The Art of Horror Vol 1. - What Makes a Monster Movie Great?

No matter how often I talk about movies  (and it happens a lot),  I will stand by my statement: Horror is the most challenging genre to nail. 

The way I see it, it’s incredibly hard to find the balance in them. You take just one wrong step and the card tower you built so carefully crumbles down. That’s the reason why it became very difficult to actually find good ones out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are MANY horror movies, but only a small percentage of them are actually worth your time. 

In this new series, I will attempt to guide you through the best choices in each sub-genre in horror. Our first stop is my personal favorite: monster movies. 

Now, there are countless monster movies out there, but not all of them are actually in the horror category. Those that actually made the cut are mostly pretty bad, but not for the reasons you may think. I wholeheartedly believe that finding a good entry in this sub-genre is very, VERY challenging. 

Just like in every movie, the structure is critical. That’s what monster horrors often fail to do successfully. The main thing that needs to be done right for it to work correctly is the introduction of the threat itself. Let’s look at what I mean with the greatest example of all time: Alien (1979).

The first thing the movie does is introduce our characters, their environment, and their purpose. It’s a pretty standard opening in the book of filmmaking. Then the conflict arrives - in this case - through an emergency transmission that they need to investigate, disrupting their original mission. What they do in these opening scenes is give the audience the feeling of unease through the set design, the camera angles, and the eerie music. You don’t know why, but you can tell that something is not okay right from the beginning, even before the transmission arrives. This is a tool of horror that is essential. Without it, what you are building towards simply won’t have the desired effect. 

Fanart: Instagram: @paulbutcher_art

They go down to the planetoid (LV-426), sending a small team to locate the transmission source. At this point, the viewer knows something isn’t right. When they find the spaceship, we get our first look at another element that moves these films forward - and are very real, by the way - Human Stupidity. They ventured right into a completely unknown spaceship without any preparation or caution. Yes, folks, I know many people like to complain about how characters are often portrayed as intelligent people making dumb decisions.  Trust me when I say this: it is very much a real-life reflection. It’s in our nature to be curious about the unknown. That unexplained knock in the house or the unidentified spaceship, yet we venture forth even if we know deep down that it probably isn’t a good idea. 

So our team goes in, and we arrive at the discovery of alien life in the form of the space jockey. And yes, you figured it out, they don’t leave, they need to discover more - again, human nature. The Egg Chamber scene is now known as a contestant on the “stupidest decisions ever made in a horror movie” list. Rightfully so, mind you, but it is also the perfect first introduction to the ‘threat’ that we were suspecting from the beginning.

However, the brilliance of Alien lies in the setup of the false feeling of safety Which is a vital tool for a good monster movie. The moment the facehugger lets go of Kane (John Hurt), the crew immediately starts to celebrate the return of their friend who feels amazing. It seems like no harm was done by the creature. SEEMS like. 

The dinner scene rolls in, creating one of the scariest scenes in film history. Kane seems to be choking on his food, but then moments later, is having another creature. -The chestburster bursts out of his chest and this has been the stuff of nightmares ever since. It’s also a prime example of world-building and establishing your creature. 

They even dare to take one more step by introducing the classic monster’s final - very well-known - form: the Xenomorph. With that, they double down on the threat of this silent killer. 

The absolute magic of how they structured the film to introduce the Alien comes from small details. The unease you feel from the very first frame to the way you facepalm yourself when Kane jumps down between the eggs. And then the fear that takes over when the facehugger attacks all have one thing in common: you haven’t even seen the creature itself yet. 

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979)

And this movie becomes even more impressive when I share with you that the Xenomorph’s screen time in the whole 1 hour and 57 minutes is exactly 4 minutes. Alien is one of the prime examples of how to build your monster movie the right way. 

It also does an essential thing that needs to be followed by other films in this genre: establish your monster and give them rules. 

What do I mean exactly? 

The Xenomorph has three stages - facehugger, chestburster, and xenomorph. It needs a host body it can grow in. The creatures are intelligent, blind, and can move silently around and use tactics to capture their prey. The only way Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is able to kill the Xenomorph is by throwing it out of the spaceship and burning it with the engine. We also learn in Aliens that guns do work against them, just like fire. This is establishing your monster and giving them rules. 

Finding an entry in this sub-genre that has done an equally good job is difficult, and I actually only have 5 more movies that hit the previously mentioned marks. Indeed. Five. And a few honorable mentions. 

  1. Tremors (1990)

This one is the odd one out on the list. While it is a monster horror, it also counts as comedy. I couldn’t leave it out under any circumstances as it’s easily one of my favorite films of all time, and I will never shut up about it. The combination of Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) is the definition of buddy-comedy in my books. While the monsters - named Grabodans - are incredibly scary in concept (with them being unseen and moving at high speeds underground), the movie is loved by many mostly because of the action/comedy elements. It does an excellent job of building up to the introduction to the monster(s) itself. It establishes the creature’s behavior and its rules very early on. And though it's a really fun movie to watch, it did inspire many people to use the underground monster as a threat. I remember seeing it later in Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules and the 2020 film Love and Monsters did a wink at the concept. It has also appeared in MANY video games like Star Wars: Jedi Knight - Jedi Academy and Mass Effect (the Thresher Maw).  

So while others might argue if this counts as a horror entry, I will stand by it wholeheartedly (mostly because it’s yet another excuse for me to talk about it).

  1. Jaws (1975)

Behind the scenes shot from Jaws

A Spielberg classic that kept people out of the water for months when it premiered. Yes. I am serious. This movie put such a strong fear into people that beaches (except for Martha’s Vineyard) were basically empty for months. A sort of hysteria overtook some members of the public, resulting in numerous incidents across the US. The threat of a huge shark - even if it was a horror element in a movie - was too real for folks to deal with. The movie did an amazing job of building its structure. It started off instantly with an attack not showing the shark at all, raising the fear of the unknown even more. Spielberg used an underwater shot showing Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) from the point of view of the hunter, but he had already built up your unease from the beginning. Dark water and brilliant music, thanks to John Williams. Trust me when I say this: the music and its use in the movie is one of the most important parts of the progress. 

Oddly enough, the shark named Bruce after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer - only has 4 minutes of screen time, just like the Xenomorph in Alien. 

  1. The Host (2006)

I already wrote about Bong Joon Ho’s amazing horror film The Host in my previous article about why you should start watching Korean Movies and Tv Shows

But we can’t talk about monster movies without mentioning this one. This one is special. Not just because it’s an excellent horror entry, but because of the drama elements it carries along beautifully throughout its whole runtime. Here the introduction starts with the creation of the monster itself. The good old-fashioned chemicals in the water scenario works extremely well here (I also very much liked it in Eight Legged Freaks). Only then do we get to know the main characters the story revolves around. The movie - quite unexpectedly - introduces us to the fully evolved monster right at the beginning, and we get the beautifully choreographed - and scary - beach scene. The way they used all of the previously mentioned tools here is beyond amazing. Not only does Bong Joon Ho manage to introduce us to the protagonists, but he also establishes and creates the rules of the antagonist while giving us one of the most intense scenes of the whole movie. 

The famous scene from the movie where our protagonist gets taken by the monster

The threat does not wait to show up; it is thrown in our faces right at the very beginning. But The Host is much more than just a very cleverly made horror movie; it is also an amazing drama. It has a perfect balance between the two which is very hard to do properly. You feel for these characters on a very deep level because they are so grounded in reality. You are scared for them, cry with them, mourn with them. 

This was my introduction to Bong Joon Ho’s work, and if you haven’t watched Parasite yet, I recommend that you start with this one too. 

  1. A Quiet Place (2018)

I never thought that John Krasinski would ever be able to surprise me this much. I don’t think any of us did. But he barged in, wrote this amazing story (with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck), directed it, and starred in it. All three in one. 

He was always the funny guy for me, not the master of tension and horror, yet here we are. I had a conversation with my friend, Katie, and I observed that this was the monster film I was waiting for since Alien. That's high praise coming from me as I think I made it very clear that Alien is THE monster movie in my books. The opening for this first movie is simply masterful. John Krasinski didn’t waste any time establishing what we will experience. 

A Quiet Place gave me one of those perfect cinema experiences. I’m not overexaggerating when I say that this movie pulled everyone into its world so much that it was dead silent throughout the whole 90 minutes run time. Something that we all know rarely happens. There’s always someone chewing loudly or talking. Not with this one. 

Krasinski, with the very first shot, warned us all not to say a word. You can’t. One word to your friend on the left, or popcorn in your mouth, and you’re done for good. It was perfect world-building. We know the day, we see the state of the world, and we get introduced to the threat in the first 10 minutes. That’s when the movie proved that it will NOT be merciful to anyone in it. And it was all you needed to know that you are in for a wild ride. There’s a quieter part in the film where we witness their new dynamic, the drama that’s going on between the protagonists, and it is more than enough for people to connect with them in a very special way. 

When the inevitable arrives into the story, it perfectly balances all its players while slowly introducing us to the only weakness of the seemingly unbeatable monsters. And when it eventually pays off in the end, it is one of the most satisfying moments in cinematic history. 

  1. A Quiet Place - Part 2 (technically 2020 but in reality 2021) - SPOILERS, SKIP THIS PART IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN A QUIET PLACE - PART 2 YET! 

Yes, the rare case where the second one is better than the first. For me, at least. 

If I was tense during the previous movie, then this one doubles down on that. 

Day 1. 

What an ingenious way to start the movie. The audience is already intrigued. Day 1, huh? From the moment Lee (John Krasinski) enters the shop, gets what he wants, then goes out to the baseball field, the warning bells already go off in our heads. I was expecting one of the monsters to start wreaking havoc every second. I was literally on the edge of my seat. We witness their arrival - a spaceship or asteroid crashing through the atmosphere - and as the people start making their way back to their cars, the feeling of terror grows bigger. We are introduced to Emmett (Cillian Murphy) in this opening, and it becomes important later on. When I tell you all that I almost jumped out of my seat when the monster crashed into the police car, trust me, I’m not lying. The perspective changes to Regan (Millicent Simmonds - who is actually deaf) and every sound is cut off so we can experience the chaos from her point of view. It’s brilliant. The whole opening sequence (I don’t want to spoil everything in it) is absolutely masterfully done. It is one of the best openings I’ve ever seen. 

Then the story picks up right where the first movie ended. The family leaves the farm behind and goes to the last remaining signal fire that is left in the valley. The moment they step down from the sand road Lee created, you just know that everything will change. 

John Krasinski doubled down not only on the action but on the drama, the tension, and the scares as well. We stepped out of the quiet world of the Abbott family into a whole different one. The way he lets us take a closer look at how everything changed for other people as well is something that many before got wrong when it comes to second movies. Obviously, because of the success of the first one, second movies usually work with a bigger budget which can prompt directors to go big or go home. Krasinski didn’t do that. Sure, there is even more action in this one, but it still never loses focus on what’s important; hope. 

I loved how Emmett was shown at the beginning to be this rude, grieving man that slowly got turned around when he went after Regan. By the end of the film, he is a changed man, someone who dares to hope for the better thanks to those who arrived unexpectedly into his life. 

Kudos to both Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe (Marcus Abbott); they both portrayed their characters beautifully. I loved the subtle change they went through as well, how Marcus faced his fears and Regan stepped into her father’s footsteps. 

I loved the first movie, but I love the second entry even more. Beautifully done and the monsters are still scary as hell. 

 

Honorable mentions: 

Aliens (1986) - the only reason it isn’t among the previously mentioned six films is that I consider James Cameron’s movie more like an action film than a horror movie. It is in fact my favorite movie out of the Alien franchise, but it definitely focuses more on the action than the scares. 

Grabbers (2012) - this brilliant Irish film made me laugh so much. It does have a few scary moments, but just like Tremors they definitely went more in the direction of comedy. The monsters created for the film were brilliantly done. I highly recommend this movie to those who like to have a good mixture of both genres. 

Pitch Black (2000) - also known as the first Riddick film. Vin Diesel’s iconic character became well-known thanks to this and prompted the creators to expand its universe. This first film - fresh knowledge for me as well so it’s fair to say I freaked out - also features the one and only Claudia Black. 

The Descent 1-2 (2005, 2009) - I was contemplating adding this one to the creature feature section purely because the monsters are actually humanoids in this, I would even argue that they were once humans. This one also quickly turns into action instead of horror, which isn’t bad by any means. 

 

And there you have it. Is there a monster horror I left out that you love? I was also thinking about Love and Monsters (2020) that I dearly love, but after giving much thought to it I can safely say that other than a few tense scenes it definitely doesn’t fit the horror genre. 

 

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