Still the most iconic mega-monster of all time. Worshiped as a god at home on Skull Island, he's just another rube lost in New York, one who still manages to climb to the top before falling hard for a dame he can never have. Credit Willis O'Brien, the stop-motion animator who'd been creating movie monsters since the silent era (notably, the dinosaurs of 1925's "The Lost World") for bringing the big gorilla to such vivid, scary life that he continues to haunt our dreams 80 years later.
'The Thing' (1951)
That was the thing about The Thing: the shape-shifting alien could be anyone; it could even be you. In Howard Hawks's 1951 original (starring a pre-"Gunsmoke" James Arness as the creature), The Thing was a large plant-like creature that fed off human and animal blood and could regenerate severed limbs. Scary enough, but even scarier was the gory John Carpenter remake from 1982, generally considered one of the most frightening horror movies ever made, in which The Thing could mimic any life form it encountered. The 2011 version has the same title but is actually a prequel to the 1982 film. Don't be fooled; it's the Carpenter version that's the real "Thing."
'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' (1953)
A pedigreed monster from the pen of Ray Bradbury, the "Rhedosaurus" lizard was also one of the first creatures animated by the great Ray Harryhausen (who'd go on to do such wicked-cool monsters as the swordfighting skeletons of "Jason and the Argonauts" and the Kraken of the original "Clash of the Titans"). More significantly, this awakened dinosaur from the sea was also the first movie monster blamed on nuclear radiation, blazing a trail for Godzilla and many other classic kaiju, not to mention such New York-destroying creatures as the 1998 Godzilla and the "Cloverfield" sea monster.
'War of the Worlds' (1953)
Stop-motion animator George Pal updated H.G. Wells's Martian-invasion classic for the modern age, creating a vivid, terrifying Technicolor destructothon. The Martians themselves are barely shown; in this version, their chief distinguishing feature is a single eye with three different colored irises. They look like walking TV cameras, but thanks to Pal's Oscar-winning special effects (still shocking today), the Martians lay waste to pretty much the entire planet before succumbing to earthly microbes. This is the template for all alien-invasion chillers to come, including recent shockers like "independence Day" and the Steven Spielberg "War of the Worlds."
Toho Studios' lizard king, awakened from eons of hibernation by atomic blasts, became the ultimate symbol of nuclear-age anxiety for Japan, the only nation ever to have experienced the devastation of atomic warfare. But all monsters become respectable if they linger long enough, and eventually, Godzilla became the ultimate symbol of Japan and was the nation's heroic protector against even worse monsters in dozens of battles royale. Avoid the English-language imports, particularly the 1998 version by disaster master Roland Emmerich, where Godzilla is an immaculate and sterile CGI creation. Stick instead with the Japanese original, in all his cheesy, rubber-suited glory.
'The Blob' (1958)
The hungry hunk of red Jello arrives via metep, bringing an insatiable appetite and the ability to grow larger with every person and thing that it consumes, until it threatens to engulf a small town. The 1988 remake, starring Kevin "Drama" Dillon, isn't bad (it's certainly gorier than the original), but for cheesy, shivery fun, stick with the original, which gave the young Steve McQueen his first real opportunity to prove himself a badass leading man.
The giant, flying tortoise known as the Guardian of the Universe is second only to Godzilla among Japanese protectors of the homeland. Indeed, the fire-breathing amphibian was born of the rivalry between Godzilla franchise holder Toho Studios and the Daiei Motion Picture Company. Daiei's monster became a favorite of kids in Japan and America through a series of films and comic books over the last 50 years, in which the hard-shelled hero defends humanity against the Gyaos (a race of batlike demons) and other menaces.
H.R. Giger's slobbering, parasitic xenomorph has a lot to answer for, whether it's wiping out a spaceship crew in the initial 1979 film or killing off an entire human colony in 1986's "Aliens." The xenomorph is a remorseless, emotionless creature that can't be reasoned or bargained with -- indeed, it almost seems to take a quiet pleasure in hunting down its two-legged prey, thus giving rise to the "Predator" films and other far lesser imitators. On the other hand, it's the scariest creature in outer space, and it gave Sigourney Weaver a career. So there's that.
'Jurassic Park' (1993)
It's unlikely we'll ever be able to clone dinosaurs from DNA found in blood sucked by amber-preserved mosquitoes. Still, the Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptors of this Steven Spielberg classic are technological landmarks. A seamless hybrid of robotics from the lab of monster-maker Stan Winston and computer-generated imagery from Dennis Muren, the cloned lizards were the first major CGI creatures in a live-action film, paving the way for the "Star Wars" prequels, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Avatar," and nearly every other fantasy and sci-fi extravaganza since. Oh, and the no-longer-extinct carnivores were also scary as hell.
'Monsters, Inc.' (2001)
Pixar's Mike and Sulley may be thoroughly domesticated monsters, safe for the whole family, but the little cyclops and the big blue furball remind us that monsters really do serve a valuable, cathartic function. Given the success of current prequel "Monsters University," it's possible that this Disney duo could be jumping out of closets to give tykes delicious nightmares for some time to come.