Last week we discussed the Top 5 Best Horror Franchises, which almost exclusively fell into the slasher subgenre of horror films. This week we’re focusing on monsters of a different sort: creatures.
Let’s bitch it out…
Another subgenre (slightly less beloved?) are horror creature features, in which the killer is an animal or creature (or a combination of the two). The subgenre was popularized in the 50s when fears of nuclear warfare turned various innocuous animals and insects into giant threats to mankind (basically every Godzilla film ever, plus a bunch about ants). Over time creature features began to adopt more conventional horror tropes, though there is still something fun about seeing a crocodile, slugs, frogs and rabid dogs mow down a host of unsuspecting humans.
Now just to be clear, this list will not include any of the Syfy mash-ups like Piranhaconda, Dinoshark or Frankenfish. We’re talking good creature features!
- Anaconda (1997): Two words: “Baby bird.” Two more:Jon Voigt. And one final pair: Kari Wuhrer. Anaconda is basically a terrible creature feature featuring Jennifer Lopez and an unconvincing CGI snake, which is why it is so freaking amazing(ly awful).
- Jaws (1975): Still the gold standard of creature features, the only reason this film isn’t on the list is because it’s too obvious! Spielberg’s low-budget, don’t show approach is a hallmark of both the genre and record books, effectively jump-starting the blockbuster trend that still lives on 40 years later. Hate summer blockbusters? Hate on Bruce the shark.
- Lake Placid (1999): Betty White as an octogenarian racist guarding a family of giant crocs while leads Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda look miserable? Solid fun all around.
10) The Relic (1997): I’d be lying if I said that this was a great film, but it is a fun one. Overlook the awkward ethnocentrism (foreign cultures = weird) and focus on the bizarre giant decapitating / hypothalamus-eating monster rampaging through the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Throw in a (drunk?) detective Tom Sizemore, a semi-slumming Penelope Ann Miller and Linda Hunt as a no-BS museum director and this creature feature falls solidly into B-territory.
9) Deep Blue Sea (1999): Director Renny Harlin knows action and while the CGI in this super-powered shark film can be a bit spotty, there’s still a lot of fun to be had. The flooding facility provides a sense of urgency and the cast, including a “guns out” Thomas Jane and Samuel L. Jackson (channeling Sean Bean), make great Great White fodder. Overall the disaster flick meets creature feature premise makes for a surprisingly entertaining combo.
8) Rogue (2007): Just in case you ever feel the need to go on a river sight-seeing tour in the Australian outback, Rogue will help to squash your plans in no time at all. Leads Michael Vartan and Radha Mitchell lend the proceedings some credibility as the American tourist and Australian boat captain who face off against a giant crocodile respectively. Unlike Deep Blue Sea, Rogue doesn’t need big budget action sequences or super-genius creatures: the scares all come from the film’s masterfully controlled tension-building, particularly a memorable sequence when the group must cross a river using only a precariously tied rope.
7) The Mist (2007): It is entirely possible that one of the reasons that this film resonates with me is because the source material genuinely terrified me as a teen. There’s something primordial at work in the tale of a group of strangers trapped in a small town supermarket by a thick mist and the giant mutated creatures lurking within. As the terrifying attacks (including a memorable visit from acid-spewing spiders) nibble away at the group, another danger develops inside as religious zealotry takes over. As directed by accomplished director Frank Darabont, the film expertly builds to a final reel which takes the uncertainty of the novella to its logical and startling conclusion.
6) Arachnophobia (1990): No word of a lie, I know people who cannot watch this film. The trailer alone, particularly the shot of the cobwebbed barn, is enough to freak them out. While the 25 year old film looks a bit dated (particularly its costuming), the practical effects still thrill because there’s nothing fake about the creepy crawly spiders in the film. Much like The Relic, there’s a whiff of “foreign countries = danger” in the Amazonian prologue, but in reality this is much more about Jeff Daniel’s protagonist learning to not only overcome his titular fear, but also justify the primal fear humans have of things that jump off the shower head at us when we’re most vulnerable.
Ugh…I shudder just thinking about it.
5) Attack The Block (2011): This UK indie is arguably one of the least well-known films on this list, which is why it deserves recognition. Essentially the film takes the conventional plot mechanics of an alien invasion and moves the location to an underprivileged neighbourhood where the teens (many of them not entirely good) are the protagonists. The creature effects are distinctly unique (the aliens look like ink-blot bears with neon eyes) and events unfold in unexpected and grisly ways. Plus, if you’re into pedigree, director Joe Cornish went on to write this summer’s Marvel entry Ant Man and the film’s star John Boyega is about to blow up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Admittedly the heavy British accents take some getting used to, but the action is universal (and excellent!)
4) Pitch Black (2000): Vin Diesel is pretty recognizable now, but when he appeared in David Twohy’s underrated space film fifteen years ago, he was an unknown quantity. Once again starring Radha Mitchell (from the aforementioned Rogue) as a kick-ass heroine, Pitch Black begins as a sci-fi flick when a transport ship crashes on a planet with three suns and morphs half-way through into a bonafide creature feature as nocturnal beasties emerge during an eclipse. The film is lean and mean: the plot is basically just the group trying to make their way to safety as they’re picked off one by one. Diesel’s Riddick is the big draw here: his gravelly voice (used to perfection in The Iron Giant) and Riddick’s surgically modified eyes help him stand-out as the good/bad protagonist who is as likely to kill his fellow humans as help them survive. The character is so memorable that he starred in two (awful and shrugworthy) sequels. He’s never better than in the original, though.
3) The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s classic (itself a remake) may just be the perfect creature feature: the practical effects remain astounding to this day and the remote Arctic setting is perfectly suited for both the narrative and for the horror genre (The Thing is one of the rare genre film that embraces the horror of snow and the results are so compelling that I’ve never understood why other films don’t follow suit). Kurt Russell’s feather-haired protagonist is technically the lead, but really this film is all about the strange mutations that erupt out of the isolated scientists after they unleash an alien plague. The gruesome special effects used to craft the alien are exceptional and go a long way to making The Thing a bracing, claustrophobic and genuinely terrifying viewing experience.
- Side bar: if you want to compare the difference between practical and CGI effects, look no further than the 2011 prequel, which contains zero scares because of how atrociously fake its effects look.
2) The Host (2006): Before South Korean director Bong Joon-ho dazzled with his dystopian future “humanity on a train” English language debut Snowpiercer (my ‘Best Of’ film for 2014), he dazzled the festival circuit with The Host (not to be confused with the excruciating 2013 alien flick adapted from the Stephanie Meyer novel of the same name). The plot is fairly simple: when a strange mutated creature emerges from the river and abducts his daughter, dimwitted Park Gang-du recruits the members of his dysfunctional family to help track her down. What makes The Host so remarkable is its genre-bending nature, it is just as much a creature feature horror film as it is a family melodrama/comedy. Joon-ho’s ability to toggle between tones and conventions makes the film soar and – interestingly – the creature effects are exceedingly well-done, despite being entirely CGI (so perhaps it’s only Americans who suck at using FX?)
1) The Descent (2005): Full confession: The Descent isn’t just my favourite creature feature, it was my pick for best film of 2005. That is how much I admire Neil Marshall’s horror film, which manages to pack both scares and an ambitious character drama into a trim 100 minute run time. The film begins with an emotional wallop as protagonist Sarah loses her husband and child in a routine-for-horror car accident. One year later she and her friends reunite for a reconciliation spelunking adventure trip in a new cave system. Each of the women has her own unique personality, though Sarah, rival Juno and mediator Beth stand out most. The fact that the film is entirely populated by women is one of its strengths and the group’s camaraderie and competitiveness makes for compelling drama when things begin to go awry. Like several other entries in this list, The Descent doesn’t start off as a creature feature – the albino creatures that stalk the girls are absent for nearly the first forty minutes or so (some fans actually cite a perilous chasm crossing as the film’s scariest set-piece). When the shit hits the proverbial fan, the scares and gore escalate rapidly, but Marshall maintains an expert technical hand in staging and lighting the action (each woman has a different coloured light to help us identify who is who). Ultimately the film is tense, graphic and extremely frightening. It is not only the best creature feature, it’s one of the best horror films of the last two decades. It’s a must see.
That’s it for our creature feature countdown. What makes your list? Challenge any of the rankings? If you didn’t see your pick, it is possible it may land in next week’s list on Horror/Comedies (this subgenre lends itself quite naturally to laughs). See you next Tuesday for more Halloween Horror Nights!