Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.
Everyone enjoys a good monster movie. Even if you don’t think you’re into those kind of flicks. Subconsciously, everyone can relate to the idea of running for your life from something bigger, stronger, faster. and deadlier than you are. It’s a slippery slope in Hollywood because of the reliance on visual effects, which means a light budget or hack production team could doom filming before it starts. A fantastic monster movie concept could go down the drain in an instant thanks to a single shot with a visible guy wire or movement that looks a bit too robotic.
Thus, great movie monsters are typically a visual attraction more than anything else. We don’t need to know the monster’s motivation or history. All we need to know is that it terrifies us and we would never in a million years want to be stuck in the same position as the protagonists. We know that these monsters would easily stomp, eat, smash, or cocoon us if we ever came across them real life, and we scream at our television screens as we watch our heroes stop retreating in the third act and finally decide to stand up and fight. We become legitimately concerned with their well-being because, realistically, no protagonist would ever stand a chance against these brutal killing machines. These monsters suck us directly into their fictional realms because of the immense antagonistic force that they represent: a big, scary monster coming to kill us. The root of all childhood nightmares.
Here is my Starting Nine of big screen movie monsters.
1. The Shark – Jaws (1975)
The only type of creature in this lineup that can actually be found in the modern-day wild, Steven Spielberg’s shark was a completely different kind of monster movie antagonist than anyone had seen before Jaws was released. The mechanical shark that was built for the movie never worked right, forcing Spielberg to hide it and play on our fears of what may be lurking in the water right beside us at any moment. The pairing of the shark’s approaching fin and theme song became the iconic symbols from this film that lodged themselves deep into our collective subconsciousness, linking the ocean deep with our own anxieties in a timeless fashion that a fully-functioning, mechanical shark built in the 70s would likely have never been able to achieve.
2. Raptors – Jurassic Park (1993)
This Spielberg combo at the top of the order can set the table better than a tandem of Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn. The raptors are among the smaller dino breeds in the film, but I’d argue that they are the smartest and most vicious beasts in the park. They hunt in packs and launch coordinated assaults, flanking and disembowling prey with their razor-sharp talons before chowing down. I’d rather be stalked by a gawky, stumbling T-Rex than three miniature, fleet-footed raptors any day of the week. By the end of the movie, they were outfoxing human trackers and opening door handles. Half-bird, half-lizard, half-awesome.
3. Xenomorphs – Aliens (1986)
I know the Xenomorph actually originated in the first film, Alien (1979), which many people consider the best film of the franchise. I disagree with that sentiment. In my opinion, the creatures hit their terrifying zenith in James Cameron’s masterful sequel. They are as much a virus as they are a hive of monsters. They are hatched as creepy, anthropoid parasites that latch onto the face of an animal to implant a fetus of sorts into the throat of the victim. The anthropoid quickly dies, but the final product grows and gestates inside the host organism until it reaches “birthing” size, at which point it devours the host’s internal organs and bursts out of its chest. Xenomorphs grow in size at a geometric rate from there, and their lives become exclusively about abducting and “impregnating” more hosts in order to propagate their species. They run and jump like panthers, featuring thick exoskeletons, acid for blood, a whipping tail that pierces like a katana, and skull-munching teeth on its jawline and tongue. It’s the best movie monster of them all, summed up best by the evil android, Ash.
“Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility … A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
4. T-1000 – Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
The Spielberg 1-2 punch is followed up by James Cameron’s bash brothers in the heart of the order. Whenever someone like Elon Musk tries to warn us about the dangers of artificial intelligence, the first thing that always pops into my mind is the premise of this movie. The T-1000 can not only assume the human form of anyone it touches and operate any weapon under the sun, it can transform its limbs into swords, knives and other sharp objects at will. It’s liquid-metal composition enables it to walk through porous barriers and slide under doors, while also rendering it virtually impervious to destruction, absorbing gun shots and blunt force like Brock Lesnar absorbing a spitball. Go ahead, plant a stick of dynamite into its torso. Freeze it in nitrogen before shattering it into a million pieces. It’ll always find a way to recombine itself into its default shape of a stern, humorless Los Angeles city cop. As scary as Arnold was in The Terminator, Robert Patrick’s lithe, unstoppable, shapeshifter raises the bar in a huge way.
Nobody improves preexisting movie monsters like James Cameron.
5. Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
This isn’t the greatest monster movie, but there’s not many evil things that this version of Dracula can’t do. It’s a given that he feeds on the blood of human beings, but only those who have read Bram Stoker’s book or seen this film realize the full extent of terror in ol’ Drac’s skillset. Everyone knows Dracula can turn into a bat, but did you know he can turn into bats? That’s bats, plural. And rats. How does one solitary monster turn into a whole bunch of independently moving creatures? If you decapitated one of those rodents, would Dracula die? Or would you have to kill one particular boss bat/rat? Or would you have to cut all their heads off in order to kill rodent-swarm-mode Dracula? These are the questions that tormented me when I watched this as a kid. Oh, he can also change into a wolf, a suave gentleman with some pimpin’ shades, a freaking mist, and he can hypnotize women into seduction. All that, plus Gary Oldman’s acting prowess, which somehow garners sympathy for the most evil being in the history of fiction.
6. The Monster – Cloverfield (2008)
Although he’s as tall as a skyscraper, the Cloverfield monster is basically all limbs and tail. He uses those limbs and that tail to lay waste to New York City, seemingly impervious to whatever firepower the military can throw at him. He’s an alien that rode to Earth accidentally on a meteor, so logic would dictate that he has no idea what he is really doing. But you can’t convince me that ripping the head off the Statue of Liberty and chucking it down a street of terrified onlookers is not the act of a conqueror looking to send a message. The dog-sized poisonous insects that fall off the monster like fleas are arguably just as scary, as anybody who they bite literally bursts like an overfilled water balloon after a couple minutes. The monster takes advantage of those long limbs in the most harrowing part of the movie, when he uses a surprisingly impressive vertical leap to take down a helicopter and doom our heroes.
7. The Predator – Predator (1987)
I’ll be honest, I never found The Predator that scary as a kid. I found him to be a very impressive, capable hunter armed with a bunch of really cool gear, but he never instilled fear in me. I tend to think of Predator as more of an action movie with a great bad guy than a monster movie, but I’ll include him here because he’d finish at or near the top of the heap in a battle royale with this lineup, which should count for something. He’s happy to take you out any number of ways, be it with his rifle, pistol, arm gauntlets, spear gun, dagger, or flying robotic boomerang disk-blade thingy. My biggest issue with The Predator is his lack of sportsmanship. If you beat him, you need to deliver the death blow quickly. Otherwise, he’ll use his suicide bomb to finish off himself, you, and a few thousand trees. We’ve seen him tangle with the Xenomorphs in a few lousy films, but what I’d ideally like to see is a 90-minute showdown between The Predator and the T-1000. Two elite soldiers with arsenals of advanced weaponry and no qualms whatsoever about mowing down anybody in their paths.
8. Pennywise – It (2017)
I know most old fogies my age prefer the Tim Curry Pennywise, but few of those people have actually re-watched that godawful miniseries. It gave me as many nightmares as it gave everyone else, but it absolutely does not stand the test of time. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise from the 2017 movie registers as a lot more brutal and scary nowadays, with the ability to send chills down the spine of children and adults alike. He is perhaps the most terrifying clown in history, and that’s really saying something. A cross between Freddy Krueger and John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise lures kids in with promises of fun and games before revealing his pearly yellow fangs and feasting on them. When The Losers Club stands up to him (as children and then decades later as adults), he invades their minds, tormenting them with ghastly visions of past trauma in his attempt to dampen their spirits and soften them up for the kill. He turns into a big, mutant spider at the end, which always felt a little out of place to me, but only adds to his array of monstrous talents.
9. King Kong – King Kong (1933, 1976, 2005)
I can’t complete my list without the first true giant movie monster. He’s also one of the great tragic movie icons, abducted from his island home of giant monsters by a film crew looking to get rich off of his likeness. He’s a beast (literally), escaping from his captors to throw cars and level buildings in New York City, a place that monsters just seem to love destroying. If you ask me, he missed a big opportunity by not taking a detour to the Bronx and stomping Yankee Stadium … at least the short porch in right field. The nine-hole may feel like a disrespectful spot in the order for the godfather of monster movie carnage, but the bestiality factor really skeeves me out. Why is a giant gorilla falling in love at first sight with a 5’7″ blonde woman? Why would an animal, even our closest relative in the animal kingdom, have the same basic standards for attraction as your average man? If I was a 50-foot tall dude, even if I lived on a secluded island full of monsters and had never seen a woman in my life, I highly doubt that the sight of a female chimp would turn me into Pepé le Pew.