If the 1950s represented a Golden Age for monster movies, then the 1980s were a Renaissance, a rebirth of creature design, filtered through an updated set of sensibilities. It’s easy to draw parallels between the two decades, which exhibited their fair share of excessive fashion and Cold War paranoia. Monsters of the ‘50s and ‘80s, whether they originated from a foreign land or alien planet, were metaphors for xenophobia. Outsiders were not to be trusted. But ‘80s monsters went beyond this paradigm, reflecting a new cynicism that criticized the authorities we were supposed to believe in.
Monsters of the ‘80s reflected the changing demands of a more sophisticated audience, jaded by decades of rubber monsters, who demanded something more convincing and visceral. Answering the call were a new wave of effects masters, including Stan Winston, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker. In addition to good old man-in-suit effects and puppetry, their bag of tricks incorporated servo-controlled animatronics and modern lightweight materials. While some of these methods may seem primitive by today’s standards, they took practical creature effects to a whole new level of artistry and craftsmanship, with a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood quality that millions of dollars of CGI could never equal.
No offense intended if I’ve left out one of your favorites (feel free to comment). You may notice the absence of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, who at the very least deserve honorable mentions, but for reasons too arbitrary to mention, I’ve omitted them from my list. Without further introduction, I submit a bakers’ dozen, in no particular order, of my favorite ‘80s monsters:
1. The Thing (The Thing, 1982) — John Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s classic The Thing from Another World was met with indifference from mainstream audiences and dismissed by critics when it was released in 1982. In recent years, however, it’s climbed its way to the top of many horror/sci-fi aficionados’ lists, thanks in no small part to Rob Bottin’s mind-blowing effects. With his various nightmare-inducing creations, Bottin takes us places only hinted at by the original version. For the first time, we witness the messy onscreen ramifications of a shape-shifting alien life form that can become a perfect copy of anything it desires.
2. Brundlefly (The Fly, 1986) — Building on themes established by his earlier “body horror” films (including The Brood and Videodrome), David Cronenberg put his inimitable spin on his remake of another 1950s classic, The Fly. Whereas the original creature, with its human body and oversized fly head, appears more kitschy than fearsome, the new iteration eschews the old aesthetic to present something that’s neither man, nor insect, but an amalgamation. After a teleporter accident combines his DNA with a housefly, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) undergoes a gradual metamorphosis that simultaneously evokes our sympathies and revulsion. His final form, realized by Chris Walas, underscores the potential hazards of exploring new scientific frontiers.
3. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (Ghostbusters, 1984) — Who knew the instrument of humanity’s destruction could be so hilarious? Ivan Reitman’s riff on kaiju proves that any sufficiently large monster, no matter how ridiculous, rampaging through New York City can still elicit panic. Fear, in this case, accompanies a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance. The late Harold Ramis articulated it best as Egon Spengler when he said, “I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”
4. Tie: Werewolves (An American Werewolf in London, 1981, and The Howling, 1981) — It’s big budget versus small budget, as two effects wizards, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, achieve the same ends with subtly different approaches. In a departure from earlier incarnations of cinematic lycanthropes, which relied on time-lapse photography and cuts, audiences for both films witnessed the painful transformation of man to beast, through in-camera, real-time effects.
5. The Gremlins (Gremlins, 1984) — Cute little chatterboxes transform into malevolent demons (No, I’m not referring to teenagers). Joe Dante’s anarchic vision is brought to life through Chris Walas’ imaginative creations. What starts out as one innocuous mogwai suddenly becomes hundreds of evil creatures, hell-bent with an appetite for destruction and a penchant for watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
6. Alien Queen (Aliens, 1986) — How could James Cameron, working with Stan Winston’s creature effects crew, improve H.R. Giger’s original, elegant creature designs? He didn’t. Instead, Cameron and his crew introduced a new, equally terrifying monster to the Alien canon. By appropriating some of the best aspects of Giger’s biomechanical elements and taking them to the logical conclusion for a bigger, more powerful creature, he created something entirely new. Ever wonder what laid the giant eggs in Alien? Wonder no more.
7. The Cenobites (Hellraiser, 1987) — Clive Barker introduced the world to these leather-clad demons from a hellish nether realm. Mortals who are foolish enough to toy with a Pandora’s Rubik’s Cube, the puzzle box, summon the beings, who thrive on pleasure and pain (Guess which aspect you’ll witness most?). Each Cenobite appears in various states of mutilation, including a mute, perpetually chattering creature, with lips cut away to reveal a set of gnashing teeth. Pinhead (Doug Bradley), known as the “Lead Cenobite” in the first film is their de facto spokesperson, and tour guide to Hell. Sadly, his impact has become diluted over time, on account of his subsequent appearances in the numerous, non-Barker, sequels attempting to turn him into another wisecracking boogieman, like Freddy or the Leprechaun.
8. Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988) — The Kevin Yagher-designed Chucky owes a debt of gratitude to the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as the creepy My Buddy toy of the ’80s for its inception. When dying mass murderer Charles Lee Ray’s (Brad Dourif) soul enters a Good Guys doll, the toy comes to life. Needless to say, when people get in the way of Chucky, bad things happen.
9. The Toxic Avenger (The Toxic Avenger, 1985) — Hailed as “the first superhero from New Jersey,” the Toxic Avenger (aka: “Toxie”) is a champion of the downtrodden citizens of Tromaville, and underdogs everywhere. Director/co-writer/producer Lloyd Kaufman’s enduring character has become synonymous with Troma films, and reminds us that sometimes, the monsters are on our side.
10. The “Ghouls” (They Live, 1988) — To the best of my knowledge, there’s no official name for the aliens in John Carpenter’s allegorical 1988 film, They Live, although they’re sometimes referred to as “ghouls.” While they roam freely among us as fellow humans, their true appearance is only revealed through special glasses. In this case, an invasion has already occurred, and we’re their conquest. For most of the populace, we choose to remain in a brainwashed state, blind to the truth that resides in front of our own eyes.
11. The Killer Klowns (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, 1988) — Who doesn’t like clowns? Oh yeah, just about everyone. The comical, yet horrifying, clown-like aliens (or “klowns”), created by the Chiodo brothers, tap into our universal fears. They managed to distill everything we ever disliked or suspected about clowns into these nightmarish extraterrestrial creatures, who abduct and dine on human prey.
12. The Predator (Predator, 1987) — Although this Stan Winston creation wears dreadlocks, he’s not interested in peace, love and reggae, but collecting human skulls as trophies. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch finds his ultimate nemesis in the predator, played by 7-foot, 2-½ inch Kevin Peter Hall. Most Schwarzenegger vehicles focus on his strength, but the former bodybuilder appears puny next to his massive opponent.
13. Belial (Basket Case, 1982) — Frank Henenlotter’s tale of brotherly love stretched to its limit features everyone’s favorite homicidal parasitic twin. Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) carries his deformed twin Belial around in a basket, vowing revenge against the physicians who separated them in an illicit surgical procedure. You might be tempted to ask, “What’s in the basket?” Hope you never find out.
Barry P. runs the eclectic movie blog Cinematic Catharsis, focusing on the little films that slipped through the cracks, with an emphasis on genre titles. Some regular features include: classic spotlights, capsule reviews and overlooked gems.