It’s surprising how many of the best monster movies were made in an era before CGI effects. While CGI works its magic on sci-fi movies like Gravity, there’s something about those 20th century practical effects that makes Jaws and Alien just as terrifying today as they were in the 1970s.
Our list of must-watch creature features runs the gamut from sheer horror to quirky foreign-language comedy. (P.S. If you’re wondering why we haven’t included any werewolves, check out our werewolf movie recommendations. That genre deserved a list to itself.)
The only downside to Jaws is that it turned sharks into Public Enemy No. 1, making people disproportionately terrified of a relatively rare danger. In every other regard, Jaws rules. It’s a masterclass in delayed gratification, using soundtrack and well-paced storytelling to make its man-eating shark into one of cinema’s greatest villains while barely showing it onscreen.
The Godzilla franchise spans 50 years and dozens of movies, but the original is always the best place to start. While the visual effects of the 1954 black-and-white Godzilla may not measure up to some modern versions, it’s a haunting film with a lot to say about post-war Japan.
Rooted in fear of the atomic bomb, it feels more politically relevant than the more straightforward action movie Godzillas of recent years—and, of course, it originated Godzilla’s appearance, backstory, and iconic roar.
3) King Kong
King Kong is the quintessential Hollywood monster movie, opening in 1933 to critical acclaim. Starring Fay Wray opposite the titular giant ape, it’s an early example of a monster movie where the monster is more sympathetic than an outright figure of fear. It’s also due to receive yet another reboot in 2017, with the Tom Hiddleston/Brie Larson action blockbuster Kong: Skull Island, a prequel set in the 1970s.
4) The Thing
Alien and The Thing were both hugely influential on the sci-fi/horror genre, combining a suspenseful atmosphere with a terrifying inhuman assailant. Directed by John Carpenter, The Thing takes place in a remote Antarctic outpost, whose inhabitants are plagued by a parasitic monster that imitates the appearance of other life forms.
Highlights include the revoltingly bloody special effects, Ennio Morricone’s memorable soundtrack, and the always-welcome presence of Kurt Russell.
5) The Blob
Starring a 28-year-old Steve McQueen as a surprisingly convincing teenager, The Blob is a 1950s B-movie that, unlike most of its contemporaries, actually stood the test of time. Featuring an engaging and relatable depiction of small-town 1950s teen life, it proves that a horror movie doesn’t need to be terrifying to be rated as a classic.
This Norwegian found-footage mockumentary imagines a world where gigantic trolls roam the countryside, and the Norwegian government employs a curmudgeonly public official to keep them in check. With a smart sense of humor and interesting worldbuilding details from Nordic mythology, Trollhunter will appeal to fans of Taika Waititi’s cult vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows.
Essential viewing for all sci-fi and horror fans, Alien is still unsurpassed in terms of visceral terror. Every aspect of this movie is on-point, from Sigourney Weaver‘s tough yet sympathetic performance, to H.R. Giger’s unsettlingly sexual concept design, to the grimy atmosphere of the film’s blue-collar spaceship setting.
8) Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Pretty much every Guillermo Del Toro film counts as a monster movie, so you should probably just work your way through his entire filmography.
For those who don’t have time for every Del Toro, we picked Hellboy II because it puts the monsters in the lead roles for once, rather than casting them as the villains. The first movie is a fun and visually sumptuous adaptation of the gothic, paranormal-themed comics, but Hellboy II delves deeper into fantasy territory, ditching the generic white guy protagonist of Hellboy in favor of more magical creatures and character development.
9) The Green Slime
There are a lot of great monsters in the schlocky sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 1960s, but the The Green Slime has a special charm. The 1968 film is largely set on the Gamma 3 space station, where some green ooze discovered on an asteroid starts growing and mutating. Films of this era are blessedly devoid of a self-awareness, so while you’re enjoying the green tentacle monsters, the actors on screen are playing it completely straight. As a bonus, The Green Slime was the very first movie Mystery Science Theater 3000 mocked on its pilot episode.
Tremors is a perfect example of how pacing and smart practical effects can create a creature more terrifying than anything we see today in CGI. Starring Kevin Bacon, a remote Nevada town is terrorized by massive worm-like creatures that lurk beneath the surface of the earth. Like Jaws and other classics on this list, the movie expertly leaves the audience in suspense, letting our imaginations build tension before finally revealing the monsters.
Sarah Weber contributed to this story.