Cut (v): make (a movie) into a coherent whole by removing parts or placing them in a different order.
You Can’t Argue with Our Definitive List of Cinema’s Best Monsters
Special Guest: Orrin Grey
The title story in Orrin Grey’s upcoming collection, Painted Monsters, is prefaced by maybe my favorite epigraph of all time:
“For you, the living, this mash was meant too…”
— Bobby “Boris” Pickett
And then I realize that title of the story and collection — which sounded so familiar on first hearing — is actually a reference to one of Boris Karloff’s lines in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, one of the best horror films of all time, in my opinion.
Then I had the reaction that we were now besties.
But then I realized that I already knew Grey was one of the faithful. We’ve met and hung out a couple times
With a lot of writers I know and am friendly with, the relationship started with me being familiar with their work, or in the odd case with a Facebook request or Twitter follow. But rarely do I meet a person, talk a bit, before ever reading a sentence of their prose. And to actually like their prose once I get to read it? Forget it.
But Grey’s the real deal. And he’s into movies and monsters.
Since the first month of Paper Cuts, I’ve wanted to do a column where I have a special guest. Way I figured it, leaning on someone else would help defray some of the deep thinking I have to do to write one of these things.
With Painted Monsters available now from Word Horde, I realized that I had my chance. He’s poised to make a big splash with this book.
Well, it backfired, because transcribing and editing this lengthy conversation ended up being just as much work as writing an actual column.
The theme of the conversation was to take each decade of cinema (starting with the 1920s, apologies to those terrified by Eadweard Muybridge’s horse) and choose our favorite movie monster from that era.
There really weren’t more rules than that, but I myself did try to stick to American films because opening it up to world cinema (especially the Kaiju of Japan) would’ve overloaded my pea brain. Orrin had no trouble, though.
Oh, and if you couldn’t tell, the title of this article is a joke.
Adam Cesare: 1920s: Nosferatu’s too easy. I’m going to go with Satan in Haxan. If we’re marking the ’20s as the dawn of horror cinema, why not go with the original bad guy? Or anti-hero, if we’re being generous. m/
What do you got sir?
Oh and we’re going by monster, not movie, so I guess I should have said Count Orlok from Nosferatu.
Orrin Grey: Damn, well, if we were going by movie, I’d probably say Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but Cesare, while creepy and awesome, isn’t quite monster-y enough for this, so let’s go with Lon Chaney Sr. in his iconic vampire makeup from London After Midnight.
AC: Pow! A lost film right out of the gate for Mr. Grey. Everyone push up your glasses.
1930s. Yeah. One of us is going to pick Lugosi’s Dracula and the other one is going to take Frankenstein’s monster. I’d say it’s boring, but… let them fight.
Also I have a secret “real” pick written down. Let’s see what you say for the ’30s.
OG: Honestly, I’d probably take King Kong, if I were going for the big iconic monsters of the ’30s. But since I’m trying to be at least a little more obscure than that, how about the Moon Killer from Doctor X? The killer is suitably creepy, and since it’s shot in two-strip Technicolor, the whole movie looks like a particularly lurid pulp magazine cover (or Richard Sala drawing) come to life.
AC: Twinsies! My real answer was Kong!
Hmmm. I haven’t seen Doctor X, now I’ve got to hit it. Shamed in my own column.
OG: You will love it.
Sadly, my favorite horror flick from the ’30s doesn’t have anything that would even broadly constitute a monster in it, but I’m gonna slip it in here anyway: James Whale’s The Old Dark House, the movie I love so much that I helped get the book it was based on back into print.
AC: Super subtle humblebrag, brother. We get it! You’ve got pull in the horrorosphere.
Getting back on track… Kong’s big for me because it’s the first time where an effect, the product of an artisan, is more important than any actor in the film.
Jack Pierce is just as important as Karloff in that relationship, but for Kong there is no Karloff, only Marcel Delgado.
OG: Yeah, and King Kong is just such a perfect movie from top to bottom. Plus, it’s kind of the dawn of stop motion, which will go on to produce some of the best monsters ever.
AC: 1940s: what a weird decade in horror film. Probably the most adult we’ve ever seen, at least in American cinema. A quick search shows Val Lewton topping the charts, and while I love Cat People, it’s hard to classify anything in it as a monster, since everything’s metaphorical in that flick.
And the Wolf Man, while my second-fave Universal monster, is too pedestrian a pick. You got anything better? Love ol’ Lon Jr.
OG: I will be sad forever that I don’t live in the timeline where Willis O’Brien got to make his King Kong vs. Frankenstein film.
Yeah, aside from the sequels to the Universal movies, the 1940s were definitely full of more spook-blocking movies than not, so that even the stuff that appeared to be supernatural usually had a totally naturalistic explanation; see stuff like The Beast with Five Fingers. Val Lewton’s stuff is brilliant, of course, but yeah, too metaphorical to really have a lot in the way of monsters.
I think my favorite monster movie from the period might be The Undying Monster — by the great John Brahm, who also made the fantastic but unfortunately monster-free Hangover Square — but the titular monster itself leaves a lot to be desired.
(Also, loads and loads of guys in ape suits in the ’40s…)
AC: Brahm did The Lodger, too. Which is boss. I’ve seen that and Hangover Square. Not The Undying Monster. So you got me again, Grey. This is turning into a whooping. I gotta step it up.
OG: Don’t worry, we’ll get to the ‘70s eventually and you will destroy me.
AC: Also, I was thinking of picking a poverty row gorilla suit movie, just to mess with you. Glad you brought them up. Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla or something.
1950s. This is more like it. We got monsters out the ass in this decade.
My kneejerk pick, since this decade is the bridge between actual post-war introspection and riding-high teenage dawn, is to pick the Blob, which made its appearance smack in the middle of the decade.
But I see how this is going, you’re going to pick something great and obscure, so while you’re answering this I’m not going to be listening, I’m just going to be thinking frantically.
OG: Oh man, the ‘50s are so crammed full of monsters and I don’t even know where to start. The Blob was definitely on my list, though.
Another one that may be too obvious is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Not only is he kind of the last gasp of the Universal monsters, but he might still be the best creature suit ever put on film. In addition to all the big bug and alien invasion movies that were going on, though, there was also still a nice vein of Gothic stuff running in the background, including the beginnings of Hammer (which probably deserve their own subsection) as well as the great William Castle, who gave us The Tingler, which I’ve obviously gotta mention in any list of great movie monsters of the decade.
But for my real, honest-to-Godzilla pick for favorite monster from the ’50s would probably have to be Ymir, from 20 Million Miles to Earth. He’s my favorite Ray Harryhausen monster, and he’s got all the pathos of Kong, in the body of a space lizard guy.
Not to disappoint in the obscure movie category, though, I’ll see your Blob, and raise you the under-seen 1959 Mario Bava (maybe? it’s complicated) flick Caltiki, the Immortal Monster!
AC: Not really a Bava film…but if you insist.
And we’d be remiss if we never mentioned Roger Corman, who (along with AIP and the countless creators he built a stable out of) owned not only the ’50s but the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. But he got his start here, so let’s throw a picture of the It Conquered the World monster in here for good measure.
And yeah, I mentioned that the Wolf Man was my 2nd favorite. The Creature’s my #1 spot.
OG: Oh man, that It Conquered the World monster. I knew him for so long before I ever saw the movie (on MST3K), thanks to about a million appearances he made in old issues of Mad and Cracked magazines.
AC: I want to get Hammer on this list somewhere (and Amicus, because I kinda know without asking, just looking at your work, that they’re big for you).
But enough about the ’50s. Every single one of these damn columns has overshot its word count by like a thousand words. (EDITOR’S NOTE: That sounds about right….) Let’s try to bring this one in at less than a phone book.
OG: Oh, damn, while we’re talking about Hammer, another huge monster for me from the ’50s is the invisible space vampire squid thing from The Quatermass Xperiment!
Sorry. Moving on from the ’50s, kicking and screaming…
AC: I’m going to out obscure you for my ’60s pick. Because it’s a movie that’s big with the MST3K crowd and nobody else. And I like to think that I love it for more high minded reasons (I’ve got real issues with the “so bad it’s good” philosophy, which was fine in the pre-Internet age but has transmuted into something monstrous), but I also like the shoddiness of it.
The cadre of monsters from Del Tenny’s The Horror of Party Beach. Nothing is more emblematic of the ’60s for me than that movie. A little past its due date (trying to catch a trend of movies by its tail) and billed as the first horror musical (with rock songs by The Del-Aires!), Tenny made a legitimately good film, but this is not it. I love the texture of it, though. Makes me nostalgic for stuff I never was alive for, hungry for bad drive-in concession stand food and the smell of the ocean.
OG: Okay, before I get to my ’60s pick, I need to respond to that, because whatever its other flaws — of which there are many — I just love the weird origins of the monsters from The Horror of Party Beach so much!
So the ’60s are pretty obviously the decade of biggest transition for horror films, and you can just look at movies like Targets and Spider Baby to see how horror films are shifting from the stagier stuff that we’re used to to more naturalistic fare (starting with Psycho and ending with Night of the Living Dead, maybe, which ushers in the ’70s), but for me the ’60s are dominated by two big groups of movies: Hammer’s Gothic horror flicks, and the Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price.
All that out of the way, though, there’s no competition at all for my monster pick of the ’60s: the mushroom people from the odd-duck Toho movie Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People, aka Fungus of Terror), the only film to date that has ever prompted me to edit an anthology!
AC: Haha. Man, you work those plugs in seamlessly.
OG: I’m a born panhandler.
AC: Corman is proud, I’m sure. Okay. 1970s.
Again, a packed decade. My initial reaction — since I was just looking over your book and the first person to get a mention in the dedication is Vincent Price — is to go with Dr. Phibes.
But I think there is a way more influential monster from this era, one that may get a lot of people groaning but (at least as the sequels and his late-movie tolerance for bullets proves), The Shape, Michael Myers, is truly king monster of the ’70s.
OG: I’d be hard-pressed to argue with you on that one, honestly. And I’ve got a whole theory that we probably don’t have time to go into here about how Myers (and even the gang members in Assault on Precinct 13) are not just human killers, but rather this meditation on elemental evil that precedes the more overt cosmic horror themes of Carpenter’s later work like The Thing, Prince of Darkness, etc.
AC: Oh the seeds of that are definitely sown in that movie. But they’re sold by Loomis, who is a nut. Making them suspect.
OG: Yeah, but all the best narrators are unreliable narrators…
AC: What was I just saying about digressions!!!!
’70s, final answer?
OG: Final answer, I think I’d agree with you about Michael Myers, but since the Alien franchise was probably my first ever fandom, I’d also be super remiss not to mention that.
AC: Good choice. And a Dan O’Bannon choice. Which brings us to….his most productive decade, the 1980s.
Wes Craven just passed, so I’m sure a certain sweater pattern just popped into both our minds. But let’s take Freddy off the table. I think we can both agree that there’s no monster in the ‘80s more sinister than him (reminder: insert Ronald Reagan joke and make it look like Orrin made it).
My pick in another packed decade? Belial from Basket Case. God. Do I love Henenlotter (who also gave us the Zacherle-voiced Aylmer).
OG: This time it’s your turn to show me up, since I’ve never actually seen Basket Case!
AC: What the hell, dude.
OG: I know, right?
AC: You didn’t do that shaming stuff to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to you. But man. You are in for a (seedy seedy New York) treat.
That was one of the few movies my parents (who aren’t big horror fans) turned me onto when I was showing signs of being into this stuff. I think they forgot how grungy it is and regretted showing it to a child. Too late now, though.
OG: The ’80s is so full of great monsters, but for me there’s really no competition with the Thing. Which segues nicely into what is probably most emblematic about the ’80s for me. While most people think slashers, I mostly didn’t come to those until later, and what I associate with the ’80s is this particular brand of gonzo special effects. Not just gore, but this kind of transformational gore in which bodies are reshaped into other things. It pretty much starts with Evil Dead and runs through all sorts of movies like Re-Animator, The Howling, Fright Night, Hellraiser, etc.
AC: Not gonna argue with the Thing as the best monster.
Gimme a second to think about the 1990s. That’s a toughie. Or feel free to start. I’ve been hogging the starters.
Does Jake Busey in The Frighteners count as a monster? Probably not. Serial killer ghost and early CGI demo-reel isn’t really a monster category.
OG: It’d be a good one, though, if it was.
Okay, so I know my answer for the ’90s, even if the decade is sufficiently fragmentary that it feels like it needs a more nuanced approach: The graboids from Tremors.
AC: Good pull! Yeah, hands-down the graboids for me. As personal and spiritual influences.
A few years ago I showed that movie to a bunch of middle schoolers (it was part of an after school club and they signed permission slips, so don’t be getting on me). Really surprised how much swearing you can do in a PG-13 movie at the time…
OG: When I was younger, I had a copy of it recorded off of network TV so that a lot of the swearing had been edited out. I can still hear Kevin Bacon shouting “Fooled you!” after the graboid smashed itself into the concrete drainage ditch.
AC: Even as a kid I was such a snob about TV edits. But that’s a pretty good alteration. Nowadays they just blank it out, which is less fun.
OG: I also feel like I need to say something about Charles Band’s Full Moon movies here, with their diminutive monsters. Most were really 1980s, they dominated my local video store’s horror shelves in the ’90s. I kind of watched them to pieces.
AC: No no not to pieces, he wanted you to watch them in pieces. That’s why Full Moon’s still releasing those “clip show” movies cobbled together out of old footage.
Okay. The aughts. Ginger Snaps has got to go here. Even if we’ve been a little werewolf heavy.
What else? Ohh, The Descent.
OG: Yeah, The Descent is great, and the monsters have got a nicely Count Orlok-y look going on.
My pick for the aughts is gonna be Sam from Trick ‘R Treat.
AC: Elaborate on Sam. Why? I mean, I like him. But I want to know why you do.
OG: I never knew that Halloween needed a mascot, until it had one. He’s a nice mix of horror tropes — including slasher and creepy kid — and he’s got seasonally-themed magic powers, as well as a visual nod to the great Stan Winston monster Pumpkinhead AND a crawling hand. What’s not to love?
AC: It’s not Michael Caine’s crawling hand, but I’ll take it.
One last thing: We’re halfway through this current decade, do we have any contenders yet?
The Babadook is a fantastic movie, but I think the monster falls into the Val Lewton trap of being an idea rather than a monster. Post-traumatic stress/depression doesn’t get a place on our list.
OG: Hold on, before we leave the 2000s behind, I should say something about The Mist. Which is a great flick, and while no one monster in it stands out enough to get my pick, it is jam packed with monsters. Okay, now we can move on to this decade…
AC: I like that big ass one at the end. And the spiders.
OG: It’s pretty great.
AC: And the really on-the-nose comic rack.
OG: Why does my pharmacy not have that comic rack?
AC: How are all those indie comics going to be stocked in a drugstore in 2006? [laughs] I’m glad you knew exactly what I was talking about
OG: This decade so far… I’ll admit that a lot of my favorite horror movies of the decade thus far are more ghost movies than monster ones, but I think I do have a monster pick for the 2010s so far: Attack the Block.
AC: Oh man! Brrrat Brrrat Brrrat
OG: Never have such great monsters been made with so little. Just a black gorilla suit and some glow-in-the-dark teeth, and yet…
AC: That’s a good way to end it, Love that movie. The teeth look so good. And the little dead one was cool, too. Kinda Gremlin-esque, which means that we forgot Gremlins in the ’80s and clearly we need to go our separate ways and think about what we’ve done.
Thanks to Orrin for hanging out and talking with me. Order Painted Monsters now. I promise you’ll enjoy it, you may even find a new favorite monster. You can find out more about him here.
Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.