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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Decades of Stomping: A History of Giant Monster Movies

Since childhood, big monster movies have always fascinated me. When I first saw the 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla, my world was forever changed. I became obsessed with the titular creatures and itched for more giant monsters.

Having made their cinematic debut at the start of the 1900s, monsters have been captivating audiences for decades, many contributing to some of the greatest films ever made. With Godzilla vs. Kong making its way to theatres and HBO Max this week, I want to explore the history of giant monster movies. Specifically covering their origins, important films in the genre, their prominence in the mainstream, and how we arrived to the MonsterVerse of today.

The first dated monster movies were the likes of The Golem (1915) and Nosferatu (1922). With its focus on dinosaurs, Lost World (1925) was one of the first films to highlight creatures larger than life – but the grandaddy of all big monsters would arrive in 1933. 

‘King Kong’ (1933)

King Kong – please excuse the pun – saw immense critical acclaim, stunning and terrifying moviegoers. While dinosaurs certainly made for scary creatures, Kong was a gigantic ape trampling through New York. King Kong proved to be a remarkable experience of adventure and horror, cementing Kong as the first iconic giant monster in movie history. With the film’s success, more movies starring big monsters would follow, including such gems as Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955). These titles were more b-movie fare, perhaps not drawing in large audiences, but providing a niche for those looking for some sci-fi horror. Other examples of lighthearted monster cheese are that of The Creeping Terror (1964) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

The next major step forward for the genre would come with 1954’s Godzilla. Brimming with suspense and terror, Godzilla was also a work of profound thematic significance. With the film pulling inspiration from real world events – specifically, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Godzilla was a being born out of radioactivity, representing a new fear in humankind’s history – that of nuclear weaponry.

Godzilla roared through the pop culture landscape. Leveraging his popularity, Toho – the company behind Godzilla – began creating new creatures to ally with and combat the iconic radioactive titan. From King Ghidorah to Mecha-Godzilla to best girl Mothra, each of Toho’s creations were fascinating. Such popularity would eventually lead to 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla – a campy, yet exciting clash between the west’s and east’s most iconic monsters, respectively. With the primary exception of the original Godzilla, many of these monster movies contained thin plot lines and thematic depth. Vague mentioning of cosmic threats would serve to propel events forward and get creatures to do battle. 

Alongside all the Godzilla spin-offs, Kong would receive his own. The Son of Kong (1933) and King Kong Escapes (1967) were among these releases, though neither did all that well compared to the original film. The Toho films featuring Godzilla and pals varied when it came to reception as well, but both Godzilla and King Kong had already claimed prominent respectability in both cinema and science-fiction fandom alike. 

Come the ‘70s however, things would take a turn. Whereas the Godzilla franchise would continue to expand, there wasn’t a strong presence of gigantic monsters taking over the silver screen. Jaws (1975) makes for an interesting argument, given that the titular shark is no where near the scale of Kaiju based creatures – but still stands as a creature of fear, power, and large scale (at least compared to other sharks). Though the ‘80s and ‘90s would include The Blob (1988), Tremors (1990), and Jurassic Park (1993), the sort of monsters we began to see more of were slasher types and those who evoked the spirit of the Universal creatures. By this time, the most noticeable monsters of immensity left were just Godzilla and Kong. 

‘Cloverfield’ (2008)

While big monster movies had scaled back some, the 2000s saw a few select titles that not only brought back the charm of past monster movies, but also offered some fresh spins. Kong saw his return during this time. Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) included several moments of kick ass intensity, with Kong throwing down with prehistoric creatures. There’s also a cute aspect to the film, given the friendship developed between Kong and Naomi Watts’ character. The Host (2006) is a Korean horror movie that balanced an exhilarating creature flick with socio-political intrigue. Getting audiences to be on the edge of their seat while intellectually engaging with them can be one hell of a task, but The Host pulled it off. A more unconventional take on big monsters would come in the form of Cloverfield (2008). Blending the monster flick with the found footage film, Cloverfield won over viewers and spawned several follow-ups. 

Besides these more popular films, big monster movies would continue to appear via straight to VOD/DVD releases. Films like Sharktopus (2010), Big Ass Spider! (2013) and Poseidon Rex (2013) don’t stand anywhere near the exhilarating blockbusters that came before them, but offer their own B-rate charm. 

Before speaking to the new MonsterVerse of the 2010s, I have to shout out a very important film in the big monster movie genre. Paying homage to classic and modern anime, as well as the Toho films, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) pit giant robots known as Jaegers up against menacing Kaiju, which proved to be an easy formula for epic fun. The film made for a blockbuster brimming with large scale, fantastical battles. 

‘Pacific Rim’ (2013)

Come the 2010s, giant monster movies weren’t as present as they were decades ago in the mainstream. This would change with Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla (2014) – acting as a reboot for the character. It would mark the first step for a series of new releases. One being Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island (2017).

The film involves a loose character focused story to keep things interesting between monster fights, but most successfully sells a version of Kong as protector and warrior. This is of personal opinion, but I have always found Kong’s gentleness towards humanity to be one of his most endearing qualities. Past films treated him as a monster – which is boring to me – but it’s those movies like Jackson’s and Vogt-Roberts that I find to involve a much more interesting Kong. 

Though it’s a tad general, for the majority of his films Godzilla has been shown as either threat or reluctant hero; Kong certainly has a degree of reluctance to him, but he has also been more of the gentle giant, willing to leave people alone if they leave him alone. In Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts does an incredible job presenting a Kong willing to protect others, setting up what is going to be a fascinating dynamic between the two titans when they go toe to toe. Next in the series would be Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). It is here where a portion of Toho’s creature family would make their grand (modernized) reappearance, the likes of Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah arriving to wage battle.

(Side note: While it is not part of the MonsterVerse canon, 2016’s Shin Godzilla is a must-see for Godzilla fans. Directed by Hideaki Anno, Shin has socio-political depth and delivers one of the most terrifying versions of Godzilla there has ever been).

It’s now been roughly two years since the release of King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong is here. There is no doubt in my mind that the movie is going to be a battle for the ages, but it’s also interesting to note what has been happening for the monster genre as a whole. Big monsters are coming back in exciting and interesting ways.

‘Rampage’ (2018)

Rampage (2018) made for a goofy, fun tribute to the classic arcade game, running wild with the idea of giant animals running amuck in a city. We got an awesome giant shark movie in the form of The Meg (2018), and Tremors made a recent return in the form of Tremors: Shrieker Island (2020). Monster Hunter (2020) is an exhilarating time with great creature designs and awesome action set pieces, whereas Love And Monsters (2020) uses monsters to craft an intriguing world and tell a very human story. Hell, Pacific Rim has even returned, this time as a Netflix original animation (Pacific Rim: The Black).

Big monster movies are an essential part to cinema’s history. They represent some of the first major gatherings at movie theatres, being one of the earliest forms of the blockbuster. The likes of Godzilla and King Kong have forever left a mark on the mainstream, influencing countless movies and media. My hope is that Godzilla vs. Kong does so well that we begin to see this new MonsterVerse expand. If movie companies can take a chance on relatively smaller comic book properties, then there’s plenty of reason to get a standalone Mothra movie. And as movies featuring Godzilla, Kong, and their pals expand, there then comes more opportunity to see all kinds of big, nasty, and original monsters.

As someone who grew up with Godzilla and King Kong, as someone who has always adored big monsters – I’m beyond excited to see what this new MonsterVerse will have stomping our way next.

‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (2021)


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