Why Aren't Movie Monsters Terrifying Anymore?

History's greatest on-screen creatures embodied specific human fears. With luck, Gareth Edwards's Godzilla will save us from today's glut of bland, interchangeable CGI beasts.
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Over the past decade or so, the rise of Twilight and Transformers and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Marvel film franchises have ensured that moviegoers will see a sprinkling of werewolves, giant robots, giant bugs, dragons, and all the other usual suspects reliably on cue every weekend in the summer, and on many other release dates throughout the year.

But when’s the last time you saw an American movie monster that really lingered in your mind? And what was the last monster to really stick in the pop-cultural consciousness?

As many critics have noted, most recently in response to the release of the tepidly received Amazing Spider-Man 2, miracles come cheap in corporatized American movies these days. Which is why the recent and almost defiantly moody trailers for Gareth Edwards’s forthcoming Godzilla are encouraging. This film promises a monster you’ll actually remember five minutes after the end credits, whose scariness comes from its knack for targeting deep-seated human discomfort, not its overwhelming multitude of ornate CGI features.

As monster marketing goes, the Godzilla trailers’ presentation of the titular creature is unusually cavalier. Rather than playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, these trailers show us the monster up front, assuring us that the film’s real star is only a slight modernization of the giant fire-breathing colossus with which we’re all familiar.

Though controversially tubbier than its cinematic Japanese grandpa, this Godzilla is still unmistakably Godzilla; the filmmakers haven’t attempted to render it “realistic” in the forgettable mold of the decidedly T-Rex-esque beastie that charged through Roland Emmerich’s misbegotten 1998 film. No, the new monster is just that: an operatic monster with the wonderfully, irrationally hunched human gait and the recognizable stegosaurus spikes jutting out of its back. The new film’s trailers implicitly promise to restore Godzilla as a terrifying being of majesty, rather than as just another animated creepy-crawly. (And, sure enough, some early reviews confirm it: As the Associated Press's Jessica Herndon writes, "When we finally see Godzilla—just shy of an hour into the film—the anticipation has built to such a degree that we expect to be awe-struck. And we are.")

The need for such reassurance is a symptom of the problem with contemporary American movie monsters. Monsters used to predominantly figure into, logically, horror films, but today, they’re everywhere—both in “monster movies” and in non-monster movies, and they aren’t even usually the primary focuses of these films. Rather, they’re reduced to set (or set-piece) window dressing.

For example: With the exception of The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, a creature of real tragic stature, do you recall the specifics of any of the various monsters to appear in any of these series, other than perhaps the Transformers, which have been around for ages as toys? The werewolves of the Twilight sequels and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, were mostly memorable for the harmlessly pixelated poses they struck compared to the savage lycanthropes of past classics such as An American Werewolf in London or The Howling.

This neutered computer tent-pole syndrome is most obvious in the contemporary zombie film, which reached its demoralizing zenith in last year’s World War Z. This adaptation of Max Brooks’s unsettling global horror novel scrapped most of the source material’s haunting subtext so as to emphasize marauding armies of the undead that were so clearly the product of generically composed ones and zeroes that they resembled, oddly, the grain you might find on the images of problematically restored older films. Those zombies were scrubbed of personality just as efficiently as they’d been robbed of any potentially unsettling thematic point.

Even the filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro—an almost solitary hero of the modern monster movie, not to mention a specialist to rival Ray Harryhausen in designing creatures with pathos and texture—recently stumbled with Pacific Rim, a versus film that featured murkily lit inter-dimensional warlords composed of interchangeably vague tentacles and horns and scales. 

Perhaps most discouragingly, though, American cinema’s monsters bear little metaphorical connection to the theme and intent of the rest of the film to which they belong—a connection that is the cornerstone of a great monster.

Take director James Whale’s Frankenstein for an example of how to handle such an endeavor correctly. As imagined by Whale, actor Boris Karloff, and a variety of other technicians, Frankenstein’s monster resembles a human battery, with two plugs memorably sticking out of its neck for handy recharge. This design functions as a ghoulish joke as well as a succinct illustration of the egotism of Frankenstein’s determination to render humanity quantifiably mechanical.

Or take, say, the original King Kong: As troubling as its racial and colonialist politics are, the giant ape remains amazing precisely for how explicitly it conjures white fears of the destructive wrath spurred by an entitled urge to suppress and gentrify. The creakiness of the special effects only underline Kong’s thrilling tangibility—an idea that’s lost on the creators of most modern weightless computer-animated creatures.

Or consider the alien of Alien—probably the most viscerally terrifying and memorable of all movie monsters—created by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who died this week at age 74. The titular alien sports a look that’s more than just gross: The humanoid praying mantis structure, coupled with a double set of jaws that suggests the hidden teeth of the myth of vagina dentata, complements the general tone of sexual hysteria that also informs the film’s explicit rape imagery and fallopian set design.

There are still monster filmmakers who do memorable, original work, but they often aren’t able to significantly command American pop culture’s attention. Del Toro’s Hellboy films bustle with beautifully rendered monsters that are terrifying while nevertheless commanding our empathy with implications of personal lives we’ll never understand. Those movies were largely ignored, however, among the noise of bigger, more reliable flicks.

Splice, directed by Vincenzo Natali and executive produced by Del Toro, featured the rare contemporary monster-as-metaphor. As played by Delphine Chanéac, “Dren” resembles a gorgeous bald supermodel, only with too-wide eyes, hooves, and a variety of other exceptionalities. Created for the usual exploitive mad scientist movie reasons, and eventually diddled by one of its creators before taking its sexual power and identity into its own hands, Dren parodies the misogynist notion of attractive women as objective “others.” Its black widow connotations, particularly a tail that comes to a scorpion-stinger point, complement the marital sexual tension at the story’s forefront. But Splice was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream film community.

Predictably, the overarching problem with the modern movie monster is that American pop culture is so saturated with franchises—which aren’t operating systems that typically thrive on empathy, metaphor, or textural specificity. Would something as quietly violent and hopeless as Alien even make an impression on multiplexes now? The occasional breakout success of something like Paranormal Activity keeps hope, however marginal, alive that audiences are still willing to go looking for something stranger (or, in Paranormal Activity’s case, something that at least started out stranger), and thus spur filmmakers to want to appease that hunger—not for newness, but for awe.

There’s hope for Godzilla, then, because it suggests that it may be a franchise placeholder with at least enough care to restore a little mystery to a creature, once a poetic symbol for post-World War II Japanese despair, that’s been franchised and remade and re-appropriated countless times.

Godzilla is a borrowed beast with plenty of baggage; after all, the monster itself was originally a physical representation of the turmoil of economic loss and sentiments of hopelessness. But it may still be American cinema’s best bet for a monster that might implicitly express contemporary fears of catastrophe. Climate change, domestic economic collapse, a third World War, classist disenchantment—there’s plenty for the big guy’s new American handlers to work with, hopefully toward a vision that might actually inspire a tingle of communal horror-movie rhapsody. 

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Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen is a staff critic for Slant Magazine. He has written for Vulture, Fandor, and RogerEbert.com.

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