There’s only one more week before Halloween, everyone! Which means as we get closer and closer to the best day of the year, I’m going to have to amp up the spookiness, just to keep things fresh! Which is why I’ve prepared a nice, mildly scary list for you all, just to get your heart rates slightly elevated. Today, we’ll be looking at the Top Ten Greatest Movie Monsters!
Now, what do I mean by the best movie monsters? Great question, disembodied voice. When I say Movie Monster, I’m referring to those creepy creatures that harass and torment our protagonists during the film’s runtime in one way or another. This ranges from the creepy beasts of the puppet boom of the 70s/80s to the CGI monsters of the aughts, all the way back to the classic Universal Monster Movies of old. All of these genres, styles, and creatures are eligible for today’s list. Of course, I do have two rules, each of which helped thin out the herd quite a bit. First, if the monster in question is mostly human, then they are ineligible for today’s Monster list. Essentially, something like the immortal Jason Vorhees or the nightmarish Freddy Krueger, who are human beings with supernatural help, would not qualify for this list, while Chucky, who once was human but is now a doll, is eligible. You’ll being seeing more of Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers in next week’s special Halloween listicle. And second, the creatures in today’s list must be at most evil, and at least ambivalent to humanity. For example, Bruce the Shark from Jaws is just an animal acting like an animal, but due to his ambivalence towards human life, he qualifies. Meanwhile, The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Asset from The Shape of Water are all good-hearted at their core, and therefore do not qualify for this list of Movie Monsters. Only baddies or complex antiheroes from here on out!
Now that the rules are established, let’s take a look at the Honorable Mentions. First off, I would like to acknowledge the creatures whose films I haven’t see, including The Invisible Man, Mothra and Ghirodan, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, the Crawlers from The Descent, and Candyman. Hopefully I will remedy these oversights in the near future. Next, I’d like to credit the classic monsters, be they from the 30s or remade in the 80s, from The Blob and The Mummy to The Wolf Man and The Thing. There’s creatures meant to terrify us with their very existence, like Pinhead from Hellraiser, the eponymous Babadook, Pazuzu from The Exorcist, and Sadako/Samara from Ringu/The Ring. Then there are the monsters who wisecrack as they kill, like Chucky from Child’s Play, the Gremlins, Pennywise the Dancing Clown from It (or any of his forms, really), the Deadites from the Evil Dead series, the Goblins from the confusingly (wonderfully) named Troll 2, and my personal favorite, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. And then there’s the creatures that simply know no other way of life, like the Predator, the Raptors from Jurassic Park, and Bruce from Jaws. Each of these creatures are wonderful, memorable labors of love, but unfortunately we only have room for ten on this list. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the Top Ten Greatest Movie Monsters!
10. Zombies – Night of the Living Dead
Is there any movie monster more iconic in modern society than zombies? What is it that makes zombies so memorable? Personally, I think it’s the combination of the fact that these are simply humans stripped down to their most basic animalistic desires, the fact that we fear the loss of intelligent and moral function until we shuffle around aimlessly, and the fact that humanity as a whole suffers a great deal of fear surrounding what happens to us after we die. Regardless, there is something that delves down to our most base human anxieties. And that’s why they have been ever-present in pop culture for the past half-century. Whether it’s the shuffling, brainless creatures of The Walking Dead or the vicious animals of 28 Days Later, humans have loved to be frightened by our deceased selves. However, if there’s any director that has most successfully made the zombie an iconic movie monster, it’s George A. Romero. Romero knew how to use zombies as a combination of different symbols of terror: as mindless killing machines, as family members corrupted by evil, as our fear of the unknown, and above all else, as a critique of modern society. Arguably the most famous example of this is his 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, but if I have to pick, I’d give the edge to Night of the Living Dead, where the zombies are scarier, the commentary stronger (the mindless zombies were meant to represent a mass of Americans old and new indifferent to the death and destruction both in Vietnam and in a series of assassinations plaguing the country), and crueler – there is nothing more frightening than when the skeptical mother and father find their daughter turned by the creatures and compelled to murder them with a garden trawler. However, no matter which movie you choose from, it is undeniable that zombies are one of the most influential movie monsters of all time.
9. The Pale Man – Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro, more than any other director currently working, is dedicated to making sure the classic Movie Monster will live forever. Whether it’s a ghost boy in The Devil’s Backbone, a demon with a heart of gold in Hellboy, or a Fish Man in The Shape of Water, del Toro wants to celebrate and recreate the monsters that fascinated, terrified, and comforted him throughout his childhood. However, there is no film in his repertoire that properly celebrates his creativity, his homage, and his innovation like Pan’s Labyrinth, his social allegory wrapped up in an old-timey fable. And while there are all sorts of creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth, from the titular Faun to a few trusty fairies, none are as frightening, as creative, or as memorable as The Pale Man. Portrayed by the beloved Monster Man Doug Jones, the Pale Man. A metaphor for the corruption of the old regime (he lives in a grand ballroom, as well as the way the war, as well as the fascism of Franco, had consumed the lives of small children throughout Spain, the Pale Man is a pale, human-like demon with eyes in his hands, no nose, and an appetite for small children. He lures them into his ballroom with a grand feast (most children during this time grew up hungry) and feeds on them as they beg to be spared. His very presence is nightmarish, and Jones lends him a horrific quality as he lumbers around after heroine Ofelia, feeding on her fairy friends and contorting his limbs in order to see his prey. Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s magnum opus, and The Pale Man is a major part of that legacy.
8. The Fly – The Fly
It should come as no surprise that a David Cronenberg film would make this list, nor that a metaphor for man’s desire to play God through science would accompany it. It’s just happenstance that both subgenres would overlap here at #8, thanks to Cronenberg’s terrific take on The Fly (the original, while not as frightening, still had its impact – especially on Halloween director John Carpenter). The 1986 version of the creature works because it decidedly avoids giving you the creature you expect. While it would be frightening to see Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle turn into a six foot tall fly, Cronenberg is more interested in seeing what nightmare would exist when you perfectly spliced two different variations of genes. The result is not pretty to look at, instead a combination of haunting makeup, dissolving bodies, and hideous results. And when he tries to dilute the transformation a second time…holy sh*t. However, as wrong-headed and egomaniacal as Brundle becomes, especially as his life begins to come to an end, the reason The Fly works is because Goldblum gives us a sense of empathy. We understand that he just wants to live, and to love, and to be human again. And what makes these desires all the more empathetic is the clear parallel Cronenberg draws between Brundlefly’s creation and the existence of life-threatening disease – a metaphor made all the more painful thanks to its release during the height of the AIDS crisis. Cronenberg knew exactly what he was doing with Brundlefly, and it made for one of the big screen’s greatest monsters.
7. It – It Follows
Now I know that when you saw the name “It,” you all immediately assumed I would include the famous creature from Stephen King’s novel and the two film adaptations. However, there’s nothing scary about either of those creatures, other than the fact that they are dressed as the harbingers of Pure Evil, clowns – Tim Curry’s It just cracks dumb jokes the entire time, while Bill Skarsgård does the hoedown. No thank you. No, instead I want to focus on the never-fully seen, never fully understood creature of nightmarish proportions in David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 classic, It Follows. From the Tall Man to the Dying Woman, from the best friend to the parents of his victims, It has established itself as iconic, frightening, and classic, no matter which form It takes. What is it that makes It so scary? Perhaps it’s the simplicity of its murder spree – we never see Its true form, only the bodies of the forms It inhabits. Perhaps it’s the slow, methodical walk, symbolizing the inevitability of our own demise. Perhaps it’s the fact that It feeds on something as pure and as intimate as sex, symbolizing all the fear, horror, and responsibility that goes along with such an act. Or perhaps what makes It such a great movie monster is the fact there’s no discernable reason for Its existence, or clear glimpse of Its shape – we know It’s there, but nothing else is explained. All I know is that It is a quintessential movie monster, combining the practicality of 1950s horror with the true terror of a John Carpenter film. And that makes it one of the all-time movie monsters.
6. Xenomorph – Alien
The presence of the Xenomorph on this list is less a credit to the films themselves and more a reward for creator H.R. Giger. A surrealist artist, his insane creatures (I’m including all of them under one header) consist of creative designs, incredible practical effects, nightmarish actions, and an iconic legacy. Let’s break down the creatures’ terrifying nature one at a time, shall we? We begin with the Face Hugger, a crab-like creature that hurls itself onto its victims’ faces and impregnates them – an act which draws upon fears of forced sexual activity and men’s fears of emasculation. The second, and perhaps most frightening, is the Chest Buster, which draws on fears of childbirth to erupt from the victim’s chest in bloody, unexpected fashion (God, that dinner scene is great). And when it matures, you have the skeletal, fully formed creature, a bastardized mix of Alien creature and human. Their heads are long and cylindrical, with bodily fluids that can corrode an entire spaceship. Their bodies are bladed and tough, with tails that can pierce most objects. And their hands include opposable thumbs, making them capable of opening doors. The Xenomorph is a blend between alien, monster movie, serial killer, and innate fears about our own bodies, and thanks to Giger’s original design, any director – from Ridley Scott to James Cameron to David Fincher – can make these monsters as terrifying as possible.
5. The Terminator (T-800/T-1000) – The Terminator
What is there to say about The Terminator, be it the T-800 or the T-1000 model that hasn’t already been said? Both have much of the same frightening qualities, albeit in different regards – they are both designed to look human in order to trick mankind’s soldiers, they are both nearly indestructible, they both refuse to give up on their mission, and they both have little regard for human life. And to top it all off, their quest is to kill (“that’s all it does!”) the two beings most seen as innocent by society’s sense of morality: a young woman and a child. These are never sleeping, never ceasing killing machines hoping to wipe out humanity’s last hope, and you can feel that from beginning to end. However, it’s the differences that make each of these cyborgs individually terrifying. The original Arnold Schwarzenegger model (T-800) is frightening in his inhumanity – his Austrian accent makes each word sound deliberate and robotic, emphasizing his patterned speech. However, the T-1000 model (played by Robert Patrick) is frightening because he isn’t inhuman – he’s much better at looking like us, imitating us, and sounding like us. The only thing inhuman about him is the inhumanity inside all humans. Hell, even the first thirty minutes of Terminator 2 are designed to trick you into thinking he’s the good guy – he looks and talks like us! Add in the T-1000’s special effects work (he can turn into liquid metal, reassemble himself after destruction, and essentially walk through walls!) and you have a being just as terrifying as the never-ceasing brick wall that is Schwarzenegger. James Cameron is our modern day thrill-master, and he proved that when he created not one, but two different Terminators.
4. King Kong – King Kong
You can really take your pick from any version of the classic action/adventure film – puppetry, stop motion, or motion capture – and you’ll still come away understanding that King Kong is one of the all-time great movie monsters. Ever since he first graced the scene in 1933, he has captivated generation after generation with his tragic Man vs. Beast narrative. It’s hard to root for King Kong – he’s a 33-foot gorilla who eats people, kidnaps women, and rules over the beasts of Skull Island with an iron fist. However, as hard as it is to root for Kong, it’s even harder to root against him – for, like Ann Darrow (played brilliantly by Fay Wray), while our first reaction to Kong is fear, screaming, terror, and wonderment, eventually these emotions give way to empathy, emotion, and even, perhaps, love. Kong is, after all, nothing more than an animal, a creature who just wants to understand, to survive, and to feel accompaniment. While he inadvertently kills several people in both of his journeys to Darrow, his reactions when around her involve neither hunger nor lust, but sheer curiosity – he’s fascinated by the presence of a beautiful woman who actually emotionally connects to him, and he wants her in his life. When he rampages around New York City, it is not an act of violence or vengeance (although many of the people he kills are the rich who throw soirees to take advantage of both beasts like Kong and the Depression-era poor, earning audiences’ support), but of a wild animal trying to escape. And when he battles the planes atop the Empire State Building, it is important to note he is not the aggressor. Yes, under the circumstances, Kong needed to die at the end. However, the real lesson of King Kong is not that man must kill or dominate the wild animals of the jungle – the lesson of Kong is that humans should leave nature as it is, to not tempt fate, and to live in harmony with the King of the Beasts. And because of this depth, this passion, and this sense of wondrous fear, King Kong is one of the greatest movie monsters of all time.
3. Frankenstein’s Monster – Frankenstein
What makes Frankenstein and the infamous monster so iconic? Is it that, like zombies, it involves a fear of death? Is it that, like The Fly, it involves the machinations of a mad scientist playing Prometheus (famously the reason Mary Shelley wrote the novel)? Or is it that, while many people side with the villagers, we deep down understand that the judgmental society that chases the Monster with torches and pitchforks are the true villains of the film, no matter what we are led to believe. Still, no matter which version of the Monster you prefer – whether it’s Karloff’s confused animal or Peter Boyle’s slapsticky caricature – you deep down understand that there is something special here. Indeed, Frankenstein’s Monster is so beloved because, despite the name, he is, in fact, far from monstrous. The Monster is a loving creature thrust into existence by a man desperate to make himself a God. He didn’t ask to be created (indeed, in Bride of Frankenstein he intentionally sacrifices himself to correct the course of nature); nor does he really desire to live. He just wants somebody to take the pain away – the pain of a brain that cannot understand, the pain of a face that no one can love, and the pain of a difference that he cannot change. He is the symbol of outsiders, a patron saint of the misfits. Despite a legacy of murder and terror, it is worth noting that the Monster has never purposefully killed anyone – the only deaths at his hands involve self-defense or accidents (look at his face during the scene with the little girl – he may kill a child, but it is solely out of curiosity and panic, not out of a sense of inner rampage). Indeed, he may in fact be the most good-hearted creature on this list. Like Kong, the Monster must be destroyed at the end of the feature, but not because he is evil, or different (the way most of society sees him) – it is simply a matter of Dr. Frankenstein having no right in forcing this poor soul into existence. Man is not to play God; not because it will unleash some great evil, but because of the impact it will have on his creation.
2. Godzilla – Gojira
Godzilla is, perhaps, one of the big screen’s greatest allegories. A metaphor for mankind’s newfound love of atomic energy, and an indictment of the excessive use of said energy upon Japanese civilians, the 1954 Japanese film Gojira is a cornerstone in monster movie canon. Godzilla is not just an average sea creature – it is a prehistoric beast of legendary proportions (he stands at 160 feet tall) which not only survives nuclear testing, but is strengthened by it. The result is a monstrous, dinosaur-esque lizard that cannot be killed, which possesses a monstrously spiked tail, which can destroy entire buildings in a single blow, and which possesses an atomic breath that shoots pure beams of radioactive destruction upon anyone and anything caught in its wake. The message is clear: humanity’s lust for nuclear energy will bring about our downfall, if not through radioactive lizards, then through mutually-assured destruction. It speaks volumes that, more so than any creature on this list outside of Kong, the very sound of Godzilla’s roar is enough for people who haven’t even seen a single Godzilla movie to identify the producer. He is, quite simply, too big of an icon to ignore. In later years, Godzilla would morph into an ambivalent kaiju, a creature that is more interested in defeating more violent creatures than with destroying Tokyo or maiming humans. However, whether he’s good, bad, or neutral, Godzilla is the monster we most often think of when we think “big screen monster movie.”
1. Dracula/Nosferatu – Dracula/Nosferatu
I knew what would be #1 on this list before I even started writing it. I knew what it would be before I even conceived this list. No matter how you shake things – whether you prefer The Lost Boys or Twilight, Let The Right One In or What We Do In The Shadows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Salem’s Lot, the most iconic monster in all of pop culture is the vampire. Why is it we are so frightened of vampires? Perhaps it is a combination of all of the fears we’ve explored on this list – they are undead creatures (our fear of death) who suck the lives and innocence out of innocent women (our fear of molestation) through all manners of seduction and sexuality (our fear of good old fashioned sex). They bring with them the Black Death (our fear of disease), and can transform into wolves, bats, and rats (our fear of animals). In short, they are the embodiment of everything we are afraid of. And quite frankly, no vampire demonstrates these fears quite like the granddaddy of them all, Count Dracula. There are many great variations on Dracula – Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman are amongst the best. However, I personally believe there are only two who truly understand why Dracula is so frightening – and they do it through two very different methods: Bela Lugosi and Max Schreck. Lugosi’s Dracula embodied everything that makes the character nightmarishly wonderful: he’s charming and posh, but with a distinct accent, and a distinct delivery that makes every line frightening (listen to the way he says “I never drink…wine…”). He has the sexuality that makes the character dangerous, but the ethereality that makes him scary. Meanwhile, Schreck’s off-brand Count Orlock from Nosferatu uses…a different approach. The terror of Orlock is in his appearance – the vampirism has morphed his very body, until he no longer looks human. He has the ears of a bat, the teeth of a rat, and the hairlessness of a decomposed corpse. In short, he’s what a monster should look like. And with his deliberately slow pacing and his lust for beautiful women, he is nothing short than a walking nightmare (and perhaps the earliest example of a Proud Boy incel). In fact, Schreck’s performance is so iconic, people believe he actually was a vampire (and Willem Dafoe was nominated for an Oscar in a movie positing just that). However, whether you prefer Lugosi’s sinister gentleman, Schreck’s monstrous animal, or any of the thousand other interpretations, one thing is certain: Dracula and his army of vampires are, without question, the greatest monsters in movie history.
Well, this concludes this week’s Sacred Walloween Listicle. I’m hoping to get one more list up on the actual date of Halloween, this time a look at the Best Horror Movie Human Villains (basically slashers, I’ll find a better way of wording that before Wednesday). Until then, stay spooky, my friends.