Join us as we celebrate the twisted imaginations of the painters, illustrators, comic artists and VFX technicians behind horror's best movie monster designs.
WARNING: This post contains scenes of extreme gore that might make you lose your lunch. Consider yourself WARNED!
Movie production has always been a hotbed of creativity, and none more so than when it’s dealing in the hinterlands of fantasy and horror.
Films that require the audience be shown something unique and unsettling, bizarre and bewildering, have to call upon the talents of painters, illustrators, comic artists and VFX technicians, many of whom remain the unsung heroes of the industry.
In our list of top movie monster designs, we celebrate the twisted imaginations of these artisans, and provide some insight into their inspirations and influences. So, here goes, and straight in at number 13 it's...
- Movie: Cabin in the Woods (2011, Lionsgate)
- Designer info: Hiroshi Katagiri (Sculptor) David LeRoy Anderson (Makeup FX Designer)
Warning: major spoiler alerts ahead! If you haven't seen this movie, rent it now and skip to number 12 on our list...
At the time of release, Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods was met with a mixture of awe, praise and confusion. The man made famous by vampire slayers and a very successful summer blockbuster, finally turned his hand to a tongue-in-cheek horror offering along with director and fellow writer Drew Goddard.
You could say there are far too many monsters to choose from in Cabin in the Woods but after much consideration, it just had to be the Merman. Played by Richard Cetrone - who also portrays the Werewolf - the Merman was put in an entire body cast and had to be glued in entirely from head to toe.
He was in this cast for up to 12 hours at a time, unable to move and having to wait eight hours before the filming even started. Makeup FX designer David LeRoy Anderson claims that there are even pictures of Richard asleep on a stretcher on set in his full costume.
Watch this (Major spoiler alert!)
(More spoilers ahead...) One of the film's most anticipated moments is the actual reveal of the Merman. The character of Bradley is upset at the beginning of the story, complaining that he'll never get to see a Merman. Ironically at the end of the film, Bradley is killed by the one monster he so desperately wanted to see. A hilarious and trademark Joss Whedon moment.
Watch this! (Major spoiler alert!)
(More spoilers ahead...) Want to see more monsters from the movie? Take a look at the clip above to witness the absolute carnage witnessed towards the end of the film.
- Movie: Stephen King's It (1990, Warner Bros Television)
- Designer info: Tommy Lee Wallace (director), Fantasy II (special visual effects)
The TV movie version of Stephen King's novel It received mixed reviews, and it would be a stretch to even say that it has cult status, however Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the dancing clown received universal critical acclaim for capturing the novel's interpretation of the character - and scaring the life out of everyone.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show actor's portrayal of the sadistic clown also caused many a nightmare amongst those who sneakily watched it on VHS as a kid.
Watch this! The original trailer for Stephen King's It:
The story of It is in two parts, both surrounding seven friends who are tormented and driven to insanity by an evil force they call 'It'. The first part tells the story of how the children first vanquish It in 1960, and the second half fast-forwards to 1990 when they are forced to take It on once more as adults. Both halves contain some comically scary and genuinely disturbing moments… Clowns are unsettling enough without them actually being monstrous too!
Watch this! The bit in the library with the balloons:
11. The Triffid
- Movie: The Day of the Triffids, 1962
- Designer info: Wally Veever (VFX), Hugh Skillen (special effects)
Director Steve Sekely’s adaptation of John Wyndham’s post-apolcalyptic novel about aggressive plants taking over the world, presented a terrifying poisonous plant-form known as the triffid. Most disturbing about these monsters was their ability to become mobile by uprooting themselves.
Well known visual effects artist Wally Veever worked on the design for the triffids, alongside special effects technician Hugh Skillen, who designed an articulated motor-driven model of the monster. The fact that the models were sometimes unreliable and had limited movements simply added to the creepy, sinister nature of the venomous plants.
WATCH THIS! Man eating plants!
- Movie: Cloverfield, 2008, Paramount Pictures
- Designer info: Neville Page (concept designer and teacher)
After seeing rows of Godzilla toys in a Japanese store, J. J. Abrams decided America needed it’s own city-destroying monster. Codenamed ‘Clover’, the giant quadrupedal beast was designed by concept artist Neville Page, whose clients include Mattel, BMW, Toyota, and movies such as Avatar and Tron 2.
According to Page, although 25 storeys tall, the creature is immature, a baby, and its actions are the clumsy result of fear and confusion.
“There’s nothing scarier than something huge that’s spooked,” said Page, comparing it to a rampaging elephant. “It also needed to be huge, have a head full of teeth, arms and legs, and, because of it coming out of the water, I felt it needed a tail to justify an aquatic potential origin or existence.”
WATCH THIS! Bombing the monster!
- Movie: Gremlins, 1984, Warner Bros.
- Designer info: Chris Walas (special makeup FX, Chris Walas Inc.)
The genius of Chris Walas’ Gremlin designs – based on the script by Chris Columbus (who'd go on to write the screenplay of The Goonies, direct Home Alone and two of the Harry Potter films) – is the contrast between the über-cute, doe-eyed Gizmo and its evil, scaley offspring.
To long-time reptile fan Walas, the Gremlin design came easiest: “We knew that they were completely crazy little monsters,” he said, “but I also wanted them to look wild. So I gave them long arms and boney fingers, and I gave them big ears because they're night creatures.”
However the Mogwai (above) - essentially the 'pupae' stage of the Gremlins - proved more difficult, taking seven months to nail the final look. Gizmo’s tan-and-white colour scheme was based on Steven Spielberg’s dog Chauncey, while the Mogwai’s nose was half-puppy, half monkey: “Just your standard cute animal nose,” said Walas.
WATCH THIS! You spin me right round, baby ...
- Movie: Tremors, 1990, Universal Studios
- Designer info: Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. (creature effects designer and creators, Amalgamated Dynamics)
Able to move at speed underground, creatures dubbed ‘Graboids’ begin to terrorise the desert town of Perfection. Described in the script only as an 'eyeless beast with spines, and a mouth that opened like a grotesque flower with tentacles inside', the task of fleshing out the design fell to Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., two effects artists in the process of setting up a new FX facility.
Using the idea of ‘form follows function’ they decided to give it a heavy armoured look, with dry, leathery skin like that of an elephant. “We wanted something that looked like it could come from this planet – or could come from another planet,” explained Gillis. The business end was “based on the head of a snapping turtle with side mandibles that could act as scoops,” he said. “It looked threatening and like it could cut you up, but these were not the standard pearly white fangs you see on a monster.” A set of three independent tentacles, each with its own mouth (based on a catfish), completed the subterranean serpent.
WATCH THIS! It's a Graboid attack!
WATCH THIS! Graboid death sequence ...
07. David Kessler
- Movie: An American Werewolf in London, Universal Pictures
- Designer info: Rick Baker (special makeup FX, Cinovation Studios)
While the actual movie werewolf is suitably scary (John Landis wanted a “four-legged hound from hell”), the real star of the film is the transformation sequence, masterminded by Rick Baker. Prior to AAWIL, werewolf metamorphoses were a cross-dissolve to man in a mask, or performed entirely off-camera. This time the audience was able to see, in grisly detail and bright lighting, a human skeleton deform, break and reform into the body of a wolf-beast – complete with the sound of snapping bones – and which director Landis wanted to be “horrifying, yet morbidly funny... fascinating rather than repulsive”. So in a symphony of urethane-eslastomer, pneumatics, air bladders, and cable-operated limbs, David Kessler becomes his lycanthropised alter-ego.
WATCH THIS! It's the AMAZING transformation sequence …
- Movie: Hellraiser (1987, New World Pictures)
- Designer info: Clive Barker (author, director), Geoff Portass (special makeup FX)
Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart (which would form the basis of the Hellraiser franchise), features the cenobites, a pseudo-religious order of sadomasochists in pursuit of extreme sensual experiences. To portray these characters, Barker turned to a variety of inspirations, including, he said, “punk, Catholicism, and the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam”.
- Check out the evolution of Pinhead
Lead Cenobite – dubbed ‘Pinhead’ by the film’s makeup crew – also drew inspiration from other sources: “I had seen a book containing photographs of African fetishes,” said Barker. “Sculptures of human heads crudely carved from wood and then pierced with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nails and spikes. They were images of rage, the text instructed.” The final character, replete with a leather outfit woven through the skin itself, is in a state of perpetual pain/pleasure.
WATCH THIS! Hellraiser trailer, starring Pinhead
05. The Pale Man
- Movie: Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006, Warner Bros.
- Designer info: Guillermo Del Toro (director)
Inspiration for the saggy-skinned, child-eating albino came in part after director, and former makeup artist, Del Toro suffered from drastic weight loss, and in part from a painting by Francisco de Goya, called Saturn Devouring His Son. Del Toro also cites the work of book illustrator Arthur Rackham.
“I tried to reconnect with the perversity and very sexual content of his work,” Del Toro explained. “In fairy tales, all stories are either about the return to the womb (heaven, home) or wandering out into the world and facing your own dragon. We are all children wandering through our own fable.”
The fantastically grotesque Pale Man enjoys the unique pleasure of being equally disconcerting either as the sightless, worm-headed creature,, or when using his eyeball-embedded palms to see. A truly beautiful freak.
- Movie: The Fly, 1986, 20th Century Fox
- Designer info: Chris Walas, Jonathan Horton (special makeup FX, Chris Walas Inc.)
David Cronenberg’s retelling of the 1958 movie features another metamorphosis, as Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) experiments with matter transportation, but fails to notice a fly in the booth with him. As fly and human DNA combine, Brundle begins his slow mutation process, gaining thick hairs and withered, vestigial limbs. Like a slow-motion car crash, the audience watch transfixed as Brundle at first begins to disintegrate, losing fingernails and teeth, and then eventually sheds all human form to make the tragic transformation into Brundlefly.
A short production schedule meant that designs were solicited from the whole team at Chris Walas Inc. “At one time the drawings tended to be very insectlike,” explained Walas, “which was too far in one specific direction. David [Cronenberg] insisted that the evolution was not human or insect but that the two entities were headed to some new reality.”
A book on diseases also informed the evolution of the design, leading to a fusion of the two themes, producing a sickly, deformed and ultimately doomed organism.
WATCH THIS! The making of The Fly: Part 1
WATCH THIS! The making of The Fly: Part 2
03. The Thing
- Movie: The Thing, 1982, Universal Pictures
- Designer info: Rob Bottin (special makeup FX), Michael Ploog (comic artist), Mentor Huebner (artist and illustrator), Stan Winston (special makeup FX, Stan Winston Studio)
The various versions of the metamophosing alien were the brainchild of a number of people, with the creatures becoming ever more complex as new VFX techniques were engineered and the script rewritten to accommodate them (the $750,000 effects budget had doubled by the end of production).
Comic artist Mike Ploog and conceptual artist Mentor Huebner were the visual driving force behind the ideas outlined in the script by Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt). The extraterrestrial shape-shifter gave the pair free reign to envision all manner of grotesquely deformed and unnatural lifeforms, which they did under the guidance of makeup artist Rob Bottin and, latterly, Stan Winston, who was drafted in to undertake the transforming dog sequence.
The bizarre designs and brilliant effects were best summed up as Norris’ head sprouts legs and scuttles away much to Palmer’s dismay, who merely vocalises what the audience are thinking: “You gotta be fucking kidding.”
WATCH THIS! Chest Defibrillation. Warning: Extremely gory!
02. The Predator
- Movie: Predator, 1987, 20th Century Fox
- Designer info: Stan Winston
When the original ‘Hunter’ design (a more insectoid suit originally worn by Jean Claude van Damme) was scrapped, the Predator VFX team turned to the late, great Stan Winston, who was hired on the recommendation of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to create the trophy-seeking alien. Influenced by a painting of a Rastafarian warrior in Joel Silver’s office – and James Cameron’s desire to “see something with mandibles” – Winston rapidly created the iconic dreadlocked warrior with the vicious jaws.
“My feeling from reading the script was that the Predator had to be a real character, rather than a generic creature,” said Winston. “He needed to be a very specific character – and that's what we came up with.”
Despite the short development time, Winston managed to create a unique and enduring design that continues to fascinate.
WATCH THIS! The guy who played the Predator
01. The Alien
- Movie: Alien, 1979, 20th Century Fox
- Designer info: Hans Rudi Giger (artist, sculptor)
And topping our list of movie monster designs is probably the most unique, disturbing and iconic movie creature, conceived by H. R. Giger for Ridley Scott’s horror film, Alien. Scott was first introduced to the Swiss artist by Alien’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who gave him a copy of Giger’s book, Necronomicon.
“I realised we had the ability to create a monster that would be superior to most of those from the past,” said Scott. “Initially, Giger wanted to design the creature from scratch. However, I was so impressed with his ‘Necronom IV’ and ‘V’ paintings… that I insisted he follow their form.”
Man in a suit!
Despite initial reservations, Scott decided to go with a man in a suit.
“Finally we decided to make a very elegant creature,” said Giger, “quick and like an insect. Ridley Scott had an old photo of Leni Riefenstahl with a very tall Nubian, and he was impressed with that so we decided to make a suit for a very tall, thin man.”
- Check out: The making of Alien on YouTube
Giger’s biomechanic aesthetic informed the design, producing a seemingly eyeless creature with an elongated phallic skull, prehensile tail, exoskeletal armour and of course, that incredible extruding tongue and secondary mouth.
WATCH THIS! Practising being the Alien
This horrific article was written by Steve Jarratt.
Did your favourite make the list? Let us know in the article comments section below.