Creature features came to me when I was really young. The Blob was shot near my home in Pennsylvania, I had a Wolfman costume, and I think I watched Jaws over a hundred times one summer. I wore out the special edition VHS.
But what are creature features?
Creature features have been a staple in the world of horror movies and television for decades. With a diverse range of monsters, creatures, and supernatural beings, these films and shows have both terrified and delighted audiences for generations.
In today's article, we will delve into the creature feature definition, explore its origins, and provide examples of some of the most iconic and memorable creature features in film and TV history.
So grab your popcorn, turn off the lights, and let's journey through the world of creature features.
'The Blob'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Table of Contents
What is a Creature Feature? (Definition)
These creatures can range from fantastical beings, like werewolves and vampires, to extraterrestrial beings, mutated animals, or entirely new, unique creatures created specifically for a film or television show.
The creature feature encompasses a wide variety of stories, settings, and monsters.
However, the central focus on a non-human antagonist is what sets this sub-genre apart from other types of horror films and shows.
'Dracula'Credit: Universal Pictures
The Origins of Creature Features
Where did the creature feature genre come from?
The roots of creature features can be traced back to the early days of cinema, with films such as the 1925 silent film The Lost World and the 1933 classic King Kong. As a bonus, I still love this ride at Universal Studios.
King Kong was an early creature feature that showed the staying power of a good creature. They become part of the cultural lexicon and never leave.
These early films introduced audiences to the concept of giant, monstrous beings that wreak havoc on the world around them. As technology and special effects evolved, so too did the creatures and stories featured in these films.
'King Kong'Credit: Universal Pictures
Universal Monsters: The Golden Age of Horror
Universal became famous for its creature features. The Golden Age of Horror refers to a specific period in the history of cinema when Universal Studios produced and released a series of iconic horror films featuring classic monsters. These films were released primarily between the 1920s and 1950s, and they played a significant role in shaping the horror genre and influencing subsequent generations of filmmakers.
They even toyed with bringing them back to jumpstart a shared universe a few years ago. But that went nowhere.
Regardless, The Universal Monsters franchise included several well-known characters that have become cultural icons. Here are some of the most famous monsters from this era:
Dracula (1931): Starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, this film is one of the earliest adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel. Lugosi's portrayal of the suave and hypnotic vampire set the standard for future depictions of Dracula.
Frankenstein (1931): Boris Karloff portrayed the monster in this adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. The film was known for its atmospheric visuals and Karloff's sympathetic portrayal of the creature.
The Mummy(1932): Boris Karloff also starred in this film as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest who is accidentally revived and seeks to reunite with his lost love. The Mummy introduced the concept of a reanimated mummy and its curse.
The Invisible Man (1933): Directed by James Whale, this film featured Claude Rains as a scientist who discovers the formula for invisibility but slowly descends into madness. The film was notable for its groundbreaking visual effects and dark humor.
The Wolf Man (1941): Lon Chaney Jr. played the role of Lawrence Talbot, who is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one himself. This film popularized the werewolf archetype in cinema and spawned several sequels.
These films were groundbreaking for their time, featuring atmospheric cinematography, iconic makeup effects, and captivating performances. They were highly influential, establishing many of the tropes and archetypes that are still associated with these monsters today.
They're so much fun to revisit. They are the foundation for most creature features today.
'The Mummy'Credit: Universal Pictures
The Atomic Age: Science Fiction Meets Horror
The cool thing about these kinds of movies is that they usually reflect the culture of the time and what's scaring people. In the 1950s, the world was gripped by fears of nuclear war and the potential consequences of atomic power.
During the Atomic Age, science fiction horror films often focused on themes such as radiation, mutations, apocalyptic scenarios, and the dangers of tampering with nature. These movies reflected the prevalent concerns of the time, as the atomic bomb had been used in warfare, and people were becoming aware of the destructive power of nuclear technology.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953): This film, directed by Eugène Lourié, features a prehistoric creature awakened by an atomic bomb test in the Arctic. It terrorizes cities along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Godzilla (1954): Directed by Ishirō Honda, this iconic Japanese film introduced the world to Godzilla, a giant radioactive monster awakened by nuclear tests. The movie used the creature as a metaphor for the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
Them!(1954): Directed by Gordon Douglas, this film focuses on giant irradiated ants that threaten humanity after nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert. It explores the idea of atomic radiation causing mutations in insects.
The Fly(1958): Directed by Kurt Neumann, this film tells the story of a scientist who accidentally merges his DNA with that of a fly during a teleportation experiment. It explores themes of scientific experimentation gone wrong and the consequences of meddling with nature.
'Them!'Credit: Warner Brothers
The Rise of the Kaiju: Monster Films from Japan
Kaiju films have been a significant part of Japanese popular culture and have gained international recognition.
Kaiju is a Japanese term that translates to "strange creature" or "giant monster." It refers to a genre of films and other media that feature gigantic creatures, typically of immense size and destructive power, engaged in battles with each other or with human forces.
The genre of Kaiju emerged in the 1950s in Japan, largely influenced by the Atomic Age and the popularity of giant monster films. The most famous and iconic Kaiju character is Godzilla, often referred to as the "King of the Monsters."
Godzilla made its first appearance in the 1954 film Godzilla, directed by Ishirō Honda. The movie presented Godzilla as a massive, dinosaur-like creature awakened and mutated by nuclear weapons testing.
Following the success of Godzilla, numerous other Kaiju films were produced, featuring a variety of monstrous creatures. These films often showcased epic battles between Kaiju, wreaking havoc on cities and landscapes while drawing attention to the potential dangers of nuclear weapons and other human-made disasters.
Godzilla, and other kaiju like Mothra and Gamera, would go on to become iconic figures in the world of creature features.
Creature Feature Examples: Iconic Films and Television Shows
Throughout the years, there have been countless creature features that have left their mark on the genre.
Modern creature features demonstrate the diverse approaches and themes within the genre, ranging from found-footage styles to post-apocalyptic settings and incorporating elements of horror, suspense, and even humor.
While the examples listed above provide a glimpse into the genre, numerous other contemporary films offer unique creature-driven experiences, showcasing the ongoing fascination with monstrous creatures and their impact on human lives.
Cloverfield (2008): Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, this found-footage-style film follows a group of friends who encounter a giant monster attacking New York City. The movie blends the creature's destructive rampage with the personal struggles and relationships of the characters.
The Host(2006): Directed by Bong Joon-ho, this South Korean film revolves around a mutated creature that emerges from the Han River and begins capturing and terrorizing people. The movie combines elements of horror, drama, and dark humor, exploring the effects of the creature's presence on a dysfunctional family.
A Quiet Place (2018): Directed by John Krasinski, this critically acclaimed film presents a post-apocalyptic world where deadly creatures with hypersensitive hearing hunt by sound. The story follows a family navigating a silent existence to survive. The film emphasizes tension, suspense, and the family's struggle to protect themselves and communicate without making noise.
Tremors (1990) and its sequels: This franchise, consisting of multiple films and a TV series, revolves around a small desert town that becomes infested with gigantic underground worms known as "Graboids." The films combine comedy, action, and horror elements as the townspeople fight for their lives against the relentless creatures.
The Ritual (2017): Directed by David Bruckner, this British horror film follows a group of friends on a hiking trip in Sweden, where they encounter a malevolent creature lurking in the woods. The film explores themes of guilt, trauma, and the psychological horrors unleashed by the creature.
'Cloverfield'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Creature Feature Television Shows
Guess what? These kinds of stories are not limited to movies. There are lots of TV shows that incorporate these elements. Think about the smoke monster on Lost and some of the beasts in Stranger Things.
Creature feature television shows are television series that revolves around the presence of creatures, monsters, or supernatural beings as a central element of the show. These shows often explore the horror, suspense, and supernatural genres, offering viewers thrilling and sometimes terrifying encounters with various creatures.
Stranger Things (2016-present): This Netflix original series created by the Duffer Brothers combines elements of science fiction, horror, and supernatural beings. Set in the 1980s, the show follows a group of kids as they encounter a parallel dimension called the Upside Down and face off against monsters from that realm.
Supernatural(2005-2020): This long-running series follows two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who hunt supernatural creatures, including ghosts, demons, vampires, and various monsters. Each episode features a different creature and explores its mythology within the show's overarching storyline.
The X-Files (1993-2018): Created by Chris Carter, this iconic series revolves around FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigate unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena, extraterrestrial life, and cryptids. The show features a wide range of creatures and monsters encountered by the agents throughout its run.
Penny Dreadful(2014-2016): This Gothic horror series takes place in Victorian England and brings together characters from classic literature, including Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and Dorian Gray. The show delves into the dark and supernatural aspects of their stories, creating a haunting and atmospheric creature-filled world.
Grimm (2011-2017): This fantasy police procedural series follows Nick Burkhardt, a detective who discovers that he is a descendant of an elite line of monster hunters known as Grimms. He must balance his duties as a detective with protecting humanity from dangerous creatures inspired by fairy tales and folklore.
These creatures feature television shows that offer a mix of horror, suspense, and supernatural elements, often exploring the mythology and lore surrounding various creatures and monsters. They provide viewers with ongoing storylines, character development, and a diverse range of creature encounters to keep them engaged and entertained.
'Stranger Things'Credit: Netflix
Creature Features and Their Impact on the Horror Genre
Creature features have played a significant role in shaping the horror genre in film and television. These films often push the boundaries of special effects, creating not only terrifying monsters but also awe-inspiring visuals that captivate audiences.
To do that, everything needs to feel real.
The Importance of Practical Effects in Creature Features
One aspect of creature features that have greatly impacted the horror genre is the use of practical effects to bring the monsters to life. From the early days of stop-motion animation to the more advanced animatronics and prosthetics used in modern films, practical effects have allowed filmmakers to create believable, memorable creatures that have left a lasting impression on the genre.
- Realism and Tangibility: Practical effects involve physical, tangible elements created using makeup, prosthetics, animatronics, puppetry, and other practical techniques. These effects can be touched, interacted with, and manipulated by actors and the environment, resulting in a sense of realism and authenticity. The physical presence of practical effects allows for more convincing interactions between creatures and actors, enhancing the immersion for both the performers and the audience.
- Emotional Impact: Practical effects have the potential to elicit strong emotional reactions from the audience. The sight of a well-crafted creature created through practical effects can evoke awe, fear, or disgust more immediately and viscerally compared to purely CGI creations. The tangible nature of practical effects can tap into primal emotions and create a deeper connection between the viewer and the creature on screen.
- Collaboration and Performance: Practical effects often require a collaborative effort involving makeup artists, sculptors, animatronics experts, and actors. The process of creating and operating practical effects involves teamwork and coordination, allowing actors to interact with physical elements and giving them something tangible to respond to. This collaboration can enhance the performances and result in more nuanced and realistic reactions from the actors, which translates to a more engaging on-screen experience.
- Authenticity and Nostalgia: Practical effects have a long history in creature features and are often associated with the classic films of the genre. Many fans appreciate practical effects for their nostalgic value and the craftsmanship involved in creating them. By using practical effects, filmmakers can pay homage to the legacy of practical creature effects in cinema and connect with audiences who have a fondness for the practical effects-driven creature features of the past.
- Creativity and Innovation: Practical effects require inventive problem-solving and creative thinking to bring creatures to life using physical materials and techniques. The limitations and challenges of practical effects can spur innovative approaches and push artists and technicians to find unique solutions. This creativity can lead to the creation of memorable and iconic creatures that become an integral part of the creature feature's identity.
While CGI has its merits and can complement practical effects, the importance of practical effects in creature features cannot be overstated.
They provide a tangible and visceral experience, elicit emotional responses, enhance performances, and contribute to the overall authenticity and impact of the creatures portrayed on screen.
'Jason and the Argonauts'Credit: Columbia Pictures
The Influence of Creature Features on Pop Culture
Like I said earlier, creatures that captivate audiences live on forever. and not just through remakes. they enter the cultural lexicon and become things we talk about. Film can be a universal language if your story can capture the hearts and minds of audiences.
Creature features have had a profound influence on pop culture, permeating various forms of entertainment and inspiring countless creators across different mediums. Here are some ways in which creature features have made their mark on pop culture:
Iconic Monsters: The creatures featured in classic creature features, such as Godzilla, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Wolf Man, have become cultural icons. These monsters have transcended their original films and have become widely recognized and referenced in popular culture. Their distinct appearances and characteristics have been parodied, homaged, and celebrated in various media, from cartoons and comics to toys and Halloween costumes.
Franchises and Spin-Offs: Creature features have spawned successful franchises and spin-offs, demonstrating their enduring popularity. Examples include the Godzilla franchise, which has expanded to numerous films, TV series, and crossover events, and the Alien franchise, which has expanded into a multimedia universe encompassing films, books, comics, and video games. These franchises have cultivated devoted fan bases and have continued to influence popular culture through their ongoing presence and storytelling.
Parodies and Homages: Creature features have been parodied and paid homage to in numerous comedic and satirical works. Films like Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012) take a comedic approach to classic horror and creature tropes, celebrating and playfully subverting the genre's conventions. These parodies and homages contribute to the continued visibility and recognition of creature features in popular culture.
References in Other Genres: Creature features have influenced and crossed over into other genres beyond horror. Elements and themes from creature features can be found in science fiction, action, and fantasy genres, blending and merging with other storytelling styles. For example, the Jurassic Park franchise combines the creature feature genre with science fiction and adventure, resulting in a global phenomenon that captivates audiences of all ages.
Merchandising and Fan Communities: Creature features have given rise to extensive merchandising, with toys, collectibles, and apparel featuring iconic creatures. Fan communities dedicated to creature features thrive, engaging in discussions, creating fan art, and organizing conventions and events. These communities contribute to the ongoing appreciation and celebration of creature features in pop culture.
Creature features have left their mark on popular culture, inspiring everything from toys and video games to theme park attractions and Halloween costumes.
The monsters and creatures from these films have become enduring icons, recognizable to fans of all ages.
'Frankenstein'Credit: Universal Pictures
The Future of Creature Features
What's going to scare us in the next five years? Ten? If you know, get writing now.
With advancements in technology and special effects, the possibilities for creature features are seemingly endless. As the horror genre continues to evolve and adapt to new trends and audience expectations, creature features will likely remain a vital and beloved part of the cinematic landscape.
From reboots of classic films to entirely new creations, the future of creature features is as promising and diverse as the monsters that inhabit them.
I am willing to bet AI creatures become all the rage, but that's just what scares me.
The creature feature definition encompasses a wide range of films and television shows that focus on non-human antagonists, often with a blend of horror and science fiction elements.
From their origins in the early days of cinema to their continued popularity in modern media, creature features have left an indelible mark on the horror genre and popular culture.
As we look toward the future, it is clear that creature features will continue to captivate, terrify, and delight audiences for generations to come.
Let me know your favorites in the comments.