The first feature length films to include what are regarded as monsters were often classed as horror or science fiction films. The 1915 German silent film, The Golem directed by Paul Wegener is one of the earliest examples of film to include a creature. Following tradition the German Expressionist Nosferatu in 1922 and the depiction of a dragon in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen in 1924. In the 1930s, American movie studios began to produce more successful films of this type, usually based on gothic tales such as Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, both heavily influenced by German Expressionism, followed by The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Classed as Horror films, they included iconic monsters.
Special effects animator Willis O'Brien worked on the 1925 fantasy adventure The Lost World based on the novel of the same name featuring dinosaurs, the basis for many future movies. He began work on a similar film known as Creation in 1931 but the project was not completed. Two years later he produced special effects for the RKO 1933 film King Kong directed by Merian C. Cooper. Since then King Kong has not only become one of the most famous examples of a monster movie, but also is considered a landmark film in the history of cinema. The monster King Kong became a cultural icon, being featured in many other films and media since then.
King Kong went on to inspire many other films of its genre and aspiring animators. A notable example was Ray Harryhausen, who would work with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young in 1949. Following the re-release of King Kong in 1952, Harryhausen would later work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953. The film was about a fictional dinosaur, a Rhedosaurus, that was awakened from frozen ice in the Arctic Circle by an atomic bomb test. It is considered to be the film which kick started the 50s wave of “creature features” and the concept of combining nuclear paranoia with the genre. Such films at the time included The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Them! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula (1955) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). The Giant Behemoth (1959) was an unacknowledged remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Also during the 50s, the nuclear concept from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, along with real life historical events helped Japanese film studio Toho produced their first successful Kaiju films; Godzilla (1954) has appeared in 28 films and has become one of the most recognizable monsters in cinema history. Another Kaiju film from this time was Rodan.
A parallel development during this era was the rise of the Z movie, films made outside the organized motion picture industry with ultra-low budgets. Grade-Z monster movies such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and The Creeping Terror (1964) are often listed among the worst films ever made because of their inept acting and amateurish special effects.
After 1960, monster movies were less popular yet were still produced. In 1965, Japanese studio Kadokawa Pictures started their own kaiju franchise to rival that of Godzilla, in the form of Gamera.
Ray Harryhausen continued to work on a number of films such as The Valley of Gwangi (1969) while Toho continued production of Godzilla and other kaiju films like Mothra (1962).
In the 1970s, director John Guillermin remade King Kong in 1976. In 1975 Steven Spielberg directed Jaws, which while labeled as a “thriller”, features a large (but by no means unrealistically so) great white shark. The xenomorph alien had its first appearance in the 1979 science-fiction/horror film Alien, directed by Ridley Scott.
In the 1980s, monster movies like Larry Cohen's Q, the Winged Serpent (1982) and Ron Underwood's Tremors (1989/90) used comedy. Just before the technological revolution that made possible to create digital special effects thanks to CGI, the last generation of SFX artists impressed with the quality and realism of their creations: Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Rob Bottin are among the most remarkable names in the industry.
1993 saw the release of Jurassic Park, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton and directed by Steven Spielberg, which set a new benchmark in the genre with innovative use of CGI and tried-and-tested animatronics to recreate dinosaurs. The film was an enormous critical and commercial success and at one point held the title of the highest grossing film of all time. The success of Jurassic Park and its two sequels The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III made sure that dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor established themselves in the public psyche. The movies also helped generate renewed interest in paleontology. While thus films showed allegedly authentic dinosaurs which had been recreated by Genetic engineering and could be understood as science fiction, advanced contemporary animation technology made it also possible to revive mediaeval legends about dragons. The successful according feature film Dragonheart showed a friendly dragon who spoke with Sean Connery's voice.
Traditional monster movies re-emerged to a wider audience during the late 1990s. An American remake of Godzilla was made in 1998. The Godzilla featured in that film was considerably different to the original and many Godzilla fans disliked the film; despite that, the film was a financial success. In 2002, a French monster film Brotherhood of the Wolf became the second-highest-grossing French-language film in the United States in the last two decades. In 2004, Godzilla was temporarily retired following Godzilla: Final Wars. Director Peter Jackson, inspired by the original King Kong and Ray Harryhausen films, remade King Kong in 2005, which was both a critical and commercial success. In 2006, a South Korean monster film, The Host, involved more political overtones than most of its genre.
The 2008 monster movie, Cloverfield, while being much in the vein of classic monster movies, focuses entirely on the perspective of the human cast and has been said to look at terrorism and 9/11 metaphorically. The following year The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep was released. Here the legendary Loch Ness Monster is an actually nice, playful creature menaced by overly aggressive humans. The same year also the Lernaean Hydra entered the screen. Hydra presents a giant snake that like a python swallows its prey in one piece but which can likewise grow additional heads and then attack its prey from various angles at the same time. The British Independent Film Award winning film Monsters films, similar to Cloverfield, followed a story of a monster epidemic that was from the perspective of a human cast. Although not being entirely focused on monsters, blockbusters such as the The Avengers, Prometheus and John Carter included scenes that featured monsters posing as threats to the protagonists.
In 2013, two upcoming American blockbuster films will be inspired directly by the Japanese Kaiju films that feature monsters fighting one another. Similar to Cloverfield, they will be from the perspective of humans. These films include another hollywood remake of Godzilla directed by the Monsters directer Gareth Edwards that will be from the perspective of a soldier, and a film about soldiers taking control of giant robots fighting giant monsters entitled Pacific Rim.
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