A couple of years ago for fun I posted a list of my “Top Ten Spook Movies.” Ever since it went up it has been among my most viewed posts and consistently one with the longest legs (it still continues to get many views, especially this time of year). So I thought this Halloween I would follow it up with a list of my favorite “Creature Features.”
First the disclaimers: I admit I cheated here in my rankings, deciding to rank the monsters themselves instead of the movies, that way I could get more films on the list before naming my favorite of each type. The majority of the creatures listed here are the staples of the 1930s and 40s iconic monster movies from Universal Pictures, but the others are no less famous. To me, monsters require the viewer to suspend their disbelief even more so than with ghosts, so creature films always seem to blend more easily with comedy (especially the zombies). Thus one might feel I have tainted the list with too many films that play for laughs. So be it.
Further, and related to that, you won’t find brilliant movies such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Alien, or Aliens on this list, because those films are operating on a much higher level than are the more campy and fun films I consider to be “creature features.”
Lastly, while I like my ghost movies with few special effects, relying more on the right combo of story, characters, camera angles and lighting, creature features by nature have to be more reliant on special effects. Yet, I am not a big fan of either gore or over-the-top computer generated imagery (CGI), so you’ll find my list is made up of classic films with good old-fashioned special effects and still often reliant on using the viewer’s own mind to create the chills and thrills.
So, without further adieu, here are my “Top Ten Creature Features,” all in carefully considered descending order and from the perspective of an historian and a film history buff.
10. The Mummy. The original 1932 film from Universal starring Boris Karloff was inspired by the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb and the alleged curse that killed ten of the crypt’s invaders within ten years.
(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself helped to promote the curse’s supposed legitimacy). The scene in which a long dead Egyptian high priest very slowly returns to life, leaving a witness laughing in hysterical fear, is still pretty chilling.
But at the sake of sounding sacrilegious to true film buffs, I have to admit that my favorite mummy film is 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Yep, I said it. True, it is more action/adventure than it is “creature feature,” the mummy ironically has way less charisma than Karloff’s understated version, the comedic elements are strained, and the film is very overloaded with bad 1990’s CGI. As Roger Ebert noted, “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” What I can say in its favor, however, is that the two leads are perfectly and charmingly matched, the opening scene, which establishes the legendary curse, is near brilliant, and the climactic scene when the high priest’s soul is taken away for eternal damnation, is still bone-chillingly cool.
Claude Rains is one of the greatest character actors that ever blessed a Hollywood sound stage, and he puts on a performance here (in his first American film) that carries the whole thing, although you literally never see his face until the very last moments! This one is played for some laughs (“here we go gathering the nuts in May!”), but there are some real chills as the mad scientist descends into sheer lunacy, and the special effects are still pretty amazing considering the limitations of the 1930s.
8. The Wolf Man. OK, if you don’t think Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is one of the hippest songs ever written (and is there a better opening line?) I do not know how to relate to you.
The Lon Chaney the song references is of course the legendary “man of a thousand faces” that brought to life so many scary characters in the films of the 1920s and 30s, such as 1925’s Phantom of the Opera (which would have been #11 had this list been longer) and Quasimodo from 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Lon Chaney Jr. the song also references is of course the son of the great actor who went on to a good career of his own in horror films, most famously 1941’s The Wolf Man (which also starred Claude Rains). It is a solid film, tapping into a folklore that is actually centuries old and with a history not unlike that of witchcraft, and features some of the horror genre’s best fog-infested atmospheric scenes (and yes, “his hair was perfect”). It is weakened however by Chaney’s poor acting (I hate to say that). But I have to admit I like my wolf man in more comedic settings, such as the 1980s classic, Teen Wolf, starring Michael J. Fox (Yep. Listen, if those basketball scenes do not crack you up, I don’t know what to say about your sense of humor), and Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (with Corey Haim and Gary Busey, I mean come, on, what an 80s combo!) As Roger Ebert noted, Silver Bullet “is either the worst movie ever made from a Stephen King story, or the funniest.”) But I especially love John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981), my vote for the best of the wolf man movies. The film is just the right mix of humor (yes, that’s the dude from the old Dr. Pepper commercials) and very real horror. The special effects in the transformation scenes are still pretty amazing. There’s no way any CGI has ever topped it. “Huh! Draw blood.”
7. The Thing. Here’s one of only two aliens to make my list, both of which are products of the early Cold War and how things coming from out of the sky to destroy us were oft used film metaphors for our fear of Soviet bombs and/or commie spies within our midst. That trope led to many comically bad 1950s sci-fi movies, and some that are actually pretty good. Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World (1951) is one of the best, involving a crashed saucer, an alien recovered from the ship, and the threat it poses to Air Force crewman in an isolated artic base. (Yes, that is Gunsmoke’s James Arness as The Thing, but you can’t tell it).
James Carpenter remade the film in 1982, and it isn’t bad and actually closer to the original story because the creature can assume the characteristics of other living things around it. But it depends too much on special effects and “gotcha!” jump scares. The original is much more akin to a good ghost movie, because it is dependent on characters, lighting, and mood created by effective cinematography. (The scene where they figure out the shape of the crashed ship is awesome, especially if you get the chance to see it on a big screen). And don’t forget the film’s final warning: “Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”
6. The Living Dead. Ah, zombies. I must admit, I get a kick out zombie films, and that started one night in the mid 1980s when I stayed up extra late one Halloween night and caught a TV airing of the 1968 George Romero cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Based loosely on the 1954 novel, I am Legend, the film forever changed the depiction of zombies in film. Audiences had long been exposed to reanimated corpses, 1932’s White Zombie featuring Bela Lugosi for instance, a truly creepy and disturbing film set in Haiti. Or especially the Val Lewton classic, I Walked with a Zombie (1943). (See them both. Trust me. Lewton’s films in particular are masterpieces in the use of shadows and sound to create chilling atmospherics). In such films zombies were definitely creepy, but they were essentially catatonic, tied to voodoo practices, controlled by a master, and in the case of the Lewton film, basically harmless. In Romero’s hands, however, they became flesh-eating ghouls that can’t be overcome because of their sheer numbers and relentlessness. Yes, you can take them out by destroying the head, but there are always more. And more. And more. I still think they work best in comedies (with the exception of the first few seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead—man, what has happened to that once great show?), such as Zombieland (2009), the recent The Dead Don’t Die (2019), and by far the best of the comedies, Shaun of the Dead (2004). But in the end, my favorite is still Night of The Living Dead, which was confirmed when I got to see it on the big screen last Halloween. You can’t beat its slow burn beginnings (“they’re coming to get you, Barbara”) and the shocking ending that broke the rules of how horror movies are supposed to end. And come on, it features the best-delivered line of any creature feature movie:
And now on to the Top Five!
5. The Blob. Here’s the other alien to make the list, and this one is way more campy and fun, and yet even creepier. A very young Steve McQueen makes his film debut (as Steven McQueen) alongside the actress that played Helen Crump in The Andy Griffith Show, Aneta Corsaut, in 1958’s The Blob. The two are a couple of middle class teens in suburban 1950s America, suffering from all the same angst as the teens in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause (judgmental cops, WWII-generation parents and adults that can’t relate to or trust the troubled youth), except in this film the event that finally unites the divided generations is not the tragic shooting of one teen, it’s a gelatinous blob from outer space that devours townspeople one-by-one, growing ever larger with each victim it consumes. Awesome. There’s some truly iconic scenes in this film (do yourself a favor and skip the 1988 remake), especially involving the movie theater, and it was filmed in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (yes, that Valley Forge) in deeply rich and beautiful colors (looks great on Blu-Ray). It’s a ton of campy fun, with the Burt Bacharach title song, “Beware of the Blob,” setting the perfect stage. And remember, we are only safe “as long as the Arctic stays cold.”
4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Starting in 1908, there have been many movie and TV adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 critique of Victorian era hypocrisy and his examination of humankind’s duality. In many ways, the work is classic Freudian theory, but has made for some darn good horror. The most recognized version is the 1941 film starring Spencer Tracy, but trust me, the best is the 1931 version starring Fredric March. It’s a pre-code film, when Hollywood was able to get away with things that self-censorship wouldn’t allow in 1941. At its heart, this story is about sexual lust, and the 1931 version can tap into that way more openly than can the 1941 film. But that’s not the only thing that makes it better; the techniques and lighting used to achieve the transformation scenes are downright creepy and amazing, all the more so because of how subtle and yet still stunning they are. You’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how they did it, and it is way more convincing than any CGI could be. Further, while Tracy was an amazing actor, Frederic March’s performance in the role is far superior. The film captures you right away, with opening shots that are filmed to put the audience into Dr. Jekyll’s point-of view. It’ll mesmerize you within just the first few minutes of the film. It’s no wonder than when the 1941 version came out the studio tried to round up and destroy prints of the 1931 version. Thank goodness that attempt failed.
And now the Top Three!
3. King Kong. All hail the mighty Kong. I have a soft spot for the King because he was one of the first things that drew me to classic movies when I was a young kid. I was probably only 8 or maybe 10 years old when I first saw him airing on TV, and I was so transfixed that I went to my school library to find a book on how he was brought to life. Luckily, I found one (and the film section that I revisited many times) and learned about filmmaker Merian C. Cooper’s lifetime obsession with gorillas and the dangers and wonders of filming in the jungle. Released in 1933, King Kong follows a fictional director and his crew (based on Cooper and his cohorts themselves) famous for making the type of jungle documentaries that audiences at the time were used to actually seeing in theaters. What they find on the long lost Skull Island is well known, so it needs no explanation from me here. For me, the scene in which the native villagers (depicted in ways reflecting the repugnant racist stereotypes of the era) offer up a sacrifice to Kong, is the film’s most chilling moment (it’s use of sound is mesmerizing), more so than even Kong’s fights with other animals and his New York rampage. There have of course been remakes, in 1976, 2005, and 2017, for instance, with Peter Jackson’s 2005 version being the best of those subsequent films. Yet, as good as that movie admittedly was, I didn’t like how Ann Darrow stopped fearing Kong and connected with him, and I feel the CGI takes away the dreamlike quality that the original achieved because of its primitive yet highly effective special effects. The stop-motion animation, gorgeous matte paintings, and rear projection techniques give the film a surreal quality that I think is still fascinating to look upon, especially during his fight with the tyrannosaurus and when he surveys his kingdom from atop his mountain top. As Roger Ebert wrote about the dinosaur fight scene, “there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.” Damn right. When I want to see the King, I go to the original.
2. Frankenstein’s Monster (and his bride). Ok, you all know that Frankenstein isn’t the monster, he’s the doctor. The original story was conceived by Mary Shelley on a dark, cold night when she and her travel companions sat around a gothic fireplace and challenged each other to come up with the best horror story. Her gruesome tale of a doctor that tries to reanimate corpses via electricity/galvanism, only to create a destructive monster, was published in 1818 (she was 21 at the time) and is a classic that reads as a Romantic-era critique of the Industrial Revolution. There have been a large number of adaptations and derivatives of the story, but in my mind you need only deal with four of them. The starting point is of course the 1931 Universal pictures production, Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as the monster.
It’s brilliant in creating atmospheric mood, particularly in the grave robbing scene and the gorgeous reanimation sequences. And yet it was bested four years later by James Whales’s masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein. One of my favorite character actors of all time is Elsa Lanchester (she was always perfect in quirky or downright strange roles), and she does double duty in the film, playing both Mary Shelley in an interesting prologue, and the bride in the film’s finale.
But she’s only in the film a mere matter of minutes, as the real stars of the show are Karloff and Colin Clive (as the doctor), the special effects, and most especially, the set/art designers. Forget all the high brow film critiques that have dissected the film from just about every angle looking for hidden imagery and subtext, and just enjoy it for what it is; a great creature feature. (Dr. Praetorious is way creepier than the monster). After that, you’ll need to catch 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. It’s a major step down in quality, but not bad. Yet the real reason to see it is so that you can fully appreciate my choice for the best Frankenstein movie: Mel Brooks’ 1974, Young Frankenstein. The brilliant comedy aside, the film is equal parts spoof and loving homage to the three other films noted here, and really, all of the 1930s Universal monster flicks. A little while ago, my friends and I were discussing what comedy movies we consider to be cinematic masterpieces, and this was my top choice. Not only is it funny, but Brooks hits every right film-making note on what made the Universal monster movies so good, from lighting, to set design (many of the machines are the actual ones from the original films), to the use of sound and shadows to create the perfect atmosphere. It’s funny because it gets everything so darn right (and wow, what a great cast). Do yourself a favor and watch all four of these films as a marathon (none of them is very long), and then don’t forget to “PUT. ZE CANDLE. BACK.”
And at number one:
1. Dracula (and his various vampire brethren). Could there ever be any doubt who would be #1? His origins go way further back than any other creature, with precursors in one form or another in most ancient cultures. The most immediate vampire folklore dates to the early 18th century, however. Dracula himself did not emerge until Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, setting most of our current traditions about vampires, their strengths, and their weaknesses. He hit the stage that same year, and then found his way to movie screens by 1921.
The first real starting place, of course, is 1922’s unauthorized film adaptation, F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist silent film Nosferatu, featuring Max Schreck as Count Orlock. It is a super strange film that will give you the willies, all the more so because of its surreal settings, darkened edges, and jerky shutter speeds. As Ebert notes, “Its eerie power only increases with age. Watching it, we don’t think about screenplays or special effects. We think: This movie believes in vampires.” Then of course there is the film that Tod Browning directed for Universal, 1931’s Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi in his career-defining role and the film that kicked off Universal’s decade of horror film dominance.
As perfect as Lugosi is in the film (a role he played on stage even though at the time he could barely speak English), to me the unsung heroes are actors Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye (who were also in the Frankenstein films) as Van Helsing and Renfield. (Lugosi and Sloan’s standoff scene, as Dracula comes ever-so-close to getting Van Helsing under his spell, is my favorite moment). Lugosi played Dracula many other times, of course, but don’t fail to catch him in Mark of the Vampire (1935) where he plays another vampire. Anyone that gives away the film’s twist should be shot (or bitten), but this one stands out mostly for some super creepy use of sound, with a strange, unexplained low buzz/humming sound that will go right down your spine every time you hear it.
The 1931 blockbuster Dracula was just the beginning of the Count’s never-ending life in films, and there are many that I like, most especially The Horror of Dracula (1958) from the UK’s Hammer Films and featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing (LOVE that ending). I even really enjoy the much-maligned Francis Ford Coppola film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), with its scene of the undead Lucy returning to her tomb (after a night of gorging on babies) sticking with me in my subsequent nightmares. (I’ll probably see her again tonight after thinking about it).
I also enjoy more campy vampire films such as Roman Polanski’s 1967 The Fearless Vampire Killers (all the creepier because it features Sharon Tate only two years before her brutal murder), as well as 1980s classics Fright Night and especially The Lost Boys (wow, Corey Haim made this essay twice). Young Kiefer Sutherland was a sinister vampire in Lost Boys, and I love how effectively they used music from The Doors and Jim Morrison’s image.
But listen up, I am about to give you the best advice from this entire essay (consider it your reward for sticking with me this long). One night, set yourself down to watch Nosferatu and then follow it up immediately with Shadow of the Vampire (2001). Never heard of it? It stars John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, and Cary Elwes in a film with an incredible premise. It tells the story of the making of Nosferatu, with the brilliant premise that Max Schreck was so good playing a vampire because he actually was a vampire.
The two films fit together so well that you’ll easily convince yourself that you’re watching a documentary about Nosferatu’s filming, with the impact of making both films stay with you for a long time afterwards. Just trust me on this one.
And so there you have it! My Top Ten “Creature Features!” All of these films are readily available and streaming on many services, from Netflix, to Prime, to Vudu, all with very reasonable rental rates or even sometimes free (Vudu has Nosferatu for a 2.99, and Shadow of the Vampire for free. You can thank me later). You’ve probably already seen most of these, but see them again and make a great Halloween night of it!
And remember, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”