Essential Giant Monster Movies
With a subgenre as colossal as the giant monster movies, we’ve curated twenty essential must-watch films!
If 2021 has proven anything, it is that people are really loving giant monsters movies. Not only Godzilla vs. Kong is becoming one of the best-performing films during the pandemic but 2021 is packed with kaiju and monster media such as Godzilla: Singular Point, SSSS.Dynazenon, and Shin Ultraman, to name a few.
However, there’s gonna be a new generation of monster enthusiasts who want more giant monsters movies but might need some help finding them. Well, fret not as we crafted a list of the most essential kaiju, monsters, and other big fellas to satiate your new monster appetite!
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This film is a mandatory watch! No excuses! If you want to know what is an absolutely essential giant monster film, then there’s no other film to start with than 1954’s masterpiece Gojira. The film that gave the world the pop culture icon Godzilla, Gojira is not only a master craft of the giant monster genre, it’s a phenomenal piece of Japanese cinema.
Released only nine years after the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira was Japan’s cathartic confrontation of the horrors of nuclear war with Godzilla himself being an obvious metaphor for the atomic bomb itself. Yet despite or because of its serious honesty, the film understands the human suffering of its horrifying inspiration and it still holds up as one of the best of the kaiju genre.
If Gojira is a timeless masterpiece, then 2016’s Shin Godzilla is a modern-day classic. Directed by Neon Genesis Evangelion alumni Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, Shin Godzilla is a horrifying modern retelling of Godzilla’s first attack on Japan. While some may see the movie as too talky and political, knowing the history behind the film, it was a deliberate choice.
A biting satire of Japan’s slow response to the 3-11 Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, Shin Godzilla is a film made for modern Japanese audiences that proves the versatile symbolism of Godzilla as a character. Not to mention the film has one of the most terrifying versions of Godzilla with some of the most impressive tokusatsu effects work from a modern Japanese film.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
While Japan is the truest source of the kaiju genre, Hollywood has been doing the genre some justice in the past few years. This includes the Big G himself with 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters! The sequel to Godzilla (2014), director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus) made one of the most expensive love letters to the kaiju king with a film that also gives us big-budget versions of some of Godzilla’s most iconic co-stars: King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan!
Godzilla: King of the Monsters truly feels like a classic Godzilla film given a Hollywood makeover with some awe-inspiring kaiju scenes and new renditions of Akira Ifukube’s iconic scores from composer Bear McCreary. It’s also a great film for kaiju newbies that gives viewers a pure distilled taste of how awesome giant monsters can be!
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Before there was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Toho essentially had one of the earliest cinematic universes, and their equivalent to Avengers: Endgame was 1968’s creature feature brawl Destroy All Monsters! The film features eleven of Toho’s monster stars from mainstays like Godzilla, King Ghidorah, and Mothra to some lesser-known but still awesome beasts such as Gorosaurus and Manda!
The story itself is one of the quintessential kaiju plotlines: alien invasions. We get to see many giant monsters rampage across the globe with it all culminating in a battle royal of Earth’s monsters against King Ghidorah. If you want a buffet of who’s who of the Toho kaiju library then there’s no better film to check out than Destroy All Monsters!
Along with Godzilla himself, the giant moth goddess Mothra is one of Japan’s most iconic movie monsters and her 1961 debut film is a classic of the genre. Unlike other kaiju films, director Ishiro Honda made the conscious decision of making Mothra the hero of the film as we see the insect goddess go on a warpath to save the twin fairies of her island.
Mothra is a film that critiques the exploitation of capitalism and colonialism with one of the strongest human narratives of the classic “Showa” era (1954-1975) of the kaiju genre. It also has some stellar effects work from special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya and a fantastic score from composer Yūji Koseki.
War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Now we have some cult classics to recommend! From Guillermo Del Toro to Tim Burton, War of the Gargantuas is one of the most beloved hidden gems of the giant monster genre! Despite it being a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers The World, War of the Gargantuas stands on its own as a Cain and Abel story but with giant monsters!
The film centers on the conflict between two Bigfoot-esque kaiju with the green Gaira who is a deadly maneater and his brown brother Sanda, who wants to live in peace with humans but must face his carnivorous brother. The almost Shakspearian story is both absurd yet poignant with a final battle that is one of the best in monster movie cinema!
King Kong (1933)
Along with Godzilla, one of the most iconic movie monsters is the eighth wonder of the world himself: King Kong! And his 1933 debut film is not only an essential giant monster movie but an essential movie itself! A film many could consider the first blockbuster with revolutionary effects from Willis O’Brien.
What makes King Kong such a timeless tale is a simple adventure plot of a team of explorers finding themselves on a mysterious island and encountering prehistoric animals. The film also is a classic Beauty and the Beast story with Kong and the blonde beauty Anne Darrow (Fae Ray). Inspiring filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg to Peter Jackson, King Kong is an absolutely must-watch!
The Heisei Gamera Trilogy
While it may be cheating to include an entire trilogy as one entry on this list, these three films are so good that we must recommend all of them at once. Consisting of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion, and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, these three films are some of the absolute best kaiju films that rival even most Godzilla films.
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, this trilogy of films known by fans as the Heisei Trilogy reinvented the Gamera franchise from campy kids films to one of the most mature and well-made pieces of Japanese genre films to date. And each film is so good in its own way that we highly recommend just seeking out the trilogy as a whole
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
If there is one name that is almost unanimous with monster cinema, it is special effects master Ray Harryhausen. His body of work helped create dozens of amazing monster movies and his first solo film, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, is one of his highlights. One of the first monster movies to reflect the fears of atomic radiation, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is a progenitor of many monsters run amok plots from Gojira to Cloverfield.
Based on the Ray Bradbury short story “The Foghorn”, the film’s monster, The Rhedosaurus, is up there as an icon of 50s cinema with its simple yet recognizable design. Also, this is definitely not the only Ray Harryhausen film on this list.
Released during a dry spell of the kaiju genre, Cloverfield surprisingly holds up as a great found-footage horror film! Gimmicky J.J. Abrams marketing aside, director Matt Reeves gave us an effective giant monster film that totally takes advantage of the found-footage style to make the audience feel as if they were at ground zero of a kaiju attack.
All the action set pieces are heart-pounding tense with the star of the film having to be Clover itself. Clover is a modern monster icon and is easily one of the scariest kaiju within the genre solely by the way the film presents its rampage. Honestly, that description can be applied to the film itself!
Now for something a little more different with 2016’s Colossal! Directed by Nacho Vigalondo and starring Anne Hathaway, Colossal is one of the most criminally underrated kaiju films of all time and we are gonna insist that more people give it a watch.
The film centers on a woman dealing with her own personal issues as it turns out she is somehow connected to a giant monster that appears in South Korea that replicates her movements. Without spoiling anything Colossal is an incredibly dark comedy/drama that shows how kaiju can represent so many different themes and metaphors.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Another entry of Legendary’s Monsterverse is on our list with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island! To say it simply the film kicks so much ass and is one of the most satisfying blockbusters of the 2010s!
Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts reinvents the Kong story, now set in the Vietnam era, and gives us a film that is a throwback to the mysterious island films of the 50s and 60s! Filled with a powerhouse cast including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel Jackson, John Goodman, and a standout John C. Reilly; Kong: Skull Island is simply a fun film from beginning to end.
Pacific Rim (2013)
From the cinematic mastermind that is Guillermo Del Toro, Pacific Rim is the film to thank for kicking off what many kaiju fans are calling the “Kaiju Renaissance”. Pacific Rim has become a modern cult classic and for a good reason!
A love letter to kaiju films and mecha anime, Pacific Rim is the story of humanity banding together to make giant robots called Jaegers to face off against an army of kaiju invading our world. A visually stellar film and a timeless plot, Pacific Rim shows why Del Toro is a modern genre film maestro!
Ultraman The Next (2004)
It’s not a list about giant monsters without mentioning Japan’s most iconic superhero: Ultraman! While the franchise may be daunting to newcomers with 55 years of content, Ultraman The Next is both a great starting point and a great film in general!
Ultraman The Next is essentially made to be a modern retelling of the story of Ultraman as we follow a jet pilot named Shunichi Maki who becomes the host to the heroic alien Ultraman in order to stop the kaiju only referred to as “The One” from destroying the earth. Ultraman The Next is one of the best-looking modern Tokusatsu films and is a must-watch for those interested in the Ultraman series.
Now let’s head to the UK with this 1960s classic: Gorgo! One of the first films to hop on the giant monster craze after the success of Gojira’s international release as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Gorgo remains one of the best classic giant monster films ever!
The film smartly makes the monsters Gorgo and his mother Orga both scary yet very sympathetic as we see humanity capture and exploit Gorgo as his mother goes on a rampage to save her child. With some stellar practical effects on par with the best of Toho, Gorgo is a staple giant monster flick for a reason!
The Host (2006)
With South Korean filmmaking juggernaut Bong Joon-ho having the international film scene’s attention, we must recommend his 2006 monster film The Host! The Host is one of the best examples of what makes South Korean cinema so good as it combines so many genres effortlessly without faltering.
The film is primarily a monster movie and a family drama as we follow a dysfunctional family hunting down a mutated amphibious creature that has taken the youngest member of the family. The Host also has a healthy dose of political satire and dark comedy; it’s easily one of Bong Joon-ho’s best films!
While most kaiju films take place in the modern times of their respective releases, Daimajin is one of the most unique giant monster films as it takes place in feudal Japan. The first of a trilogy of films, Daimajin is essentially a kaiju film fused with a Samurai epic similar to the likes of classics like Seven Samurai.
The plot follows the family of a Japanese lord who had their village taken from them by their traitorous chamberlain who subjugates the village into slavery. However, they soon realize these violent actions anger the local god as he awakens as a living, giant-sized samurai statue. Daimajin is both a great kaiju fantasy and samurai film that remains one of the most celebrated films of the genre.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Speaking of giant monsters and fantasy, let’s head back to the west with Ray Harryhausen’s adventure epic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad! In what many consider his magnum opus, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is an adventure film classic featuring some of his most iconic monsters such as The Cyclops and the first of his many sword-wielding skeletons!
Based on some of the tales from Arabian folklore, the film follows our titular Sinbad on a quest to break a princess’ curse who had been shrunk in size by an evil mystic. Sinbad soon ends up on an island full of monsters he must defeat in order to save the princess. With beautiful uses of technicolor and a bombastic score by Bernard Herrmann, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a must for those interested in the work of Ray Harryhausen!
During the 1950s fears of nuclear armageddon were very real and the genre films of the times reflected that. While Japan had Gojira to reflect those fears in 1954, that same year in the US saw the release of THEM!.
THEM! follows an FBI investigation of mysterious attacks in New Mexico that is revealed to be a swarm of giant mutated ants created by nuclear testing near the area. The first major giant insect film (which was a very popular sub-genre at the time), THEM! is a surprisingly creepy atomic age film that has aged very well.
Howl From Beyond The Fog (2019)
The newest film on this list, Daisuke Sato’s indie short film Howl from Beyond the Fog is already one of the best kaiju films of the new decade and shows that this genre still has so much creativity to be mined! A Kickstarter-funded film, Howl from Beyond the Fog is a unique film that mixes classic kaiju suitmation with Bunraku, a form of Japanese puppet theatre.
Taking place in 1909, the film follows a young man visiting his aunt and meets his blind cousin who has befriended an equally blind kaiju Nebula. Howl from Beyond the Fog is beautiful yet haunting in both its style and writing which makes it almost a modern fairy tale. With a monster designed by creature designer veteran Keizo Murase, Howl from Beyond the Fog shows that the giant monster films are here to stay!
What Are Your Essential Giant Monster Movies?
While these films are ones we feel are an absolute must-watch, there are so many great giant monster films out there for us to enjoy! Let us know on Twitter what are your recommendations for essential giant monster films?