The 19 Greatest Character Transformations on Film

In honor of an early Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film, we count down 19 of the greatest physical character transformations in film history.

One hundred and six years ago on this very day (yes movies have become that old), the third Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film was released as a motion picture. Starring James Cruze in the titular dual role and as directed by Lucius Henderson, this early cinematic version of Robert Louis Stevenson was silent, eight minutes long, and bereft of much of the complexity and Victorian hypocrisy simmering beneath the surface of the 1886 novel’s prose.

But it had one terrific aspect for its era: a transformation scene. In that moment, Henderson and Cruze (the latter of whom became a director himself) gave celluloid life to Stevenson’s characters and the later play it was based on (the 1887 Thomas Russell Sullivan iteration). Before our very eyes, the studious, civilized, and good-natured Dr. Henry Jekyll transformed into the hideous and dastardly Mr. Edward Hyde. It’s one of the earliest examples of such trick photography, showcasing a character becoming someone or something else entirely. And this got us thinking about all the films that came in its wake, carrying on the visceral thrill of a man becoming the other.

So below, we humbly submit a list of the best character transformations involving a man turning into something else via make-up, prosthetics, brilliant photography, computer generated imagery, or purely the skill of superb acting. Here are 19 of the greatest physical character transformations on film.

The Living Playing Cards (1904)

Like so many artists (especially French ones) who first saw a moving picture camera in the mid-1890s, Georges Méliès decided he had to have one for himself. But while all those visual artists played around making abstract little doo-dad experimental films about light and shadow and color, Méliès, a magician by trade, used his camera to tell stories and, more importantly, pull off visual magic tricks. While he’s best remembered today for his 1902 mini epic A Trip to the Moon, most of his 500-plus short films involve unexpected transformations.

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By recognizing (if by accident) just what sort of hijinx could be pulled off using dissolves, fades, stop-motion, cuts and perspective, he brought statues and paintings to life. Paupers become kings before our eyes. The queen of hearts becomes flesh and blood, and steps out of a playing card. All of it done so seamlessly that it remains astounding over a century later.  He also laid out the fundamental techniques that made cinematic storytelling possible at all. The effects on display in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (especially the revelation that Maria’s really a robot) come straight from Méliès, as do the visual tricks in Citizen Kane. And without Méliès, George Waggner and Jack Pierce would never have been able to turn Lon Chaney, Jr. into the Wolf Man. – Jim

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

There were five previous film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous version before this one, but this adaptation is perhaps the best known of the silent era. Legendary actor John Barrymore plays the title roles, and reportedly achieved the first portion of his transformation into Hyde simply by contorting and twisting his handsome features – only relying on prosthetics for the final stage. Unlike later portrayals of Hyde, Barrymore played Hyde less as an ape-like barbarian and more like a rodent. There’s something undeniably unsettling in this choice, bringing Hyde more in line with the eerie, almost inhuman monsters of German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. – Don

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Fredric March won the first Academy Award for Best Actor given for a performance in a horror film with this remarkable, and still gripping, work. Indeed, it remains the definitive version of the tale. Paramount originally wanted John Barrymore to reprise his role from the 1920 film, but since he was already under contract at MGM, the studio hired March because he resembled Barrymore. Director Rupert Julian staged the transformation in a series of dissolves through colored filters, the removal of each filter revealing another layer of Wally Westmore’s simian makeup design. The result was a savage, Neanderthal-like appearance that has influenced every version of Hyde ever since.  – Don

The Invisible Man (1933)

While technically we see the other of H.G. Wells (or more appropriately, James Whale’s) Invisible Man materialize into Claude Rains at the end of the picture, this is not the “transformation” that caught our eye from the iconic piece. To be sure, it is a great use of cross-fades that introduced Claude Rains to the movie going public for the first time ever—and as a corpse no less—but the real transformation comes much earlier in the picture, and it’s astounding.

For about 16 minutes into this ostensible horror film, Whale has relied on satire and caricature at the English countryside’s expense when Dr. Jack Griffin shows up at Una O’Connor’s Sussex inn. Appearing on a dark night with disturbing bandages covering him head to toe and dark-tinted glasses covering his eyes in a time before it was a fashion statement, he immediately piques the interest of the  nosy landlady (and the audience). Whale quenches their small-minded curiosity when he has Griffin give them his nose, and then his glasses and wig. And as each piece of bandage and covering comes off, there is nothing in its place, transforming what was clearly a man into full-standing clothes with a riotous laugh.

This still-stunning effect was accomplished by one of the earliest uses of matte processing with Rains wearing a black-velvet suit covering the “invisible” bits while standing in front of a black velvet curtain, which was then shot from the same angles as the scenes on set where his character vanished. To this day, it can have you gasp or laugh—or both, which would have been to Whale’s liking. – David

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Werewolf of London (1935)

As one of the first werewolf films, Werewolf of London has been understandably overshadowed by Universal Pictures’ later and better The Wolf Man. Nevertheless, this classic is still the first werewolf picture that Jack Pierce worked on, which would alone earn it a place on this list. But it also features one of the most unique werewolves in cinema history.

Played by Henry Hull with a heavy air of stiff British aristocracy, Wilfred Glendon transforms into the gentleman’s lycanthrope: a creature that not only retains his clothes but much of his facial features. The effect results in a monster that seems as much Mr. Hyde as the Big Bad Wolf. Indeed, the film implies greatly that he is cruelly seeking out his wife for slaughter, and he otherwise targets pretty young things foolishly walking the streets of Whitechapel at night. Intentionally reminiscent of Jack the Ripper, this furry fellow is an English lord praying on the rabble and his subdued wife like it was his God given right. A wolf of London, indeed. – David

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

The last inclusion of a Jekyll/Hyde transformation—we promise!—the ’41 vintage of the good doctor was another good year. While not living up to the still “Wait, how did he do that?!” brilliance of the 1932 iteration, this Spencer Tracy vehicle is the most impressive of all the cross-dissolve transformations that would come to dominate the 1940s.

In fact, while everyone fondly recalls Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformation in The Wolf Man of the same year, that film merely attempted to lesser effect what Victor Fleming and his creative team accomplished in this film’s final moments when Spencer Tracy, through painfully methodical dissolves and make-up interludes, became Mr. Hyde. It’s such a terrific moment that it can let you almost forgive the casting of Lana Turner as the movie’s “good girl” (Ingrid Bergman was the doomed vamp) or that Paramount Pictures ruthlessly tried to have all prints of the 1932 version destroyed before this film’s release. Almost. – David

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

I will argue with anyone until the next autumn moon that The Wolf Man is the finest werewolf film ever made, bar none. There is a reason that in all the lunar cycles since, the best successors sheepishly admit an intertextual debt to that 1941 masterpiece.

With that said, it does not feature Lon Chaney Jr.’s best transformation into the bestial id. In fact, the effect was all around more polished in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man when make-up artist Jack Pierce improved on the design of the monster’s visage, and director Ray William Neill more ambitiously featured a conscious on-camera transformation (George Waggner only showed The Wolf Man turn into sad sack Larry Talbot at the end of the picture when he was peacefully dead and motionless). Lying on a hospital bed, Lon Chaney Jr. is allowed to emote the existential dread of the moment, pulling your heartstrings for all they’re worth while his head is perfectly matched during the cross-dissolves. Rick Baker has even speculated to this day that a special pillow must have been designed to achieve the effect of his head, nor the cushion, moving. – David

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Psycho (1960)

Okay, so in standard terms, the big transformation scene in Psycho is actually a de-transformation. As the true nature of Norman’s relationship with his mother is revealed, he bursts into the basement in the wig and dress, and then seems to dissolve, just melt away, after Sam Loomis grabs him from behind. But there’s a bigger, more profound transformation that takes place much earlier in the film and actually occurs within the audience instead of a character on the screen.

In the minutes immediately following Marion Crane’s murder, as Norman (dutiful son that he is) mops up the bathroom and prepares to dispose of the body, the audience is still in shock. Part of it is the shower murder itself, and part is dismay at realizing half an hour into the film, the star has just been killed off. What the hell’s that all about, right? And who is this creepy little mama’s boy who peeps at girls through a hole in the wall, anyway? What a creepy little creep.

But when he drives Marion’s car to the swamp to sink it, something shifts. As the car rolls into the black water, we get cuts of Norman’s face as he nervously watches, chewing his gumdrops. Suddenly, we’re nervously watching the car with him, and when it stops sinking, still clearly visible to anyone who might pass by, we freeze with him, holding our breath. We really, really want that car to sink, and when it finally does, and we get another shot of Norman’s face with that tiny twitch of a smile, we collectively let our relieved breath out again. At that moment something has changed, and it sure ain’t Norman. He’s the same as he ever was. No, we’re the ones who’ve changed. Our allegiances are now with Norman. We want him to get away with it. He’s not such a bad guy after all, just trying to protect his mother. And that Marion was kind of a stiff bitch anyway. Hitchcock was such an insidious bastard. – Jim

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

By any measure, this is a bad movie; but it’s still fun to watch thanks to Rick Baker’s incredibly gory and effective makeup work. Alex Rebar plays an astronaut who is exposed to radiation on a mission and turns into the title monster, which needs to consume human flesh to survive. Baker fitted Rebar with facial appliances to make his head look like it was decomposing, as well as special liquids on his hands and feet to give the impression that pieces of his body were falling away. The results are the finest part of what is an otherwise shoddy and derivative film, but a nice little showcase for what a top-notch artist could do on a budget. – Don

Altered States (1980)

Director Ken Russell’s trippy, often insane discourse on sensory deprivation, genetic memory, and mutating states of consciousness is a metaphysical car wreck but a terrifically entertaining and fascinating one – especially when William Hurt steps into the isolation tank and emerges as a perfect little primitive ape man. That transformation occurs off-screen but is still amazing thanks to make-up legend Dick Smith, who also later turns Hurt into a pulsating blob of proto-matter from the beginning of time. Russell always had an eye for outlandish visuals that perfectly matched this movie’s sci-fi freakouts. – Don

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Admittedly, this is not necessarily a transformation of someone from one self into another. Rather, this is the transformation of a walking Nazi stereotype into a corpse. But isn’t it glorious?!

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Arnold Toht was a first-rate bastard whose idea of fun was stuffing hot coals down a young lady’s throat on Saturday night. Even before we were introduced to his ridiculously German manner of hanging up clothes, we hated him. Ergo, seeing his face melt into a white and gooey paste is the stuff of 1980s nostalgia. The effect was accomplished by a gelatine in a sculpted model of actor Ronald Lacey’s face placed under a heating lamp and filmed with an under-cranked camera, thereby creating the sped up effect. If only the MPAA didn’t force Spielberg to cover up Belloq’s exploding head… – David

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Masterminding my personal favorite transformation, hands down, Rick Baker won the first Oscar for make-up design ever awarded in this John Landis classic. Still, he should have won more Academy statuettes for a whole decade to honor this sequence. With a minimal use of cutaways, and accomplished in a brightly lit room, we bear witness to David Naughton slowly, and agonizingly, transform into a beast of hell.

The comedic irony of the sequence being juxtaposed to the song “Blue Moon” only adds to the uncomfortably disturbing effect that studies in excruciating detail every cracking bone and stretched cartilage piece. They talk about how the effect was done on the Blu-ray. Don’t watch it. Just treasure this crowning achievement of prosthetics and make-up that still towers over anything CGI has accomplished this side of Costa Rica. – David

The Howling (1981)

Rick Baker began work on two groundbreaking werewolf pictures in 1981, both featuring man-into-wolf transformations like nothing anyone had seen before. The latter of the two, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, remains the better remembered for its brightly-lit, onscreen screaming, crackling, snout-stretching wonderment. But for my money Joe Dante’s The Howling, whose own effects made a splash when it was released a few months earlier, remains the creepier of the two. And it was actually realized by Rob Bottin, who Dante worked with on Piranha.

After a long buildup as TV reporter, Dee Wallace struggles to recall just what was it she saw while trying to interview a serial killer. Eventually, we get killer payoff. Instead of a brightly-lit room, it takes plays in a shadowy and seedy private viewing booth in a grimy porn shop. And instead of a David Naughton all scared shitless by what’s happening to him, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) knows he’s a lycanthrope, enjoys being a lycanthrope, and most of all likes seeing the looks on peoples’ faces when he goes through the big changeroo.

At the time, the mechanical and pneumatic effects were mighty impressive and messy, as Eddie’s forehead pulsates and bloody talons burst from his fingertips, culminating with Eddie puncturing his own skull with his new claws as the punch line of a bad joke. Bottin’s work may have been overshadowed that year by Baker, but this scene still sticks with us. – Jim

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Ghostbusters (1984)

Not necessarily the most profound transformation in either writing or effects, this is still by far the most hilarious. In Ghostbusters, we get two transformations for the price of one. First, we see Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis subvert their “good girl” and “nerdy guy” stereotypes when they are inhabited by Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vince the Key Master during the film’s second act. This includes the most intentionally awkward love scene in movie history. Later they turn into monstrous minions of Gozer the Gozerian.

…Or as Bill Murray deadpans, “So, she’s a dog.” I don’t see a problem with it either, Bill. – David

The Fly (1986)

No big rubber fly head stuck on an actor’s shoulders for David Cronenberg! The director had quite a different vision for his remake of the original B-movie classic. Cronenberg had his star, Jeff Goldblum, transform gradually into the title horror, with his limbs and skin changing as the more human aspects of him rotted or peeled away. His final devolution into a man-sized mutated hybrid is still one of the most shocking horror moments of the 1980s. Make-up geniuses Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis won an Oscar for their work, but Goldblum himself deserves a huge amount of credit for his tragic, empathetic, and terrifying performance. – Don

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

When Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, said his next film would be yet another Dracula picture, there was an unending line of snickering around Hollywood. But the film that developed the industry nickname of “Bonfire of the Vampires” had the last laugh when it became a blockbuster hit in spite of its R-rating, copious amounts of gore, and gratuitous sex (or perhaps because of it).

Additionally, the picture went on to win Oscars for its costumes and make-up, both of which helped inform several impressive transformation sequences in the film where Gary Oldman’s Prince Vlad becomes an Unholy Beast of wanton lust and destruction. Oldman deserves much of the credit for offering a sweaty, bombastic performance that is somehow over-the-top sinister but nevertheless endearing. That coupled with Greg Cannom and company’s make-up created several bestial forms Dracula took.

In the above image, he turned into a monstrous bat, but one especially appreciated metamorphosis was when Coppola used 1920s in-camera tricks to have Oldman’s face turn from ancient to wolfish while under a white cloth. The final werewolf make-up was intentionally bizarre, but the way it appeared as if out of a mist was one last hurrah for Vaudeville trickery before CGI came along in force. – David

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Slither (2006)

Before he went traipsing around the galaxy with a certain team of guardians, writer-director James Gunn unleashed this horror comedy gem, which features an unforgettable performance by wild man Michael Rooker as a giant, growing clump of flesh, goo, and guts. Rooker’s character is infected by an alien parasite and eventually devolves into a disgusting, gelatinous mass – although it still has Rooker’s distinctive voice and face (let’s also not forget poor Brenda, who blows up to the size of a small car after being impregnated with hundreds of Rooker’s “babies”). The movie is one long, hilarious gross-out, refreshingly using a lot of practical effects despite its relatively recent release. – Don

District 9 (2009)

Poor Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the South African bureaucrat who is sprayed with an alien fluid and begins a gradual transformation into a “prawn” just as he is tasked with moving a camp full of alien refugees to a new location. All he wants to do is get back home to his wife, but since his arm now fuses with alien weapons and his body keeps burping up black goo, that could be a problem.

Copley, unknown until this movie, sells Wikus’ evolution with a minimal amount of make-up or effects, doing it more through intensity and emotion – that’s why the final shot of a fully transformed Wikus, making a metal flower for his wife, packs such an emotional punch. It takes becoming an immigrant/refugee/alien for Wikus to finally understand and sympathize with their plight – one of the nicely stated themes of Neill Blomkamp’s still excellent debut as a director. – Don

The Avengers (2012)

Mark Ruffalo’s transformation into the Hulk midway through Marvel’s flagship movie is well-done, if more or less conventional (the big green guy is a wholly CG creation). But it stands out for two reasons: first, we still get to see Ruffalo/Bruce Banner’s personality in the Hulk’s face and eyes, and second, Joss Whedon’s script builds an impending sense of dread around the Hulk’s eventual arrival, making him into a force that even superpowered macho men like Tony Stark and Thor do not want to be around. It’s those elements that make this the most satisfying screen Hulk to date. – Don

So, there is a list of 19 transformations. Did we miss anything or do you dislike any of the above? Let us know in the comment section below!