An appreciation for solid monster design can help you survive the worst of horror films. Even productions with lackluster scripts or distracted plots can employ gifted practical-effects artists, and in fact, a vast majority of them do. For every forgettable shaky-cam demonic possession film I’ve endured over the past two decades, there’s been a handful of flicks that clearly spent their budgets on concept art and prosthetics, as opposed to script rewrites. The result, in each case, was a boring film made watchable only by scenes that involved monsters. We’ve listed a few of them here.
Legion, 2010, Dir. Scott Stewart
Why did I see Legion in theaters with my father? Who knows, but I remember falling asleep twice and arguing with my dad about whether or not angels are scary during the car ride home. Here’s the thing: When horror filmmakers stick to biblical text, angels are scary. They’re meant to be.
Although Legion was inarguably a garbage fire, I maintain that its conceit — God’s horde of celestial beings come to claim the righteous from the earth, and they turn out to be just like demons — was solid. Despite a dumb, drawn-out ending, and the misconception that archangels make compelling action heroes, Legion did introduce a monster which still haunts me: the Ice Cream Man.
The angel-possessed Ice Cream Man was played by Doug Jones, whom horror fans might also know as both the Pale Man and the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth, and Abe Sapien from Hellboy. Jones’s skeletal face and impossibly long limbs make him a prime actor for monstor films, and his turn as the Ice Cream Man is made all the more interesting because he’s a self-professed conservative Christian from the American midwest.
The Unborn, 2009, Dir. David Goyer
Speaking of religion, it sucks so royally that we haven’t gotten a fantastic Jewish horror film about dybbuks yet. (The Polish horror film Demon, which will hit festivals this year, may satiate me.) As it stands, 2010’s The Unborn is the only horror film that’s come close to doing the Jewish myth of revengeful spirits any justice.
The spine-twisting dybbuk-possessed grandfather in The Unborn, looks a lot like the deleted crab-walk scene from The Exorcist, and he also resembles several of the monsters in The Thing, but the imitation is likely flattering. Could it be a coincidence that Greg Nicotero, now famous for The Walking Dead, worked in special effects on The Unborn? Probably not.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 2008, Dir. Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films are incredibly cheesy, but we’re lucky to have them. Adapting Mike Mignola’s freaky comics allowed del Toro to go absolutely nutso with creature design. The clip below features a couple of his sequel’s stars: Hellboy himself and that crawling dude who ushers Hellboy around, but the real crown jewel is Del Toro’s Angel of Death.
This thing looks fifteen-feet tall, and all of his (many, many) eyes are planted in gigantic, double-tiered metal wings. Though it’s difficult to follow Hellboy: The Golden Army’s meandering plot, watching the film is a worthwhile experience, if only to experience Del Toro’s big scary puppet as it hovers over a dusty floor.
Tremors, 1990, Dir. Ron Underwood
Well, Tremors certainly wasn’t going to rely solely on Kevin Bacon’s acting to get the story across, so it relied heavily on its monsters to build tension. The American western-horror (arguably the only other film of its kind, aside from last year’s Bone Tomahawk) gave audiences great scenes involving characters in denim running from Graboids, its sand-worm creatures.
Consider that a Tremors reboot would involve more CGI than any of us can feasibly stomach. It’s venerable, then, that the crew on Tremors built Graboids out of foam and wire, and then buried the puppets in sand before digging them back up, just to make them appear weathered and ancient. That painstaking process pays off. Though the film is almost unwatchable, the Graboids still look pretty good by today’s standards.
Alien: Resurrection, 1997, Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Alien is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and Aliens is a fantastic and funny action film. No one remembers Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection plays out like a fever dream even H.R. Giger would wake up from, screaming, in a cold sweat. The first time I had ever heard of Alien: Resurrection, I was high and listening to my friend recall the laughable plot. I didn’t believe her at the time, but it’s all true: a xenomorph queen gives birth to a “newborn” creature with human and xenomorph DNA, and that “newborn” recognizes Ripley as its twisted mother. Ripley, in the final moments of her Alien-universe maternal journey, has to kill her spawn with tears. Don’t ask why. Just look at this depraved thing!
The plot may not make much sense, but the “newborn” is undeniably interesting. It has black eyeballs in its deep sockets! It has a human-shaped skull forced onto its giant xenomorph-length head! Instead of an inner mini mouth, it has an elongated human-like tongue which it uses to explore its human mother. You know what? Its mother, Ripley, loved it as best she could. I watched the following scene while sober, and I cried my monster-loving face off.
Willow, 1988, Dir. Ron Howard
When you watch Willow, you get the gut feeling that maybe this is something you, as a vulnerable human being, shouldn’t be seeing. It’s not unlike Michael Haneke’s work that way. Though Ron Howard and George Lucas’ creepy fairy tale isn’t great, the two-headed dragon that rears its ugly head(s) has a great design.
Who would’ve thought to give a dragon an overbite, for god’s sake? The quick shot, which is in the clip above, where the dragon heads bite the same guy’s body and pull it apart is genius.
Basket Case, 1982, Dir: Frank Henenlotter
“What’s in the basket?” Most audiences in 1982 didn’t really want to know, but Frank Henenlotter, who told critics he made “exploitation” films and not horror films (because that’s so much more respectable, right?), gave us all an answer anyway. It’s not easter eggs, and it’s not clothes, as multiple characters guess in the film’s trailer. It’s a dude. Sort of.
Great monster design can haunt you. Fantastic’s monster design tries to tell us something about human nature. If the brother in the basket in Basket Case isn’t quite human, then is it our fully formed bodies that define us? It’s difficult to watch the “normal” human brother being surgically separated from his freaky conjoined twin, who ends up in said basket, because moviegoers feel sympathy for both characters. Basket Case wasn’t classy, but its ingenious special effects ventured to say something profound about human connection and the psychology of loneliness.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space, 1988, *Dir: The Chiodo Brothers
No one sane would include Killer Klowns from Outer Space on her list of great horror films, but it’s a real shame that we all remember Pennywise from It before we recall these bad boys. The Klownzilla who shows up in the film’s final act is a gorgeous feat to behold, but his little Klowns are pretty great, too. It’s genuinely difficult to pick a favorite, but I think little Tricycle Klown is mine.
All of the Klowns are brightly colored, and most feature razor-sharp teeth, but there’s just something in their construction which elevates them above the average B-movie villain. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re all wet for some reason?
Thir13en Ghosts, 2001, Dir: Steve Beck
First of all, Matthew Lillard is a national treasure and his filmography should be revered. Second, it’s difficult to imagine a plot more exciting than Thir13en Ghosts for monster aficionados. A family inherits a spooky old house which turns out to be a ghost-powered death machine, fueled by thirteen malicious spirits. Each of the ghosts, with names like “The Jackal”, “The Torso” and “The Angry Princess”, boasts his or her own ghoulish design.
Though the 1960 film was actually well done, the 2001 remake was deliciously campy, and cosplayers still try to emulate the best of the film’s ghouls.