Before we get too deep into tonight's discussion, a big thank you to Daffy for filling in last night when my laptop turned evil. Or maybe it was always evil, waiting for the moment to strike. Regardless, the man is a good friend and a great writer, and deserves kudos.
Giant monster movies are often considered the ugly stepchild in the horror community. They're not scary, the effects are laughable by today's standards, and there's a lot of sloppy editing, not to mention the ridiculously bad dubbing that's become a joke in itself. So why have they endured? What makes these characters so iconic, the thrills so durable, the imagery so revealing? And above all, what makes them so much damn fun?
What most people don't get is that most of these films were written to illustrate something far more important than a radioactive beast wreaking havoc on metropolitan areas. Godzilla (1954) in particular was social commentary of the most sobering kind. Sure, you can watch it as a slow-paced monster movie about a lumbering gray lizard, but when you learn that the scaly critter's destruction was symbolic of the damage caused by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki... well, you pay a little more attention to the action in the film and the way it's shown, how the citizenry react and dozens of other little details. Anyone who thinks that Romero was the first director to substitute monsters for social problems/world issues is sorely mistaken.
Of course, there was good old-fashioned fun to be had too. Naturally, American audiences wanted something more lightweight with their monsters, and so King Kong was born in 1933. One of the first movie monsters not to be based on an existing property, Kong was unique in being a clearly inhuman creature who nevertheless displayed complex emotion and desired a connection with a beautiful woman. The movie was lauded for its interesting story and then-radical visual effects which still amaze today, especially knowing what they had to work with. Willis O'Brien = genius.
Everyone's heard of Godzilla and Kong, of course, but there are literally dozens of different giant animals that populated movie theaters from the 1930s through the 1970s, most of them created by the Tokyo-based Toho Company as allies or enemies for Godzilla. Giant monster movies have been few and far between in the last 40 years, although there were offshoots in the "freaks of nature" category, such as Jaws.
Thanks to the ever-decreasing expense of CGI and fan interest in old-school shlock, waves of giant monster flicks have been released in the last few years. Most of them are pretty terrible, but they're still somehow incredibly watchable. A handful have actually been good, like Cloverfield or The Host. And the images of the classic monsters have been kept afloat with remakes, sequels, and appearances in other media.
That's all well and good, but I haven't exactly answered the question of what makes these movies so much damn fun. It's as simple and as complex as you could imagine. These movies last because they offer the over-the-top nonsense of professional wrestling with the storytelling weight of classic horror literature. The filmmakers who did it best always knew: lure the crowd in by advertising the big bout between the monsters, then slip in some shrewd social commentary that gets 'em thinking. Why do you think zombies have remained popular? In the best of these movies, the monsters are never just monsters. They're also atomic bombs, or STDs, or consumerism, or racism. Just a guy in a rubber suit? No, it's a lot more than that.