Memorable movie monsters: coolest to cuddliest

17:27, May 14 2014

There's a new take on outsized lizard legend Godzilla poised to wreak havoc on screen and at the box office - and unlike the last one, from 1998, this one looks like it might be a decent flick.

Its acting credentials are impressive (it stars Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad and Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass) and it is being helmed by director Gareth Edwards, who knows his way around this kind of movie. His last one, Monsters, was as much about the human relationships at its core as smartly controlled suspense and Earth-threatening aliens, and proved to be one of the more satisfying celluloid surprises of 2010.

Gareth Edwards' Godzilla will hopefully obliterate memories of the disappointing 1998 take by Roland Emmerich, pictured.

We don't see much of Godzilla itself in the teaser trailers, more just the creature's destructive impact, so we haven't got much else to go on as yet. But in the meantime we turned to identifying some of cinema's most memorable monsters, homing in on the key reasons we can't forget them.

Like Bruce Banner (see ''Coolest''), Dr Hank McCoy is partly responsible for his own transformation into a ferocious if still heroic creature from the Marvel Comics universe. However, unlike the monosyllabic Hulk, McCoy's impressive intellect and ability to speak in eloquent sentences remain even when he's covered in the blue fur of X-Man tough guy Beast - which would explain the casting of Frasier himself, Kelsey Grammer, in the character's first celluloid incarnation in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Ironically, one of the prettiest male actors around, Nicholas Hoult, plays the role with and without the make-up in the franchise's last two instalments, including the forthcoming and much-anticipated X-Men: Days of Future Past.


He inadvertently spawned scores of deadly, terrifying little beasties, thanks to an idiot owner who didn't follow the rules, but there's no denying Gizmo from the two Gremlins films (1984 and 1990) is one of cinema's cutest creatures ever. More recently, Sulley from Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Monsters University (2013) has arguably taken the ''cuddliest'' crown. Not only is he one of the best scarers in the business, harmlessly collecting scream-based energy from children in our world to help power his world, it doesn't matter if you get him wet, expose him to sunlight or feed him after midnight, he always has a good, noble heart beneath that furry exterior.

Most intimidating
Judging from the tantalising previews for Gareth Edwards' reboot of Godzilla, his take on the giant mutated lizard should obliterate memories of Roland Emmerich's 1998 effort, which was more ''disastrous'' than ''disaster'' movie. Even the dozens of old-school Japanese Godzilla movies since 1954, starring men in rubber suits trashing miniature sets, have mostly been more potent than that. Gigantic rampaging monsters have lately been in vogue again with auteur Guillermo del Toro proving adept at staging clashes of skyscraper-high titans, if not getting a decent Australian accent out of some actors, in last year's Pacific Rim, not too long after the clever J.J. Abrams-produced found-footage flicks Cloverfield (2008) and Super 8 (2011).

Most talented
Steve Martin's scene-stealing dentist - himself a monster, of sorts - might get the biggest laughs in Frank Oz's 1986 screen version of the beloved American stage musical Little Shop of Horrors but how about the deep, soulful baritone on the enormous carnivorous plant Audrey II? That came courtesy of the late Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs, who spoke and sang for the character succinctly described in one of its songs as a Mean Green Mother from Outer Space. If you're looking for more talent in this shop, go back further: cult director Roger Corman's 1960 film, which inspired the musical, had a pre-fame Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.

As a great frog once noted, it ain't easy being green, especially when you have trouble controlling your violent urges, like those that scientist Bruce Banner has to deal with when he gets angry and transforms into superhero monster the Hulk. Mercifully, after the usually reliable Ang Lee went too cerebral for 2003's Hulk and Louis Leterrier made the slightly trashy 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk, Joss Whedon got the balance right in 2012's The Avengers (2012). And while Mark Ruffalo's motion-captured Hulk may have had only two words to say in that movie phenomenon, he still managed to steal many of its best scenes.

Most bad-arse
Some are good, some are bad, all are pretty ugly, but there's a good reason why some money-grubbing opportunist thought it would be clever to pit the titular characters of Alien (1979) and Predator (1987) against each other in two (admittedly awful) Alien vs. Predator movies: they're two of the meanest, most resilient creatures ever to pick off teams of good guys. Naturally, fantasy purists will scoff at such aliens, noting they wouldn't last five minutes with the huge, demonic Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, but that's fantasy purists for you. Meanwhile, on the side of good, many a tough-as-nails comic-book hero boasts a dark side but you wouldn't describe many as a monster ... except for the formidable, eponymous star of 2004's Hellboy.

A schoolboy error from Dr Raymond Stantz results in an unlikely adversary for New York City in 1984's Ghostbusters. While his ectoplasm-capturing colleagues doctors Venkman and Spengler manage to clear their minds when told the evil Gozer will take the form of the first thing they think of, Stantz is not so lucky - he instead tries to think of something utterly harmless. Moments later the towering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is stomping towards them, every gelatinous foot causing a mini-tremor. What little good to come out of Stantz's inadvertent thought arrives as a result of the Ghostbusters firing streams from their proton packs at Mr Stay Puft and toasting bits of him, which fall deliciously on to the street below.

Not technically a monster but impossible to ignore
OK, so dinosaurs won't be roaming the Earth any time soon, but they did once exist and the Jurassic Park films (1993, 1997 and 2001, with Jurassic World due next year) provided a convincing argument as to why their existence in the modern world would be a very bad thing. And while many a schlock-horror B-movie has given cinema-goers everything from outsized crocodiles to giant snakes, you can't forget that the original terrifying creature from the deep arrived in Jaws (1975), a classy, bona fide hit from one of history's great filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, with an iconic John Williams score for added impact.

Salma Hayek never really has to do much to look attractive on screen. By casting her in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) as Santanico Pandemonium, an exotic dancer who uses an innuendo-tastic python in her act, Robert Rodriguez scorched her image on to female-admiring retinas for eternity. Of course, Pandemonium turns out to be a ruthless, hungry vampire ... but nobody's perfect, right? For fanciers of the male form, fellas with fangs are probably also the safest bet to get hearts pumping fast. From Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise's slightly homoerotic adventures in Interview with the Vampire (1994) to Robert Pattinson's incessant brooding in the Twilight films (2008-12), it seems few can resist a handsome bloodsucker.

Most unpredictable
Well, we didn't see it coming. One minute Shrek was battling and dodging a huge, fire-spewing dragon on the way to rescuing Princess Fiona in his first, eponymous adventure (2001). The next, the fearsome creature revealed itself to be female and started making goo-goo eyes at Shrek's sidekick, a donkey it could literally eat for breakfast. That the film ended with Dragon and Donkey having a litter of smoke-belching, winged donkey mutant babies remains a cute moment, so long as you don't imagine how the parents managed to procreate in the first place.

Mainstream movie fans might wonder why the two production-company heavyweights financing the new Godzilla, Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros, dared risk a reported budget of $US160 million ($172 million) on a second-time feature director. If you've seen the first film Gareth Edwards made, 2010's conveniently titled Monsters, you'll know why. (And if you haven't seen it, you should.) Not only did Edwards realise he could make a terrific alien-invasion movie by focusing on a smaller human drama at its centre, his background in visual effects helped him stretch a comparatively meagre budget of $US500,000 to include the creation of some convincingly scary, tentacled aliens on his laptop.

Where do we begin? How about at one of the first horror movies, Nosferatu (1922), in which German actor Max Schreck gave such a convincing performance that some people believed he actually was a vampire. (See also 2000's Shadow of the Vampire, about the making of Nosferatu with a fantastic Willem Dafoe as Schreck.) We also have a soft spot for Robert De Niro's performance as the ponytailed, long-fingernailed Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart (1987). But the creepiest character in recent memory has to be the tragic, shocking Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). This is a triumph of motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis.

Most heroic
In the Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008), Eli keeps herself to herself but seems a nice enough girl, especially next to all the bullies who have it in for her 12-year-old neighbour, Oskar. Eli has a secret, though: she's a vampire. Few deeds are more heroic than helping the weak stand up to their oppressors, and when the bullies take things too far with Oskar, director Tomas Alfredson captures the unseen Eli's intervention with chilling, unforgettable style. Remarkably, the inevitable Hollywood remake of this film, 2010's Let Me In, wasn't too bad.

Hardest to get right
For all the attempts to reinvent Victor Frankenstein's monster over the years, it is slightly alarming to note that the now-cliched representation portrayed by Boris Karloff in 1931 - of a towering beast with a huge forehead and bolts through its neck - remains the most potent. Kenneth Branagh might have focused more closely on the source material for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), and this year's I, Frankenstein might have had the modern benefits of being based on a graphic novel, but for all their scars and patchwork faces, the monsters in these movies - played by such fine actors as Robert De Niro and Aaron Eckhart, respectively - barely raised a scream, let alone a decent review.

Most nightmare-inducing
Younger fans might bemoan the fact that every other film they want to see these days, from the later Harry Potter films to the average comic-book caper, comes with a prohibitive M rating but that doesn't mean the few PG-rated ones that slip through the net don't often result in a night-time visit to their parents' bed. Indeed, the original Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), climaxes with a particularly terrifying visage (or two), and was followed by the arrival of an enormous fanged reptile in first sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets a year later. The honour of the only celluloid character ever to give this writer nightmares, meanwhile, goes to ... a revered Australian ballet dancer. Robert Helpmann's Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) still makes us cry out for mummy.

Most likely to inspire a hit video
An American Werewolf in London (1981) did a lot more than merely spawn a music clip, of course. The werewolf transformations created by make-up genius Rick Baker for John Landis' horror classic remain a benchmark in practical special effects and won Baker an Oscar. It must be noted, however, that a lot more people saw Baker and Landis repeating the feat at Michael Jackson's behest in the Thriller video, an unarguable landmark in pop history. In the film, meanwhile, watching hapless backpacker David Kessler's various body parts stretch painfully under his skin and claws force their way through his fingers is arguably more terrifying than seeing the fully transformed werewolf on the loose in Piccadilly Circus.

Most tragic
Poor old King Kong. The massive gorilla was living on Skull Island in the southern seas off Indonesia, happily minding his own business (apart from terrorising the odd native) when who should blow into town but a greedy American filmmaker dangling a proverbial carrot in the shape of a beautiful actress. Next thing Kong knows he's in New York City, swatting away biplanes while trying to hang on to the top of the Empire State Building. It was never going to end well, and we're not just talking about the original 1933 classic. Even Peter Jackson, fresh from his success with the Lord of the Rings films, couldn't quite get his remake right in 2005, which might partly explain why he went scurrying back to Middle Earth a mere handful of years later.

Most gross
If King Kong's story wasn't sad enough, spare a thought for Seth Brundle and his girlfriend, Veronica Quaife. In David Cronenberg's magnificent The Fly (1986), Brundle invents teleporting, only for a pesky little insect to get trapped in his departure pod. Curiously, when Brundle gets out of his arrival pod, the fly is nowhere to be seen ... and we soon find out why. At first it's all fun and games as Brundle takes on the more exciting characteristics of the fly with which he has inadvertently spliced himself, climbing walls like Spider-Man and dancing on the ceiling like Lionel Richie, but soon enough parts of his face are falling off while he's shaving and he's preparing his food by vomiting on it, in front of Veronica. Let's just say the relationship doesn't work out.

Most versatile
There are two kinds of versatility here: the creature itself and the various ways it has been represented on screen. For the former, we're thinking of Medusa in Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version, not the disappointing 2010 remake). She shoots arrows with deadly accuracy, has poisonous snakes for hair and drops of her blood turn into giant scorpions - not to mention the fact that a look of her eye will turn you to stone. As far as cinematic versatility is concerned, look no further than the humble zombie. They lumber! (In George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its sequels.) No, wait, they run really fast! (In Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead.) They even make you laugh! (Well, in Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead they prove they can be the butt of some great gags.)

Everyone loves him again now, but between becoming a teen pin-up in 1984's Footloose and the pop-culture phenomenon of the ''Six Degrees'' gag/game 10 years later, Kevin Bacon struggled to get a decent lead role. His best in that quiet period was also his least likely: as the star of the terrific horror-comedy Tremors (1990), in which he plays the unwitting hero of a small-town community in the Nevada desert that's under mysterious attack from underground. For a while we don't see the full, enormous, worm-like beasties, only their destructive effects above ground as they speedily power through the rocky terrain and pull their victims down below. And it's pretty effective. Wriggle-wise, an honourable mention also goes to the creepy alien slugs of Slither (2006).

Godzilla opens on May 15. X-Men: Days of Future Past is released on May 22.