King Kong, from King Kong (1933). In terms of special effects, the big ape in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake might look better, but it’s hard to top the badassity of Kong 1.0, who leaves people flopping about like squished bugs after he steps on them. This Kong has no time for ice-dancing excursions. Pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s work is still an impressive sight after all these years.
Badassitude Level: Eighth wonder, people.
Godzilla, from Gojira (1954). A prehistoric mutant creature accidentally created by radiation from a nuclear explosion, Godzilla might be the most iconic movie monster of all time. As the series of Godzilla films progressed, he went from menacing threat to hero, and thus less badass (though in later films he was more of an antihero). But in director Ishiro Honda’s original film (not the “Americanized” re-edited version released here in 1956), the allegorical elements warning of the dangers of nuclear testing are much more prominent. Godzilla has admittedly never looked realistic — it’s all too obviously a guy in a lizard suit stomping on unconvincing miniature sets — but he’s never looked as menacing as he did in the original, in glorious black and white.
Badassitude Level: Two words — atomic breath.
The Ymir, from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). A list like this wouldn’t be complete without something from stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen, creator of animated skeletons, giant crabs, and many other exotic beasts. (One of my favorite Harryhausen creations isn’t a creature at all, however — it’s the spinning saucers from 1956′s Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers.) The Ymir, which comes from Venus, “runs amok on Earth,” according to the trailer for 20 Million Miles to Earth, and partially lays waste to the Roman Colosseum, hurling large slabs of stone onto the soldiers trying to bring him down. I can always appreciate a monster that destroys monuments.
Badassitude Level: Doubles in size every night!
T-Rex, from Jurassic Park (1993). “But what about the velociraptors?” you say. Need I remind you that the T-Rex ends up eating the raptors at the end of the movie, then lets out a mighty roar as a banner that says “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” slowly falls to the floor? A blend of complex Stan Winston robotics and computer-generated imagery gave birth to living, breathing movie dinosaurs for the first time ever.
Badassitude Level: Eats the lawyer first.
Shelob, from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Quite simply the best realization of a giant spider in all of cinema, Shelob is able to scrunch her body in order to navigate through tight spaces, and is the only giant movie spider I can think of that actually moves with the agility of a real spider.
Badassitude Level: She’s always hungry.
The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, from Ghostbusters (1984). A physical embodiment of the Sumerian god Gozer, its very existence is all Dan Aykroyd’s fault: his character, Ray Stantz, is the one who wills Mr. Stay-Puft into being when the Ghostbusters are informed that Gozer will assume the shape of whatever they think of next. Initially the mascot has a welcoming smile, but don’t let that fool you — it’s big and mean and made of marshmallows.
Badassitude Level: The only way to take it down is to cross the streams — and that’s “bad.”
The Alien Queen, from Aliens (1986). “So who’s laying these eggs?” asks Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). “It must be something we haven’t seen yet,” answers Bishop (Lance Henriksen). Indeed. Revealed late in the film, the Alien Queen is, without a doubt, the biggest and baddest of all the aliens we’ve seen thus far, created with a blend of hydraulics and puppetry that required something like 18 people just to operate it. The only way to conquer the Queen is to eject her into space from an airlock (with the assistance of a cargo loader), but I’m not convinced that actually killed the thing.
Badassitude Level: Lays both eggs and serious smackdown.
The Crate Monster, from Creepshow (1982). In the fourth segment of this horror anthology, a janitor finds an old crate with something about an 1834 arctic expedition mysteriously stenciled on it. Inside, locked up but somehow still alive after all these years, is a short, stocky, incredibly agile gorillalike animal with long, razor-sharp teeth and claws that can effortlessly scratch the skin off your skull. It’s also one of the few creatures on this list that actually survives the events of the movie.
Badassitude Level: Don’t even bother measuring the bite marks.
The Monster, from Cloverfield (2008). The origins of the monster are unknown, though one cool hint is “dropped” at the end of the film, and many fun theories exist online. The monster, glimpsed only briefly through a camcorder, is a very impressive and menacing sight as it goes on a rampage through New York City and engages in full-scale battles with the military, which take place (mostly) off-screen. Producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves created a movie composed entirely of “found” footage that sticks to its premise in a very ballsy way.
Badassitude Level: Decapitates the Statue of Liberty. Need I say more?
The Rabbit, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). This “cute” little bunny rabbit bites a knight’s head clean off and takes out at least three others before he’s taken down by the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. If only the knights had heeded the warning of Tim the Enchanter.
Badassitude Level: Look at the bones!
The Shark, from Jaws (1975). Twenty-five feet long, weighing three tons, this mofo can jump onto the back of a boat and make a man slide down into its mouth, right after it’s finished tearing apart a so-called anti-shark cage. No fewer than three mechanical sharks were used by director Steven Spielberg’s crew, not to mention some actual footage of great white sharks, all blended together through some very skillful film editing by Verna Fields.
Badassitude Level: “This shark … swallow you whole.”
The Balrog, from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Major props go to the cave troll from this first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but for the sheer “seriously, don’t fuck with it” factor, you can’t beat a demon of the ancient world comprised of shadow and flame, who’s awakened by dwarves who got greedy and mined too deeply. Only Gandalf the Grey can stand up to the Balrog, and the ensuing fight is so epic it carries on into the next movie.
Badassitude Level: Seriously, don’t fuck with it.
Vermithrax Pejorative, from Dragonslayer (1981). Old, tired, and constantly pissed off, Vermithrax gets my vote for the most badass cinematic creature of all time as well as the best on-screen realization of a dragon (sorry, Dragonheart). “When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain,” says the sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson). Many cinematic tricks were used here, including a full-sized hydraulic model, puppetry, and “go-motion,” a slightly more sophisticated version of stop-motion codeveloped by visual effects wizard Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park, Return of the Jedi). Those “old-school” practical effects have held up well, especially during the flying sequences.
Badassitude Level: Did I mention the part about breathing fire?