monsters are an allegory for… Playwright Henrik Ibsen used trolls to represent the dark side of humanity; here, they’re mostly an excuse for an awesome time at the movies.

Forget about the pencil toppers with the funny hair: In the 2011 Norwegian import Trollhunter, the titular beasts are depicted as enormous, nasty-looking monsters who terrorize the countryside under cover of a government conspiracy. It’s a terrific premise, and one done right by writer-director André Ovredal’s decision to shoot mockumentary-style with handheld cameras and largely improvised dialogue; the end result is a movie that’s shot through with an appropriate level of creeping dread, but one that also benefits from generous helpings of dry wit. “The more you watch,” wrote Rob Vaux for, “the more deeply its funky vibe works on you.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Godzilla.


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