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.
Warner Bros.

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. 

Presented by

Chuck Bowen

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

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