The monster genre is one of cinema’s classic creations. And the monster itself is a creation that can haunt the imagination of audiences long after the credits. But what does a contemporary monster genre movie look like? And how do you create a monster that feels original and genuinely terrifying?
In this article, we’ll look at the monster genre and tackle the best way to write convincing and contemporary monsters.
Table of Contents
- What is a Monster?
- Important Structural Rules of the Monster Genre
- Contemporary Monster Film Analysis
- 1. The MonsterVerse
- 2. A Quiet Place (2018) & A Quiet Place Part II (2020)
- 3. It Follows (2014)
- Key Elements to Consider for a Convincing Monster
- In Conclusion
What is a Monster?
A monster is not generally what goes bump in the middle of the night. Monsters are more than that. They are what decapitate and eat you and your whole family in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, or during your most intimate moments.
Monsters might be wild, weigh tons, possess brute strength, and have sharp n’ scary teeth and claws which they use to commit extraordinary violent acts. Monsters can be supernatural, alien or man-made. In this regard, writers of monster genre stories have a pretty big, blank canvas.
So writing a contemporary monster may seem like child’s play, right? It might not be that hard to dream up a terrifying creature. The difficult part, however, is the development of a monster that convinces the audience and feels meaningful to the story and its themes.
Important Structural Rules of the Monster Genre
There are a number of shared traits that monster genre films will demonstrate. But the three outlined below highlight the key structural ticks of a monster film.
1. The Monster in Hiding
Monsters are typically not fully shown until close to the climax, although you will likely see them scamper through the shadows. The monster not shown vs. the audience wanting to see it creates tension. These kinds of stories thrive on tension. And whilst seeing the monster upfront can also create tension as we anticipate its force on the characters, it held back from the audience is often more satisfying.
Still, a monster might be shown in full, but a monster operating at full power/full violence will not be shown until around the climax. So, the audience can see Godzilla, but will not see his special power/brute-force until later in the film.
This bubbling tension is key to keeping the audience hooked. You tease them with the monster’s power and then keep them hooked into seeing exactly how this power will be unleashed.
2. Active Protagonists
It’s essential that protagonists in every story are active. However, in the monster genre especially, the protagonist will become a kind of detective in figuring out what is going on and/or how to kill the monster.
It’s the monster vs our protagonist in this sense. There is no more important person in the world to defeat this monster than the protagonist we have. However, this doesn’t always mean the protagonist is in isolation, far from it.
The MonsterVerse is a great example of this, as the many different protagonists (scientists, soldiers, citizens, children, etc.) work to discover what in the hell is going down. But still within this team, the protagonist needs to possess some key to defeating the monster. It’s in this way that they need to be active, having a connection to the monster that can’t be let go without coming to a conclusion of some sort.
3. A Lack of Closure
Unknowing at the conclusion of the story. There is almost always a hint at the conclusion that this is not the end; that another monster will come or the killed monster will come back to life. In It Follows (2014) for example, there is no true closure.
This is an important way of setting up the potential for sequels. And this is a big part of a monster movie’s appeal – the ability to create longevity. But more than that, the lack of closure on the monster also allows for the story to become more than the sum of its parts.
In the end, it’s never truly about the protagonist defeating the monster. It’s just about the protagonist believing they have defeated the monster…for now. The monster is in a sense a foe that can never be defeated – an insurmountable antagonist from which there is only ever temporary respite.
Contemporary Monster Film Analysis
In this section, we will look at three different worlds from the monster genre and how the monsters and internal logic are developed.
1. The MonsterVerse
The MonsterVerse is a set of films that depict modern versions of Godzilla and Kong. In the MonsterVerse, each monster, bar one, is an ancient-earth, apex predator, older than the dinosaurs. And their reason to fight is to be king of the earth.
These films include:
- Godzilla (2014)
- Kong: Skull Island (2017)
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
- Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
The rise of these monsters in modern times is tied to humans developing nuclear capabilities—as the monsters originally lived on the early earth, with a nuclear eco-system. Before humans developed nuclear technology the monsters lived close to the earth’s core because, in the film, the earth’s core is radioactive and the monsters consume radiation.
By the end of the first film in the franchise, Godzilla (2014), Godzilla is seen—by the characters—as both a terrifying monster and a savior of the human race. Godzilla was not out to destroy humans but to kill/dominate all of the other apex predators.
The MonsterVerse Builds New Mythology and History
Despite being based on very well-known characters, to craft the monsters in the MonsterVerse, the creators built new mythology and history around Godzilla, Kong and the supporting monsters. This history includes creating a fiction where all of the nuclear bomb explosions from the 40s/50s/60s are now attempts to kill Godzilla.
“Nature has an order. A power to restore balance. I believe he is that power.”Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, Godzilla (2014)
Godzilla and Kong have been around since the 1950s. But, what is of interest is how Godzilla and Kong have been given a contemporary sheen by these recent productions. The monsters allow for a world and mythology to be built around them and in this way, they gain relevance.
This demonstrates how monsters can act as a lightning rod for pertinent themes. And it shows how important it is for the monster to have such themes around it. The monster can’t just be a hollow creature with no context. It has to be credibly rooted in the story world and often, is most effective when credibly rooted in the real world.
2. A Quiet Place (2018) & A Quiet Place Part II (2020)
A Quiet Place is dynamic in how it presents a post-apocalyptic world, which is through the eyes of a hearing-impaired heroine and her family.
Luckily for this family, they can all speak in sign language, which helps keep the monsters at bay. The monsters in this story have hyper-hearing abilities, so one false move, one shout, cry, or word and the monsters come piling in to dispose of the noisemakers.
A Quiet Place creates a distinct connection between the protagonists and the monster. It demonstrates an important element of a monster movie in this regard. But that connection is brilliantly conceived and executed, allowing for the greatest of tension. It’s a high-wire act, the notion of making no noise almost impossible. And as the audience, we wait for the inevitably of the slip-ups.
This is exemplified on “Day 472” where we see that the mother, Evelyn, is now pregnant. As the alien monsters respond to the slightest sound, the audience has to worry about what will happen once this child arrives…because children, especially babies, are noisy (not to mention the birth itself).
A Different Kind of Monster
The monsters in this story present a great departure from typical monsters in film. Of course, in all monster films, you have to be quiet so the monster does not kill you, but A Quiet Place brings being quiet to a new level of horror.
The writers of this script have taken the simple premise of “killer alien insects” and have injected it with a new kind of terror. The early pages/minutes of A Quiet Place set up the what, who, where, and when. Then, ten minutes in, the parents and the two older children lose four-year-old Beau to one of the insect monsters.
As the story continues, the insect monster screen appearances are peppered throughout the scenes much like general impending doom in scriptwriting: the baddies closing in.
A Quiet Place brilliantly demonstrates how to execute tension in a monster film. It presents a premise (the monster orientates via noise) and challenges that premise to be upheld. We inevitably know it won’t and anticipate when everything will come crashing down.
It demonstrates how the monster can stem from the simplest of sources and ideas. A monster that hunts via sound is a simple premise. But the options it presents in terms of set-pieces is compelling. And it allows for a unique cinematic landscape within the context of the monster genre – a near-silent film.
3. It Follows (2014)
It Follows also treats audiences to newness in the monster genre. And it brilliantly shows how the monster can take a unique form and thus say something distinct and meaningful. Yes, the monster is an STD.
The film follows Jay, who is unwittingly infected with a disease after a sexual encounter. Unless Jay “passes” on the curse by sleeping with somebody else, the monster will follow her until it kills her.
If the monster kills Jay, the monster then reverts to following the initial man who gave her the STM: Sexually Transmitted Monster. The story acts as a kind of satirical modern fable for one-night stands and meaningless sex. It twists the logic of an STD on its head – an inverse of what the practice of dealing with an actual STD typically requires, not passing it onto anyone else.
Unlike A Quiet Place, It Follows rests more on the support of friends and siblings rather than the direct nuclear family unit. So, we have this band of young adults doing a little detective work to figure out what happened, what to do, and how to get rid of the curse.
The Monster in It Follows
The monster dealt with here is different from the run-of-the-mill spawn of evil.
- The monster takes on human forms, hiding its true form. The audience never sees the true monster on screen.
- It can take on the form of any human, it may look like someone you know or a stranger.
- Only the cursed individuals can see the monster. It is invisible to everybody else but operates like some kind of evil invisible force.
- There is never one form that the monster takes for an extended period of time. It swaps through different human forms: a naked woman, a really tall clothed man, a naked man, the half-dressed mother/father of one of the cursed.
And the unique form the monster takes in It Follows shows it doesn’t always have to be the fierceness of the monster that is scary. What’s often even scarier is the effect the monster will have on the characters it encounters.
This is ultimately what chills us as an audience. It’s not the monster’s sharp teeth – it’s what the monster’s sharp teeth will do to us. And because of this relationship, the monster has the potential to take many different forms.
Key Elements to Consider for a Convincing Monster
The above films do something different within the genre to give it contemporary relevance. That may be a twist on the monster genre or a twist on a classic story.
These contemporary twists can’t be tacked on, however. They must be credibly rooted in good storytelling. And there are a number of key ways to provide these twists whilst remaining true to the characters and keeping the story intrinsically compelling.
1. Give Characters Personalities
You do not need to write a 200,000-word character profile here! Just know what kind of person the character is and what they would do in an extreme situation. In A Quiet Place, for example, Marcus is a wimp and Regan is the child hero. Who is more likely to take on a dangerous task?
In It Follows the young men are only after one thing—so even though they help out, often they are looking sexually at their female counterparts, even though a murdering monster is on the way, any second.
What does this have to with the actual monster? Well, the more well-rounded and interesting the characters, the more palpable and convincing the threat. And this is important.
Often what shows up a monster is the nature of the opponent. A monster sweeping away one-dimensional characters won’t hit in the same way as three-dimensional characters facing off against it. Here, the stakes are high and the outcome interesting.
The credibility of the monster is often a reflection of the credibility of the characters. And so in this way, the characters’ depth is of the utmost importance.
2. Layer in the Monster & Create Payoffs
Throughout the screenplay, you need to have the monster touching base with the audience. This helps to level out the tension across time, so by the time you reach the climax there is a worthwhile payoff.
The monster can’t hide completely until the end. The threat, instead, has to escalate. So we get glimpses of the monster throughout, suggestions of what the monster holds in terms of its power and danger.
Not only does this help in terms of layering in tension but it also helps in making the monster more credible. This is because the audience isn’t overwhelmed by the scale or extent of the monster upfront and in the wrong place narratively speaking.
Instead, you have to place teases and hints throughout of what the monster is capable of. Then, later on in the narrative, you will fulfil these hints and teases. This plant and payoff dynamic is not only essential for creating tension within the narrative but also in making the monster a rewarding and three-dimensional presence throughout.
3. Give the Monster Meaning
What does the monster represent? Or what could it represent?
Often the most resonant monsters hold a metaphorical or deeper resonance. They might be a placeholder for nuclear warfare, a representation of a society’s ills or a physical manifestation of society’s greatest fears.
By giving your monster a metaphorical resonance you, in turn, give your story a contemporary resonance. And this is crucial in allowing your script to stand out in the context of a competitive genre. Furthermore, it again makes your monster more potentially credible.
By giving your monster a wider meaning, you’re stopping the slide into a great big monster for great big monster’s sake. It can be easy to write a monster with the thought of the great showdown in mind – a film solely designed for its spectacle and show-stopping set-pieces.
But it’s important to try and think beyond just the tempting appeal to design a terrifying monster and probe into what your monster, in every aspect of its design, means.
How was the monster created? What are the monster’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? How can the monster be defeated by humans? What is the monster’s unique asset?
These are the kind of questions that allow you to explore the deeper meaning behind your monster and what it means in a thematic sense.
Classically, the monster genre isn’t necessarily a genre automatically associated with high-brow drama or relevant, resonant themes. But given the wealth and longevity of the genre, contemporary monster films need to tap into something more than the sum of their parts.
A contemporary monster film needs to have pertinence in order to strike as distinctive and worthwhile. And the monster in question specifically needs to be one that terrifies with more than just sharp teeth or brute, animal strength. What are the stakes for this monster? What threat does it pose or how, conversely, can it save the human race?
A contemporary monster typically needs to be credibly rooted in the real world – no matter how much fantasy is included in the story or the story world overall.
Layering the threat, maintaining tension, building convincing protagonists and characters to face off against the monster – these are all essential elements of writing the monster genre. But nothing will convince more than a monster that speaks to the audience – one that seems in its design could be real, no matter how much imagination and fantasy goes into that design.
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This article was written by Michael Moore and edited by IS staff.
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