With 2017 upon us, many people are in resolution mode working on New Year changes for themselves. A fresh transformation is how many people start the year every January, trying to find ways to improve or simplify their lives. While some changes are minimal, others might deal with a personality overhaul or a complete physical transformation to be the person they see in their minds. Whatever metamorphosis we might want, none are as drastic or visually stunning as the kind we see in movies.
Dating back to the silent film era with movies like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to The Wolf Man of the Universal Monsters, audiences have been enthralled and fascinated by these astonishing transformations of man into something else. Regardless of the cause, whether it’s getting bitten, infected or swallowing a potion, these fantastical transitions that a character goes through in a film, leaves an impression on audiences. The creations of famous monsters and heroes, often are also some of the most iconic celluloid scenes we remember.
Focusing on a movie character’s on-screen transformation - not at an actor’s physical change for a role - we scan various genres and offer up the 15 Best Movie Character Transformations Of All Time.
15 VERBAL KINT/KEYSER SÖZE – THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Not all transformations have to be big visual effects extravaganzas. Sometimes the most effective and chilling changes come from the subtle tweaks an actor gives through a performance. There’s no better example of this than Kevin Spacey’s role of Roger “Verbal” Kint in the 1995 movie, The Usual Suspects. The story revolves around Verbal being interrogated as he tells the twisted events around a crime connected to mob boss Keyser Söze.
The film’s driven by the question “Who is Keyser Söze?”, with a shocking reveal that audiences never see coming. A small-time criminal, Verbal is a feeble man, invisible to most people who come across him. No one would suspect him of being a criminal mastermind, which is why Spacey’s transformation from Verbal to Söze is so powerful. In what’s regarded as one of the most classic movie scenes of all-time, Verbal limps out of the police station but then straightens out his stride, as he moves his supposed withered hand, enjoying a smoke. In a matter of seconds, he turns from a weak man into a powerful villain.
That twist ending transformation also turned Kevin Spacey from a character actor into a bona fide star.
14 STARSCREAM – TRANSFORMERS
We can’t have a list about movie transformations without including a Transformer! With a tagline of “More than meets the eye”, transforming is what these characters are and do. Based on the massively successful toyline and animated series of the ‘1980s, action impresario Michael Bay is the driving force behind the feature film franchise. Arguably the best installment so far is the 2007 original Transformers, which gave us the first live-action versions of the Autobots and Decepticons.
Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Bumblebee might be the most known of the bunch, but the coolest on-screen transformation goes to villain, Starscream.
When the hype machine was building for the film, one of the most talked about and replayed moments of the trailer is when Starscream transforms from his Decepticon robot form into an F-22 fighter jet. That moment sold the idea to audiences that this kid’s cartoon could work as a live-action blockbuster. In the film, Starscream transforms in three scenes but that trailer highlight is the best, as he’s going after Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and then flies away in jet fighter form with Autobots giving chase.
13 SHERMAN KLUMP/BUDDY LOVE – THE NUTTY PROFESSOR
A comedic genius, Eddie Murphy is seen as a funny man and rightfully so with a long list of comedy feature films and stand-up specials. As funny as the former SNL standout is, many fans tend to overlook Eddie’s skills as a versatile actor – cut from the same cloth as Lon Chaney – using makeup and prosthetics to disappear into a role.
In Coming to America, he played multiple roles including an elderly Jewish man and a crooner by the name of “Sexual Chocolate.” Only Eddie could top that tour de force performance with an even more impressive showcase of his talents in the 1996 comedy The Nutty Professor. In the lead role of Sherman Klump, Murphy plays a loveable but obese scientist, who creates a formula to lose the weight. A comedic retelling of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, the experiment goes haywire as the formula turns Sherman into the slim but devious Buddy Love.
The film’s memorable climax has Sherman and Buddy battling each other for control of the body, with body parts changing and clothes ripping. The hilarious physical transformation was accomplished using CGI and practical effects. The result had audiences chanting: "Hercules! Hercules! Hercules!"
12 SCOTT HOWARD – TEEN WOLF (1985)
If someone ever approaches you with glowing red eyes and deep demonic voice asking you for a keg of beer, you give that person what they want. That creepy yet funny scenario is just one of the many entertaining scenes found in the 1985 horror-comedy, Teen Wolf. The film that inspired the MTV series has Michael J. Fox starring as Scott Howard, your average high school student who has one hairy secret, he’s a werewolf. Actually he comes from a family a werewolves and learns about it the hard way by transforming into the creature one night after a party.
As you’ll learn later, the 1980s were rife with classic werewolf transformations. While most were disturbing, causing audiences to cover their eyes at the horrifying sight of a man turning into a monster, Teen Wolf gave us the lighter side of growing fangs and claws. With a twisted view on being a teen, the best transformation has Scott racing home, locking himself in the bathroom, as he experiences his first turn. With ’80s synthesized music playing, Scott’s face contorts while hair covers his body and fangs spring from his mouth. A transformation like this, as Scott puts it, “landed on my face.”
11 WIKUS VAN DE MERWE – DISTRICT 9
Granted Wikus Van De Merwe was a bit of a jerk but all he wanted to do was his job, go home to his wife and avoid any hassles or drama. Unfortunately for him, that never happened. Everything goes downhill quickly after opening a canister and being contaminated by alien fluid. From that point on, Wikus’ story is that of transformation, a slow progression from a man into an extraterrestrial known as “Prawns.”
District 9 was a sleeper hit that went on to become a sci-fi favorite, cleverly weaving politics and human drama with an alien backdrop. Sharlto Copley – a newcomer at the time – created a complex and sympathetic character who over the course of the film, experiences a physical and emotional change that are equally painful to watch. Using practical and CGI effects, the team at Weta Workshop created an “insect” looking-alien with a scary appearance using an exoskeleton design. That wonderful execution allowed Copley to really play with the changes his character’s body goes through. From having an alien arm, to losing skin and changing eyes, Wikus’ transformation is unsettling and sad as by the end of the film when he’s become a full Prawn.
10 MOGWAI – GREMLINS
We all know the three rules. No bright light. Don’t get them wet. And never feed them after midnight. Three easy to follow rules that prevent your Mogwai from turning into a gremlin. Of course if the characters in the 1984 film Gremlins did just that, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. A Mogwai is a furry, cute looking little creature, somewhere between a tiny ewok and koala. Gizmo, the adorable “hero” Mogwai in the film is the patient zero if you will. He’s where the malicious batch of Mogwais come from that later turn into the terrors known as gremlins.
When a Mogwai gets wet, it spawns other Mogwai that start off as furballs. If a Mogwai feeds after midnight however, they form into a nasty, slimy cocoon, similar to an Alien egg. Instead of a beautiful butterfly emerging, a reptilian-like gremlin hatches, with claws and razor-sharp teeth, ready to wreak havoc. This easy-to-follow transformation process along with the film’s success, created a template for other ‘80s tiny monsters such as Critters, Ghoulies and Munchies.
9 ANAKIN SKYWALKER/DARTH VADER – REVENGE OF THE SITH
The moment fans discovered that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, they’ve wanted to know everything about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into the Dark Lord of the Sith. From novels, to comic books and fan fiction, Star Wars fans spent years reading about and imagining what turned a good Jedi into the villain we all know. George Lucas’ prequels finally gave audiences that cinematic transformation in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Starting on the volcanic planet Mustafar, Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader begins with a lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan Kenobi. After getting his legs and arm severed in the fight, Anakin’s body is badly burned by the river of lava. Fueled by hate and darkness, Anakin clings to life as Emperor Palpatine places his charred remains into a medical capsule. Back on the planet Coruscant, Anakin’s operated on as droids turn him more machine than man, giving him robotic limbs and placing him in the now iconic all-black armor. Once the breathing apparatus and helmet is placed over his head, we hear Darth Vader take his first electronic breaths, now fully consumed by the darkside.
8 ALEX MURPHY/ROBOCOP – ROBOCOP (1987)
“Part man. Part Machine. All Cop.” That’s the tagline for the 1987 film RoboCop that gave audiences a nihilistic, violent view of the future with a bad-ass fighting machine as its hero.
Even though one ended up fighting for good while the other ended up becoming evil, Robocop’s creation story runs parallel to that of Anakin Skywalker’s journey of man into machine. As men, both experienced gruesome and painful wounds/losses that almost completely killed off their humanity. Reborn again with cybernetic and metal bodies, both characters returned more powerful than before, with only traces of their former self.
Police officer Alex Murphy’s death is easily one of the most graphic and violent scenes you’ll ever witness in a movie. Nightmare inducing as some might say it’s the definition of overkill, as Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang of criminals form a firing squad, tearing apart and dismembering Murphy’s body, leaving him a bloody mess riddled with bullets. After OCP gets their hands on Murphy’s corpse - over stages - they bring him back to life, or better put back online, giving him a completely new titanium body. Reborn as the gun-toting Robocop, the lawman hits the streets warning: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
7 STEVE ROGERS/CAPTAIN AMERICA – CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
While many transformations on this list revolve around tragedy or are looked at as a curse, that’s not the case with Steve Rogers. The All-American everyman choose to participate in a government experiment that transformed him into the super-solider known as Captain America. Created in 1941 from the pages of Marvel Comics, Captain America established the Marvel template where many of their superheroes would be born out of a failed experiment or scientific accidents (ala The Fantastic Four, The Hulk and Spider-Man).
In the 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger, Chris Evans plays both sides of Steve Rogers: the sickly young man and the muscular superhero. This challenging yet impressive visual transformation was accomplished primarily with the use of cutting edge CGI and a body double for “skinny Steve” (Leander Deeny). Chris Evans gained a muscular physique for the role, so cheating some camera shots for the look of frail Steve wasn’t feasible. Working some visual effects magic, director Joe Johnston and his effects team used a sculpting process to shrink Evans’ body, giving him an emaciated appearance. The end result was a crucial piece in creating one of the best comic book adaptations we’ve ever seen for a superhero.
6 JACK NAPIER/THE JOKER – BATMAN
In the comics, the Joker’s backstory had been largely murky for decades, with no one concrete story to pull from or follow. That all changed with 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore. In it we learn about Joker’s origin as the Red Hood and how he came to be the Prince of Crime.
While that’s now one of the pillars behind the character, Joker’s cinematic transformation came courtesy of Tim Burton’s 1989 classic, Batman. The film served up another version of how Joker came to be, giving him the name Jack Napier. A gangster who early on in his youth kills Bruce Wayne’s parents, Jack unknowingly sets a chain of events into motion that would create his foe, Batman. Just like in The Killing Joke, a chemical plant is the source behind Joker’s creation, because you can’t have the birth of villain without having some toxic chemicals nearby, right?!
Inside Axis Chemicals, Napier’s in a shootout with cops when Batman shows up, causing Napier to fall into a vat of chemicals. Surviving the fall and toxic waste, what survives is a murderous madman, disfigured by the chemicals which have bleached his skin white, turned his hair green and given him a bright red grin. From that point on, we call him Joker!
5 DANA BARRETT & LOUIS TULLY – GHOSTBUSTERS
It’s unusual for a transformation to have a catchphrase associated with it, but that’s the case with the 1984 horror-comedy, Ghostbusters. In fact, you can make the argument that the film has several starting with a possessed Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) warning in a lovely demonic singing voice, “There is no Dana, only Zuul.” Dana along with Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) fall victim to Gozer’s terror dogs: Zuul & Vinz Clortho. After possessing their bodies, Dana/Zuul and Louis/Vinz, give us the other catchphrases asking “Are you the Keymaster?” and “Are you the Gatekeeper?” as they prepare for Gozer’s arrival.
So how did Peter Venkman’s (Bill Murray) girlfriend and a scrawny accountant turn into demon dogs with horns and glowing red eyes? After getting attacked and possessed in their apartments and Central Park, Dana/Zuul has a new hypersexualized personality and appearance, while Louis/Vinz just gets weirder and clumsier. After finally meeting, the pair make their way to the roof of their apartment building and mate to complete their ritual. In front of the Temple of Gozer, Zuul and Vinz finally fully transform into their terror dog form as they’re hit by lightning. All Peter can say upon looking at the new Dana is “Okay…so, she’s a dog.”
4 SETH BRUNDLE – THE FLY (1986)
Filmmaker David Cronenberg, “The Baron of Blood”, hands down created the most disgusting and cover your eyes transformation on this list. With 1986’s The Fly – a remake of the 1958 B-horror film – the transformation from man-to-fly monster, is an achievement in make-up and practical effects. Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis won Academy Awards in 1987 for their make-up work for the Fly character. Their realistic, disgusting work is so excellent that today’s CGI technology would have a difficult time replicating the feel and impact.
Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, an inventor and scientist consumed with his teleportation device, with the goal to teleport living beings. Everything goes off the rails when he experiments the machine on himself not knowing a house fly has entered it as well. The film from then on is a sad and gross journey as Seth painfully transforms into the title character. His changes come in stages, at first similar to a superhero with increased strength and faster reflexes. The other stages aren’t so cool, which involve him vomiting acid, losing limbs, ears and skin, literally losing his humanity one piece at a time. Seth’s tragic transformation is complete in the film’s climax when he becomes a fly creature.
3 BRUCE BANNER/THE HULK – THE AVENGERS
One of the most appealing and cool aspects of The Hulk character is his transformation. From the muscles exploding through clothes, to that moment when Bruce Banner’s eyes turn green, you know whoever pissed him off is in big trouble. Being a mild manner man one minute and an indestructible green giant the next, is an ultimate form of escapism for many fans.
There’s nothing cheesy about Bill Bixby turning into the massive Lou Ferrigno, in the ‘70s TV series. For decades that was the standard fans had for Hulk’s transformation. After a couple of so-so feature films incarnations, Marvel Studios finally pinned down the right adaptation of the Hulk from the comics. Thanks to advancements in special effects and CGI, the right scale and look of the rampaging giant came to life in the 2012 blockbuster, The Avengers. Played by Mark Ruffalo, in the movie we get two – full CGI - transformations of Bruce into Hulk. The first occurs on the Helicarrier which leads to a great fight between Hulk and Thor.
The second meme friendly transformation occurs in the battle of New York, with Bruce revealing his secret that he’s “always angry”, just as he transforms and drops the Leviathan with one punch.
2 XENOMORPH – ALIEN
With the upcoming release of Alien: Covenant, we’re reminded that movie audiences have been terrorized by the alien life forms known as Xenomorphs for over 35 years. Based on the designs of H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott first introduce us to these killing machines back in 1979 with Alien. In the original, we follow the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, as they answer a distress signal only to come into contact with these alien creatures.
Over the course of the film, the life cycle of the alien plays out, setting the template by which all future sequels/prequels would follow. The Xenomorph starts off as an egg that hatches a disgusting creature known as a facehugger. In the film Kane (John Hurt) becomes the host for the alien after the facehugger wraps around his head. Back in the ship, we discover the next stage which is a chestbuster when - in the famous dinner scene - the small alien does just that exploding out of Kane’s chest and escaping. Within a few hours, the Xenomorph matures to adult size and begins to hunt down the rest of the crew, setting up a final showdown with our hero, Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
1 DAVID KESSLER – AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
Werewolves are the kings when it comes to transformations in movies. By their very nature, a werewolf film is all about the change. That anticipation is what cinephiles love and luckily, there’s a long list of films that have given us variations on the transformation from man to monster. We’ve already covered the comedic side with Teen Wolf, but we could have easily included the horrifying changes from films like The Howling, which still holds up to this day. Back in 1981, John Landis offered up what’s arguably the zenith of werewolf films in An American Werewolf in London.
This movie put special effects master, Rick Baker on the map with his cutting-edge and photo realistic transformation effects. Baker’s work was so amazing that he won an Oscar for it. The film follows two American college buddies in England where they get attacked by a werewolf one night. One dies, while the other, David (David Naughton), lives but is haunted by the corpse of his friend warning that he’ll soon turn into a werewolf. From then on, the entire film is built around that one moment and the film delivers when it arrives.
Lasting minutes instead of the usual seconds, Landis has long shots on the excruciatingly painful transformation, showing us muscles and bones popping, hands elongating, and cartilage breaking as a snout protrudes. Damn those full moons!