Keep Them Scary – The Evolution of Scary Monsters in the Movies

The time for scary movies is upon us once again as we enter the ever expanding seasonal reach of Halloween.  Naturally the cinemas are gearing up their roll out of haunting new scary movies, but this is also a time when people return to their favorites for a good frightening re-watch.  And throughout the history of movies, cinema has developed so many different flavors of horror movies to satisfy audiences of all types.  There’s your usual monster movie subgenre, as well as haunted house tales, stalker movies, psychological horror as well as gruesome body horror.  There’s also plenty of crossover with other types of genres like science fiction and action adventure, and in some cases comedy as well.  But there is no doubt that the best horror movies out there are judged primarily on how well they are able to scare an audience.  A horror movie doesn’t always need to make it’s audience scream with fright; it can achieve the same feeling of terror with just a pervasive atmosphere of terror.  For the most part horror movies need to do their best to firmly establish the level of threat that the evil threat in their movie poses.  The greater the threat, the scarier the horror element will be.  That’s why so many horror movies put so much work into making the embodiment of terror in their movies effectively creepy and terrifying.  It doesn’t always work out sometimes.  Sometimes the threat in these movies is either limited due to budget constraints or is either lazily assembled.  Which is what separates the classic horror movies from the forgettable ones.  All of the great horror movies have that one thing in common; a truly unforgettable monster at it’s center.  Sometimes these monsters can elevate the movie they inhabit if they are iconic enough.  Since horror on the big screen began, there has been a never-ending challenge given to filmmakers to try to one up the level of terror in their movies by making increasingly terrifying monsters, and over time this has led to some rather interesting ideas added to the pantheon of horror movie classics and a fascinating progression of increasing terror upon audiences over the years.

In the early silent days when filmmakers were testing the boundaries of what their craft could accomplish, people quickly realized that some of the best reactions they could get from their artform was in scaring their audience.  Look back at one of the earliest pieces of film from the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, a train arriving at a station.  To audiences seeing this for the first it was reported that many of them ducked and screamed in the screening rooms because they thought that a real train was heading for them, not realizing that all they were looking at was film projecting through light.  Quickly, people realized that terror was an effective way to engage an audience reaction, because people kept coming back to experience that sensation again, knowing that they were perfectly safe in the end.  There are quite a few examples of horror in early cinema, as the smoke and mirrors tricks of the macabre lent themselves perfectly to the art of cinema.  Though primitive as many of those early horror films are, they still carry an eerie aesthetic that still chills over a hundred years later.  However, towards the late stages of silent cinema, the artform progressed to a point where filmmakers could indeed bring truly terrifying imagery to the big screen.  Some European filmmakers like Benjamin Christiansen and F.W. Murnau developed dynamic uses of light and trick photography to make the contrast between the light and dark on screen all the more eerie.  But, at the same time, they brought more terrifying monsters to the big screen; many which had their roots in European folklore.  These moved beyond the simple ghosts and ghouls of early cinema.  Now the movies were inhabited by witches, demons, and of course vampires.  Now 100 years later, the first truly recognized vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau, still is one of the most terrifying movies ever made, and that is in large part to it’s unflinching and vividly imagined vampire at it’s center; the terrifying Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck.  It’s here that we see the monster itself become the star attraction of the movie, and his legacy would lead to another generation of iconic movie monsters that still have a presence in cinema today.

Carrying on from the European masters, Hollywood themselves began to delve into more horror themselves.  And no place made a better effort at scaring their audiences than Universal Pictures.  Universal really became a power player in Hollywood primarily on the backs of their stable of memorable monsters.  One of the interesting things they were able to do which their European counterparts could not was secure the film rights to famous monsters of literature.  Murnau had to change the name of his titular vampire because the Bram Stoker estate wouldn’t grant him the right to use the name Dracula in his film, despite the fact that he was telling the same exact story.  But, Universal Pictures was granted the right and they were the first to officially introduce Dracula to the big screen.  Though Universal had done well in it’s early years with monsters brought to life by the “man of a thousand faces” Lon Chaney, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, it was in the early talkies that they cemented their reputation as the masters of horror, and they did so with two particular films that are still considered masterpieces to this day.  In 1931, filmmakers Tod Browning and James Whale brought the horror icons Dracula and Frankenstein to vivid life in their respective films.  These films took heavy inspiration from the German Expressionist techniques introduced in the late Silent Era, but they brought a unique Hollywood spectacle element to them as well.  The still young Universal backlot grew by leaps and bounds as they built more soundstages to house the enormous castle sets to make not just these monsters larger than life, but the settings in which their movies take place as well.  But it wasn’t just the craft behind the creations of these monsters that made them so memorable, it was the actors performing the parts as well.  One can’t imagine a more iconic Count Dracula than Bela Lugosi, or a more imposing Frankenstein than Boris Karloff.  Even to this day, depictions of Count Dracula always include a Hungarian accent, because that’s what Lugosi brought to the character.  You may even see depictions of Frankenstein with a refined British accent, which is often a nod to Karloff’s real voice.  And though the movies themselves may seem quaint in comparison today, there is still a strong sense of eeriness that still carries over so many years later that keeps these classic horror flick relevant so many years later.

Though Universal moved beyond just a being factory of horror movies from it’s early years, they nevertheless still maintained it as a cornerstone of their business.  This was true in the post-War years as well, as they continued to contribute even more memorable monsters to their roster.  Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced yet another unique monster to the Universal stable, one that was less humanoid and more alien, which made him a perfect iconic monster for a whole new era in filmmaking.  The 1950’s became the Space Age era, where monsters no longer descended from dark castles or out of dark alleyways, but instead were coming to us from outer space.  This was period when Aliens became the new iconic monsters of cinema.  The benefit of using alien lifeforms as the monstrous threat to mankind in the movies of this era was that their was limited creativity in depicting these new monsters.  You could be as realistic or surreal as you wanted in imagining these alien threats.  You can definitely see the creativity of filmmakers in making aliens that were very abstract in design, like in the classic 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.  There were also scary alien creatures that had human like traits that still managed to terrify, like The Thing From Another World (1951), a creature that would inspire other memorable monsters in the years ahead.  This was also the Atomic age, as fears of what radioactivity was capable of led to a whole variety of terrifying new monsters.  This included giant sized versions of normally small creatures like the giant ants from Them (1954) or giant spiders in Tarantula (1955).  This was also the era when the B-movie craze erupted, so a lot of weird creatures started to inhabit the silver screen, often coming off as more cheesy than terrifying.  What you definitely saw in this generation was a redefining of what kinds of monsters could be seen that would terrify general audiences, and it would be evolution that again would change with the times.

During the Vietnam years, attitudes towards what was scary to audiences changed significantly.  The out of this world monsters of the Space Age years fell away as horrors became far more grounded and human in scale.  We were witnessing terrible atrocities on a regular basis from the coverage of the war in Vietnam, and were confronting the fact that human beings alone could be capable of unbelievable evil.  So, worrying about ghosts, vampires, and aliens became less appealing to audiences in those years, as real life became scarier.  But, horror adapted to these attitudes and a new crop of movie monsters began to emerge; ones that were much more human than before.  The late 60’s and early 70’s gave us the beginnings of the slasher era.  From these years, we got serial killers who preyed on victims from the shadows and terrorized communities in the dark of knight.  These new monsters often were killers hiding behind a mask; human and yet faceless terrors.  Some of the most famous movie monsters to emerge from this time were icons like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980).  These characters were initially not supernatural beings, but rather imposing humans bent on destruction, with a lust for killing their victims in the most gruesome way possible.  These kinds of monsters brought a far more chilling identity to horror because it brought the sense of terror closer to home.  These were the kinds of monsters that could be lurking around in your very own neighborhood, which had a chilling effect on audiences at the time.  These kinds of movies brought out much of the anxieties of a population far more conscious of the evils within a society, and making movie monsters far more grounded and real was a reflection of how society was changing in that time.  Of course, as eras shifted once again, even these monsters would become larger than life as a whole new set of tools became available to horror filmmakers.

The 1980’s saw an explosion in new types of visual effects techniques, and those found it’s way into the horror genre as well.  You saw more realistic creature effects, like those from the ground-breaking Stan Winston studio.  Stan Winston even reimagined terrifying monsters of past cinema, like the terrifying “Thing” from John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 50’s classic, entitled simply The Thing (1982), as well as a monstrous make-over of slasher icon Jason Voorhees.  You also saw creature make-up make great advances in those years, as artists like Rick Baker came into their own.  Baker of course re-imagined a horror icon like the Wolf Man and brought him to even more realistic life with his award winning work in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  In general, there became a far bigger effort to take all the elements of horror from the past and re-invent them again with more advanced visual effects.  For the most part, it worked spectacularly well.  Many of the horror movies of this era still manage to terrify.  The Tobe Hopper directed, Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982) brought back the haunted house concept in a big way, with one of the most terrifying depictions of spectral activity ever brought to the silver screen.  The sci-fi horror genre even got a major boost from the new technologies of the day, with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) putting terrifying new spins on aliens and robots as iconic cinema monsters.  And, as CGI matured in those same years, filmmakers began to have another tool set to imagine gore and terror on levels that practical effects wouldn’t have allowed in the past.  For many this was a boom for horror filmmaking, as there became less constraints on how far one could go in making monsters more fantastic than ever and the horror they inflict far more grotesque than ever.  But, a certain segment of the audience also made it be known that they wanted their horror to feel less big and far closer to what it should honestly be; personal and up close.

In more recent years, there has been a move toward making movie monsters less tactile and more ethereal.  For many, the less we see of the monster, the more terrifying it becomes.  Some brilliant examples of this in recent years has been in movies like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014).  These movies brilliantly withhold showing their central monsters, to the point where a monster is only merely suggested and not seen fully.  The terror is not in how scary the monster looks like, but rather in the sense that it’s omnipresent in the atmosphere of the story; that feeling that it is always lurking around and could strike at any moment.  That feeling of unease is where the true terror in the movie comes from.  The movies are able to make that work by playing around with sounds in The Babadook or with camera POV in It Follows, so that we are never feeling robbed of not seeing the monster, because of the effective amount of terror built up around fearing that it’s always nearby.  There are other films that manage to effectively show us their monsters by using them sparingly.  James Wan has managed to successfully build his career around expertly crafted movies that show us terrifying images at just the right moment.  His films like Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and most recently Malignant (2021) all manage to work effectively by using atmosphere to build the terror within the movie and withholding a full glimpse of the monsters within it until they are absolutely needed.  There’s also been a move towards more Avant Garde horror, thanks to studios like A24, where some of the old tricks of classic horror seem to be in favor again.  We are also getting horror that is far more human, with the terror that we do to each other becoming far more prevalent in the kinds of horror stories we tell.  The death cult in Ari Aster’s Midsommer (2019) being a strong recent example, or a dance troupe’s party gone horribly wrong in Gasper Noe’s Climax (2018).  Those are some prime examples of horror movies that don’t normally look like horror movies still manage to have the power to terrify, just through the horror we do to each other.  What it really shows us is that throughout the history of cinema, there is an increasingly changing definition of what constitutes a movie monster, and it’s one that will likely change in the years to come.

The great thing is that even as attitudes towards what is scary changes, it still doesn’t diminish what has come before.  People still value the horror icons of the past, and a few of them still have the power to scare so many decades later.  Certainly the Universal Monster movies remain popular and are still an essential institution of this time of year.  The great thing is that with changing standards of horror over time, some things that were once old can become new again, if delivered with the right amount of skill.  We’ve seen new re-imaginings of the story of Dracula over the years, with many depictions moving in a different direction than the original Bela Lugosi version.  Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a particularly memorable version, with Gary Oldman doing a spin on the Count that feels very different from the classic version that we know.  There are bad ways of revitalizing these characters too.  Universal’s embarrassing attempt of doing a Marvel style cinematic universe with their stable of monsters, named the Dark Universe, fizzled out pretty quickly after the notorious flop that was The Mummy (2017), starring Tom Cruise.  But, a couple years later, Universal did manage to revitalize one of their monsters successfully with the update to The Invisible Man (2020) which they partnered with Blumhouse to make.  The Blumhouse approach, smaller and more personal in scale, proved to work much better for re-imagining this famous H.G. Wells creation for the big screen, and one would hope that Universal considers doing the same with their other famous movie monsters.  Great monsters don’t fade into obscurity as we’ve seen throughout the history of cinema; they manage to endure and advance with the times.  Even Nosferatu, a character whose only existence is due to a filmmaker not being able to use the name Dracula in his movie, has been given more than one extra lives on the big screen; first in a Werner Herzog remake from 1979, and soon once again in upcoming re-imagining from The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers.  We don’t forget these movie monsters; we add to their ranks.  People love to be frightened in the right kind of setting that is a movie theater, and it’s a great thing that filmmakers are finding new ways to invoke that sense of terror, even with monsters that we are all too familiar with.  So, as we begin this Halloween season in earnest, remember how important these iconic monsters have been to the history of cinema as a whole, and hopefully take into consideration new ways to make them retain their terrifying presence as we re-tell their stories for new generations.