From film’s earliest days, writers and directors were intent on exploiting this new art form to bring our worst nightmares to life in the most realistic fashion possible. Whether it was stop-motion animation, actors in suits, mechanical constructs, huge puppets, or now CGI, the goal with creating monsters was to trick the mind into creating one emotion: fear. While CGI has expanded the artist’s palette, so to speak, sometimes it seems too easy to create fantastic beasts on screen. Filmmakers can forget that leaving some to our imagination can be scarier than showing the whole thing. With Marvel’s monster-ish Venom new to theaters and Halloween just around the corner, we thought it was a good time to delve into some of our favorite movie monsters.
As I’ve talked about before, I’ve never been the biggest horror fan, but there are a plethora of monsters in movies that spill far beyond the slasher films. As a kid, there were definitely some that haunted my nightmares or popped into my imagination when walking down a dark hallway. It was almost too easy to scare myself. I even invented my own monster – an ethereal shadow figure that lurked in the far corner of the basement when I had to go down to the freezer to grab another half-gallon of ice cream. I ran quickly enough that it never got me, though I never looked back to see how close it got.
- The Shark (Jaws, 1976) – Ok, an obvious choice, but I had to include it as it was the first screen monster that scared the crap out of me. I spilled my soda on the theater floor and had nightmares for weeks.
- The Wampa (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) – As shown in DVD extras, the failed “man in the suit” approach limited what could be shown on screen. Yet it worked out perfectly – leaving just enough to the imagination (until the crappy Special Edition!)
- Minotaur (Time Bandits, 1981) – Time Bandits had several weird monsters, with The Minotaur being the most memorable
- Werewolf (An American Werewolf In London, 1981) – It was so mesmerizing/horrifying to witness the groundbreaking werewolf transformation on screen.
- The Beast (Poltergeist, 1982) – It took a few different forms in the film, but the most disturbing was the white, spindly, skeletal incarnation at the end. Another top film for childhood nightmares.
- Alien Queen (Aliens, 1986) – The original Alien Xenomorph was scarier in the first film, but the queen added a whole new dimension to the narrative – and she was badass.
- Sandworms (Tremors, 1990) – Danger from below in this is an underrated film. Not to be confused with the worms from Dune or Beetlejuice
- Bioraptors (Pitch Black, 2000) – The threat of these creatures, only able to move about in the dark and extremely fast, built up such a great sense of dread.
- The Pale Man (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) – The creep factor was all the way up with this nightmarish creation.
- Nagini (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1 & 2, 2010 – 2011 ) – There were a ton of monsters in the Potter films, but few were scary. The monstrous snake, however, was pretty frightening in the last two films.
DJ: Good list, nothing scared you that was made before 1976? I don’t have the Jaws stigma you had, mostly because of my age when I finally saw it. At that age I was still being scared by Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. I don’t really remember Time Bandits but Minotaurs in general are scary wasn’t there one in American Horror Story? I couldn’t get into Nagini, like you said too much CGI. The Wampa is classic, I still wonder what the Empire Strikes Back would have been like if the deleted Wampa attack scenes would have been used, probably woul dhave muted the Wampa’s status.
When I was a kid, movie monsters were king. Before we could watch whatever we wanted whenever we wanted we relied on television to replay our favorite films. Saturday afternoons our local UHF station played Creature Double Feature – not one film but two! This is where I saw the Godzilla films, the Universal Monster films, and any other catch-all monster films – see The Amazing Colossus Man, Them, or It Came From Beneath the Sea for examples. This was appointment viewing for me. And although I am not really a slasher film person, I do like a scare from time to time, although some movie monsters are not the scary type but just awesome instead.
- King Kong (King Kong, 1933 and 1976) – Kong is king of all beasts and one of my favorites, the original cannot be matched but the Kong from the Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges remake is underrated.
- The Rancor (Return of the Jedi, 1983) – The Rancor and the Wampa were awesome, where are these type of monsters in the Star Wars Universe post-Phantom Menace?
- The Skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) – I loved stop-motion animation as a kid, Sinbad, and Greek myth movies were awesome but the warrior skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts were terrifying.
- Count Orlock (Nosferatu, 1922) – Still creepy today, amazing this character is almost 100 years old.
- Imhotep (The Mummy, 1932) – Boris Karloff as the Mummy is iconic and more frightening than the Brendan Fraser and Tom Cruise remakes.
- Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984) – The only slasher “monster” on my list, the other main two (Jason and Michael Myers) were in scarier films, but Freddy spoke and was in your dreams.
- The Crooked Man (The Conjuring 2, 2016) – I know a minor part of this film but damn he was chilling, interesting to see how his spin-off film will turn out.
- Wolfman (The Wolf Man, 1941) – Of the Universal Big Three (Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster being the other two) The Wolf Man was my favorite and the only one not to be part of literature. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance was tortured.
- The Kraken (The Clash of the Titans, 1981) – The Kraken outside of Medusa is the only thing I remember from the film and it’s another great stop-motion monster. I even had a puzzle of it.
- King Ghidorah (Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster, 1964) – My favorite of Godzilla’s cinematic universe of monsters, it’s three-headed, evil, and flies.
Bonus: Smoke Monster (Lost, 2004) – I know this is a Movie Monsters post but I really wanted to include the Smoke Monster from Lost. It was such a cool part of that show, scary, suspenseful, and puzzling at the same time.
MG: You went with a lot of classics here. I’ll grant you, Count Orlock is still very creepy nearly 100 years later, but while the Universal monsters are iconic, it’s hard for me to see them as scary or menacing. Medusa, from Clash of the Titans, always scared me far more than “release The Kraken!”. The skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts are pretty awesome – paving the way for The Rancor and so many other stop-motion movie creations. It’s interesting when you look at our lists we basically only had one each that was CGI. I think it’s hard to be scared by something you know in the back of your mind came out of a computer program. You allowed some scope creep into TV, but I’ll grant you the smoke monster was a menacing force. It was basically my childhood basement monster come to life on screen. Too bad it was never friggin’ explained!