Table of Contents
Most horror movies have a monster in them somewhere, even if that monster is human. But a classic creature feature takes deep, primal fears — the unknown, the dark, and everything that might be hiding there — and manifests them as grotesque beings that defy both science and nature. Some monsters, like aliens or vampires, are popular enough to form subgenres unto themselves and thus aren’t included here. In fact, part of the fun of creature features is their grab-bag nature. Depending on the film, the beast might be the bizarre result of an experiment gone wrong, the mutant manifestation of Mother Nature run amok, a folkloric creature brought into the real world, or something that’s beyond all classification.
Universal’s classic series of monster movies from the 1930s still stands as among the best the horror subgenre has to offer, alongside ’50s-style B-movie fun, ’80s effects showcases, and modern interpretations like Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017). The latter won the Oscar for Best Picture, ushering in a new era of respectability for the beings of the night. But a good monster still has the power to scare — and maybe even seduce — an audience, even in the cynical 21st century.
Here are EW’s picks for the 25 best monster movies of all time, ranked.
Over the years, Godzilla has evolved to become a protector of humankind, a beloved pop-culture icon, and even a friend to children. But in director Ishirō Honda’s original film, he’s terrifying — the massive, volatile personification of the nuclear bombs that leveled Japanese cities less than 10 years earlier. The trauma of war is ever-present in Honda’s vision, which sees citizens fleeing for their lives and cowering in the rubble of their homes. (At one point, a woman moans, “I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, and now this.”) Composer Akira Ifukube underlines the enormity of the threat with a simple, powerful score that’s influenced countless films — both genre and otherwise — and “suitmation” actor Haruo Nakajima set a new standard for special-effects performances in a molten-rubber costume that weighed more than 200 pounds.
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)
Pioneering director and gay horror icon James Whale outdid himself with The Bride of Frankenstein, a stark Gothic horror film that’s enlivened with electric jolts of wit. Whale brings a camp sensibility to the return of his melancholy monster — played, once again, by the incomparable Boris Karloff — that’s decades before its time, combining it with striking black-and-white photography for a deliciously macabre movie experience that hasn’t aged a day in nearly 90 years. Elsa Lanchester earned her place in film history with no dialogue and only three minutes of screen time as the beast’s eponymous Bride, a performance that was influenced by Lanchester’s observations of swans (“they’re really very nasty creatures,” she said) and made all the more bizarre by her stiff hairdo and foot-and-a-half tall stilts.
It’s the film that set the standard for all the movie monsters that would come in its wake. The look and tropes of James Whale’s original 1931 Frankenstein have become so iconic that even those who haven’t seen it are familiar with its imagery of mad scientists, hunchbacked assistants, and villagers waving pitchforks. Despite the significant challenges presented by his heavy, painful makeup and costume — the star spent hours every morning being transformed into the monster while wearing 13-pound boots and a metal rod in his back to give him that distinctive stiff, shambling gait — Boris Karloff still managed to bring a palpable soulfulness and sensitivity to the role. The resulting combination of sympathy and shock proved to be a potent one, and Frankenstein became one of the highest-grossing films of 1931, outdoing even Universal’s own Dracula.
“King Kong” (1933)
Although his screen debut arrived in the midst of the Universal monster boom, King Kong was actually the creation of a rival studio, RKO Pictures. He’s been just as influential, however, launching a sequel, multiple remakes, countless rip-offs, and a “MonsterVerse” franchise that continues to this day. But Kong’s most important contribution to the horror genre may have more to do with his creator, stop-motion artist Willis H. O’Brien, than the giant rampaging ape himself. O’Brien mentored another effects legend, Ray Harryhausen, who went on to inspire artists like Phil Tippett, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro — all of whom owe a debt to O’Brien’s pioneering work. Godzilla co-creator Eiji Tsuburaya also cited King Kong and O’Brien as influences on his giant monster design, meaning that Kong even helped conjure his own greatest rival.
Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel about a giant man-eating shark off the coast of New England brought the creature feature to the mainstream. Spielberg took B-movie techniques and executed them using big-budget studio resources, creating a new kind of movie that would become a monster in its own right: the summer blockbuster. The actual animatronic shark used in the film — nicknamed “Bruce,” after Spielberg’s lawyer — was notoriously shoddy, needing to be repaired and repainted almost daily during the film’s strenuous saltwater shoot off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. But in a good monster movie, it’s about what you don’t see as much as what you do. And Spielberg’s masterful filmmaking ensured that Bruce would keep scaring people away from the ocean for decades to come.
“The Host” (2006)
Bong Joon Ho has been an iconoclast since the beginning. His third directorial venture, 2006’s The Host, is a delirious, exciting, funny, and at times quite terrifying genre mash-up with a side of social commentary. The director’s longtime collaborator Song Kang-ho stars as the proprietor of a small snack shop who — along with his eccentric family — becomes ensnared in an international cover-up when his daughter is snatched by a monstrous fish creature on the banks of the Han River in Seoul. Like Spielberg before him, Bong makes up for technical and budget limitations with good old-fashioned suspense — although the creature here is much more visible than in Jaws, or indeed in most monster movies. We even see it in daylight, which is a bold move that Bong executes with ease.
“The Fly” (1986)
David Cronenberg is the king of body horror, a subgenre that focuses its frights on the flesh — human or otherwise — and all the gross and disturbing things that can happen to it. The Fly takes a 1958 B-horror movie (about a scientist who unwittingly fuses his DNA with a housefly during an experiment) and uses it as a launching pad for the kind of goopy, acidic, vomit-soaked terror that only the director of Videodrome could pull off. Jeff Goldblum gives a standout oddball performance in a career full of them as the doomed Dr. Seth Brundle, whose grotesque decomposition unfolds before the audience’s horrified eyes.
“Cat People” (1942)
Jacques Tourneur was a master of creating maximum suspense with minimal depiction. Along with producer Val Lewton, the French-born director made a series of shadowy, stylish B-movies for RKO Pictures in the 1940s, and Cat People ranks among the most famous and celebrated. The story, about a Serbian fashion designer living in America who’s burdened with an ancestral curse that turns her into a cat (or so she believes), was ahead of its time for its psychological complexity and undercurrent of sexual menace. The style of the film has proven massively influential as well: Tourneur was a pioneer of the jump scare, for one, creating a template that’s since been copied by countless horror filmmakers.
“The Invisible Man” (1933)
Following the success of Frankenstein, Universal brought back director James Whale for another entry into its now-classic series of monster movies. This time, inspiration came from English writer H.G. Wells, whose sci-fi novel The Invisible Man — about a penniless researcher whose experiments in invisibility unlock a sadistic side to his personality — has become one of the all-time genre greats. Whale’s touch certainly helped establish that reputation, as did Claude Rains’ performance as the mad scientist, which is made no less effective by the fact that it occurs mostly offscreen. But the real brilliance of The Invisible Man is in its practical special effects, which are elegantly simple in execution but still highly effective even in the age of CGI.
“The Invisible Man” (2020)
It’s rare to find a remake that holds its own against its predecessor. But Saw writer Leigh Whannell’s interpretation of 1933’s The Invisible Man benefits not only from a near century’s worth of improvements in special-effects technology but also from a fresh perspective. Whale’s original film focuses on the cruel doctor, while Whannell’s version shifts its perspective to that of his victim. Elisabeth Moss stars as a woman driven to the brink by attacks from her abusive ex, who used his resources as a billionaire scientist to make himself invisible — and, unsurprisingly, no one believes her story. The violence, when it does appear, is brutal and unsettling. But like the great horror directors of the past, Whannell understands that suspense is just as important as shock value.
“Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)
It took more than 50 years for Millicent Patrick, the head artist behind Black Lagoon‘s iconic Gill-Man, to get credit for her creation. And what a creation it is. Seen first as a clawed, reptilian hand reaching out from under the surface of an Amazonian river, the Creature is a triumph of monster design, a humanoid with the body of a man and the head of a fish, complete with fins and cold, faraway eyes. The monster’s unnatural stillness is part of what makes it so unnerving, but the movie that surrounds him moves at a brisk and exciting pace that blends jungle adventure and creature feature horror.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth was something of a transitional film for Guillermo del Toro, moving the Mexican-born writer-director from the bone-chilling horror of The Devil’s Backbone into a genre-defying, fairy-tale-inspired aesthetic that critic Roger Ebert described as “baroque organic” in his four-star review. That being said, the monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth are horrifying — particularly the Pale Man, a humanoid creature covered in folds of loose, almost translucent skin whose eyeballs are memorably embedded into the palms of its hands. Celebrated monster-suit actor Doug Jones portrays the fiend, as well as the long-limbed Faun who leads our young heroine into a subterranean world of magic and danger. But the real monsters in this film are human, as fascism and war hover in the background of the tale.
Stuart Gordon’s version of the Frankenstein myth by way of H.P. Lovecraft is extremely ’80s in the best way possible, taking the neon color schemes and splatter-rific sensibilities that defined the decade and combining them with black comedy for a thoroughly entertaining mad scientist picture. Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton star, the first of several collaborations between the acting duo and co-writer/director Gordon. Their performances in this gonzo sci-fi fest verge on camp, as does the movie’s Grand Guignol sense of violence. In a rarity for such an outrageous film, critics and audiences actually got Re-Animator when it hit theaters in 1985. It even won a Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the first and only time a picture with a gory visual pun about oral sex received such an honor.
“The Shape of Water” (2017)
A romantic view of monsters runs throughout all of Guillermo del Toro’s work, but it surfaces most clearly in The Shape of Water, a film that takes Gill-Man’s fascination with a human woman in Creature from the Black Lagoon and turns it into a consensual love affair. Sally Hawkins stars in a dialogue-free role as Elisa, a janitor at a top-secret research facility who falls for the amphibious humanoid trapped in one of the facility’s labs. In a sign of changing times for genre filmmaking, del Toro’s 2017 film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards — the most of any film in that year’s race — and won four, including Best Picture.
“The Descent” (2005)
We don’t get to see much of the Crawlers, a.k.a. the blind, batlike, humanoid cave-dwelling mutants who stalk a group of female friends on a spelunking expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. But that doesn’t dull the intensity of Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic nail-biter, which begins as a bloody exercise in survival horror before shifting into a nightmarish creature feature. Marshall deliberately separated the core cast and the actors playing the Crawlers on set, so the women’s terrified reactions upon first spotting one of the monsters on a night-vision camera were real. Audiences also freaked out about the film’s oppressive tight spaces and extremely effective horror sequences, giving The Descent its reputation as one of the scariest films of the 21st century.
“An American Werewolf in London” (1981)
Although they come from the same folkloric sources as vampires, werewolves are a rare enough presence on screen that they can still be folded into the larger creature feature category. John Landis’ follow-up to The Blues Brothers takes lycanthropic legends and spins them into dark comedy for a generation traumatized by Vietnam, following the adventures of two backpackers (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) who run into a hairy situation (literally) out on the misty moors of England. Effects artist Rick Baker won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for the film’s werewolf transformation sequences, which remain among the best ever created.
“The Mummy” (1932)
The Mummy is a lonely death rattle of a film. The inimitable Boris Karloff — by this point known mononymously as “Karloff” — stars as the ancient Egyptian Prince Imhotep, who’s brought back to life by an unwitting team of British archaeologists who read aloud from the wrong scroll during an expedition. But Imhotep is less concerned with getting revenge on those who disturbed his rest — although he will get around to that, don’t worry — than he is about pursuing a young woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love from millennia ago. The story has been told and retold several times since then (including in a 1999 remake with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz), but Karloff and director Karl Freund’s version retains a melancholy beauty that makes it the most haunting of the classic Universal Monsters cycle.
“The Birds” (1963)
Most of Alfred Hitchcock’s monsters are human, but the legendary director’s sole creature feature does for birds what Psycho did for motels. Tippi Hedren stars in this masterpiece of the Nature Run Amok subgenre, playing a socialite whose romance with a handsome lawyer is rudely interrupted by a gaggle of gulls (not to mention a murder of crows) who collectively decide to turn on humanity all at once. The inexplicable nature of the bird attacks — Why attack humans? Why now? Why here? — is essential to the film’s terror. But even more frightening is the fact that The Birds is based, at least in part, on a real incident that happened in the seaside town of Capitola, Calif., in 1961. Watch your hairdos, ladies!
Another icon of queer horror, Clive Barker is best known for creating the sadomasochistic Cenobites of Hellraiser fame. The monsters in Nightbreed are a more sensitive, misunderstood lot, an underground community of grotesque outcasts who stand in for the idea of a chosen family. Their kingdom is called Midian, and their fragile sanctuary becomes a second home for Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a mental patient who’s been dreaming of Midian for as long as he can remember. The Fly director David Cronenberg co-stars in a rare acting role as the sinister psychiatrist who invites destruction onto the community. Nearly an hour of Nightbreed was cut from Barker’s original vision when it first hit theaters in 1990; this version was a critical and commercial flop, leading to the creation of a restored 2009 “Cabal Cut” featuring around 40 extra minutes of footage.
“Ginger Snaps” (2000)
Released in 2000, the Canadian werewolf indie Ginger Snaps set the tone for a wave of feminist horror films that would follow in its wake. Katharine Isabelle stars in a career-making performance as Ginger, the elder of two death-obsessed sisters in a stultifying suburban town whose coming-of-age is complicated by a werewolf attack on the night of her first period. Things get bloodier, hairier, and more violent from there, forcing Ginger’s younger sister (Emily Perkins) to put her lycanthropic sibling back onto her leash. What makes Ginger Snaps so effective — and beloved — is its intelligence and sharp sense of humor, both of which make it a treat for the angsty teenager who lives inside us all.
The directorial debut of Steven Spielberg’s longtime producer Frank Marshall, Arachnophobia ranks among the best tributes to the unabashedly cheesy monster movies of the 1950s. Marshall clearly picked up some crowd-pleasing tricks from his time working with Spielberg, and the film is as nimble as well, a spider, as it dumps bucketfuls of creepy crawlies onto the screen. The balance between witty humor and monster mayhem is perfectly calibrated, with John Goodman bringing the laughs as a gregarious exterminator and Jeff Daniels providing twitchy paranoia as a small-town doctor with an intense phobia of all things arachnid.
“Troll Hunter” (2010)
Director André Øvredal broke out on the international scene with this fresh take on found footage horror, blending it with traditional Scandinavian folklore for a film that treats its whimsical source material with stone-faced seriousness. Comedian Otto Jespersen stars as Hans, an enigmatic hunter who reluctantly leads a group of student filmmakers deep into the frozen Norwegian countryside in pursuit of gigantic, man-eating trolls. As it turns out, every fairy tale these kids grew up hearing was true, and Hans is the only thing keeping the good Christians of Norway from being devoured by mythological beasts. Clever and suspenseful, it’s escapist entertainment at its best.
A zany, good-natured take on the B-movie creature features of yore, Tremors is a horror-comedy that strikes just the right balance between laughs and scares. Set in the dusty desert town of Perfection, Nev., the film features an eccentric cast — Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and country singer Reba McEntire — and a fun central antagonist: a race of giant carnivorous underground worms who are drawn to the surface by vibrations in the soil. Despite its tongue-in-cheek humor and impressive puppet effects, Tremors failed to take off in theaters when it was released in 1990. But it became a cult hit on home video, spawning six direct-to-video sequels and a TV series.
“The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953)
Although Godzilla takes the crown worldwide, this 1953 classic is perhaps the best American film from the cycle of atomic monster movies that sprung out of the decade’s intense Cold War paranoia. Here, the big fella — identified by one of the film’s lab coat clad scientists as a “Rhedosaurus” — is freed from its Arctic prison by a nuclear blast. Once thawed, the beast makes its way down the Atlantic coast, eventually coming ashore in Manhattan. The scientific jargon is silly, and the acting is merely passable. What earns The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms its place among the greatest monster movies ever is the contribution of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, whose work on the creature’s final act rampage is a masterpiece of practical effects.
This folk horror-tinged blend of the slasher, fantasy, and monster movie subgenres marked the first directorial outing for legendary special effects artist Stan Winston, who entrusted the design and execution of the title creature to his team at Stan Winston Studios. The story follows your standard “kids at a remote cabin are picked off one by one by an unseen threat” plot. But the killer stalking our rude, horny teenagers is like nothing you’ve ever seen before; it’s a backwoods beast with an oversized head (thus the name) and long, webbed fingers, whose bizarre appearance blends with the film’s eerie tone for a perfect Halloween seasonal treat.