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 best horror movies with small, pint-size killers is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
In the realm of genre movies, megalophobia reigns supreme. Look at Ridley Scott’s Alien. Sure, the face-hugger and Xenomorph are scary, but what takes our breath away first? The gargantuan “space jockey” that the crew of the Nostromo discovers in a cavernous, decrepit spaceship on a desolate moon. This same sense of megalophobia is what makes Godzilla or Jean Jacket in Nope so frightening: it puts into painful perspective that our place at the top of the food chain may only be temporary.
But what about in the reverse? Is microphobia just as scary as megalophobia? Yes and no. Sure, pint-size terrors don’t inspire the same cosmic horror vibes of a creature like Cthulhu. But the micro-monsters do have something up their sleeves that the mega-monsters can’t match. It’s in their ability to seamlessly blend in with our everyday lives, whether that’s in the form of a killer cat, a possessed doll, or something completely beyond the pale.
10. Uninvited (1988)
Cats. They are nature’s tiny little monsters, but dammit if they aren’t also cute as hell. Even the deadliest feline on the planet — Africa’s black-footed cat — looks like the most adorable kitten you’ve ever seen. You just want to rub your face into its fuzzy little belly, even if it means losing an eye (or two). Luckily, the killer cat at the center of Greydon Clark’s Uninvited (not to be confused with 1944’s The Uninvited) is anything but cuddly. It’s like a Russian Doll; a grotesque abomination of a cat inside another cat. When agitated — and when are cats not agitated — a genetically mutated cat crawls out of the orange boy’s mouth to claim its victims.
But this preposterous entry in the killer cat genre doubles down on its uniqueness by giving the cat the ability to infect its victims — like an extreme twist on “cat scratch fever” — which causes spasms and convulsions before eventual death. While the film really focuses on the horrors of being trapped on a boat with dwindling rations, the cat-monster moments are the bonkers B-Movie fun horror hounds live and breathe for. (Jacob Trussell)
9. Mad God (2021)
Like most things in life, whether or not Mad God is a “little guys” movie is a matter of perspective. Are these fleshy little freaks itty bitty cogs in a massive cosmic organ grinder? Or does the scale and immensity of Phil Tippet’s passion project just make it feel that way? Then again, does the distinction even matter with something as non-linear and surreal as Mad God? Perhaps not. But for my money, these Garden of Earthly Delights rejects are puny little playthings, literally and figuratively, for their masochistic master (Tippet himself). Mad God has a plot in the same way that dreams do: back-to-back shaggy fragments of doomed quests, chance encounters, and Sisyphean toil. No one asked, but my favorite freak is the Invisible Man-looking guy who lives in an oil drum. He’s great. Most of the films on this list boast one, or only one type, of little guy. And depending on how you tilt your head, Mad God’s got little guys in spades. And as Tippet’s shit-coated, rusty apocalypse testifies: terrifying things come in small packages. (Meg Shields)
8. Seed of Chucky (2004)
The Child’s Play franchise has never been one to shy away from camp. But just in case anyone was in doubt, Don Mancini eased fears with 2004’s Seed of Chucky. In this fifth Chucky adventure, the killer doll is back with his bride Tiffany, and this time they have a kid named Shitface/Glen/Glenda. How does little Shitface know Chucky and Tiffany are his parents? He shares the same “made in Japan” stamp on his wrist! If that’s not goofy enough, John Waters plays a pervy photographer named Pete Peters and Redman plays a cartoonish version of himself looking to make his directorial debut with a movie about the Virgin Mary. Oh yeah, this one is meta. Jennifer Tilly plays herself working on the Child’s Play movies and hoping to gain more respectable roles. Also, she hates Julia Roberts. And the kills? They go up another notch because we’re now working with three killer dolls! Decapitations, disembowelings, and ax play! Seed of Chucky is sure to entertain, no matter your kink. (Chris Coffel)
7. Bride of Chucky (1998)
It probably took a few too many Child‘s Play sequels to realize two killer dolls are better than one. And if you’re going to double down on your malevolent killer, you might as well invite a personality that challenges and compliments your initial maniac. Tiffany, as performed by various technicians and Jennifer Tilly‘s magnificent voice, rejuvenates the franchise just as it starts to get stale. And propels Chucky’s narrative in directions we could not possibly have imagined when the original was released. Bride of Chucky ventures into camp but remains earnest with its emotions, which only heightens the absurdity. The movie’s a gas and only gets better with age as its edges dull a bit. (Brad Gullickson)
6. The Gate (1987)
As a, well, gateway horror film for kids, there’s nothing quite like The Gate. This appeal comes from the cast of characters being kids themselves, rather than a family or a group of twenty-somethings. This allows the film feel a touch more dangerous and relatable to younger audiences. That danger is cranked to eleven by the occult horror that persists across the film as twelve-year-old Glen (Stephen Dorff), his best bud Terry, and fifteen-year-old big sister Al contend with an onslaught of tiny little demons that have emerged from the titular “gate” in their backyard.
What separates The Gate from other films in this subgenre is that director Tibor Takács didn’t just rely on puppets and stop-motion to bring his monsters to life. He utilized forced perspective and a small army of people in rubber monster suits to give these tiny creatures more fluid and agile movements that make them feel ferociously alive. (Jacob Trussell)
5. Critters (1986)
You can trace a lot of films on this list all the way back to Gremlins, and Critters is no exception, even if creators Dominic Muir and Stephen Herek say the film’s story was written well before Gremlins went into production. Still, the similarities — and proximity in release dates — means Critters is indelibly tied to Gremlins no matter what. But in terms of films that can be labeled as Gremlins knockoffs, nothing really compares to Critters. After crash landing on Earth, the Crites, a group of interstellar criminals who look more like tiny little balls of fur than ruthless renegades, throw a party of chaos and destruction surrounding a rural farming community.
Where Critters really shines, and gives Gremlins a little run for its money, is in the creature design created by The Chiodos Brothers (Killer Klowns from Outer Space). With glowing eyes, rows of razor sharp teeth, and a maw stretched into a perpetual blood red grin, the image of the Critters has become almost as iconic as the Gremlins themselves. But that may also be due to the poster for the film appearing in the background of the family-friendly action classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Jacob Trussell)
4. Child’s Play (1988)
Pound for pound, the Child’s Play series is the most consistently excellent, long running horror franchise to date. That’s in part due to the control creator Don Mancini’s been able to wield since the series debuted in 1988. But really what keeps folks coming back for more is the Chuckster’s himself, Charles Lee Ray. As voiced by Academy Award nominee Brad Dourif, Chucky is both terrifying and hilarious. He’s a child’s absolute worst nightmare, but with a punk rock spirit that no other horror baddie — large or small — can match. Chucky wants to stick it to the establishment while watching the world burn. Nowadays, we kind of want to join him too. (Jacob Trussell)
3. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
I’m being hyperbolic when I say it’s a real Sophie’s Choice deciding which Gremlins film is better because, you know, their movies and not children. But it’s incredibly difficult to rank one above the other because comparing the two is apples to oranges. Some days you want the comfy-cozy blanket of the Spielbergian vision illustrated in Joe Dante’s original film. Other times you want the zany Looney Tunes antics that Dante subsequently poured into his follow-up sequel six years later.
However, what Gremlins 2: The New Batch has going for it that the original film lacks is that we’re delivered Gremlins in a dozen different flavors, thanks to the Clamp Center’s resident genetics laboratory, Splice O’ Life, run by the menacing Doctor Catheter (Christopher Lee). Now the Gremlins can do more than just put on leg warmers and trenchcoats. They can turn into everything from bats and brainiacs to forms of electricity. It’s this clever evolution, and its cartoonish aesthetics, that gives Gremlins 2 its own unique charm separate from the original classic. (Jacob Trussell)
2. Dolls (1987)
Director Stuart Gordon made his name with his first two films, Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), but some of us have a warm spot in our hearts for his third feature. With a title like Dolls, it’s pretty much a given that there’s gonna be some terrifying and small killers roaming about — well, unless you’re Takeshi Kitano’s 2002 anthology Dolls which features zero dolls — and Gordon delivers just that. We get hammer-wielding “Barbie” dolls, vampire dolls, a bludgeon-happy Mr. Punch, tin soldiers with loaded rifles, decayed baby skulls hiding beneath porcelain faces… and sure, we also get a giant-sized Teddy Bear, but that’s just a bonus. (Rob)
1. Gremlins (1984)
The film that launched a wave of copycats, the magic that Joe Dante produced with Gremlins has never been recaptured. Why is that? Often, the knock-off films that came in the wake of Gremlins leans into the inherent silliness of facing a tiny-bodied threat. And while I’m not saying that Gremlins is free of campy antics — the movie theater sequence is proof-positive of its pedigree in that category — it also approaches the material earnestly, telling a simple story with characters you can relate to and care for that just so happens to also have monsters that like to dress up in costumes and sing along to cartoons before killing you.
But what’s made Gremlins everlasting, and likely what sparked the trend of tiny terrors throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s to begin with, is that this family-friendly film never shies away from bearing its teeth. The titular monsters are legitimately ferocious and frightening small killers, especially in the tension-filled sequence where they claim their first victim, high school teacher Roy (Glynn Turman). That they can be both fascinating and fun without losing any of their bone-chilling charm is why Gremlins will forever remain at the zenith of diminutive monster movies. (Jacob Trussell)
There’s a good chance something tiny is burrowing its way toward your brain right now, so hurry up and read more 31 Days of Horror Lists while you still can!