The Predator stalks onto big screens this week. Either the third or sixth (depending on if you count the Alien vs. Predator pay-per-view fights) sequel to the surprisingly deep (and also very explosion-filled) original movie, this latest outing shows just what an enduring presence the eponymous Predator is in modern monsterdom. The Predator species, like the Alien franchise’s Xenomorphs, have stalked our screens for decades now—but they haven’t done so alone. There are other movie monsters that are just as smart, creepy, and potentially iconic…and yet somehow they never quite hit the same heights of stardom. Some, as we’ll see, spawned multiple sequels but none have ever quite found the audience they deserve. But they’re still out there, waiting, working up an appetite for chaos and destruction…
So let’s go say hi, shall we?
The Kothoga, The Relic
You know that insanely dramatic moment where a character dies and the camera crash zooms out directly above the person cradling them as they fall to their knees, bunch their fists and scream ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!’ to the uncaring heavens?
The Relic has the best one of those ever. EVER. Even better than the ‘JUSTICE IS DEAD! OR SO JAY THINKS!’ bonfire chanting in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and that is not praise I give lightly.
The Relic is just, top to bottom—aside from the one stark exception of a staggeringly ill-advised stereotypical evil Asian character—the platonic ideal of a great B movie. Based on the Douglas Preston/ Lincoln Child novel of the same name, it pits Doctor Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) and homicide detectives Vincent D’Agosta and Hollingsworth (Tom Sizemore in one of the last times he showed up for work and Clayton Rhôner, who really deserved a character with a first name) against something running wild in the corridors of the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Starting off with a mass murder and a mysterious delivery, the movie escalates with absolutely note-perfect pacing and really kicks off once it puts Doctor Green, D’Agosta, and Hollingsworth in the same room. Green is a brilliant scientist, one who Miller is given room to play as deliberately slightly unsympathetic (and Miller has rarely been better than she is here). D’Agosta is, like all Sizemore roles, a big guy dropped into a loosely fitting suit, but unlike most Sizemore roles, the actor actually seems to connect with the cop’s crumpled persona and counter-intuitive superstition. Rhôner’s Hollingsworth is basically the Peter Parker to Sizemore’s Iron Man; endlessly attentive, brave, and upstanding, and he deserves more screen time than he gets.
But let’s talk about the two stars here: Miller and the Kothoga itself. The monster, like several others on this list, is a startling unique creation and the movie does a fantastic job not only of showing us what it is but letting us figure out how it operates. The closest thing to it I’ve seen is Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is also worth a look if you’ve never seen it. The Kothoga is deeply disturbing precisely because its origin is both so weird and so weirdly plausible. It’s the embodiment of the paradoxical push me/pull you appeal of all the best movie monsters: it leaves us wanting to know more, knowing full well that if we did it would be less interesting.
But the character that matters here is Doctor Margo Green. Margo, much like Doctor Susan Tyler in Mimic and Rhonda LeBeck in Tremors, is an action heroine defined not by her tank top or the size of her guns but by her brain. This entire movie revolves around Margo’s growing understanding of the Kothoga as she works to solve its puzzle, and that gives it a very different feel to the macho punch-fest it could so easily have been. Doctor Margo Green is no one’s fool, no one’s victim, and doesn’t need (or need to be) a love interest. Fans of genre cinema talk a lot, still, about Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley because good female leads are still so few and far between. Doctor Green is one of the very best and deserves more recognition than she gets. Plus, few beats in any of these movies have more ‘Oh, it is ON!’ energy to them than the anticipation generated by Margo taking her posh shoes off to go and science a monster to death.
I love all these movies, but Tremors, for me, is the one that really could and should be viewed with more respect than it gets. This is a character-driven, horror/comedy monster movie that takes place almost entirely in daylight. That requires Ginger Rogers-levels of creative footwork, and the fact that it’s spawned an ongoing string of sequels and 1.5 TV shows speaks to just how well the formula works.
Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, both at their very best here), are handymen in Perfection, Nevada. Perfection is a tiny, failed mining town in the middle of nowhere which is about to get some surprising visitors: ancient predators, having woken deep in the Earth, are heading to the surface, and they are hungry…
If you’ve never seen this movie, I am sincerely envious. Tremors is a perfect piece of filmmaking pretty much any way you cut it. The monster design is great, pleasingly physical and well-thought-out, with their attacks driving the plot rather than punctuating it. The assaults on the town and on Burt’s bunker are both especially great. The latter scene is literally just Michael Gross and Reba McEntire shooting at a wall and it’s still one of the most tense (and darkly funny) moments in the movie.
And then there’s Val, Earl, and Rhonda. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are one of those double acts you instantly believe have been working together for years. Bacon’s feathery haired, idiot puppy enthusiasm makes him the Nermal to Fred Ward’s permanently grumpy, permanently cautious Garfield. You like these guys instantly, and better still, they’re never once presented as standard-issue action heroes. It feels entirely conceivable, at any point, that one or both of them could die. This is at least partially because Val is basically God’s Perfect Idiot but still, the point stands.
Rhonda, played by Finn Carter, would get on very well with Doctor Margo Green of The Relic. A scientist in town on a field trip, she’s endlessly practical, direct, and is very much an equal partner in Operation Let’s Not Die. Both character and actress deserve much more kudos than they’ve gotten over the years, and while it’s understandable that the sequels focused on Burt, it’s still disappointing we didn’t get to see more of her.
All of this is wrapped up in a smartly written, well directed, funny, scary movie that unfolds, again, almost entirely in daylight. This isn’t just a monster movie: this is a monster movie that changes the rules of what monsters could be. In fact, Tremors is the B movie flip side of the Alien/Predator coin. There’ve been a ton of sequels, they’ve just been straight to DVD releases, and the premise still has legs—or, perhaps, terrifying grabbing tentacle mouths—even now.
And they’re absolutely worth your time, too—especially the massively odd steampunk prequel. They’re all built around Michael Gross’ Burt Gummer, the local survivalist and prepper who becomes a globe-trotting graboid hunter. He’s also still endearingly goofy, and the movies do a good job of carefully parodying his lifestyle while at the same time making him a likeable leading man.
The Judas Breed, Mimic
Guillermo del Toro! Mira Sorvino! Massive insects!
Long before he was masterminding Crimson Peak or giant robots punching monsters in the face, Guillermo del Toro directed this adaptation of Donald A. Wollheim’s short story. Sorvino plays Doctor Susan Tyler, who saves New York from an outbreak of Strickler’s Disease, which is spread by cockroaches. Her solution is to release a genetically engineered insect, nicknamed the Judas breed, that releases an enzyme that accelerates the roach’s metabolism beyond survivable levels. It works, she’s hailed as a heroine of the city and three years pass.
Then, something strange begins killing people and two children bring Susan a weird dead bug: one that looks a lot like the Judas Breed, but evolved…
Mimic is del Toro at his purest. It’s permeated by sickly green light and the sort of delightfully squelchy organic design work he loved in the early phases of his career. His fondness for old machinery, forgotten history, and the shadowy corners of urban locations we choose not to see shines throughout the film, and the extended sequence on an abandoned subway car is especially great. Plus the design work on the Judas breed itself, especially in one dizzyingly horrific moment in which Susan learns the truth, is flat-out brilliant.
Better still, this is very much a spiritual colleague to The Relic. Susan, like Margo, triumphs through her intellect—she understands the problem to death, and there’s a lot of pleasing deduction on display. Sorvino’s delivery of the line “Peter, these are LUNGS!” chills me even now and her performance is uniformly great throughout. The same is true of the rest of the cast, especially a very young, pre-(partial) universal genocide Josh Brolin and the always reliable Charles S. Dutton.
Mimic had several sequels but none of them ever hit the same heights as this. Drenched in del Toro’s unique aesthetic, it’s an urban nightmare of the best sort: curiously beautiful and impossible to look away from.
The Kaalium, Moontrap
Koenig plays Jason Grant, the commander of a shuttle mission that discovers an ancient spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. Aboard is a small pod and a mummified corpse. The crew, who have clearly never seen Lifeforce, bring both back to Earth. The pod promptly builds itself a body out of nearby equipment and handy bits of corpse before it’s destroyed.
It occurs to the survivors of this attack that perhaps mistakes have been made.
Tracking the ship’s incoming trajectory back to the Moon, they do the thing any sensible people would in that situation; bring the last Apollo rocket back up to spec and send Grant, close friend Ray Tanner, and the astronaut equivalent of Goose from Top Gun to the moon. Hilarity, the discovery of an ancient astronaut, a LOT of character deaths, and some surprisingly fun uses of physic ensue.
Moontrap is a hot mess, but damn is it charming! Koenig and Campbell are an instinctively fun double act and they carry the film at the times when the product budget does not. Even then, the design work is so pleasingly icky and bizarre that you’re carried along in spite of yourself. The movie even makes a couple of surprising choices along with the really obvious ones, and has one of the few ‘…OR IS IT?!’ endings that actually work. It’s not even the slightest bit sensible, but still clearly the best carnivorous lunar murder robot movie ever made.
Spiky-Tentacled Sea Monster (Octalus?), Deep Rising
There are certain jokes that lodge in your head forever; moments which absolutely should not work and yet do, and work so brilliantly, that decades later you still think of them. One, for me, is this exchange from Paul W.S. Anderson’s debut, Shopping:
“I know my rights!! I’ve seen L.A. Law!”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“More of a comedy drama, actually.”
And another is the moment in Deep Rising where a group of mercenaries and their captive squeeze into in an elevator, uncomfortably close together. They step out into that corridor of imminent horrific death that all 1990s movies had, for some reason, and their captive, played by the mighty Kevin J. O’Connor, is still humming the elevator music. “The Girl from Ipanema,” folks. Once it’s stuck in there, it’s in there for life.
Deep Rising is a delight. A terrifying, squamous, not-especially-good-CGI-anymore delight. Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, and O’Connor start as Finnegan, Trillian, and Tooch, a luckless merchant crew who are hired by an elite mercenary team composed of Hollywood character actors to assist in an act of high tech piracy. This mission assumes the shape of a pear pretty quickly, and both crews are pursued around the spookily deserted cruise liner they were sent to plunder by mysterious tentacled creatures and a script that has way more crackle than you’d expect.
Seriously, this thing is just joyous. Williams is great as the Solo-lite Finnegan. Janssen clearly enjoys herself and is actually given plenty to do, and O’Connor is basically playing Beni from The Mummy’s less unsavory descendant. The mercs consist of some ludicrously talented people being ridiculously under-used, the action is expertly paced with just the right amount of lunacy, and the pair of reveals that close the movie are note perfect. Sometimes, you just want to watch a film about gigantic killer tentacles. When you do, it’s time for Deep Rising.
As someone who truly loves monsters and monster movies, these are some of my all-time favorites. The Predator and other A-listers might get all the glory, but if you’re ever in the market for an entertaining cinematic nightmare or two, check these out.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.