Film and television have held a fascination with horror nearly as long as they have existed, stretching back to Edison Studios’ short adaptation of Frankenstein. From Nosferatu through Dracula and Creature from the Black Lagoon, the silver screen quickly set about reminding audiences to fear the ugly, the grotesque, and the monstrous.
A certain sub-genre of movies and TV – increasingly prevalent – has sought to turn these horror icons into heroes. The new action-horror flick I, Frankenstein is a particularly over-the-top example of this trope in action.
The film’s release has gotten us thinking about other archetypal monsters recast as triumphant heroes. Join Screen Rant as we consider our favorite heroic modernized monsters.
Demons are perhaps the most purely monstrous creatures in folklore, often literally the embodiment of decadence, sin, and malevolence. Creating a heroic figure from such a background seems like it would be an impossible task – and yet, comics writer Mike Mignola and director Guillermo del Toro rose to the challenge with Hellboy.
Summoned during an abortive attempt to destroy the world, Hellboy is raised by a good man and eventually becomes the world’s premiere hunter of the supernatural. A stalwart fighter, resourceful investigator, and unflinchingly loyal friend, Hellboy nonetheless labors under the dark pall of his heritage. After all, his true name is Anung Un Rama – an infernal prince prophesized to rule over the ruins of the human race.
Appearances: Blade; Blade 2; Blade: Trinity; the Blade television series
When Blade was created in 1973 as a mash-up of characters from Hammer Horror and blaxploitation films, creators Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan couldn’t possibly have imagined that their character would eventually kick off a decade-plus fascination with superheroes at the box office. The character did just that with 1998’s Blade, whose unexpected box office success opened the doors for more comic book movies in the years to come.
The Blade of the silver screen is a grimmer creature than his comics counterpart (whose early appearances saw him fighting the undead in neon green and orange jackets). Played by Wesley Snipes (The Expendables 3) with a combination of Eastwood-esque stoicism and grinning snark, the actor nonetheless manages to convey his disgust with his half-vampiric existence.
Appearances: Vampire Hunter D; Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
Calling the world of 1985’s Vampire Hunter D “high concept” undersells it. The cult anime classic takes place thousands of years in the future, after nuclear war has wiped out technological civilization. In its place has risen a feudal society ruled by an aristocratic class of vampires, mutants, and nameless horrors. Into this crumbling landscape rides the mysterious D – a sword-for-hire who turns out to be the half-vampire scion of a powerful dynasty.
Behind D’s soulful looks lurks the heart of an immortal killer. A noble and discriminate killer – but all the same, a monstrous one. He even has a sentient parasite attached to one palm that eats magic. Did we mention that Vampire Hunter D is a bit weird?
A decade before Avatar: The Last Airbender brought intricate world-building and complex narrative arcs to children’s television, Disney’s Gargoyles made a similar (though far less successful) attempt to bridge the gap between animation for kids and young adults. Though it borrowed from the templates set up by such shows as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gargoyles never lost sight of the fact that its inhuman protagonists were essentially terrifying to normal folk.
Chief among the winged heroes was Goliath (brilliantly voiced by Keith David), a figure of both raw power and quiet nobility. When the series wanted to mine pathos, it turned to Goliath and the painful burden of being the leader of the last of his race.
Appearances: Hellsing; Hellsing Ultimate
Hellsing – known primarily for its over-the-top characters and violence – actually has a rather interesting premise: what if Abraham Van Helsing didn’t kill Dracula, but captured him, binding the vampire to his will? And what if the Helsing family proceeded to deploy their pet vamp like an undead WMD against other creatures of the night?
If Blade and D are meant to accentuate the noble side of the vampire myth, Alucard is the embodiment of its implied savagery. While the former two characters are fundamentally revolted by what they are, Alucard revels in his undeath. Snarling and swaggering, the vampiric hitman doesn’t even make a basic attempt to pass as human. Despite the embrace of his personal darkness, Alucard remains an essentially heroic character – even going out of his way to give immortality to a dying police medic in the TV series’ opening episode.
When you get down to it, the Hulk is essentially a modern interpretation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, filtered through fears of the Cold War and nuclear weaponry. Dr. Bruce Banner may be a brilliant scientist, but in his folly he unleashes all the fear and rage lying behind humanity’s mask. The Hulk is the monstrous alter ego of human technological progress.
Nowhere is this captured more skillfully than in The Avengers. While audiences may have thrilled to the Hulk’s heroics during the film’s climactic battle, it’s important to remember the dread every character treats Banner with during the rest of the movie. The mere suggestion that the Hulk could emerge fills rooms full of erstwhile badasses with an almost paralyzing terror.
Archetype: Phantom of the Opera
Appearances: Darkman (plus little-acknowledged sequels)
Before he blew up the box office with Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi’s first foray into studio filmmaking was a curious action-adventure movie called Darkman. One part pulp-superhero origin story and one part homage to Universal horror movies, Darkman tells the story of Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) – a research scientist whose work runs afoul of both corrupt businessmen and the mob.
Brutally disfigured and left for dead, Westlake uses his expertise in skin cell regeneration to build lifelike masks to pass as normal. Using these masks, surgically enhanced strength, and a bottomless well of rage, “Darkman” works both to gain revenge on his attackers and reconnect with his lost love – even though he sees himself as an irredeemable monster.
Appearances: The Toxic Avenger and its many sequels
Straight from the demented, budget-conscious minds of Troma Team (the same studio that would launch the career of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn), The Toxic Avenger initially courted controversy for its over-the-top, cartoonish violence. Several sequels, a cartoon series, and a toy line later, Troma must have cackled all the way to the bank.
The Toxic Avenger concerns Melvin, a prototypical bullied geek before a freak accident sends him hurtling into a truck full of toxic runoff. Though the accident transforms him into a hulking, freakish mutant, Melvin doesn’t follow the usual path of ghoulish revenge (de rigueur for such creatures) . Instead, he uses his newfound strength and charisma to fight the corrupt forces oppressing his home town.
Among zombie comedies, Fido is often overlooked in favor of (the admittedly great) Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. This is a shame, because Fido is an enjoyably goofy, blood-soaked spoof of ’50s television and nostalgia in general. It also features another heroically twisted version of a classic creature motif: the titular Fido, a shambling corpse who may actually be a decent guy . . . once you get past the unquenchable desire for flesh, of course.
Fido’s actual heroism is somewhat debatable. Though clearly mistreated and misunderstood, Fido does have an unfortunate habit of snacking on neighbors when his inhibitor collar malfunctions. Nonetheless, Fido ends up saving the day and helping to reveal the cruelty behind his society’s facade.
Archetype: Bog Monster
Appearances: Swamp Thing; The Return of Swamp Thing; the Swamp Thing televisions series
Director Wes Craven had been directing low-budget horror for a decade before he helmed the adaptation of the little-known DC Comics horror property Swamp Thing. The resultant movie has become something of a cult classic, even though it’s not exactly a paragon of quality moviemaking. However, the campy, lurid tale of one botanist’s transformation into an invincible bog monster did lead to something legitimately awesome: the tie-in comic book Saga of Swamp Thing. Under the pen of ’80s comics master Alan Moore, Swamp Thing became fascinating hero in a layered, horrifying world.
After a sequel to the original film and a multi-season television series, Swamp Thing has not appeared in any media but the comics page. Though it has been bandied about for some time to no avail, hope for a proper screen adaptation for the green monster springs eternal.
Francœur (A Monster in Paris): This 2011 French animated film borrows from both The Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast to tell the story of a giant, masked creature with a musical soul.
Godzilla (Various films): Old friend Godzilla doesn’t quite make the main list for a pair of reasons: first, the number of movies he’s in which he’s an antagonist; second, he is the “Giant Monster” archetype. Though King Kong (and a few others) may have come before, the original Gojira truly defined the giant monster subgenre.
Alcide Herveaux (True Blood): Among all the vampires, shapeshifters, and fairies flitting about True Blood, Alcide Herveaux’s blue-collar werewolf leader stands as one of the few truly moral and upright figures.