500 Days Of Film Reviews Cinema’s Most Terrifying Monsters
One of my favourite film books is John Landis’ fabulous Monsters In The Movies. It is full of the most gorgeous images, encompassing 100 years of cinematic nightmares. I love this book because, as a horror film fan, I am fascinated by what makes us scared.
In his introduction, Landis describes monsters as something “either physically or mentally detestable, often an aberration in appearance and behaviour… monsters are the physical embodiment of our fears”.
Monsters may well be metaphors. However, as the following ten monsters
demonstrate, that doesn’t stop them from scaring the life out of us in the cinema - and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
10 Awesome Movie Monsters
10. Gremlins - Gremlins (1984)
I begin my list with Joe Dante’s Gremlins not because I find Stripe et al particularly terrifying but because they are brilliantly subversive (look what happens when you don’t follow the rules!) and wonderful to look at - thanks to the work of special effects artist, Chris Walas.
Walas based his Gizmo design on a combination of a Tarsier (an Asian primate)
and producer Steven Spielberg's cocker spaniel. The creation of the nasty gremlins, meanwhile, was more collaborative. Dante, writer Chris Columbus and Walas all had input into the final iconic puppet.
9. T-Rex - Jurassic Park (1993)
The T-Rex in Jurassic Park is a glorious and terrifying movie monster. Legendary effects artist, Stan Winston and his team created a full size, 9000 pound audio-animatronic T-Rex for Steven Spielberg's classic dino movie.
The work that went into making this movie monster is truly amazing. One of her creators, Shane Mahan, compared the process to that of building a ship. The sculpture alone took 16 weeks to complete (not including the time needed for molding and casting).
“It was just an incredible undertaking really when I think back on it,” recalls sculptor Mike Trcic in a Stan Winston School video. “There was so much ingenuity. Everybody really pulled together and really made this work… I would close my eyes at night and see scale patterns.”
Shane Mahan explains that the “character had to feel 100% real, or the film just did not work… The creation of the T-Rex was monumental in the history of Stan Winston Studio and it was one of Stan’s great and most prized creations of creatures that he had done. ”
8. The Predator - Predator (1987)
John McTiernan’s Predator features another Stan Winston masterpiece. After problems with the film's original creature suit, Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended Winston to come in, create and build an all-new Predator design.
"I met with John McTiernan and Joel Silver and we talked about the Predator," Winston recalled, "My feeling from reading the script was that the Predator had to be a real character, rather than a generic creature. He needed to be a very specific character - and that's what we came up with."
Winston’s team only had six weeks to come up with a new design - so the pressure was on. Inspiration came from a painting of a Rastafarian warrior in Joel Silver's office. "I saw that and I thought it was a great starting concept for the Predator," said Winston. "I starred drawing and designing this alien character with quills that in silhouette would look like dreadlocks.
“During this same period of time, Aliens had come out, and Jim Cameron and I were flying to Japan to participate in a symposium about the movie. We were sitting next to each other on the plane, and I was sketching and drawing the Predator. Jim suddenly said, 'You know, I've always wanted to see something with mandibles.' And I said, 'Hmmm, that's an interesting idea.' And I started drawing the now-famous mandibles of the Predator."
Portraying the Predator, (seven foot, two inch tall) actor Kevin Peter Hall had to train to fight Arnold Schwarzenegger while also managing an extremely heavy (and hot) monster suit - a suit that he described as a “work of art”.
7. Crawlers - The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall’s superb horror film, The Descent, is as much about claustrophobia as it is about monsters. Simon Bowles’ cave sets are absolutely phenomenal - all built at Pinewood Studios. I can’t imagine the work that must have gone into building those 21 sets.
However, the movie’s Crawlers are also extremely effective. Marshall describes these monstrous creatures as “cavemen who never left the caves”. They are absolutely horrifying because they seem all too real.
6. Seth Brundle - The Fly (1986)
A remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 film (based on a George Langelaan short story), David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a monster movie classic that plays on our fear of science gone mad.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) creates a teleportation device and decides to test it on himself. However, a housefly becomes trapped in the machine with him - leading to a truly grotesque merger of man and insect.
Chris Walas won an Oscar (Best Makeup and Hairstyling) for his work on The Fly. In an interview with BlankManinc, he explains that “The Fly was unique in that our ‘monster’ was the main character and ran through the entire film, changing all the way. Planning and coordinating the many stages of make-up and animatronics was a real challenge.”
The challenge more than paid off - The Fly is a true movie monster classic.
5. The Pale Man - Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth is full of monsters - both human and fantastical. However, of all the creatures in Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece, the Pale Man (superbly portrayed by Doug Jones) is the monster that disturbs me the most.
In Landis’ book, Del Toro describes monsters as “a freak of nature. Something that is unnatural. I think the difference between a monster and every other thing in horror is that the monster is a biological entity. It’s alive.”
Thanks to Jones’ work and Del Toro’s vision (the director spent ten years as a special effects make-up designer), everything about The Pale Man feels alive and, as a result, utterly terrifying.
4. The Xenomorph - Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s classic film, Alien features one of the most iconic monsters in cinema - the Xenomorph. Designed and created by H. R. Giger, a Swiss surrealist painter, designer and architect, the alien (inspired by the paintings in Giger’s book, Necronomicon) is both horrifying and also visually stunning.
The Xenomorph was portrayed by Nigerian student, Bolaji Badejo. He was cast by accident, his tall, thin frame proving a perfect fit for the role. Scott kept Badejo away from the rest of the cast - deepening the sense of fear.
It is a testament to the Xenomorph’s design and concept that this monster is as effective today as it was when Alien was first released in 1979.
3. David Kessler - An American Werewolf In London (1981)
Werewolf lore is as changeable as that found in vampire and zombie movies. While I love Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, John Landis’ American Werewolf In London is the werewolf film that still gives me the chills - particularly thanks to its transformation sequence.
Landis explains that he envisioned the metamorphosis of David Kessler (David Naughton) from man to beast “as a violent and painful one… I also specified that the sequence take place without cutaways and in bright light. The gifted make-up artist Rick Baker accomplished this with an elaborate combination of make-up, foam appliances, and what he called ‘change-o’ body parts.
“These were elaborate puppet reproductions of parts of Naughton’s body (including his torso, hands, feet, head and face) that could actually stretch and transform into the wolf monster in real time on camera.” In the end, Landis did have to use one cutaway. Regardless, the sequence is superb.
Of course, David Kessler isn’t the only monstrous character in this film. Rick Baker’s make up for Griffin Dunne’s character is also superb (freaking out everyone on set - including the actor himself). Baker won an Academy Award for American Werewolf In London - the inaugural award for this category. He now has seven Oscars for his remarkable work.
2. The Thing - The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my all time favourite horror movies. I love the creeping sense of paranoia and the film's physical effects are superb. In Landis’ book, Carpenter explains that “there are two basic horror stories. Where does the evil come from? It comes from out there, or it comes from in here. That’s it, there’s nothing else. So if you have an Outer Space invasion, the evil is out there and they’re coming to get us. That’s the evil outside of us. The harder story to tell is the evil in here, in our own hearts”
Rob Bottin’s make-up effects in The Thing are amazing. Bottin, who was only 22 at the time, was a protege of Rick Baker. His work was already impressive - having been responsible for the brilliant werewolf transformation sequence in Joe Dante’s The Howling.
Tasked with creating the many monster formations in this film, Bottin reportedly worked seven days a week for 57 weeks. After his work was completed, he had to be hospitalised in order to recover from all of the stress.
1. The Shark - Jaws (1975)
Some argue that the shark in Steven Spielberg's Jaws is not a monster. Indeed, in Landis’ book, director David Cronenberg argues that the shark “isn’t a monster. It’s an animal designed to kill you… there’s no ill will there. It’s just a machine-like animal behaving normally. A natural occurrence”.
However, for me, what makes the shark in Jaws a monster is its unnatural behaviour. Author, Peter Benchley gave his titular creature a malevolent and vengeful nature that is not found in reality.
Years later, Benchley regretted giving sharks such a bad rap: "knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today... Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges."
Now It's Over To You...
Well, that’s my list... what would you add?
I am, for example, aware that I haven’t included any robots, ghosts, mummies, zombies, vampires or giant apes and my list hasn’t touched on the Kaiju genre.
Tell me about your favourite movie monsters by leaving me a comment in the section below or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook!