Everyone has their favorite creature-feature. However, as much as the critters change the way we see the movies, some stand out more than others. Here's a list of the game changers in somewhat chronological order.
King Kong (1933) - King Kong
This stop-motion animated film amazed people in 1933 when it came out. Today people might find it campy, and definitely dated, but at that point Special Effects were limited to say the least. This movie moves a step above because it focuses on the creature as a character as well, rather than just making it a prop in the movie. I remember seeing this for the first time in the 1980's as a kid, and still being mesmerized even though I knew that the technology in movies at the time could improve. To be honest, even the Academy Awards did not know what to do with this movie as they did not create an effects Oscar until 1938. Preserved by The Library of Congress in 1991 for being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant, and ranked 43 by the AFI on their list of 100 greatest movies of all time, it stands as the beginning of so much more to come including the entire Godzilla franchise.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) - The Squid
With Kirk Douglass playing a man's man as Ned Land, Peter Lorre fawning about, and James Mason doing a phenomenal Nemo, you would think that would suffice. However, the squid scene in this almost stole the show. In fact, the only Academy Awards given to this movie were for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects. In reality, no one had ever seen this particular brand of Disney magic, and it changed the way creatures could be done. Ten years later would see Walt Disney displaying his Head of Lincoln at the World's Fair and truly showing what animatronics could do, and still does if you visit the “Its a Small World” ride in any of the Disney parks. No man in a suit, no stop-motion or claymation, just a robotic creature.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) - Talos
This movie actually has more than just Talos, but he happens to be the biggest and the strongest, so he gets the notice. The stop-motion animation in this also includes the Hydra and the battle with the skeletons sown from the teeth of the Hydra. All in all, this movie was the best of what stop-motion had to offer for the time. With Talos, you have a gargantuan bronze man trying to sink anyone he dislikes, and then the molten ichor pouring from the heel, its a remarkable piece of work. Not that anyone should be surprised considering that it was all directed by Ray Harryhausen, but if you have never experienced this, totally worth the suspension of disbelief required by our modernized CGI eyes.
Jaws - 1975 - Jaw
The movie that invented the Summer Blockbuster, taught us to scream, and made no one want to go in the water anywhere near a great white shark. Spielberg not only created this monster, but to paraphrase Jack Black from “The Holiday,” a villain in two notes. Audiences screamed, it was horror, suspense, thrills, and all with very little actual footage of the beast. The lack of seeing the beast almost scared people more than seeing it, because suspense really is all about the build-up. Dreyfuss and Scheider shine all the way through this, and the movie, script, and characters show up all over the top lists for multiple different film critic outlets. It would not be a stretch to say that the Discovery Channel's annual “Shark Week” could trace its roots to this.
The Dark Crystal - 1982
I do not list a creature for this, because Henson had so many. The concept of a puppeteer continued to evolve the ideas of what could be done with creatures. When we get to “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Labyrinth” in 1986, the possibilities become endless. Today we have a feature show on SyFy based out of the Henson Creature shop, which continues to show us how things can be done new and differently.
ET (1982) - ET
Obviously 1982 was a good year for the future of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Critters, ET stands out as a movie that explores the character of a creature. Even with so little legible dialogue, we learn about this character (and fall in love with Reese's Pieces. Epic Fail moment for M&M's) in a way that very few monster/creature movies allows to happen. Again, the idea of it being about the monster rather than the monster being a tool for the film makes this so important. Add in a levitating bike ride backlit by the moon, and you have cinematic gold.
Return of the Jedi (1983) - Rancor
Yes, we could list out from both “A New Hope” and “Empire Strikes Back”, but the Rancor really makes the top of the list for me. And really, Star Wars in general just needs to be on here. Technically, even Yoda makes the list as a creature as he was a puppet done by Frank Oz, as would Chewbacca with Peter Mayhew in a costume like so many classic Hollywood movies like “The Wolf Man”. I know that this will result in the comments being littered with Star Wars discussions, but the power, the fear, the purpose of the Rancor all stand out for the best creature. However, the Star Wars Franchise holds so much goodness in it from just cameo and background characters (yes, even Jar-Jar if you add in Episodes I-III) that picking just one has more to do with opinion and preference than ability to distinguish any one in particular.
Jurassic Park (1992) - T-Rex
You remember how you felt the first time you saw the dinosaurs come to life. It amazed you, and you hoped for the possibility of science that someday you too could experience dinosaurs...that is, until T-Rex gets out and starts chewing on Jeeps. Spielberg actually had to cut out some of the sequences in this that he deemed to expensive to shoot and save them for later movies. As such, it became an absolute game-changer when it comes to interaction between effects and actors, not to mention just the massiveness of Spielbergs genius (note that this would be his third movie on the list)
Reign of Fire (2002) - The Drake
Now, some would claim that the 1996 movie “Dragonheart” should come up for the portrayal of a dragon, and it was widely acclaimed at the time. However, the dragon in that movie stayed rounded, safe, puffy even. Nothing against the movie, its a great movie. Sir Sean Connery voices it wonderfully, Dennis Quaid does a wonderful job, and I enjoyed it. However, dragons in Hollywood stink. They so rarely get them right. Think “Sleeping Beauty” and the treatment of the dragon there, as opposed to so many other poorly designed and positively frumpy dragons (like “Quest for Camelot”). Dragons, whether inspired by Asian Mythos or European Mythos, all should be treated better than they have been by Tinseltown. This movie showed a dragon in the correct way for the first time. If you watch the second installment of “The Hobbit”, you can still see the influence.
Lord of the Rings: The Towers (2002) - Gollum
Andy Serkis as Gollum was completely underrated, and remains so until today. They still have no way of handing an Oscar to anyone that puts in a performance that gets CGI-ed over like Serkis did in this movie. Gollum made appearances in “Fellowship”, but Two Towers has him take a front seat. The LOTR franchise also has the Balrog, the Witch King's Mount, the Oliphaunts, and so many more. However, Serkis' performance proved that there is more to just a creature than we have seen for so long. What did I miss? What's the next best creature coming up. I'm cheering for Groot, myself.
Alien (1979) - Xenomorph
Designed by the Swiss surrealist and artist H. R. Giger, the Xenomorph, which first appeared in Ridley Scott's Alien film, is definitely one of the most unforgettable creatures in sci-fi cinema. The Xenomorph looks horrifying yet wicked-cool. Some fans would even argue that he looks cooler than the Predator. The popularity of Alien spawned a media franchise of comic books, novels, toys, and videogames.
For more articles like this, take a look at our Fandoms and Lists page.