I was born 4 days from Halloween, so there's always been some sort of inner fascination with monsters and creatures for me since I was young. As a kid, my favorite monster was always the Lon Chaney Jr. Universal Studios version of the Wolfman, followed by Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon... As I remember those guys fondly, my tastes have since changed, and while I can still admire the classics, I don't see them as effectively horrifying. Memorable and iconic sure, but there's just something too human about them. Frankenstein's Monster in particular doesn't represent the character found in Shelley's beautiful and disturbing novel, and while I still love the Creature and Wolfman, their B-Movie sensibilities are still very much present and become distracting.
I think what makes a truly effective horror movie monster or character is striking a balance between the human and non-human or the familiar and non-familiar. Something not quite human makes a monster feel 'not right' and unnatural; give a monster too many human-like qualities and it becomes too relatable, but give it too little human-like qualities and it becomes too exotic, unrecognizable or something trying too hard to be scary. I believe that the five that I have chosen represent this aspect very well, which is what makes them very unnerving and subtly horrifying. I have it taken upon myself to illustrate these characters to show my appreciation for how effective they were and ultimately still are.
Leatherface's design in Tobe Hooper's 1974 original is among the most disturbing in cinema history. The mask looks just unnatural enough to really get under your skin without hitting you over the head with it. It looks both dead and alive, and there's a question to whether it actually is his real face upon first sight. Spawning a slew of imitators and followers, Leatherface is still one of the most effective human monsters and the reason is subtlety. Whereas most modern horror films, including remakes for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre itself opt for more detailed, more overtly grisly and gory masks and faces for their villains, there's something to be said about Leatherface's understated and much more reserved look. The other films are telling the audience to be horrified, but the 1974 original is much more persuasive and doesn't have to remind you of its terror. Don't even get started on his equally haunting lady-like dining mask.
Hellraiser isn't as effective as a film as the rest of the entries on this list in my opinion, but the aspect that really pushed it was the designs and function of the Cenobite characters. The gothic and BDSM inspired characters are very human-like, but as Leatherface before them, aren't quite human either. Pinhead himself has just such a calmness about him that despite his disturbing appearance, one could imagine him as something other than a villain. This aspect is where Hellraiser gets really interesting, as the Cenobites aren't really the villains of the story, but instead are almost a neutral force, with their own agendas and motivations. In its own way, the mystery surrounding the Cenobites is what has made them such effective characters and has brought them their iconic status. That, and there really aren't any monsters quite like them; whereas many monsters have had their imitators, the Cenobites are so totally unique that nobody has really had the gall to try.
While the most immediately monstrous on my list thus far, what makes Brundlefly such an effective and memorable creature is not only its grotesque appearance, but its suffering as a sentient being. Brundlefly's appearance still has some vague semblance of humanity left in it, which is what makes the final scene in the 1986 Cronenberg classic so heartbreaking. You can feel for Seth Brundle as the film builds up your attachment and pity for the character, and the creature's actions and body language in its final transformation keep that attachment and sympathy intact. This makes its design all the more horrifying; the creature was once a human being, but makes the audience believe that it actually still is a human being.
#2: The Thing
Carpenter played off the concept of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s by displaying the fear of unknown substances, blood contamination and body deterioration. The creatures in The Thing are comprised of elements that are incredibly familiar and Earthly (Humans, Spiders, Dogs) but combines them in such an incredibly disturbing and unearthly fashion. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect about The Thing is the fact that because its imitating all these earthly and familiar creatures and beings, we as the audience don't truly know what the Thing actually looks like, it could be microscopic parasite for all we know, but then again, how could parasites pilot a flying saucer. What's also creepy is that it makes these unnatural abominations but does possess the ability to perfectly replicate another organism. As the Blair monster shows, it's almost as if the species shares some sort of collective memory for what organisms it has attempted to assimilate, resulting in dog, spider, and human hybrids in mid transformation.
#1: The Alien
The Alien's design as created by the late H.R. Giger plays off the natural human fear of sex, as everything about its anatomy looks as though it was made for such. But, in addition to the sexual imagery associated with the creature, Giger knew exactly how to make the Alien both relatable and un-relatable. Its anatomy is still very human-like, and in perfect proportions; tall, lean, and subversively, a thing of almost feminine beauty and elegance. To counter its human-like body, the complete lack of eyes as well as the pipe-like structures found adorning it give it sense of looking inorganic, like something that was manufactured rather than born. Where the other entries on this list have that duality of human and non-human elements, the Alien has an additional set of dueling characteristics. The Alien as stated earlier, looks human, but not human, but also looks natural and synthetic, making for something truly enigmatic and disconcerting. It has spawned a myriad of rip offs and imitators, but none have ever come close to having the same impact.
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