What makes a monster horror movie? For the purpose of this article I will do my best to define their je ne sais quoi as “man vs beast.” Blending violence with survival horror, our main characters must contend with something that is both violent and a viable threat. That something could be humanoid in build and exhibit sentience, terrestrial or extraterrestrial, monstrous and mutated, or an animal we are familiar with but now must fight to survive. Sadly it isn’t every year that greats like The Host (2013) or Attack the Block (2011) are released, and if you are like me then you are always on the lookout for films featuring big baddies. I’ve done some digging and come up with a list of a few you may have missed.
Sweetheart (2019) by J.D. Dillard
A woman survives a shipwreck at sea to find herself stranded on a deserted island. The trials of surviving without modernity soon become compounded when she realizes she isn’t alone. A great survival horror where multiplying tensions raise the stakes to near insurmountable odds.
What makes this movie special: Kiersey Clemons’ performance is incredible. There is relatively little dialogue, but her dynamic acting conveys so much that I never felt bored. The setting is gorgeous and with great cinematography (god bless drones allowing for low budget films to have sweeping scenery shots), and watching Clemons interact with it is engaging, even before the big baddie crashes onto the scene.
Cold Skin (2020) by Xazier Gens
An unnamed meteorologist in the early 1900s is dropped off on a remote island in the Arctic Circle. On arrival he meets the lighthouse keeper, a man who is rough around the edges (to say the least), and goes by the name Grunder. At first, the overly fortified lighthouse seems odd, until the first night spent on the island brings waves of blue man-like creatures attacking his cabin. Friend, as the meteorologist becomes known, must then join forces with Grunder to survive, but can he survive without becoming a monster himself?
What makes this movie special: There are some truly uncomfortable scenes in this movie that continue to creep me out, and the typical “Is man really the monster?” question is addressed head-on in a way I thoroughly enjoyed. Much like The Lighthouse, this movie plays on the tensions isolation can put on two individuals. Grunder is primal and intolerant, while Friend is very much the gentleman with his highfalutin books and tendency to wax philosophical, but the movie avoids melodrama of character interactions. While the monsters are scary, the philosophical and existential threats are just as haunting.
The Head Hunter (2018) by Jordan Downey
An atmospheric and sparse tale of a vaguely Scandinavian warrior who is searching for the monster who killed his daughter, and bringing home the heads of every monster he kills in the meantime. When he finally does encounter the very monster he has been searching for, things don’t go according to plan.
What makes this movie special: This film was made with a mere $30,000 dollar budget, and though the film is stripped down to the bare essentials, it never feels lacking at any moment. The practical effects are a delight and could have been a joke in the hands of a less skilled director, but lighting and sound effects, and the willpower to hold back and show only what is necessary, make what may have been a Halloween prop into something chilling. Also, the main character’s home literally has a wall full of spikes that he has mounted monster heads on that a prop team actually created… what’s not to love! As a fan of Scandinavian and British/Germanic lore I found myself geeking out looking for all of the cameos various creatures made on said wall (I also heavily wished I could buy such ornaments for my own home).
Love and Monsters (2020) by Michael Matthews
A young man decides to leave his underground stronghold and trudge out across a mutant monster filled landscape in order to visit his pre-apocalypse girlfriend. On his journey he sees first hand how the world has changed, makes some friends (including one ADORABLE dog), comes face-to-face with several monsters, all while learning things are not as he has been led to believe.
What makes this movie special: I would classify this film as a family-friendly horror or an action comedy in the vein of Warm Bodies (2013) and Fido (2006), but it still has a lot of the elements fans of monster and survival horror may be looking for. The monsters (of which there are plenty) are simultaneously original, humorous, and terrifying, and created using high budget graphics. Throughout the film the humorous and heartfelt tone is balanced well with the violence and very real possibility of death, giving the viewer a genuinely fun watch that still has a bite.
Crawl (2019) by Alexendre Aja
As a hurricane barrels down on the Florida Keys, a father and daughter find themselves stuck in an increasingly water filled crawl space as alligators hunt them.
What makes this movie special: As a disclaimer, I am originally a Florida girl, and everything about this movie played on real Florida fears; from hurricanes and flooding, to alligators, and even crawl spaces which are Florida’s nightmare version of a basement. As opposed to most alligator and crocodile films which blow their antagonists into fantasy proportions of 20 plus feet and often give them human sentience, Crawl features scaly boys that look and feel more like the monsters I grew up with. There are a couple cartoonish moments, but overall I was impressed. As a bonus, we get to watch the incredible Barry Pepper, the master of minimal but devastating acting, alongside a heart-wrenching performance by Kaya Scodelario. I genuinely wanted to see these folks make it out alive and this movie did a great job of making me feel like there was no way they would.
The Dustwalker (2019) by Sandra Sciberras
As a massive sandstorm approaches a small town in Australia, peaceful residents begin transforming into violent creatures and attacking anyone they spot… even loved ones. To make matters worse, a large mysterious creature is prowling through, and under, the town. When an exploratory team tries to leave town through the sandstorm they always end up back where they started, facing the town. Trapped, the remaining residents must fight for survival.
What makes this movie special: This one is a little different than the others as there isn’t as much creature vs. man action, but instead it is a hybrid contagion/zombie-adjacent, monster, and alien film. What I really liked was that the characters’ reactions felt authentic and just how people in a small town would interact with each other and react to this bizarre and horrifying scenario. For low-budget horror, I was impressed.