From a certain perspective, monster movies might not seem to be as relevant during monstrous times. But in an age when our fears seem larger than life and the world constantly seems as though it’s on the brink of collapse, the best examples of the genre can almost assume a documentary-like authenticity, reflecting our reality as vividly as vérité ever could.
“The Babadook” might be about a demon that pops out of a children’s book, but no recent film does a better job of capturing the acute reality of living with grief. “Cloverfield” follows a gaggle of pre-Instagram model millennials as they’re chased around Manhattan by a bug-eyed colossus, but few of the somber post-9/11 dramas do a better job of distilling the heartsick chaos of watching your hometown try to make sense of a senseless attack. “The Village” is pretty much just two hours of Joaquin Phoenix cos-playing “Our Town,” but even M. Night Shyamalan’s cameo can’t distract from a powerful cinematic parable about the consequences of surrendering to the things that scare us.
Here are IndieWire’s picks for the 15 Best Monster Movies of the 20th Century.
15. “Spring” (2015)
Unfolding like “Before Sunrise” and “An American Werewolf in London” were spliced together by a mad scientist, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “Spring” is a cautionary tale about the perils of falling in love with a sultry stranger during an impromptu getaway to the Adriatic Sea. Sure, the fling could work out just fine, but there’s also a chance — however slight — that she might be a 2,000-year-old mutant shapeshifter cursed to spend eternity impregnating herself with the sperm of random victims in order to prevent turning into an octopus… or something. Honestly, the mythology behind Nadia Hilker’s man-eating character is hard to keep straight, but her unstable genetic situation opens the door to all sorts of pungently vivid practical effects (the best of which involve some very slimy tentacles), and the actress plays the deeply conflicted chimera with such incredible conviction that you can’t wait to see what awful thing she might transform into next. —David Ehrlich
14. “Monsters” (2010)
But what does the world look like after the alien invasion? After the fire in the sky, the interlopers arriving, the attack, the war, the fall? After, well, the monsters arrive and make something even more terrifying than the seeming worst — global war — their raison d’être: They ain’t leaving. In Gareth Edwards’ feature debut, we open on a world forever changed by the previous arrival of those titular monsters, long after the battles have been fought and lost, but not nearly long enough for anyone to forget what the world was like before. Stuck between the U.S. and Mexico — talk about a border control issue — the quarantined zone is a fearful reminder of everything people still don’t know, and everything that could be threatened. As seemingly cliched characters like The Cynical Reporter (Scoot McNairy) and The Silly Rich Girl (Whitney Able) are tossed together, the full scope of the terror and fear blossoms, made all the more jarring by what we already know, that the monsters are real. Part adventure story, part nightmare, “Monsters” eventually flips back on itself, allowing humanity and its own flaws to be laid bare, just as our human characters are revealing themselves to be perhaps the last generation worth saving. The monsters light up the night, but the fear can’t ever abate. —Kate Erbland
13. “It Follows” (2015)
True, the monster that stalks Jay and her friends takes on a variety of grotesque forms and isn’t any one thing, but this is precisely what makes it so terrifying. What follows and haunts isn’t just something sinister and deadly, it’s the past. We might try and suppress our darkest secrets, but grief and trauma persist and force us to reconcile what we don’t want to face. “It Follows” has been described as everything from an allegory on sexual abuse to a commentary on STIs, but it also exposes the monsters we bury deep inside, which constantly threaten to devour and upset everything and everyone we touch. —Jamie Righetti
12. “Colossal” (2017)
With nowhere else to go, recent New Yorker Gloria (Anne Hathaway) trudges back to her parents’ abandoned, small-town home, hoping she’ll disappear; instead of achieving literary greatness, she’s spent her years in the city drunk, under-employed, and dependent on her boyfriend (Dan Stevens). Yet Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo has ludicrous plans for our heroine, who – like everyone – can magnify the importance of her own personal woes (we are our own worst monsters). If she sets foot in a local park at a certain time, a stories-tall kaiju mutant materializes in downtown Seoul; her friend-turned-employer, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), has a robot as his South Korean avatar. As Gloria attempts to make amends and take responsibility for her terrifying global footprint, Oscar bullies her into submission, threatening to end innocent lives across the globe. “Colossal” only made $4.5 million in theaters, which is regrettable, because movies about combatting self-loathing and misogyny rarely accompany such gaudy, popcorn-friendly visuals. -Jenna Marotta
11. “Attack the Block” (2011)
“Moses! Moses! Moses!” More than just a star-making opportunity for John Boyega or a desperately needed alternative for people who were sick of watching “The Ten Commandments” every Passover, Joe Cornish’s sci-fi delight is an alien invasion movie that earns a spot on this list by blowing a hole right through the usual genre tropes. The antic story of a South London street gang who find themselves warding off the end of the world from the upper floors of their council estate, “Attack the Block” boasts such a deep roster of memorable characters that it could probably leave the extra-terrestrial threat to our imaginations. But it doesn’t. On the contrary, Cornish leans into the challenge, whipping up a rabid army of space apes that are way too gnarly to keep off-screen. Covered in spiky black fur that doesn’t reflect any light, and fronted by rows of fluorescent blue teeth that glow in the dark, these creatures are almost as cool as the people who fight to stop them, Moses and his crew risking their lives to save a planet that has never never done enough to protect kids like them. —DE