What Makes a Good, Entertaining Monster Movie?
What are the best ways to make an effective and memorable monster for your Creature Feature? A lifelong fan of them weighs in!
One thing a movie fan knows for certain is that the horror genre is never going out of style. It always has kept a steady flow throughout most of the medium of film’s history. In spite of the fact that it experienced some lackluster decades, trends going in and out of fashion, and variant box office prospects. As long as there are movies or tv shows being made, novels and short stories being written and published, there will always be a demand for it. What can I say? People love, get kicks out of, and pay millions of dollars at the movie theatre box office, on DVD/Blu- Ray sales, or subscriptions to streaming services, all to be scared shitless! So the market will always be there.
We are currently experienceing a new artistic renaissance of the genre since as early as 2010 with the releases of groundbreaking genre hits such as The VVitch (2015), Get Out (2017), The Babbadook (2014), Attack The Block (2011), It Follows (2014), The Monster (2016), Wolf Cop (2013), Midsommer (2019), Hereditary (2018), and The Ritual (2017). There is a running trend noted by long time fans, critics, and some cinema historians that the horror genre gets re-revolutionized and becomes more innovative with advancements in makeup and special effects technology, new story/script trends and tropes when the political regimes of the time and place in which the films are made becomes oppressive and/or when the government shifts toward the political right. As they often reflect the social, interconnected moral/spiritual/religious concerns, anxieties, and fears of that time. Most often in pertinence to social unrest, political suppression, economics, emergent diseases and health issues, emergent technology and it’s advancement, the state of the environment, etc.. All told, these, and the human hubris that can emerge along with them. The film’s featured monster, or any horror antagonist could be a symbol for, or perhaps a byproduct of this hubris.
Which finally brings me to my subject. The majority of the breakout hits of the most recent decade that I mentioned earlier are in the psychological/supernatural horror sub genre. Which is a sub genre in horror that is the most popular, and critically prolific right now. And it’s a sub genre that dare I say it... I don’t like or care for very much. Stay tuned for an upcoming piece articulating my reasons soon! But the kind of horror movies I’m here to talk about are my ultimate preferred horror sub genre and are my favorite movies to watch period! Creature Features! The monster movies!
So what makes a good monster movie? In this context, I speak of films that feature one, or many original stand alone creatures, not your general vampire, werewolf, or zombie film as number one, while they’re definitely monsters and formidably frightening ones at that, they have entire horror sub genres of their own. Two, I feel they’ve been overdone to death and are therefore, old hat. However they can certainly have and I’ve seen a couple very original takes on those familiar nocturnal beasties that are more in the same vein as the separate creature feature sub genre that have impressed me! Independent masterpieces such as as Blood Vessel (2019), The Shed (2019), Wild Country (2005). There was even an IFC Midnight released creature feature take on the supernatural witch in The Wretched (2019)! I’m also not talking about animals running amok horror genre as those too have been done to death with just two animal types: Sharks and Crocodilians.
In the following 4 points, I am going to define what traits, design, conception, and filmmaking principles I think go into making a good horror movie monster. I will also cite some examples of movies that I am convicted illustrate these principles well!
1. Establish The Monster’s Origin Well
Where did your beastie come from? Where does it live? Is it a blood drinking bipedal reptile beast that lives in the bayous of Louisiana or perhaps the Jungles and temple ruins of Malaysia? Is it a large snail monster that lives in a dark moist cavern in the countryside of France that has legends of medieval knights attempting to slay it! (I kid you not there is an actual legends of a creature like that in France! The beastie is called Lou Carcolh!) In the movie Creature (2011), the monster is named Lockjaw and he’s a viscous half man half alligator who supernaturally became that when he killed and in a maddened rage ayes the flesh of the large monstrous white alligator that killed his sister-wife! In 2019’s Dark Light, the cyloptic monsters look like they’re from outer space, but in truth they’re subterranean beasts who’s lair is right under the main woman’s childhood farmhouse! Pretty original origins for your film’s monster If you ask me!
2. Give It a Well Defined, Look, Nature, Motive And Weakness.
How smart/intelligent is it? Why does it do what it does? What does it eat? How does it eat? What does it look like (consider everything: overall form, head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, teeth, limbs)? What covers the body and what color is it? How big/small is it? What scares it? What hurts it? How good are it’s senses? What senses perhaps doesn’t it possess? And how do the human characters learn about, study, and cope with the monster? The monsters from 2018’s A Quiet Place had no eyes nor eyesight and hunted by sound with advanced hearing! Prompting the Abott family to adapt by never speaking and communicating only in American Sign Language (ASL), using soft pieces for games of silent games of Monopoly, traversing along a sanded path when traveling to scavenge supplies and living exclusively barefoot. It’s weakness is high frequency sound.
3. Practical Effects Is King!!!
CGI has its place and I definitely do enjoy some well executed CGI. In fact I’m looking forward to seeing Sputnik a Russian Alien/Stranger Things fusion creature feature from Russia and it’s main alien beastie is all exclusively CGI. I even think the cheaply done CGI monsters in those old early 2000’s Sci-Fi (SYFY) Channel Original Movies have an endearing charm! But for convincing reality and superior charm? PRACTICAL WFFECTS ALL THE WAY! Prosthetic makeup, Stunt actor in a Creature suit, large scale puppets, or animatronics. Even utilize the old Willis O’Brien King Kong/Ray Harryhausen fantasy/sci-fi monster style stop motion animation! There are many tips and tricks on how to Innovate materials used in building your creature, adjust scale proportions and camera angling to adapt to your budget while simultaneously creating a realistic, convincing and terrifying monster
4. More is Less??? Not Necessarily.
There’s a common almost dogmatic belief among horror filmmakers, fans, and critics that in order to make an effective monster To build up the terror in a horror movie, one must always conceal the beast as much as possible, and reserve the big reveal to the very end and show only the face when the final girl/guy is about to deliver the kill. I don’t agree. Monster movies that do that tend to irritate and disappoint me. In the sense that either the monster design wasn’t very impressive, or creative and I feel like wasted an entire hour and twenty odd minutes of my life that I’m not going to get back waiting for and this straining to get a good look at the monster. Only to be disappointed by a poor design concept. Or the design concept and execution of the monster is very very good, and they didn’t reveal remotely enough of of it until 10 to 2 minutes before it ends! Some independently produced films overuse darkness concealment and the lack-of-reveal trope, citing budgetary limitations in execution of the monster design and effects. I see this often to be overcompensating. I’m of the conviction, that most of the monster needs to be shown! In all it’s practical effects glory! And your big reveal should occur no later than the halfway point. One just needs to know how to balance darkness concealment and properly build a good... terrifying reveal! 1983’s The Deadly Spawn’s timing of it’s monster’s reveal and build up To it are executed PERFECTLY! 2016’s The Monster 2014’s The Animal, And 2019’s Dark Light are yet a modern examples of this done right!
Lastly, here is a non exhaustive list of movies I feel effectively execute an ample amount of these principles and are thus recommended to implement into your Halloween movie nights for your viewing pleasure! Enjoy!
The Monster (2016),
Dark Light (2019),
The Hallow (2015)
The Host (2006)
Storage 24 (2012)
The Brain (1988)
Q! The Winged Serpent (1982)
Chupacabra Terror (2003)
The Millennium Bug (2011)
Attack The Block (2011)
The Cave (2005),
Basket Case (1982),
The Deadly Spawn (1983),
Humanoids From The Deep (1980)
The Terror Within (1989)
Alien Lockdown (A.k.a Creature) (2004)
Most of these titles can be found on either Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, or Apple TV with your subscriptions. Some of them you can even find on Tubi for free!
Stay Tuned for my next piece! Coming soon!
“Why I Don’t Like Psychological Horror”