The 20 Best Monster Movies of the 21st Century

[Editor’s Note: this list was originally published October 2017. It has since been updated to coincide with the release of “Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire.”]

From a certain perspective, monster movies might not seem to be as relevant during monstrous times. But in an age when our fears seem larger than life and the world constantly seems as though it’s on the brink of collapse, the best examples of the genre can almost assume a documentary-like authenticity, reflecting our reality as vividly as vérité ever could.

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“The Babadook” might be about a demon that pops out of a children’s book, but no recent film does a better job of capturing the acute reality of living with grief. “Cloverfield” follows a gaggle of pre-Instagram model millennials as they’re chased around Manhattan by a bug-eyed colossus, but few of the somber post-9/11 dramas do a better job of distilling the heartsick chaos of watching your hometown try to make sense of a senseless attack. “The Village” is pretty much just two hours of Joaquin Phoenix cosplaying “Our Town,” but even M. Night Shyamalan’s cameo can’t distract from a powerful cinematic parable about the consequences of surrendering to the things that scare us. Monster movies work because — whether you’re talking about “Godzilla” or “Frankenstein” — they’re much more about just monsters. They’re about human fears, blown up to their most horrifying scale.

Here are IndieWire’s picks for the 20 Best Monster Movies of the 20th Century.

With editorial contributions from David Ehrlich, Jamie Righetti, Kate Erbland, Michael Nordine, Jenna Marotta, and Chris O’Falt.

20. “Spring” (2015)


Unfolding like “Before Sunrise” and “An American Werewolf in London” were spliced together by a mad scientist, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “Spring” is a cautionary tale about the perils of falling in love with a sultry stranger during an impromptu getaway to the Adriatic Sea. Sure, the fling could work out just fine, but there’s also a chance — however slight — that she might be a 2,000-year-old mutant shapeshifter cursed to spend eternity impregnating herself with the sperm of random victims in order to prevent turning into an octopus… or something. Honestly, the mythology behind Nadia Hilker’s man-eating character is hard to keep straight, but her unstable genetic situation opens the door to all sorts of pungently vivid practical effects (the best of which involve some very slimy tentacles), and the actress plays the deeply conflicted chimera with such incredible conviction that you can’t wait to see what awful thing she might transform into next. —DE

19. “Monsters” (2010)


But what does the world look like after the alien invasion? After the fire in the sky, the interlopers arriving, the attack, the war, the fall? After, well, the monsters arrive and make something even more terrifying than the seeming worst — global war — their raison d’être: They ain’t leaving. In Gareth Edwards’ feature debut, we open on a world forever changed by the previous arrival of those titular monsters, long after the battles have been fought and lost, but not nearly long enough for anyone to forget what the world was like before. Stuck between the U.S. and Mexico — talk about a border control issue — the quarantined zone is a fearful reminder of everything people still don’t know, and everything that could be threatened. As seemingly cliched characters like The Cynical Reporter (Scoot McNairy) and The Silly Rich Girl (Whitney Able) are tossed together, the full scope of the terror and fear blossoms, made all the more jarring by what we already know, that the monsters are real. Part adventure story, part nightmare, “Monsters” eventually flips back on itself, allowing humanity and its own flaws to be laid bare, just as our human characters are revealing themselves to be perhaps the last generation worth saving. The monsters light up the night, but the fear can’t ever abate. —KE

18. “It Follows” (2015)

“It Follows”
“It Follows”

True, the monster that stalks Jay and her friends takes on a variety of grotesque forms and isn’t any one thing, but this is precisely what makes it so terrifying. What follows and haunts isn’t just something sinister and deadly, it’s the past. We might try and suppress our darkest secrets, but grief and trauma persist and force us to reconcile what we don’t want to face. “It Follows” has been described as everything from an allegory on sexual abuse to a commentary on STIs, but it also exposes the monsters we bury deep inside, which constantly threaten to devour and upset everything and everyone we touch. —JR

17. “Colossal” (2017)

“Colossal”Brightlight Pictures

With nowhere else to go, recent New Yorker Gloria (Anne Hathaway) trudges back to her parents’ abandoned, small-town home, hoping she’ll disappear; instead of achieving literary greatness, she’s spent her years in the city drunk, under-employed, and dependent on her boyfriend (Dan Stevens). Yet Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo has ludicrous plans for our heroine, who – like everyone – can magnify the importance of her own personal woes (we are our own worst monsters). If she sets foot in a local park at a certain time, a stories-tall kaiju mutant materializes in downtown Seoul; her friend-turned-employer, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), has a robot as his South Korean avatar. As Gloria attempts to make amends and take responsibility for her terrifying global footprint, Oscar bullies her into submission, threatening to end innocent lives across the globe. “Colossal” only made $4.5 million in theaters, which is regrettable, because movies about combatting self-loathing and misogyny rarely accompany such gaudy, popcorn-friendly visuals. -JM

16. “Slither” (2006)

SLITHER, Brenda James, Nathan Fillion, Don Thompson, Jennifer Copping, 2006, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
“Slither” ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Before James Gunn brought his playful, maximalist style to mainstream superhero films, he delivered a blast of pure B-movie fun in his directorial debut, “Slither.” A blend of ’50s alien invasion films, Cronenberg body horror, and splatter films, “Slither” renders a typical alien parasite tale in its most disgusting possible form, creating fleshy, ooze-laden set pieces that will make you think twice about watching it with a snack in hand. The game cast led by Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks bring the humor, although the real star of the show is the special effects, which renders Mickey Rourke into a pussy giant monster both comical and hideous. It’s easy to see why a film as proudly gross as “Slither” bombed at the box office. And yet, its gleeful mix of humor with horror has an undeniable charm, as long as you have a strong stomach. —WC

15. “Attack the Block” (2011)

Attack the Block
“Attack the Block”Screen Gems

“Moses! Moses! Moses!” More than just a star-making opportunity for John Boyega or a desperately needed alternative for people who were sick of watching “The Ten Commandments” every Passover, Joe Cornish’s sci-fi delight is an alien invasion movie that earns a spot on this list by blowing a hole right through the usual genre tropes. The antic story of a South London street gang who find themselves warding off the end of the world from the upper floors of their council estate, “Attack the Block” boasts such a deep roster of memorable characters that it could probably leave the extra-terrestrial threat to our imaginations. But it doesn’t. On the contrary, Cornish leans into the challenge, whipping up a rabid army of space apes that are way too gnarly to keep off-screen. Covered in spiky black fur that doesn’t reflect any light, and fronted by rows of fluorescent blue teeth that glow in the dark, these creatures are almost as cool as the people who fight to stop them, Moses and his crew risking their lives to save a planet that has never never done enough to protect kids like them. —DE

14. “Cloverfield” (2008)


“Cloverfield” arrived rather early into J.J. Abrams’ Hollywood takeover, but none of his other projects — either before or since — have so perfectly embodied his strengths as a showman. Beginning with a surprise trailer before “Transformers,” Abrams’ greatest mystery box hatched a monster so compelling that we’re still wondering about it today, as the “Cloverfield” name alone proved enough to spawn an ongoing series of spinoffs. Of course, Matt Reeves deserves his own share of credit for directing the thing, the future “Apes” filmmaker tapping into post-9/11 trauma and the rise of digital video to create a found-footage masterpiece that’s resourceful and spectacular in equal measure. Sure, the human characters are kind of dumb, but the monster disposes of them all in due time, leaving behind only pixelated memories and the splash of something shiny in the distance. Shame about the Time Warner Center, though. —DE

13. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008)

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”
“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”

If the first “Hellboy” is a nice little appetizer for Mike Mignola’s comic book world, the sequel is a full-blown 10-course feast. Still the best and most beautiful movie that Guillermo del Toro has ever made, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” ups the ante on the original in a way that superhero franchises no longer seem capable of doing. Not only is the motley crew at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense a lot richer and more detailed in this installment, but the supernatural world beneath New York City is absolutely teeming with unforgettable monsters. From the savage little tooth fairies that swarm around Hellboy’s team, to the forest god that sprouts along the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the mechanical Golden Army itself, the movie is like the pages of del Toro’s famous notebook come to life in living color. There’s more wicked imagination in that market scene alone than there is in most entire fantasy series. Yeah, it’s sad that del Toro was never able to make a third chapter, but where the hell could he possibly have gone from here? —DE

12. “Godzilla” (2014)


It may not be the king of all monster movies, but the sheer scope and scale of this reboot was the first in a great long while to do what films of its kind should: make us humans look utterly insignificant in the face of its massive kaiju. It certainly helps that Godzilla’s supporting cast included the likes of Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, and David Strathairn, but “Monsters” director Gareth Edwards was wise to ensure that none of them stole this movie’s namesake’s thunder. And how could they? Godzilla is envisioned here as a city-destroying (and, when the occasion calls for it, -saving) entity whom all of us are powerless to stop. All we can really do is follow Watanabe’s directive: let them fight. —MN

11. “The Village” (2004)

“The Village”
“The Village”

It’s no spoiler to say that the real monsters in “The Village” don’t live in the woods. M. Night Shyamalan’s most underrated film — and the one that began turning public opinion against him — suffered from the fact that viewers who went out of their way to figure out the ending in advance were able to do so, but its joys don’t arise from the twists and turns of its narrative. Rather, they circle around Roger Deakins’ lush visuals, the vividly unsettling atmosphere of the village itself, and a trio of exceptional performances courtesy of Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Those hooded, wolf-like creatures lurking in the woods are as evocative as they are frightful, which is why the film’s detractors are partially right — “The Village” is so haunting as is that it never needed a surprise ending. —MN

10. “The Descent” (2005)

Neil Marshall's The Descent
“The Descent”

It says a lot that the subterranean creatures that eventually appear in “The Descent” almost feel like a relief. Watching characters being hunted down by horrifying mutants with night vision is what we sign up for when we plop down for a good scare; nearly passing out from holding your breath while watching the women wriggle through an impossibly small passages while cave exploring is not. But the taut suspense that the film’s early half builds by introducing very real stakes allows the eventual discovery of cannibalistic creatures to pay off in spades. Like so many of the best horror films, “The Descent” knows how much we fear what lies waiting in the dark, and pairs it perfectly with the fear of being stranded and swallowed by the vastness of nature. And it’s enough to make you never want to leave your couch again. —JR

9. “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012)

“The Cabin in the Woods”
“The Cabin in the Woods”

Is there anything more joyous and horrifying than that cacophony of gore that explodes during the brilliant elevator scene in “The Cabin in the Woods?” Joss Whedon didn’t just subvert every horror movie cliche for a laugh (god bless Chris Hemsworth as the gorgeous blonde “mimbo”), but he gave everything a dark and delicious twist worthy of a “Black Mirror” episode. “Cabin in the Woods” calls up a slew of memorable monsters, including the chilling revelation of endless cubes filled with snarling terrors that would keep H.P. Lovecraft awake at night. But scarier still, are Sigourney Weaver and the workers, who place bets on who will die first and shrug at the slaughter as necessary collateral damage. —JR

8. “Monsters Inc.” (2001)

MONSTERS INC., Randall Boggs, Sulley, Mike Wazowski, 2001, (c) Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection
“Monsters Inc.” ©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Not all monster films have to be scary. The cast of Pixar’s early aughts gem “Monsters Inc.” are far more cuddly than frightening, particularly short one-eyed Mike Wakowzki (Billy Crystal) and the fur monster James Sulley (John Goodman). These two best friends work for their city’s power plant, which uses the screams of human children as an energy source. But when the two accidentally let a human girl into their world, they’re forced on a mission to send her back home that exposes corruption in their company. One of Pixar’s most inventive films, “Monsters Inc.” is the most purely funny movie the company ever made, thanks to brilliant performances from the vocal cast (also including standouts like Steve Buscemi and Jennifer Tilly) and a whip-smart script. And though the monsters in the film won’t scare you, the inventive and colorful character designs on display will definitely wow you. —WC

7. “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)

PAN'S LABYRINTH, (aka EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO), Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, 2006. ©Picturehouse/courtesy Everett Collection
“Pan’s Labyrinth”Picturehouse/Courtesy Everett Collection

Still the high-water mark of Guillermo Del Toro’s career, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is the film that most successfully mixes his love for the macabre with his ultimately gentle and humanistic outlook. Set in 1945 during the height of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship of Spain, the dark fairytale weaves real-world horror with imagined fantasy via the journey of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a 10-year-old girl and stepdaughter of a ruthless Falangist Captain who discovers a labyrinth filled with bizarre and often horrifying creatures. Del Toro’s immaculate sense of style results in some of the most gorgeous and memorable movie monsters in recent memory, particularly the terrifying eye-handed Pale Man. But that style, more than some of his other films, isn’t all “Pan’s Labyrinth” has to offer; its story of childhood innocence and coming-of-age is genuinely moving, and earns the tears it provokes from you. —WC

6. “Shin Godzilla” (2016)

“Shin Godzilla”
“Shin Godzilla”

The best “Godzilla” film of the century so far, “Shin Godzilla” is a subversive and radical reinvention of the iconic kaiju monster. Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, the 2016 soft reboot of the Toho franchise picks apart the mythology of the King of the Monsters to examine the core tragedy underneath. This Godzilla is an unknowable, shapeshifting creature from the depths of the sea, a hulking monstrosity whose body seems to be splitting apart in pain. Writing the film, Anno heavily based this nightmarish and haunting portrayal of Godzilla on the 2011 Japanese tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, bringing the character back to his roots as a symbol of real-world horrors. And indeed, the scariest part of “Shin Godzilla” might not be the monster himself, but the exacting, damning portrayal of the Japanese government’s inaction and ineptitude in the face of a life-threatening disaster. Kaiju films often get a rap as brainless spectacles; “Shin Godzilla” proves they can terrify and provoke. —WC

5. “Ginger Snaps” (2000)

GINGER SNAPS, Katharine Isabelle, Emily Perkins, 2000. ©Unapix Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection
“Ginger Snaps” ©Unapix Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection

Werewolves have been used as a metaphor for sexuality dozens of times in film, but 2000 cult classic “Ginger Snaps” flips the script to tell a strongly female-focused spin on the conceit. The Canadian film from director John Fawcett and screenwriter Karen Walton stars Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle as Brigitte and Ginger, two teen sisters with a morbid fascination with death and a tight bond. On the night Ginger gets her period for the first time, she’s attacked by a mysterious creature, and begins developing werewolf symptoms that drive a wedge between her and Brigitte. The parallels between her development as a werewolf and female puberty are incredibly obvious, but the film’s self-aware, off-kilter tone makes the metaphor fresh and clever. “Ginger Snaps” isn’t just a comedy though; its werewolf effects genuinely terrify, while Perkins and Isabelle both deliver believable performances as two siblings that sell the film’s ultimate tragedy. —WC

4. “The Babadook” (2014)

“The Babadook”<cite>Entertainment One</cite>
“The Babadook”Entertainment One

One of the most harrowingly accurate movies ever made about living with grief and the guilt that comes with it, Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” leverages dozens of traditional horror tropes into a wrenching portrait of the human pain to which no other genre has such immediate access. Anchored by Essie Davis’ unforgettable turn as a single mother who’s still living in the shadow of her husband’s death six (the result of a car accident on their way to the delivery room), Kent’s brilliant debut feature uses terror as a way to plunge deeper into its heroine’s heartache. The Babadook itself is a marvel (and a burgeoning gay icon?), the amorphous creature popping out from the pages of a mysterious children’s book to wreak all sorts of Rorschach-like havoc on the poor Australian woman who brought it into her home. Yes, the monster is a clear metaphor for depression, but few films have so viscerally realized the residual agony of loss, and how it can never be fully extinguished. —DE

3. “The Mist” (2007)

“The Mist”
“The Mist”

Once upon a time, before stuff like “It” and “Gerald’s Game” clouded up the middle ground, there were really only two kinds of Stephen King adaptations: The ones that disgraced their source material, and the ones that elevated the author’s novels and short stories to stunning new heights. Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” much like Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” was (and remains) definitely one of the latter. The action is confined to the sterile confines of a Maine supermarket, where local shoppers find themselves trying to make sense of the thick fog that has enveloped their town (and to survive the profoundly wretched monsters that live inside the impenetrable white clouds). As the tension grows between Thomas Jane’s decent-hearted painter and Marcia Gay Harden’s lunatic doomsayer, the film rots into a morality play about hope that eventually starts to feel like a grim response to “Children of Men.” The unforgettable final scene, which even King himself admits improves on his novella, cements “The Mist” as an unflinching battle for the dark heart of humanity — one that can’t be so easily won. Of course, none of it would cut so deep if not for the nightmare-inducing creature design. From the hideous spider monsters (and their acid-tinged webs) to the towering colossus that stands above the clouds, these living phobias are the rare movie beasts that are even scarier on screen than they are in your imagination.  —DE

2. “Under the Skin” (2014)

“Under the Skin”
“Under the Skin”

There are many kinds of monsters, some more overt than others. And though one could easily argue that Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien isn’t one at all, there’s no denying that it’s she who leads unsuspecting randos into a liquid black void of a room where they’re punished for their horniness with an otherworldly death sentence. As Mica Levi’s beautifully unsettling score plays each of these lambs off to the slaughter, a troubling thought emerges: Who’s to say we wouldn’t be naive enough to follow her into that room? The actress practically specializes in either disembodied or not-quite-human performances at this point — not only here but in “Lucy,” “Her,” and even “The Jungle Book” — and reflecting troubling truths back at us. —MN

1. “The Host” (2006)

Bong Joon-ho The Host
“The Host”

The origins of Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” flow back to the deformed fish in the filmmaker’s beloved Han River. The monster itself, which Bong and his team modeled after Steve Buscemi’s feral performance in “Fargo,” is a perfect synecdoche of Bong’s film: thrilling, silly, and unpredictable until to bitter end. This is where audiences first discovered the joy the director takes in conducting beautiful symphonies of not-so-bright characters, and the moral ambiguity that such perfect idiots tend to leave in their wake — we’re oddly grounded with the movie’s amphibious creation, who rampages through a story that would rather obliterate the line between good and evil than try to draw one of its own. Bong is not a politically subtle filmmaker, but seldom has he been sophisticated in his exploration of South Korea’s cultural identity (and the impact that outside forces may continue to exert upon it) in a film that feels as playful as it is deadly serious. —CO

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