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The Invisible Man, Godzilla, King Kong: A History of the Movie Monster

What do all these things have in common? From the 1930s to this coming Friday’s release of ‘The Invisible Man,’ cinema has always turned to the terrifying and grotesque to unmask our own twisted nature.

Ringer illustration

“Normality is threatened by the monster,” wrote the British critic Robin Wood, whose essays on horror cinema helped make the genre a viable topic for serious scholarship. For Wood, movie monsters were manifestations of ideas or experiences that had been marginalized, made taboo or else pushed out of view; through their grotesque, exaggerated bodies and behavior, they put faces on what would otherwise stay invisible.

That unnerving concept of lurking unseen forces suddenly coming into view is at work in The Invisible Man, the latest remake of a title that dates all the way back to 1933 and the first wave of Universal horror movies that adapted literary monsters to film. In James Whale’s classic H.G. Wells adaptation, a scientist’s quest to render himself undetectable ends up causing his morals to disappear along with his flesh and blood—a theme picked up by Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 reboot Hollow Man. The twist in Leigh Whannell’s new version, which stars Elisabeth Moss, is that the title character is not the protagonist; instead, the movie adopts the point of view of his victim in order to better reflect contemporary anxieties about gaslighting and pervasive toxic masculinity—the monster not as a threat to normality, but a twisted reflection of it.

If the recent Oscar triumph and box office success of The Shape of Water proved one thing, it was that the age-old idea that monster movies are containers for deeper themes is alive and well—if increasingly self-aware. Looked at on a larger timeline, the best monster-as-metaphor movies are the ones that have gone about the business of being genuinely scary (or otherwise excessive in terms of imagery and humor) before presenting themselves for clinical analysis. Our favorite movie monsters, meanwhile, are usually the ones who don’t necessarily need to be deconstructed in order to be understood—one look tells us what we need to know. What’s interesting in surveying the history of monster movies is how consistent certain themes and images are even as the world around them keeps changing. As long as we keep thinking—or hoping—that we’re normal, there’ll always be something to be afraid of.

King Kong (1933)

The surrealists loved the original King Kong because the main character kept changing size: for a group of vanguard artists, the inconsistencies in Willis O’Brien’s pioneering, miraculous stop-motion special effects were not a bug but a feature. As an example of a movie using spectacle as an entry point—and a selling point—for horror, King Kong belongs on the ground floor of the genre cinema hall of fame: Circa 1933, there had never been anything like its star attraction. Plus, the way that Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s film turns Kong’s capture by a movie producer into a showbiz allegory is ingenious. The film is also the primal scene of the idea that the best movie monsters are the ones that allow us to reflect on ourselves. Even leaving aside the persistent and persuasive idea—riffed on by everybody from Quentin Tarantino to Kanye West—that Kong’s trajectory is a symbolic stand-in for an African American slave narrative (with Fay Wray’s blond-goddess object of desire deepening and complicating the fantasy), the way that the film emphasizes the dichotomy between the great ape’s physical strength and emotional weakness creates a universal identification that other films have imitated but never duplicated.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

“To a new world of gods and monsters!” toasts the madder of the two mad scientists in The Bride of Frankenstein. His declaration could double as a rallying cry for the Hollywood filmmaking landscape of the 1930s and ’40s, in which grotesques of all sorts were granted brand-name status as box office attractions, in the process vaulting horror toward a kind of mercenary respectability. Universal’s roster included Dracula and Frankenstein, the latter yielding the gold standard for sympathetic movie monsters in the form of Boris Karloff’s soulful, flat-topped abomination—less a “modern Prometheus” à la Mary Shelley’s original conception than a poster boy for a decade defined by depression and decline. The great joke of The Bride of Frankenstein, a direct sequel that integrates Shelley’s biography into its framing device, is that its namesake wants nothing to do with her prospective mate. Where Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was a lady killer—and as such, simultaneously seductive and sympathetic—Karloff’s Monster belongs with Kong in the pantheon of lovelorn misfits.

Cat People (1942)

The less-is-more mandate of the great B-movie producer Val Lewton was at once a rejoinder to the marquee-name approach of the Universal horror movies—films trading on the familiarity of high-priced movie stars in iconic roles—and a capitalization on the subsequent mainstream appetite for spookiness. If King Kong and Frankenstein obliged us to find ourselves inside their larger-than-life monsters, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People reversed the polarity to reveal—more metaphorically than visually—the predator lurking under the skin. In this case, it’s the silky exterior of Simone Simon’s Irena, whose psychiatrist tries to tell her (and us) that she isn’t really blacking out and turning into a panther whenever she’s horny—it just feels that way. The sexual subtext of Cat People isn’t subtle, but it’s still brilliantly effective, weaponizing Irena’s desire against the men in her orbit (and against us) without going all the way and showing us any kind of werewolf-style transformation or mutation. Besides offering a low-key alternative to the increasingly schlocky horror peddled by the studios in the 1940s, Cat People’s dabbling in psychoanalysis anticipates—however unintentionally—the “human monsters” that would come into vogue in the late 1950s and 1960s. It’s not hard to draw a line between Tourneur’s vision of a “normal” character repressing deeply embedded homicidal urges and the sick Freudian joke at the core of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

The Amazonian gill-man at the center of Jack Arnold’s blissfully brisk jungle adventure thriller is referred to as a “missing link” between humans and their amphibious ancestors, but in retrospect, what’s really being bridged is the distance between Frankenstein and Jaws, between a lovable outsider and an underwater apex predator. There’s little doubt that Steven Spielberg borrowed some of Creature’s gliding underwater camerawork in Jaws opening sequence, while Guillermo del Toro’s borrowings in The Shape of Water were even more brazen—his Oscar winner splits the difference between remake and homage, playing up the Creature’s sympathy to the point where it becomes sentimental.

The Thing From Another World (1951)
Them! (1954)
Godzilla (1954)

If you buy that the sci-fi craze of the 1950s reflected aspirations and anxieties around the increased role of technology in modern life—the embrace of innovative gadgetry, cast in the shadow of World War II’s heavy artillery and apocalyptic atomic endgame—then the decade yielded more than its share of rich texts. There was the UFO panic evoked in The Thing From Another World; the skepticism about military experimentation in the plague of supersized ants loosed in Them!; and, towering above them all, the massive, irradiated, bipedal metaphor known as Godzilla—an avatar of Hiroshima’s impact targeting first Tokyo but eventually destined to conquer the world. Watching Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, it’s crucial to note how non-anthropomorphized Gozilla is—his eventual rehabilitation into a cultural hero (in Japan and also the U.S.) would come with the demands of sequelization. The first Godzilla, though, is as nightmarish as King Kong minus the “beauty killed the beast” poetry—a portrait of a modern, technocratic society trying to level with and contain its own outsized and literally toxic byproduct, an ancient relic whose rampages visualize J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Bhagavad Gita quote in comic book terms: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The Birds (1963)

Jaws (1975)

Like a lot of key American genres, horror overwent an overhaul in the 1960s, with monster movies going into a kind of hibernation, at least as far as A-list studio productions were concerned; sci-fi and creature features were supplanted by musicals, leaving it up to the British and other resourceful foreigners to keep the genre on life support. Psycho’s portrait of knife-wielding deviancy was so definitive that other horror filmmakers could only copy it, but Hitchcock’s follow-up, The Birds, was singular—a movie about an unnatural phenomenon without a mad scientist in sight. Nobody knows why the birds attack the population of Bodega Bay; the literal answers aren’t anywhere to be found in Hitchcock’s purposefully and terrifyingly enigmatic narrative, which doubles down on Psycho’s refusal of traditionally likable, sympathetic heroes and instead focuses on the faceless avian menace of the title. By no means the first Mother-Nature-will-have-her-revenge-on-humanity allegory, The Birds nevertheless registered as something new in the early 1960s, smuggling a motherlode of nuclear terror into its images of an endless fleet of winged predators perched silently, ready to strike—one of the scariest and most uncertain endings in the history of cinema. A decade and a half later—on the other end of the wave of demonic possessions that revitalized horror heading into the 1970s—Steven Spielberg got a chance to play with his idol’s symbology, swapping out the sky for the sea and hitting the same primal nerve. The very best thing about Jaws is that the shark doesn’t represent anything: it’s just a perfect machine, a nearly indestructible foil for the resourcefulness of two beta-male heroes and their quasi-Ahab captain, who goes down even before the ship does. No movie on this list did more to change the visual (and musical) language of monster movies than Jaws, starting with the fact that it makes the monster real by not showing it to us—a practical solution to technical problems that also happened to be the first evidence of its director’s authentic genius for audience manipulation.

Alien (1979)

Even more than Jaws’ shark, the alien in Alien is a completely blank creation: It doesn’t get any point-of-view shots, and we don’t ever want to see things through its eyes anyway. When Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is being stalked through her escape pod in her underwear, there isn’t any of the vicarious eroticism you find in Creature From the Black Lagoon—you’re merely terrified at the possibility that this slimy, black shapeshifter will pop up anywhere in her vicinity. Enough has been written (and filmed, and recounted) about the genesis and genius of H.R. Giger’s half-medieval, half-modernist, fully disgusting designs that saying anything about the visceral poetry of the xenomorph, with its battering-ram skull, mouths-within-mouths and literally poisonous innards, is redundant. Alien’s achievement is taking all of those chintzy, cheesy 1950s invaders—all those endearingly phony extraterrestrials and plasticky misfits-of-science mutations—and repackaging them in one gigantic, bulbous-yet-streamlined outer shell. It also can’t be understated how perfectly timed Alien’s insistence on monstrosity was after the generally friendly creatures unveiled in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, crowd-pleasers that used special effects as tools of ingratiation. Alien isn’t having any of that.

The Elephant Man (1980)

If there’s a greater performance in a monster movie than John Hurt as the title character of David Lynch’s poetic biopic of Joseph Merrick—the severely deformed freak show attraction who briefly captured the Victorian imagination at the turn of the 20th century—I don’t know it. Acting underneath layers of latex, Hurt portrays Merrick as a fragile soul struggling to escape its cage. The reason it’s not erroneous to call Lynch’s distinctly non-supernatural film a monster movie is because it draws on the visual language of the genre—long shadows; dark corridors; a dread-inducing buildup to the reveal of Merrick’s face and body—and because it’s so explicitly about our collective fear of “monstrosity.” Instead of activating terror, though, the film works, to quote Roger Ebert, as an empathy-generating machine, vindicating Merrick’s humanity first in speech (“I am not an animal, I am a human being”) and then finally in silent gestures so precise and heartbreaking that they defy description.

The Thing (1982)

The Fly (1986)

The question of what early ’80s remakes like An American Werewolf in London (modeled on The Wolf Man) or Paul Schrader’s discotheque-decadent redux of Cat People add to their inspirations is very much open, especially in an era when sequels and remakes were often motivated purely by profit. Critics like Pauline Kael argued that as special effects were becoming at once more and less special—more state-of-the-art as well as accordingly overexposed—the true monsters were the studio executives plundering the past for intellectual property.

For his part, John Carpenter—who’d already invented a great human bogeyman in Michael Myers—decided to cash in on the early ’80s trend of expensive remakes of ’50s films. It’s a badge of honor, then, that Carpenter’s Thing tanked, not because it travestied its source material (Carpenter idolized Howard Hawks), but because its vision was so extreme. In the year that E.T. made aliens cuddly once and for all, The Thing presented nothing less than a tangled, tentacled mass of writhing, intestinal obscenity—copied a little bit from Andrzej Zulawski’s amazing, fully fucked-up psychosexual nightmare Possession (whose effects were actually by the guy who did E.T.) but still beyond most mainstream sensitivities and sensibilities. The Thing’s unremitting, frostbitten bleakness, and the way that its human characters—all dudes, all bearded, all clad in parkas that strategically de-inviduate them in line with the monster’s body-hopping M.O.—end up either tearing each other or themselves apart, is what makes it such an outlier even in a moment when gore was supremely profitable.

The only true ’80s contender to Carpenter’s masterpiece was David Cronenberg’s own ’50s throwback, The Fly, which took the basic outline of a movie remembered mostly for its queasy-funny catchphrase (“help meeeeeee”) and mutated it (mutation being the Canadian auteur’s specialty) it into a full-bodied, red-blooded romantic tragedy about a Dr. Frankenstein who turns himself into a monster while his lover watches helplessly. The Thing is gross, but The Fly is disgusting—an inventory of decay written on Jeff Goldblum’s body as Seth Brundle fulfills his accidental destiny as Brundlefly, whose WWE-style finishing move of vomiting hot bile on his opponents (poor John Getz!) was also a mirror for the revulsion it inspired in weak-stomached viewers. The difference is that where The Thing is a monster movie about evil that comes from without and hides within—and as such plays out as a chilly exercise in suspense and revelation—The Fly touches a hot, exposed nerve about our tendency to become the worst version of ourselves, and how much it sucks to be on the other end of that process. In the end, though, Cronenberg proves that he has a heart, offering up maybe the most moving self-sacrificial gesture in a monster movie since Kong put Fay Wray down to face the fighter planes alone. Sometimes, what truly makes us human is not our fear of mortality, but embracing it fully.

The Host (2006)

Cloverfield (2008)

The Mist (2007)

It’s not that the 1990s didn’t yield any monster movies so much as that the analog special effects that ran rampant in the 1980s went digital—and with them went a sense of gleefully suspended disbelief. Nominate Jurassic Park if you want, but I’ve always thought that Spielberg’s Frankenstein riff (complete with Brundlefly himself as an advocate for chaos theory) is too murky about its inner meaning: It wants to show us photorealistic CGI dinosaurs while chiding us about the dangers of advanced technology. Is the movie complex or confused? Anyway, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs look great, but most of the other digital creatures from the ’90s look crappy, which may be why The Blair Witch Project is the only really enduring genre classic of the decade—a movie that, in its own Lewtonesque way, keeps the monster in the shadows.

There are three early 21st century candidates for canonization, meanwhile. First is Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, which reverses Jaws’ prophecy by showing the monster in broad daylight in the first 10 minutes, but which is great mostly because of how deeply it understands Godzilla. The Host hits the same disaster-movie notes while satirizing them, and also gives its amphibious, carnivorous river monster a personality—Bong told me in a 2006 interview that the animators were inspired by Steve Buscemi in Fargo. And speaking of Godzilla, the bright idea in Cloverfield was to remake Godzilla through the (handheld) lens of Blair Witch, cross-breeding the putative realism of the found-footage subgenre, with its reliance on realism (and absence of spectacle) with fleeting evocations of old-fashioned, wide-scale urban destruction (instead of using the Empire State Building as a prop like King Kong, the movie signals its New York pride by decapitating the Statue of Liberty). By comparison, Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation The Mist was less trendy—in fact, it was downright old-fashioned to the point that its saga of a small town warding off extra-dimensional marauders was even released on DVD in a black-and-white cut. The highest compliment I can pay to The Mist is that it earns that nostalgia by cultivating a genuine sense of surprise at the things we see and how it shows them to us, culminating in the only authentically Lovecraftian imagery I can think of in an American studio movie.

The Babadook (2014)

Rather than relitigating “elevated horror” here, it’s enough to say that the purveyors of serious genre fare have mostly played things close to the vest: The Witch, Hereditary, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, and other titles are not “monster” movies in the traditional sense, and even when things in them get properly supernatural, their directors are driving, at least representationally, at ambiguity—and also more generally toward the theme of human monstrosity. One notable exception: Jennifer Kent’s acclaimed The Babadook, which reaches back to even before Frankenstein toward the angular phantoms of German Expressionism. The title character is like an action figure plucked from the display cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an elongated, elegantly creepy bogeyman manifested out of the psychic space of a single mother grieving her husband’s death as she raises her son. The unexpected meme-culture turn by which Mr. Babadook has been officially certified as a gay icon notwithstanding, he’s undoubtedly the most distinctive and memorable movie monster of the 2010s so far.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.