Thursday, 1 December 2011

Plastic, Rubber and CGI Movie Monsters

As a boy I was particularly interested in movie monsters and used to enjoy making plastic models of them which were made by the American Aurora models company.

Aurora model of Bela Lugosi as "Dracula" (not one I made)

Given my interest in monsters, I thought then it was high time to compile my own list of top ten favourite movie monsters. So in reverse order, here they are:

10. Creature from "The Monster that Challenged the World"

Now this is an obscure monster by any stretch and the only reason it made it into this list at all is that when I as a kid, my older cousin had a Super 8 movie projector with a very limited range of Super 8 films. He had some Charlie Chaplin films, some Laurel and Hardy films and a ropey sci-fi/monster movie from 1957 with the great title "The Monster That Challenged the World". The monster in question was a strange prehistoric underwater creature that was disturbed by an earthquake and some nosey scientists and comes ashore to wreck havoc on human civilisation. We ended up watching this film more times that it merited but it is still a fond memory. Its not a bad monster as 1950s monsters go and its eyes are genuinely unsettling but it is here purely for reasons of nostalgia/childhood trauma. I could also justify its position in the list by using it as a symbol for the dozens of rubbery monsters that appeared in American B-movies throughout the 50s. Some films had better monsters (eg "Creature from the Black Lagoon", "This Island Earth") and some had far worse. A more objective writer would have placed the Japanese monster Godzilla in this spot, a truly classic movie monster which epitomised the sci-fi monster phenomenon of the 1950s.

9 Demon from "Night of The Demon" 

There is a sub-genre of British supernatural thrillers/horrors that consists of just a handful of films but each one a truly chilling classic. Into this group, I would place films such as "Dead Of Night" (1945), "The Devil Rides Out" (1968) and "Night of The Demon" (1957).

"Night of the Demon" was about an American pyschologist who travels to England to debunk the work of a modern day devil cult leader. The American, though a sceptic, begins to believe that an evil spell has been placed on him which will involve the appearance of a gigantic demon which will kill him as it has killed other victims of the spell. The creature when it appears is spectacular and truly chilling (the sound effects really help) and watching the film now, even with the quaint charm of 1950s rubber and fur monster effects, the film is still powerful and the demon still frightening.

Trivia: The lines from this film: "Its in the trees! Its coming!" were sampled in Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" song from the 1985 album of the same name.

8. Pan from Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro's wildy imaginative horror film from 2006, let lose a range of fantastical creatures in this dark adult fairy tale set against the backdrop of Fascist Spain in 1944. Lots of delightful monsters in this, especially the creature who has eyes in the palm of its hands. However, I prefer the eerie elegance of the Pan creature in the poster below.

7. Talos from Jason And The Argonauts

Ray Harryhausen was a movie special effects wizard who made groundbreaking advances in the use of stop motion cinematography. He was able to create very detailed models of monsters which he could move and by animating them one frame at a time, was able to create the convincing illusion of a living creature. This image was then optically combined with real-life actors and the results though dated, have a convincing charm of their own. Many great examples of his creations to chose from but I particularly like Talos, the unforgettable giant bronze statue that comes alive and battles with the Argonauts in "Jason of the Argonauts" (1963).

6. The Thing

I never got around to writing a post about John Carpenter, one of my favourite directors and again underlining an unintentional theme of this blog as it seems to dwell on movies and actors from the 80s and 90s. I can't quite decide which is my favourite John Carpenter film, as its a toss up between "Escape From New York" (1981) and "The Thing" (1982). In "The Thing" there is a truly memorable creature but it is difficult to describe as its a pathogen that infects living things and then erupts from inside them, creating nightmarish organisms that mix and match human and animal anatomy into new surreal lifeforms. If you haven't seen the film, well the following clip will help you get the idea. (note: this clip features extreme imagery, not for the faint hearted).

5. Predator
The first "Predator" movie was back in 1987 and starred Arnold Schwarznegger as a mercernary in the jungles of South America who was being hunted by a big humanoid alien who enjoyed safari hunting with humans as its game. The "predator" had some cool gadgets including very powerful shoulder mounted guns and a suit that made him almost invisible. He was intelligent and could fly his own space ship and self-destruct if he felt like it. The predator was popular big budget Hollywood popcorn sci-fi and spawned many sequels such as "Predator 2", "Predators" and a couple of "Alien Vs Predators" films. Unlike most of the other movie monsters, the predator is somewhat open to negotiation. If you kill one of his enemies or if you both have a common goal he might stop trying to kill you and collaborate with you instead which is a nice change from the other creatures listed here.

4. Balrog from "Lord Of The Rings" 

Peter Jackson's "Lord of The Rings" trilogy presents the viewer with a cinematic smorgasboard of great movie monsters to chose from. I was tempted to list the Ringwraiths as they are so creepy or a cave troll which I quite liked but its the sheer epic Hellish scale of the Balrog that won the day. It featured in the exciting climax of the first movie with a thrilling chase sequence and show down with Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. I think its the first monster in the list that is CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and back in the day when I saw it in the cinema, I remember thinking it was one of the best CGI monsters I have ever seen.

3. Dracula

So many Draculas, so little time. However, F.W.Murnau's 1922 German silent film "Nosferatu" is I believe the first telling of the Dracula story on film and has become one of the most famous on-screen depictions of Dracula. I mentioned this before in the posting about silent cinema a few weeks back and this version of Dracula had to make it into the list. The actor Max Shreck's appearance as the undead vampire is genuinely stange and disturbing even after 90 years. I could have mentioned the Bela Lugosi version from the 30s (see Aurora model at top of blog) which became more famous in Hollywood and I am quite partial to Gary Oldman's very sophisticated take on Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's lavish 1992 version of Dracula.

2. Frankenstein's Creature

Some people think that English director James Whale's 1931 film "Frankenstein" is the best film version of the novel ever made and none can argue with its truly creepy gothic imagery which was heavily influenced by the visual style of German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. This films is famous for one image, the face of the Frankenstein creature, which was played by Boris Karloff. The makeup for the creature's face was revolutionary for its time and took hours to apply. The skin on the creature's face was green in reality but it translated to a light grey on black and white film. Karloff's complex performance renders the creature as a tormented character, both childlike and monstrous at the same time. The creature has become a truly iconic image of film horror.

1. The Alien (Xenomorph)

So here we are at the top of the list and it just has to be the Xenomorph (the technical term for it which is mentioned in one the films) creature from the Alien movies. This terrifying creature was truly alien in its look and feel and it first burst onto cinema screens and out of actors bodies in Ridley Scott's "Alien" movie in 1979. The look of the creature itself was a remarkable design, created by the surreal Swiss designer/artist HR Giger. Though ultimately, in the first and second films, it was played in some scenes by a man in a rubber suit, it still looked unlike any Alien creature seen on screen up to then. For me, I think the fact that it has no eyes nor a proper face, just a extendible mouth is what makes it appear utterly monstrous and inhuman and devoid of emotion or empathy. Screen monsters had certainly come a long way from the rubber monsters of the 1950s.

Whereas the first film focused on the havoc caused by one alien let lose on a space ship, James Cameron's 1986 "Aliens" sequel presented them as a mass brood of creatures who had over run a human colony. "Aliens" was one of the best action films/sci-fi films of the 80s and though two sequels followed in the 90s, they paled in comparison with the first two films. The alien has become a movie star it its own right, cropping up again in two "Alien Vs Predator" films and doing star turns in several big hit video games so in terms of screen time and column inches, it has to be the most hard working and famous monster of them all. I will leave you with the best specimen of the aliens, the magnificent queen alien from the climax of "Aliens" and that fight with Riply.... "Get away from her you bitch!".

PS I know I did not list King Kong in this and I probably should have.

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