Movie Monster Marathon: 7 Creatures of Cinema
Halloween is just around the corner, and it’s a time that reminds us of the monsters we’ve seen in movies since childhood.
Whether we dress up like them or not, monsters have always played a big part in the human psyche. From ancient times, monsters have been used to personify our dark fears through various mythologies, including the most recent form of mythology, the cinema.
Here we will look at, in no particular order, 7 creatures of the screen that we have both feared and adored for decades:
In 1897, author Bram Stoker wrote an amazingly creepy novel titled Dracula. The titular character was very partially inspired by a 15th century tyrant known as Vlad the Impaler, himself also called Dracula before the vampire’s invention. The only things the two actually shared were their name and their reputation for bloodshed, and the most important difference between them was that the fictional Dracula was immortal.
With the ability to turn into a bat, wolf, or rat, and also to command legions of these beasts, Dracula is a vampire–a creature known to folklore around the world that preys upon the blood of the living (the mythological origins for zombies are probably the same place the vampire legends came from).
Dracula has been featured in many forms of media, from dozens of movies to a slew of comic books, video games, and even rock albums. The original Dracula film (not counting foreign films of nightmare fuel such as 1922’s Nosferatu) of 1931 took terror to a whole new level with the actor Bela Lugosi playing the part of the vampire himself.
Just like in the novel, the undead prince of darkness turns hapless victims into frenzied slaves that help him seek out even more victims. In a parasitic relationship that seems like something nature could have actually come up with, Dracula forces some of the victims under his spell to drink his own blood, which curses the victim and further binds them to the King Vampire. Dracula is weakened by religious symbols, sunlight, wolf’s bane, and garlic, but the only way to kill him is to drive a wooden stake through his heart.
Thanks to Stoker’s Dracula- a charming, aristocratic, and romantic character despite being evil- vampires have come to be known as symbols of seduction and forbidden love. This is evidenced in certain novels and movies of the past few decades, as well as collections of poetry and short stories from all over the world.
Though he may be the most evil of all the monsters, Dracula and his vampire kin are the closest a wicked being can come to being a cool person to hang with (no pun intended), whether it’s Blade and his sunglasses or a teenage vamp who’s the cutest boy in school.
Ah, the Xenomorph. A creature from a franchise of films sporting one of the greatest tag lines of film history: In space, no one can hear you scream.
The Xenomorph, known also by the scientific name Internecivus raptus was first introduced in Ridley Scott’s Alien of 1979, a claustrophobic nightmare of tone, tunnels, and slime. Acid for blood, a hidden mouth within its jaws, a spear like tail, and fierce looking armor make the Alien one of the best designed creatures in all of film—which isn’t surprising, for the actual design of the creature came from the mind of the late H.R. Giger, a Swiss surrealist who captured the macabre in his paintings by combining humanity with machinery.
The Alien is probably the scariest of all monsters, in theory at least. Though there have been many copycats since the first movie, nothing can beat that original life cycle—a system of bio-mechanical rebirth that should send shivers down your spine if you actually think it through; a creature whose sole purpose for existence is reproduction by the most amoral and wasteful of processes, even by nature’s standards. No animal like this one could ever evolve naturally—there simply wouldn’t be any ecosystem left.
Instead, the beast was bioengineered as a weapon by a man-made android, hell bent on the destruction of its human creators. This aspect of the Alien’s origin, explored in detail by Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), fits very nicely with the nihilism of the other Alien films, and it also adds a whole new dimension of religious imagery to the franchise—the themes of creation and rebellion almost perfectly mimic those of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In 1982, a film was released that actually rivaled the body horror of Alien without ripping it off. It was called The Thing, and it was based on a novella called Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell from 1938.
Directed by the legendary John Carpenter, creator of the Halloween franchise, it shocked audiences and critics so badly that it was initially very poorly received, though it has been hailed as a horror masterpiece over the last couple of decades. The reason the film is so extreme is precisely because of the alien monster, which was much more terrifying than the one in the 1951 movie adaptation of the story, The Thing from Another World.
As it preyed upon a group of men in Antarctica, the Thing seemed almost infinite in the shapes it could form after assimilating a host. Claws, insect-like legs, multiple mouths, tentacles, and much more were used on its victims to horrific effect. Even worse, the super-evolved alien being could completely transform itself into a perfect copy of every human it consumed.
The special effects man behind it all was Rob Bottin, and he should have won an Academy Award for the realistic, disgusting body horror effects that still hold up so well today. The sights and sounds of cracking bone and sinew are enough to make anyone queasy, and the monster’s polymorphic nature is so unique in the visuals that it’s become a favorite monster for many horror aficionados.
The absolute scariest aspect of the Thing, however, is that you never know who it is until it’s too late. The only way to be sure is through a blood test, and the scene in which they conduct it is one of the most memorable in horror cinema:
After drawing the blood from a suspected Thing, a heated copper wire is jabbed into the blood sample, which reacts as its own separate being if its donor was indeed assimilated. The scene has been imitated in various media works, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (blood tests for the Changelings, especially in The Adversary) and South Park (Lice Capades).
This is one of the largest monsters on this list, both in physical size and cultural presence. In 1954, four Japanese men became the forefathers of a scaly phenomenon known as Gojira—the gorilla whale. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, and musician Akira Ifukube pooled their collective talents to create the first of many daikaiju-eiga films, movies centered on giant monsters destroying cities.
Americans had done it before with King Kong and a host of other creature flicks, but none of them matched the sheer size and ferocity of Godzilla. Godzilla has stood the test of time for over 60 years, and he will have 35 feature films under his belt by the end of next year, including anime releases and American re-imaginings.
What is it? As if you didn’t know- it’s a colossal dinosaur that breathes out an actual atomic bomb. Some films portray him as an ancient god of vengeance, others as a radioactive mutant, and a few even present him as a superhero of sorts. But as it is with so many franchises, the first idea is the best one.
In 1954’s Gojira, the monster was a nuclear weapon in the guise of an animal. The culture of Japan had been rocked by America’s atomic attacks only a decade beforehand, and the haunting memory of the destruction was still fresh in their minds, as it still is today. Japan’s war films were heavily censored by both the United States and their own government after WWII, but one of the ways that the country could artfully show the world through film the terrors they had endured was through metaphor—one of those metaphors was Godzilla.
Though the Godzilla films are a lot of fun, we mustn’t forget that the creature’s original origin was a sinister one, and the first film (as well as 2016’s Shin-Godzilla) wasn’t just a sci-fi film… it was an actual horror movie, and it’s still one of the scariest to this day due to its eerily realistic portrayal of city destruction.
The first movie this ape monster appeared in was nothing less than brilliant. The concept was simple, the effects were the best to date for 1933, and the actors were so classically American. It was one of the first really big “event” sci-fi movies, retaining scope and spectacle while presenting itself as a run of the mill monster movie. And it’s all thanks to the King.
Kong is an immense gorilla, varying in size with every film incarnation. In the American movies, he stood between 25 to 70 feet (with the exception of the smaller Son of Kong), while 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla pitted a 150-foot version against our beloved green (actually gray) fire breather.
Though his origins vary slightly throughout the films, Kong is nearly always a resident of Skull Island, a place lost in time, teeming with giant dinosaurs and other beasts from a bygone era. That’s basically the plot for the entire franchise, though there are of course allusions to Beauty and the Beast, animal rights, and America’s thirst for novelty no matter the cost.
We may not see him as a scary looking creature, but Kong certainly terrified the moviegoers of 1933. And can we blame them? Even today, those stop motion clay sculptures by Willis O’Brien look surprisingly realistic. The movement may not be as fluid as modern day animation, but the props are beautifully detailed. Similar meticulous animation techniques were used for the recent Kong: Skull Island, but an actor in a stop motion suit and a few million clicks and drags on a computer have replaced the clay.
In 2020, Legendary Pictures will release Godzilla vs. Kong—and if we cross our fingers really tightly, we just might get the greatest monster battle in the history of cinema.
Stan Winston, the legendary master of special effects behind Predator, Terminator, Aliens (1986), Jurassic Park, and many other films, tried his hand at directing in 1988. He created a character that seems to come from some recess of the human mind even deeper and darker than the realm of nightmares—Pumpkinhead.
While the monster always looked crazily scary in the sequels, the original Pumpkinhead sported the scariest face of all towards the end of the film. Its visage was more like an actual human face, which grew even more and more humanlike as the film progressed due to its connection with the human who summoned it.
Looking like someone spliced together a Xenomorph, a man, and a monkey, the original Pumpkinhead was a dark force awakened by a witch to punish some teens who had accidentally killed a child. The father of the boy, Ed Harley (played by the indomitable Lance Henriksen), asked the witch to help him get revenge, but when she summoned Pumpkinhead, he began to regret his actions due to the beast’s sheer brutality.
It toyed with its victims, stalking them slowly as the scenery around it gradually turned supernatural with fog, wind, and flashes of light. Ed’s life force was linked to the monster’s, and he not only watched the carnage through the creature’s eyes, but also felt the pain of the victims. This connection meant that Ed could only stop the bloody mayhem by sacrificing himself.
There have been 4 Pumpkinhead movies, and none of them are as freaky or intelligent as the first one. The second one, Blood Wings, had very little to do with the original. There was a new witch, no mention of Ed Harley, and a strange backstory for the monster involving a deformed child.
Mr. Krueger isn’t just a horror movie icon—the films featuring this supernatural serial killer have always leaned a bit towards science fiction. Sure, the only science involved is the fact that our unconscious minds do strange things during sleep, but Freddy is more like an intensely evil super-villain than he is a cut and dry serial killer.
For 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, writer and director Wes Craven had a deliciously devilish idea for a horror film. What if there was a supernatural being that could literally kill us in our sleep? The idea came to Craven after he read newspaper articles about some Southeast Asian men who had fled war in their own countries and moved to the United States. They were traumatized by their experience, suffering endless intense nightmares, and some of them even died in their sleep.
Craven’s film replaced survivors of genocide with teenagers, and the formula for the plot has changed very little over the passing decades. There are always new characters, new dark comedy gags, and new dream sequences, but it’s usually always teenagers who suffer the brutal attacks of The Springwood Slasher.
Krueger wears a hat, a green and red sweater, and a bladed glove on his right hand. He was once a run of the mill murderer in a town called Springwood, but a group of parents burned him alive in a boiler room in order to protect their children. The spirit of Krueger came back with a vengeance, haunting and killing numerous teens within their nightmares.
Wes Craven originally wanted Freddy to be a more serious character, exuding power and terror without any elements of comedy. He got his chance to make this version in 1994’s New Nightmare, which was a sort of satirical take on the production of horror movies. The plot of New Nightmare presents Krueger as a fictional film character. While working on the latest Elm Street film, an ancient evil awakens and manifests itself as Freddy, who begins to terrorize actress Heather Langenkamp, who portrayed Nancy in the original and herself in New Nightmare.
Before this film, though Freddy was certainly nightmarish, he was also pretty hysterical with his trademark wisecracks and one-liners:
Where’s your pass? Hey! Nancy! No running in the hallway…
And, before killing an actress:
This is it, Jennifer…your big break on TV!
Talking angrily about Jason Voorhees:
That hockey puck!
And, as a dreaming Nancy speaks to Freddy on a telephone…the most memorable quote of all:
“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy.”
What’s your favorite movie monster? List your picks in the comments, and Let Your Geek Sideshow!
This October, we’re putting the “eek” in Geek from October 24th-31st for our annual Spooktacular celebration! Head to spooktacular.com for all the creepiest content, most ghoulish giveaways, and most devilish deals to get you in the mood for Halloween.