For every genuinely menacing screen monster, there are at least a dozen unintentionally funny, shambling travesties. For every Giger-designed Alien, there’s a legion of creatures like the rubbery octopus-type thing from Yog: Monster From Space, or the man in a bear suit from Robot Monster.
Here, then, is the Den Of Geek guide to creating a scary movie monster, and a few examples of the pitfalls you should avoid.
A lack of eyes is scary
Designed by H.R. Giger, the titular xenomorph from 1979’s Alien is arguably one of the most disturbing creatures ever to grace the big screen, quite possibly due to its apparent lack of eyes. And while Giger’s monster has suffered from over-exposure in recent years (not to mention its appearance in the woeful Aliens Vs Predator movies), its original incarnation is still an iconic design.
Equally worthy of note is the terrifying Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, a hairless monstrosity that, while not strictly speaking eyeless, was made all the more unnerving by the fact that its eyes were located on the palms of its hands. Once seen, it’s a creature that’s hard to cleanse from your mind.
Inanimate objects definitely aren’t scary
It may be cheap to make the central antagonist in your sci-fi/horror/fantasy flick an inanimate object, but the results are typically about as scary as a cress sandwich.
For evidence, take a look at The Mangler (featuring a killer clothes press), The Lift (a head-lopping elevator), Death Bed (a bed) or, worst of all, Amityville: It’s About Time (haunted cuckoo clock)…
Don’t make your monster allergic to water
In 2002’s Signs, M. Night Shyamalan artfully built up a suspenseful, low key alien invasion drama, only to throw all that carefully wrought tension away in the final reel by revealing that the invading aggressors could be defeated by simply pouring a vase of water over them.
There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here. If you introduce a formidable monster (or invading army of them) into your cinematic masterpiece, be sure to make it a worthy opponent for your protagonists. If it transpires that a toddler could kill the beast by upsetting a cup of water, your script probably needs a hefty revision.
Don’t make your monster sexy
The evidence is there to be seen throughout cinema’s long history: sexy monsters aren’t scary. From the big-haired creature in Bride Of Frankenstein, to Natasha Henstridge’s predatory female alien in the 1995 potboiler Species, comely monsters seldom make frightening ones.
In Tobe Hooper’s weird 1985 sci-fi horror, Lifeforce, its female space vampire (played by a lithe Mathilda May) spent almost the entire film wandering around draining the energy out of her unwitting victims.
Any possible tension this scenario could have built up is perpetually undercut by the fact that May spends the entire film profoundly naked, thus making Lifeforce a memorable film for all the wrong reasons.
Never make your monster wear a diving helmet
If the remarkably inept 1953 sci-fi classic Robot Monster has taught us anything, it’s that you need more than a diving helmet and a bear suit to create a scary cinematic creature. Shot for $16,000 dollars, the film ranks alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space as one of the most unintentionally funny films ever made.
Don’t make your monster furry
Werewolves may be a horror staple, but how many lycanthrope-based movies are actually scary? Not many, we’d argue. For every American Werewolf In London or Dog Soldiers, which both managed to be funny and frightening, there are dozens of films like Howling III: The Marsupials and the hilariously awful Project: Metalbeast, which starred the legendary Kane Hodder as a particularly wobbly bullet-proof werewolf.
Then there are the assorted furry creatures of the long-running Critters series, which were more cute than frightening, or the titular menace of The Killer Shrews, which looked like refugees from Bagpuss…
Do play on primal fears
The best movie monsters, regardless of shape, all tap into some basic fear in our collective subconscious. Creatures that play on our anxieties about birth, death and disease are a particular favourite, and director David Cronenberg spent much of his early career quietly pushing his audience’s buttons with a succession of ickily convincing monstrosities, from the maggot-like plague bearers of Shivers to the murderous progeny of The Brood.
Then there’s the genuinely grotesque, shape-shifting beast at the centre of John Carpenter’s classic The Thing. A creeping embodiment of death, disease, and violent identity theft, it’s a horrifying cinema creation, made all the more scary by the fact that we never get to see its true form.
Humans often make the scariest monsters
There are times when all the prosthetics, fake blood and long teeth in the world can’t compare to the sheer terror that a well trained actor can bring to the screen. Characters such as Hannibal Lecter, No Country For Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh, Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth, or even The Exorcist‘s possessed Regan may not be monsters in the strictest sense, but they’re arguably as scary as anything even the most talented effects artist could create.
Don’t give the creature too much screen time
This is the number one, absolute cardinal rule: keep your monster under the cover of darkness for as long as you possibly can.
Spielberg kept his unconvincing rubber shark submerged for much of the duration of Jaws, while Ridley Scott was shrewd enough to recognise that, if you saw a full frontal shot of his otherwise terrifying monster in Alien, you’d immediately realise it was a mere man in a suit.
Even Matt Reeves, with all the 21st century computer trickery at his disposal for Cloverfield, was wise enough to keep his weird Large Scale Aggressor under cover of darkness for much of the film.
Darkness covers a multitude of sins. And in any case, the threat of something terrible is infinitely more frightening than the sight of the terrible thing itself. Just think how scary 1957’s The Giant Claw could have been had it kept its vulture-like monster in the dark instead of fully exposed…