Sometimes they’re a metaphor. Mostly they’re just a lot of fun. But the best movie monsters have a way of terrorizing audiences long after they’ve stopped terrorizing their respective villages (or what have you), even the monsters we know don’t exist in the real world.
From a great white shark to parasitic extraterrestrial life forms, here’s a ranking of the Top 10 terrorizing movie monsters.
10. “Gremlins” (1984): When gifting your teenage kid a pet, stick to dogs. Because if you buy him an exotic pet from a mysterious Chinatown antique shop that comes with a rule as nonsensical as “never, ever feed it after midnight” (when does “after midnight” end?), OF COURSE he’s going to break it. But thank goodness he did, because otherwise we wouldn’t have this gloriously goofy and not-a-little-scary Christmastime horror film about murderous monsters wreaking Yuletide havoc. And just because the film is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t scary; good luck ever watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” again without half expecting a horde of tiny monsters to claw through the screen and attack you.
9. “Jurassic Park” (1993): It’s hard to believe this movie was made more than 20 years ago. Not because it makes us feel old, but because a film this special-effects heavy usually doesn’t look so fresh after a couple of decades. But if anyone knows how to use special effects to enhance a story’s telling, it’s Steven Spielberg. And even though he used a mix of animatronics and digital effects when the latter art was in its relative infancy, he made such skillful use of both that the film holds up better than most action films that came out last year. There’s a cautionary tale about playing God wrapped in that billion-dollar-grossing thrill ride, but you’re more likely to spend your time from that first reveal of a Brachiosaurus to the final roar of the T. rex wondering where Spielberg found real dinosaurs.
8. “Godzilla” (1954): The monster has been turned into such a joke over the years — re-appropriated, remade, turned into a punchline (just Google “Bambi Meets Godzilla”) — that it’s easy to forget that his first appearance in post-WWII Japan was born out of deep pain and fear experienced after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The special effects may have gotten better, but none of Godzilla’s iterations subsequent to director Ishiro Honda’s introduction captured the monster as a metaphor for the nuclear age in the same way.
7. “Alien” (1979): “In space no one can hear you scream.” But they can certainly hear you scream in a movie theater. And plenty of people did scream when that first chestburster ruined dinner (and John Hurt’s torso) in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi-horror masterpiece. And that was just the first of many screams as the seven-member spaceship crew is systematically slaughtered by an alien life form designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger — one that terrorized its way into the movie-monster hall of fame (and a few sequels too many).
. “An American Werewolf in London” (1981): Well, of COURSE guy who made the “Thriller” music video also made a perfect horror film. Before he directed Michael Jackson and a horde of jiving zombies to MTV glory, John Landis (with the help of Oscar-winning effects artist Rick Baker) transformed the face of ’80s horror with what still remains the all-time best werewolf transformation sequence ever committed to film. But part of what makes that transformation so good is the writing and character work that surrounds it; it’s a charming mix of gore and guffaws, a horror film with the wry smirk of a black comedy.
5. “Frankenstein” (1931): With all due respect to Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff was the best movie monster of the Universal Horror era as Dr. Frankenstein’s mad-science experiment gone awry. That’s thanks in part to the literary pedigree of its source material (Mary Shelley’s classic novel), but also to genius character design; he looks little like what Shelley describes, but there’s a reason we think of Karloff — his lumbering gait, the flat head, the bolts in his neck — when we think of Frankenstein’s monster.
4. “The Fly” (1986): Most monster movies pit a human hero against an inhuman foe, with a clear-cut line demarcating good and evil, and who should have your sympathies. David Cronenberg doesn’t take it so easy on his audience. What makes “The Fly” so effective is that its hero, the charismatic and eccentric Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) accidentally turns HIMSELF into the villain when he conducts a teleportation experiment and, through his own hubris, impatience and insecurity, manages to merge himself with a housefly on a molecular level. Progressively more horrifying makeup work and creature effects transform Brundle into “Brundlefly” until a final transformation strips away everything that was human about him, save the emotions
3. “The Thing” (1982): Horror-movie master John Carpenter unleashed some of the most terrifying creature effects ever put to film and sent bearded Kurt Russell after them with a flamethrower in the most viscerally upsetting film on this list. A small crew cloistered from the cold at an Antarctic research station spirals into paranoia when they unearth a parasitic alien life form that assimilates and imitates other organisms. There’s the psychological fear of not being able to trust anyone in an enclosed space. But the physical horrors are just as unsettling, taking different forms — mutilated dogs, a chest cavity with teeth, a decapitated head that sprouts spider legs — and never allowing the viewer to acclimate.