October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the top ten best monster suit horror films is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: you can’t beat practical effects. When something is real and present in front of actors and the camera, it makes a huge and noticeable difference. Sure, you don’t have to “clean up” CGI blood. And you can “save on foam latex” by making your big gruesome monster a digital mass of polygons. But when a creature effect exists in the real world it has a weight and presence that you can feel.
One of the ways that you can bring a creature to life is by sticking a guy in a suit. Sure, it’s crude. And sure, sometimes it looks obvious that you just crammed a dude in a trashcan. But when guy-in-a-suit effects are good, they’re untouchable. From stalking, snarling aliens to rotting bodies, suspending your disbelief is easy when SFX magicians and stunt folks work their magic.
As huge fans of practical creature effects, we’ll jump at the chance to celebrate a tried-and-true approach to bringing otherworldly beasties to the big screen. So keep reading for a look at the top ten “monster suit” horror film creature effects as voted on by Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, and myself.
10. Full-blown vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
The transformation of the titular Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an experience rather than an effect. Over the course of the film, Dracula (Gary Oldman) shifts from a withered husk to a seductive young romantic to all manner of beastly winged and furry beasts. And when Dracula’s noblemen drag fades away to reveal the monster within, flashier, creature-based moments lurch forward with ferocious artistry. As director Francis Ford Coppola notes in the film’s making-of documentary The Blood Is The Life, “when you are in the presence of a vampire the laws of physics are not exactly the same.” Somehow, all of these creatures are one being: lusting wolf-bat hybrids give way to jagged fangs, leathery wings, and snub noses. “Look what your God has done to me,” Dracula hisses. Believe us, Count, we’re looking. (Meg Shields)
9. Tarman in The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
I’d much rather be eaten by a dozen Night of the Living Dead zombies than allow one finger from the Return of the Living Dead’s Tarman to touch me. Ewwwwww. That goopy, gross, slop of a corpse ranks as one of the nastiest looking wretches to ever slump across the silver screen in all his disgusting monster suit horror. Designed by the brilliant William Stout, the Tarman has a sweet, innocent face despite most of it sloshing off its cheeks. As he lunges for his prey, you sense he’s supremely happy in his work.
There’s a bounce to his lurch, a spring in his grab. The Tarman needs no affirmations; he knows he looks rad and repulsive. He makes for a great t-shirt image, an even better action figure, and an all-time great brain-muncher. I love him as long as I’m as far away from his reach as possible. Just too damn sticky. No thanks. (Brad Gullickson)
8. Godzilla in Godzilla (1954)
Since 1954, Godzilla has been the horrifying king of the kaiju, or giant monster, films, setting a massive precedent in what it means to create a creature feature. Instead of just models, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya worked with a team to design a Godzilla suit to be worn by actors who would then perform on a soundstage with a tiny model version of Tokyo. The original version of the thick-thighed radioactive lizard was played by Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka. The result is one of horror’s scariest monsters who, despite a slew of more campy films, represents the apocalyptic destruction of nuclear war. While the Godzilla we see now is a computer-generated creation, it’ll never eclipse the artistry, and the twinge of comedy, seen in the man-in-a-suit version of this iconic monster. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
7. Brundlefly in The Fly (1986)
Emotional performances hidden behind layers of prosthetics have gone hand in hand with the horror genre since Lon Chaney first glued back his ears and put wires in his nose to capture the horrifying visage of the Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Chaney’s usage of make-up effects to literally transform himself into a heartbreaking monster is honored in Jeff Goldblum‘s beguiling performance as Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s reimagining of The Fly.
As Brundle slowly loses all sense of self, Goldblum comes alive inside this monster suit horror of his own accidental making. That he is able to convey such nuanced emotional stakes as his character slowly fades away is a testament to his neurotic approach to building a character. He’s given Brundle deep emotional layers that keep his mind grounded in reality, even as his fly-self slowly consumes him. That Goldblum is able to break our hearts while turning our stomachs is just proof of the power of his performance and of the overall film. The beautiful and the grotesque is a dichotomy Cronenberg explores in each of his movies, and in The Fly, Goldblum harrowingly embodies that aesthetic. (Jacob Trussell)
6. The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Contrary to popular belief, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth haunting our nightmares. The humanoid being was brought to life with fittingly grotesque sagging skin by Doug Jones, a legend in the realm of creature features and monster portrayals. And what with his appetite for flesh and his eyeballs in his hands, there are few creatures as instantly terrifying as this. With inspiration pulled from Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, as well as, surely, some poor person’s sleep paralysis demon, it’s no wonder that the Pale Man had such a major impact in only one scene of Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastical horror film. (Anna Swanson)