The creature feature is one of the most enduring subgenres in horror.
This week, one of the biggest creatures of all is returning to screens – the Megalodon – in the Ben Wheatley-directed sequel to 2018’s delightfully silly The Meg. But it isn’t just going into the water that audiences should be afraid of, as the movies have taught us that nowhere is safe from attacks by very real beasts from the animal kingdom, or otherworldly creations with a taste for blood.
There are countless films in this genre to choose from, but as of this very moment, here are our picks for the 10 greatest creature features of all.
10. The Shape Of Water (2017)
A creature feature doesn’t necessarily have to be horror, which was effortlessly proved by Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker obsessed with movie monsters from mythical beasts to Kaiju, in this most unlikely of Best Picture winners.
Yes, it’s now widely remembered as the horny fish man movie, but it’s a much more heartfelt effort than any description of it sounds, following several of society’s outsiders as they battle with a government agency – a narrative that clearly struck a chord with viewers in the first year of the Trump Presidency.
More importantly, it was a reminder that classic monster movies were quieter, more personal movies for their creators than the horror-filled scare fests the genre would later become. In that sense, The Shape Of Water is far closer to the likes of Bride Of Frankenstein than its other contemporaries.
9. Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)
Who would have thought that a musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s cheap, schlocky plant horror would not only eclipse its source material, but stand the test of time as a beloved comedy, and not just a cult oddity?
Frank Oz’s film remains every bit as deranged now as it did upon release nearly 40 years ago, although it only truly becomes an all-timer creature feature in the much bleaker director’s cut. An unstoppable Audrey II growing until she consumes all of the Earth? There are few horror villains quite as powerful as that.
8. The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s take on the classic Universal Monster Movie was the ultimate subversion of everything audiences had come to expect from the genre – which, coming hot on the heels of Psycho, proved how much fun he had playing with horror conventions at this point in his career.
No explanation is given as to why the village of Bodega Bay is suddenly at the mercy of an Avian invasion, but that mystery is besides the point. The Master of Suspense knew that an unknowable motivation would make his thriller more terrifying than its premise may sound on paper; how are you supposed to make a plan for survival when the attacks are so seemingly irrational?
7. An American Werewolf In London (1981)
Yes, the transformation sequences are all-timers – there’s a reason this won the inaugural Oscar for Best Make-Up – but that’s far from the only reason why this bloodiest of horror comedies deserves to rank highly in any list of the great creature features.
A gruesome spin on the classic fish-out-of-water narrative template, many critics have come to interpret the film as an allegory for otherness; the anxiety of being an outsider in an unfamiliar town. To mark the film’s 35th anniversary, Rolling Stone even did a deep dive into how the film appeared to be a deeply personal satire for writer/director John Landis, with the werewolf in London acting as a metaphor for his own anxieties as a Jewish man.
Did this Werewolf bite off more than it could chew when it came to throwing this weighty theme into the mix? Possibly – but it’s the creature features that offer food for thought which hold up the best, and this may be the secret as to why it remains a fixture in the modern horror canon.
6. The Thing (1982)
Released as a would-be summer blockbuster in June 1982, John Carpenter’s The Thing was understandably a box office bomb upon release. As warm weather started to take a hold, why would audiences want to take a nihilistic trip to Antarctica, where a group of researchers get picked off one-by-one by a shape shifting alien?
40 years later, and Carpenter’s film has been widely re-evaluated as one of the finest films in its genre, celebrated for the very reason it was initially rejected; how it takes the the narrative template of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery And Then There Were None and reinvents it as a paranoid, cold-blooded horror.
5. Godzilla (1954)
For decades, the only version of Godzilla distributed internationally was a heavily edited version that diluted much of what made Ishirō Honda’s film powerful. If you’d seen that cut, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was just another generic monster movie unworthy of its cultural status, and not a powerful allegory for Japan’s societal anxieties in the years following Hiroshima.
It took until 2004 for the original version of the movie to find a legal release in the Western world, long after Hollywood had reimagined the Kaiju as an archetypal movie monster, and it was a belated introduction to one of the most thoughtful of all creature features. Forget Godzilla himself – this is a movie that finds its true horror in its powerful metaphor.
4. Alien (1979)
The second paranoid horror that strands a crew of workers in a remote location with a menacing extra-terrestrial threat on this list, Alien remains a high watermark of science fiction-inflected scares because its as stripped back as the genre can possibly be.
That simplicity is precisely why so much remains unnerving to this day – well, maybe not fully, as the Xenomorph is the kind of horrible, instantly iconic creation that transformed this nihilistic space slasher into a full-blown blockbuster.
3. Jaws (1975)
With our most sincere apologies to The Meg 2: The Trench, no filmmaker has ever made a shark movie quite as thrilling as Steven Spielberg’s breakout blockbuster.
One of the key reasons why is because he understood that the audience’s idea of its monster would be much scarier than anything he’d be able to depict on a shoestring budget. After years of seeing killer sharks being conjured up via special effects, nothing has proved scarier than the thought of an unknown menace stalking the water beneath us.
2. The Fly (1986)
Even when there’s no monster in sight, David Cronenberg’s icky body horrors can feel like creature features, where everything from TV sets to typewriters can become living, breathing organisms.
His purest addition to that genre is also one of its defining films; a loose remake of a 50s monster movie where the emphasis was placed entirely on the monstrous transformation, subtly altering the genre’s DNA alongside that of his tragic protagonist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum).
Jurassic Park (1993)
Movie fans have long debated as to what Spielberg’s definitive creature feature is: Jaws or Jurassic Park? Perhaps controversially, we’ve opted for the latter, a movie which updated the sheer thrills of the classic 1950s monster movie for the age of the world-beating blockbuster.
Loosely adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park represented a major turning point for large-scale summer movies, which were increasingly pivoting towards becoming special effects-driven extravaganzas. But as awe-inspiring as it is seeing dinosaurs being brought back to life before our very eyes, the movie has endured due to its ragtag band of human characters: you can’t build a decades-spanning franchise without those.
The Meg 2: The Trench is in UK cinemas from Friday.