I thought I'd better do an end of decade post, but rather than yet another "best movies" list, I'm going to do something a little different. So here's a list, in no particular order, of what I feel are some of the most memorable screen monsters from the first decade of the 21st century. I gave myself two rules: 1. no cop-out "human monsters" eg. Patrick Bateman, 2. only unique creatures in the grand tradition of the great Universal monsters, so you'll find no "crawlers" from The Descent here. Not all of the beasts here are the stars of their respective films. Two of them only get very brief screen-time and one of them is technically never shown, but despite that, their presence made an indelible impression on me, and I think that with the passing of time they'll take their rightful place amongst the shrieking, putrescent pantheon of great movie ghouls.
This list strays into very mainstream territory, but that's irrelevant to me when it comes to this hallowed subject. Monsters transcend all filmic artistic and economic boundaries! It's interesting to note that despite quite a lot of research to refresh my memory, almost all of these films are from the latter part of the decade. It would seem that monsters are back in vogue. Also worth noting is that "Dren", the bizarre human/animal hybrid at the centre of Vincenzo Natali's Splice, would almost certainly have made this list if the movie weren't languishing in distribution hell. As it is she may be the first great monster of the next decade.
This post is dedicated to the memories of Stan Winston, Forry Ackerman, Dan O'Bannon and Chas. Balun...
THE BALROG - The Fellowship Of The Ring/The Two Towers (2001/2002)
My acceptance of PJ's epic adaptation hinged in no small part on the success of this sequence. I was not disappointed. As I sat in the hot, packed theatre on boxing day '01 and stared into the gaping satanic furnace of the Balrog's mouth, I knew that Mr. Jackson and his talented team at Weta had created the demon to top all demons. Lucifer himself would cower before the awesome might of this vision of Durin's Bane. A year later, in one of the most hair-raising of cinematic prologues ever, we were treated to another unforgettable sequence of Gandalf smiting the shit out of the Balrog with his sword Glamdring, as they tumble endlessly deeper into the chasm. Cool.
THE PALE MAN - Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
In a film packed with beautiful and shocking imagery, this sequence stands out as the most iconic and disturbing set piece. The whole thing is just drenched in a creeping, claustrophobic dread. You feel the wall seal up behind Ophelia and the sense that you are trapped in the airless, other-dimensional tomb of the Pale Man's lair is overpowering. Ancient fresco's depicting the cannibalism of live children adorn his walls. A banquet of poisonous looking blood-red food is laid out on the table before him and on a plate, sitting between his resting hands, lie his eyes, unseeing until he is awakened from his timeless slumber to feast on the tender flesh of intruding children. In a career full of amazing monster performances that truly justify his moniker of the new Karloff, this is Doug Jones' finest and creepiest moment thus far. It's the subtle physical nuance of Jones' performances that really bring his monsters to life, and with nary a sound to be heard here he infuses the Pale Man with a palpable sense of ancient menace and distilled evil. And it's really freaky when he bites the fairy's head off.
THE MONSTER - Cloverfield (2008)
I grew up on Kaiju movies in the '70s and loved Godzilla like he was a member of my family. As an adult I still love those movies, but unfortunately revisiting them now is more an exercise in nostalgia than an exhilarating experience. Enter Cloverfield and it's modern take on the Kaiju. I'm no fan of producer JJ Abrams and his hip, hyper-commercial TV shows, but with this old-fashioned creature feature he and director Matt Reeves really nailed the elements that made me love giant monster movies when I was a kid. Unlike most other "found footage" flicks Cloverfield really gives me the feeling - even on repeat viewings - of being there in New York City with a giant rampaging creature on the loose. And what a creature it is. Phil Tippett is a talented creature designer and this is his best work since Starship Troopers. Reminiscent of the weird bat-like creature from The Angry Red Planet, this beast has a believable physiology and really lives and breathes for me. I'd like to point out that I can't rewatch this without skipping the first 20 minutes, and crucial to my enjoyment of the movie is that the whole cast of insipid yuppie "characters" die horrible, violent deaths by the end.
THE PARASITE - Splinter (2008)
Not much needs to be said about this one. Toby Wilkins' Splinter provided hungry monster freaks with some great splattery practical effects and a cool parasitic monster whose intriguingly mysterious life-cycle harkens back to great SF monsters like Giger's xenomorph and Bottin's thing.
THE ANGEL OF DEATH - Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Notch up another one for Señor del Toro. The Hellboy movies are a veritable menagerie of fantastic creatures, not the least of which are the titular character himself and his aquatic buddy Abe Sapien. Guillermo really gets that practical effects still rule and in Hellboy II he used CGI sparingly to enhance the already stunning animatronics, puppetry and makeup. This incredible entity seems like she might be a distant cousin of the Pale Man, with her blind face and anatomically displaced eyes. Another perfect invisible performance from the great Doug Jones.
THE BEHEMOTH IN THE MIST - The Mist (2007)
Ask anyone who has seen Frank Darabont's bleak adaptation of Stephen King's novella what the most striking imagery was for them and chances are they'll say "the giant monster at the end". The Mist features some great creature design courtesy of Bernie Wrightson and Greg Nicotero, but it's this brief appearance near the end of the film by a towering, barely discernible behemoth lumbering ponderously over the landscape that really invokes the sense of Lovecraftian awe and dread that lies at the heart of this grim story. That what we are witnessing in the mist is truly unnameable and unknowable because it is not of this world.
COCK MONSTER - Bad Biology (2008)
Frank Henenlotter's welcome return to the big screen after a 16 year hiatus was no disappointment. In terms of theme, gritty texture and all-out sleaze value it fits in seamlessly with the rest of his oeuvre and indeed, feels like the auteur never stopped making movies. This isn't the watered-down work of an over-the-hill director mellowing with age, rather, it's the work of a deranged iconoclast revelling in getting his twisted vision up on the screen again. If anything, the sexual depravity on display here is more extreme than in his previous films. As far as brute force or sheer charisma goes this rampaging cock creature is no match for Belial or Aylmer, but he's still a unique and memorable monster that should have made the cover of Fangoria.
DAWN'S VAGINA DENTATA - Teeth (2007)
The image above is a bit of a cheat because you never actually see Dawn O'Keefe's mutant beaver in Mitchell Lichtenstein's debut feature about a virtuous, sexually abstinent teen who learns the hard way that she has a very unusual deformity. The truth is, Dawn's vagina is not the beast itself anyway. It's merely the part of her anatomy that makes this innocent looking girl the man-killing monster she becomes by the end of the film. I would very much like to see a classic monster mash-up (eg. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man) between Dawn's killer vag and Henenlotter's cock monster.
GRANT GRANT - Slither (2006)
James Gunn's awesome '80s-throwback alien invasion splatterfest was probably the most criminally ignored horror movie of the last decade. I will never understand why people didn't flock to see this entertaining, smart and funny monster movie. Instead, despite a good critical reaction, it flopped, and very few people bore witness to this touching and tragic story about Grant Grant, a man infected with an horrendous alien parasite and his enduring love for his wife Starla. Michael Rooker must have truly suffered under the huge amounts of prosthetics and makeup he had to endure in order to bring the final stage of the disgusting alien monster to life. This is another example of a monster with a fantastically complex metamorphosing life-cycle that is really interesting to watch. The Grant monster may be a long lost relative of the Dr. Pretorius monster from Stuart Gordon's From Beyond.
MUBIA ABUL-JAMA - Black Devil Doll (2009)
He's a lover! He's a killer! HE'S A MUTHAFUCKIN' PUPPET! Last but by no means least we come to this caustic, raping little murderer. Shawn Lewis and the other upstanding citizens behind Blackest Heart Media and Rotten Cotton managed to stay sober long enough to make a feature that ended up being far better than it had any right to be. Honestly, it's worth the price of admission alone just for the opening credits sequence which proves that these guys aren't fooling around and have actual ambition to make some good exploitation movies. According to Lewis, this isn't the last we'll be seeing of this pint sized serial-rapist, as there's a sequel in the works that shifts the action into outer-space. Apparently he shares my love for the New World Alien rip-offs Galaxy Of Terror and Forbidden World and wants to do it in that style. I couldn't be happier. Oh, and Mubia would totally kill Chucky.