This Friday Universal Pictures’ The Wolfman arrives in theaters everywhere. While the youngins might think it’s the first time Lawrence Talbot transforms into the hairy beast, there’s actually a rich history behind the monster movie — or creature feature if you will. To celebrate the return of one of the most beloved Universal Monsters, Bloody Disgusting Chris Eggertsen counts down his personal “Top 10 Movie Monsters.”
— Halloween (1978)
Michael Myers wasn’t the only one. Thanks to the fertile imaginations of generations of filmmakers, the public consciousness is a virtual treasure trove of cinematic bogeymen, Myers being just one of the thousands that have invaded our collective nightmares throughout the last century. Of course they haven’t all been memorable – there are ten times as many stinkers as there are success stories. And of those success stories, only a select few have truly become icons of fright, living on past the cheap imitators that have been left in their wake. Now, in anticipation of Universal’s The Wolfman, being released in theaters this Friday, I’ve compiled a list of the Top Ten Iconic Movie Monsters. But first, some ground rules. I am not counting general categories of monsters that have been utilized in more than one film or series of films (i.e. zombies, werewolves, space aliens, etc.). For example, the general term “vampire” would not merit inclusion on this list. However, a specific vampire/type of vampire from a single film or film series would qualify. Further, a category of characters specific to a single franchise – for example, the “Crites” from the “Critters” series – would merit inclusion on the list. Make sense?
Icon-Making Film: The Wolf Man (1941)
Lon Chaney, Jr. had a tough row to hoe when following in the footsteps of his famous father, but he nevertheless made a lasting mark of his own on the monster-movie genre with his sympathetic performance as the Wolfman. Perhaps key to the character’s success is that of all the monsters on this list, the Wolfman stands as the only one who is painfully aware, and regretful, over his inability to resist his horrific impulses. That makes him possibly the most identifiable of all monsters, in that he is essentially a man at war over his most primal urges. In effect, Larry Talbot’s transformation from man to beast (as in the similar Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) represents the often-uncontrollable “id”, the darkest corners of the human psyche. And if not influential in the look of the modern-day werewolf (after all, most contemporary lycanthropic films present the creatures as much more “wolf”-like), the character’s tragic, sympathetic trajectory was undeniably influential on later films in the sub-genre.
Icon-Making Film: Alien (1979)
Perhaps the strangest, most offbeat of all movie monsters on this list, The Alien (also sometimes called “The Xenomorph”) owes the majority of its lasting impact to its design by Swiss artist H.R. Giger. A creature detached from the Freudian subconscious (consciousness?) of its creator, The Alien is an organism so simultaneously captivating and horrifying that a case could be made that its closest monster-movie cousin is in fact Count Dracula (if Count Dracula had acid for blood and incubated in the chests of his victims before bursting through their ribcages). Credit also must go to scripters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon for dreaming up (in Shusett’s case, literally) the idea of the Alien’s gory birth cycle. Although many tried, none of the creature’s countless otherworldly cinematic imitators would manage to walk the line between the sensual and the dangerous so effectively. The perfect killing machine indeed.
Icon-Making Film: Jaws (1975)
Some may gripe that this inclusion violates the rules I set out in the beginning, but it really doesn’t because I’m talking about this particular shark, the glorious mechanical creation of Steven Spielberg’s classic creature feature. Think about it: when you hear the term “Great White”, what’s one of the first things to pop into your mind? I’d venture that 90 percent of people (at least) would say the shark from Jaws. This sounds even more impressive when you consider that for the majority of the film, the beast is off-screen, his menace merely suggested by those ominous underwater P.O.V. shots. Of course, “The Shark” wouldn’t be on this list at all if it had ultimately looked fake or cheesy. But it didn’t; the superior effects work holds up even to this day. If you’re still not convinced, fine. But next time you go to the beach and you think twice before swimming out to where your feet don’t touch, I can guarantee you that the image of Robert Shaw sliding into the open, razor-toothed maw of the terrifying creature probably has something to do with it.
Icon-Making Film: Halloween (1978)
Ah, the alliteration! Just the way those two words fit together: Michael Myers. Sends shivers up my spine. Of all iconic slasher villains, Michael Myers could rightly be called the creepiest, with that blank white mask and chilling back-story. At least Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees had revenge as a motive – Myers’ original crime (stabbing his older sister Judith to death) was as horrific as it was nonsensical. In the end, it really is Myers’ mysterious, inexplicable nature that makes him so terrifyingly effective as a movie monster. As Dr. Loomis used to say (to, I’ll admit, increasingly cheesy effect as the endless sequels wore on), “He’s pure evil.” No bells and whistles, no fancy weapons (at least not in the original). Just a butcher knife, and that simple white mask. In a way, Michael Myers is the ultimate embodiment of the abstract nature of evil itself.
Icon-Making Film: Friday the 13th, Part 3 (1982)
If Michael Myers is the thinking-man’s masked stalker, Jason Voorhees is perhaps more fit for the big, dumb kid in all of us; the kid that doesn’t have time for metaphors, the kid that just wants to see a bunch of nubile hotties sliced ‘n’ diced one by one. In a way though, Voorhees is a sort of metaphor, for the “let’s just scream and laugh and have fun” essence of the slasher genre. If only for his ubiquity, I give him a slight edge over Michael Myers; I’d venture to guess that most people, if pressed to name the first masked movie killer they could think of, would utter Jason’s name over Myers’. Funnily enough, Jason is also the only “monster” on this list who wasn’t actually in the original film of his own series. And still we can’t help but forget, like poor Ms. Drew Barrymore’s doomed teenage character in Wes Craven’s Scream. In fact, it wasn’t even until Part 3, when he donned that iconic hockey mask, that he entered the morbid imaginations of every kid in America, in effect coming to represent the ultimate, relentless distillation of the slasher genre itself.
Icon-Making Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
When it comes to name recognition, it’s pretty simple: in the pantheon of slasher villains, Freddy Krueger leaves Voorhees and Myers in the dust. Aside from Wes Craven’s ingenious premise (wise-cracking killer stalks teenagers through their dreams), much of the credit for that simply must go to Robert Englund’s nightmare-inducing (second pun intended!) performance. Of course it also helps that unlike most other slashers, Krueger was actually able to talk to and taunt his victims before killing them. More than anything though, the Krueger character is really a perfect storm of iconic imagery: the red-and-green-striped sweater, the brown fedora, the horribly-scarred features. And how could we forget that glove (“knives for fingers”)? As Craven himself has said, there’s a sort of primal fear associated with the idea of a claw, and there quite frankly hasn’t been a slasher weapon before or since that can quite live up to it.
Icon-Making Film: Frankenstein (1931)
While visual representations of Mary Shelley’s famous character (often mistakenly referred to as “Frankenstein”) showed up as early as the 1831 edition of the book, none would define the Monster more than the guise worn by Boris Karloff in the classic 1931 film. The flat head; the electrodes on either side of the neck; the crude surgical scars and that pale blue complexion. Aside from his appearance (not to mention that lumbering gait, arms outstretched), what has truly made The Monster connect with multiple generations of filmgoers is his humanity. He is, after all, a victim of science, a creature desperate to love but doomed never to find it on account of his frightful appearance. Along with the Wolfman, he is the most psychologically-probing of all movie monsters; an expression of the way we all sometimes feel, when we’re at our lowest.
Icon-Making Film: Godzilla (1954)
Godzilla is on this list for the obvious reasons: the ubiquity of his name and likeness around the world; the sheer enormity of his influence on the pop-culture landscape; the prolific series of films that have borne his name. But what really sets this giant lizard apart is his symbolism for a variety of real-world issues that have afflicted humanity since WWII’s brutal end. Initially he was conceived as a metaphor for the Japanese people’s fear of nuclear annihilation following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki –
a spawn of the paranoid mindset afflicting the collective consciousness of Japan during that period. Later he served as an allegorical stand-in for all sorts of anxieties: environmental destruction, fears of hostile extraterrestrials during the Space Race era, the dangers of genetic engineering, and even concerns over the spread of Communism. In that way, he has bled into more than just the world of cinema; he has become a potent symbol of human beings’ tendency to destroy themselves.
Icon-Making Film: King Kong (1933)
Few images in the history of cinema have made such an enduring impact as the sight of gargantuan ape King Kong scaling the heights of the Empire State Building, with a screaming Fay Wray in hand and planes swooping by. In fact, the significance of that image alone would qualify King Kong for this list. But what puts him so high is the fact that, like Frankenstein’s Monster, he falls into the camp of the sympathetic beast, a horribly misunderstood victim of forces outside his control. Utter than name “King Kong” in almost any corner of the globe, and you will inspire instantaneous nods of recognition. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s an ape – so human-like in his appearance, with eyes radiating a sort of essential goodness – that makes Kong the “king” (again with the puns) of oversized movie monsters.
Icon-Making Film: Dracula (1931)
I can hear it already: Dracula is too obvious to be the number one choice – why couldn’t you have been more original? To that I say: bite me (hardy-har). Quite frankly, it would have been disingenuous of me to have chosen any other character for the top spot. Bitch all you want, but Dracula is the obvious number one choice for a reason – no movie monster has ever topped his status as the granddaddy of horror cinema, and no movie monster ever will. Just look at the character’s influence – I defy anyone to identify a more abundant horror movie sub-genre than the vampire film, or a more abundant representation of the vampire character then the sensual, alluring type influenced by Bela Lugosi’s masterful performance in 1931’s Dracula. Yes, Max Schreck was much scarier as Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Yes, Coppola’s version was a better film (that’s right, I said it). Yes, the 1931 version of Dracula is stagey and often terribly plodding. But Lugosi’s stamp on the character is undeniably the most iconic, and he more than any other actor is the reason Count Dracula made it to number one on this list.