Well, it’s that time of year again: the Halloween season, when every movie blog site worth its salt busts out the orange and black and starts cranking out lists of the creepiest, spookiest and most downright frightening films of all time. And there are certainly a lot to pick from. From the silent shockers of Lon Chaney, Sr. and Universal’s 1930s Lugosi/Karloff heyday, through the ’50s and ’60s transoceanic terror of England’s Hammer and Japan’s Toho studios, to the ’80s Splatterday Night Fever rampages of Jason and Freddy and the new century’s fascination with “torture porn” and remakes of Asian ghost stories, the horror genre seems as eternal and unstoppable as…well, the fiends and creatures that comprise it.
Let’s be honest, though. Some cinematic monsters are scarier than others. And for every classic menace like a Count Dracula, Godzilla, Norman Bates, or Jigsaw out there, there are also plenty of others that just don’t have what it takes. For example:
Robot Monster (1953) - The makers of this no-budget sci-fi tale couldn’t come up with the bucks needed for a metallic costume for their alien invader, so they did the next best thing and slapped a dual antennae-topped “space helmet” on gorilla-suited stuntman George Barrows, who had to act out his reactions like a sidewalk mime while another actor’s voice was dubbed in. The result was I, Robot meets Planet of the Apes, and unintentional hilarity.
The Twonky (1953) – To Americans in the early 1950s, nothing was scarier than Communism. And to the Hollywood moguls of the era, nothing was scarier than the rise of television. This rarely seen and ham-handed satire (reviewed in greater detail, as are many of the entries here, by Movie FanFare’s own Dr. Strangefilm here), mixed the two to tell the story of a futuristic being from a totalitarian world who comes to Earth, inhabits college professor Hans Conreid’s new TV set, and follows him around on its spindly little legs while trying to run his life.
From Hell It Came (1957) – Remember the antagonistic apple trees in The Wizard of Oz? Well, the botanical bad guy in this Allied Artists South Seas shocker went them one better. An island prince is put to death for a crime he didn’t commit. But thanks to island magic or atomic radiation (the film’s a little sketchy on the hows and whys), he returns to life as a vengeance-seeking mobile tree stump, complete with branches for arms and a Yosemite Sam-like scowl on its trunk, that the natives call Tabonga. It’s a little hard to be scared of a monster when you’re waiting for Woody Woodpecker to come along and reduce it to toothpicks.
The Giant Claw (1957) – Speaking of birds, this drive-in and late-night TV mainstay is one that lots of folks have seen bits of and, even if they can’t recall the actual title, fondly remember it as “that movie with the turkey/buzzard puppet attacking airplanes.” Star Jeff Morrow, who faced much more credible alien menaces in such ’50s fare as This Island Earth and Kronos, once stated that he and the other cast members had no idea what the title creature would look like during shooting, and were dismayed at the film’s debut to see themselves acting terrified of what looked to be the mutant offspring of Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua and Looney Tunes’ Beaky Buzzard. Seriously, this thing should be hanging from a tree branch and have blindfolded kids take a whack at it with a stick to get at its candy-filled interior.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) – Any one of a number of brain-related beasties from the ’50s and ’60s–from the brain-and-spinal cord creatures of Fiend Without a Face to the ginormous The Brain from Planet Arous to the pickled head of Der Fuhrer in They Saved Hitler’s Brain–might have qualified here, but this spot goes to Virginia Leith as title star “Jan in the Pan” (thanks, MST3K), the disembodied noggin who constantly berates mad scientist boyfriend Jason Evers for rescuing her and trying to do her a solid by finding a suitably stacked body she can perch on. At least there was the “pinhead in the closet” for some semblance of grotesquerie. By the way, why wasn’t this film called The Head That Wouldn’t Die, as originally planned?
The Creeping Terror (1964) – Whoever said carpet remnants stitched together and carried along by teenagers whose shoes are visible underneath can’t be scary? Anybody who’s ever tried to sit through this no-budget sci-fi tale that infamously features a narrator explaining the action with only a few snippets of dialogue (director/producer/star Vic Savage apparently couldn’t afford to shoot sound). Savage, also knowns as A.J. Nelson, assembled his mostly-amateur cast by having people in a California community invest in the film in exchange for a role. Needless to say, this was not a good investment.
Gamera the Giant Monster (1965) – Japan’s Daiei studio’s answer to Godzilla over at rival Toho, Gamera has been the star of no less than three different film series, with 12 movies to his credit, since the giant fire-breathing turtle made his big-screen debut in 1965. It’s a track record that lots of movie monsters would be happy to have, but, seriously…a giant. fire-breathing turtle, one who can fly by pulling his head and legs inside his shell, and then shooting flames from where his limbs were, sending him spinning into the atmosphere like a top? Lame.
Blood Freak (1972) - A man eating drug-laced turkey as part of an experiment turns into…a guy who walks around with a papier-mache turkey head over his own noggin and kills people so he can gobble (sorry) up their blood. Your fat uncle, wearing a gravy-stained undershirt and snoring on a recliner in the family room after Thanksgiving dinner, is more chilling than this waddle-necked noodnik.
Night of the Lepus (1972) – An Arizona town finds itself under attack by a band of giant, mutated, carnivorous…rabbits? This movie’s producers, who bought the rights to an honest-to-goodness book entitled The Year of the Angry Rabbit and decided that they could do for lagomorphs what Alfred Hitchcock did for seagulls and crows in The Birds, should have taken a second or two to realize that there is no way you can film bunnies–even with ground-level cameras shooting up at their blood-soaked whiskers–without having them look like adorable bearers of chocolate eggs and other Easter treats.
The Thing with Two Heads (1972) – “They transplanted a white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body!” What happens when an Best Actor Academy Award winner (Ray Milland) and a two-time Pro Bowl NFL star (Rosey Grier) put their heads together for a hip take on the mad scientist film? You get this sci-fi stinker that’s mixes The Defiant Ones with The Manster and is only funny when it’s trying not to be.
King Kong (1977) – Let’s face it: Whether it was the giant mechanical Kong that barely moved and was on-screen for all of four minutes, or simply Rick Baker in an ape suit, producer Dino De Laurentiis’ Kong just wasn’t scary. Sorry. (As for the Peter Jackson 2005 version, the scariest thing in that movie was probably Naomi Watts’ juggling scene.)
Leprechaun (1993) – I’m more than willing to accept diminutive, green-clad Irish sprites as breakfast cereal pitchmen, college sports mascots or WWE wrestlers. But as horror movie villains? Faith and Begorrah, no. The most frightening thing by far to come out of this movie was Jennifer Aniston’s big-screen career.
Well, that’s a dozen or so entries, and I didn’t even get around to discussing such inane and inanimate menaces as the killer floor lamp of Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes, the killer laundry-folding machine of The Mangler, or the killer condom of…er, Killer Condom. But what about you, fright fans? Which ghouls and goblins gave you giggles and guffaws instead of gulps and gasps? Share your bad monster movie memories in the comments.