Who doesn’t like a good movie monster? Whether it’s Count Orlok from Nosferatu or the Rhedosaurus from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, cinema has a monster flick out there to suit your tastes. Maybe you’re a fan of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion skeletons, or perhaps the granddaddy of all kaiju, Godzilla. But there are movie monsters, and then there are walking nightmare factories that can make even horror connoisseurs blanche.
These beasts in our list of 10 Movie Monsters That Will Give You Nightmares deserve a very special place in horror canon, though not all of them hail strictly from horror films. Anyone can make a movie about a vampire and call it a monster picture; it takes real talent to concoct an abomination so memorably dreadful that it sears its visage into viewer's minds for life. You might find them in fairy tales made for both young and older audiences; you might find them lurking in the belly of a spaceship. You might even find them in your TV set.
Nobody in today's movie industry gets what makes monsters frightening better than Guillermo del Toro. If he didn’t have a reputation as a stellar human being, it’d be easy to find del Toro just as disturbing as his screen creations; he’s a modern day Wayne Barlowe, a guy who conjures all manner of horrific aberrations out of thin air, and among these none of them has taught viewers terror better than the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, a loose-skinned, child-eating chap encountered roughly halfway through the film.
The Pale Man sits inert at a dining room table laden with a sumptuous feast meant to tempt del Toro’s protagonist, Ofelia. She enters the Pale Man’s lair on a quest for the eponymous faun, who instructs her not to eat any of the food she sees. But when Ofelia eats two grapes anyway, the Pale Man gives chase. Everything about him makes perfect, predatory sense; he howls and staggers, swiping at the air as he uses the eyes in his palms to seek out the little girl. It's a brief, yet terrifying, sequence.
The image of the yūrei, a spirit kept from the afterlife in Japanese folklore, doesn’t have the same connotations in America as it does in its homeland. That didn’t stop Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from striking a chord with US moviegoers, so maybe cultural specifics don’t matter; scary is scary, whether you prefer Nakata’s Sadako or Verbinski’s Samara. The white funereal garb and the unkempt black hair make an effective combo.
2002 doesn’t seem that long ago, but The Ring caused a shift in horror cinema upon its release. After films like Scream, The Faculty, and Bride of Chucky soured us on slashers and monster movies through their genre deconstructions, Samara felt like a breath of fresh air. Her appearance and her creaky, inhuman gait gave her visceral impact; the famous sequence in which she crawls out of a TV set and into Martin Henderson’s living room made her foerver memorable.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece made the subject of H.R. Giger’s painting Necronom IV into an instant horror icon. For that alone, the Xenomorph deserves a spot of high prestige on this list. The chitinous, slavering creature has been aped and homaged endlessly since Alien’s release, and yet to this day remains an original. Few movie monsters are as uniquely cinematic, or as immediately recognizable, as the Xenomorph.
Alien may be the best example of how to combine horror and science fiction, though it skews more toward the former than the latter. How do you make ductwork feel foreboding? By designing a monster that’s tailor-made to thrive in a cold, metallic environment. You might think you’re just looking at exposed piping in the wall, but look again; double check for that spike-tipped tail and for the telltale oblong head. Even if you recognize the Xenomorph for what it is, it’s still probably too late.
Jennifer Kent’s 2014 acclaimed indie horror debut polarized audiences for relying on slow-burn psychological fear over jump scares. That doesn’t make the creature at the center of Kent’s family drama any less chilling; The Babadook borrows a few key visual reference points, at times resembling a cross-section of Edward Hyde and Freddy Krueger - at others a byproduct of Giger’s career.
But whatever form The Babadook takes, he, or it, is always just the right amount of spooky. He wears a cartoonish facade, right down to the “Mister” in his name; even the word “Babadook” sounds weirdly paternal, which is grimly apropos of the film’s subject matter. (For what it’s worth, “baba” does mean “father” in a handful of languages. The name is also an anagram of "A Bad Book.") The monster’s stripped-down design gives him simple visual punch, but his methods and origins let him get into widowed mother Amelia’s head, where he makes himself at home and terrorizes her and her son.
The gulf between Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Brian Gibson’s maligned 1986 follow-up, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is pretty wide. Where Hooper made a classic, Gibson made a needless, conventional dud. Such is the peril of sequelization. But if Poltergeist II fails as a whole, some of the film’s individual parts prove more interesting on their own - like this horrible, gooey little fella here.
In Poltergeist II, the Freelings have relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to start afresh after the paranormal hoopla of the original. Despite the move, they’re still being stalked by the Beast that plagued them in Cuesta Verde. Partway through the film, Steve Freeling gets drunk and winds up swallowing a Mezcal worm that’s possessed by the Beast (formerly known as the Reverend Henry Kane), who subsequently possesses Steve. After a struggle, Steve expels the worm, which grows bigger and grosser by the second before turning into an icky tentacular monstrosity.
Anyone who saw Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story as a kid probably looks back on the film with fond nostalgia. They might also recall the many nights they spent wide awake in bed, frozen in anxiety and unable to get the leering wolf grin of Gmork out of their minds. The Neverending Story is not a scary movie; Gmork, however, is a scary monster, and he’s probably responsible for more than his fair share of paralytic nighttime hallucinations.
For those keeping score at home, sticking Gmork on this list arguably goes against the mission statement. But Gmork isn’t a prototypical evil wolf; instead, he’s the antagonist of a children’s film who serves The Nothing, a despair storm of sorts that’s consuming the make-believe world of Fantasia. Gmork's nihilistic fascism might be lost on the young - his speech to Atreyu is probably better suited for freaking out adults - but his glowing eyes and lupine grin are fearsome to stick in memory long after childhood is over.
Everything special make-up effects creator Rick Baker touches turns to gold. Baker won an Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup in 1981 on the strength of his werewolf transformation scenes in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London; frankly, he deserves as much of a hat-tip for a brief but especially nasty dream sequence partway through the film, after David Kessler survives a moorland werewolf attack that leaves his friend, Jack, dead.
In the dream, David and his family enjoy an evening at home that’s interrupted by demonic beasts unmistakably adorned in Nazi garb. Within moments, they execute David’s mom, dad, and younger siblings before killing him. When David awakes, he’s still dreaming, and the cycle continues anew. The dream is packed with meaning: it’s the summation of David’s survivor’s guilt, and a metaphor for both teenage male sexuality and post-Holocaust Jewish social fears. Most of all, the monsters manage to be just as memorable as the film’s real star, which should be seen as an accomplishment in itself.
Any list with the word “nightmare” in its title probably has space for the king of nightmares himself. Sure, many fans count him in the company of slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, rather than monsters like the Gill-man or the Wolfman; that’s Freddy’s milieu, and has been since 1984. He might not fit in the “monster” category, but he’s definitely monstrous (supernatural powers and all...), and boy does he know his way around a bad dream.
Freddy also knows how to have fun, though his idea of fun tends to be one-sided (not to mention fatal and disgusting). He's bound to the spirit world, which means he can’t harm his victims in person. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he has boundless creativity and free rein to kill hapless teens in imaginative ways. The worst news is that he’s a showman who derives amusement from suffering, unlike his emotionless masked 1980s peers. Other maniacs kill and move on. Freddy takes his time while cackling aloud, which is far worse.
And now, one for the odontophobes out there: a monster bred especially to give you the heebie-jeebies. You could watch every single film in the Hellraiser franchise and pick any number of unwholesome fiends from each, and most of them would probably fit the criteria of this list without much trouble. Chatterer, however - with his clacking chompers and pulled-back facial features - churns stomachs at first, second, and tenth blush. He’s the definition of grotesque.
At the same time, he’s weirdly sympathetic - at least if you’ve seen Hellbound: Hellraiser II and seen the reveal of his true identity. He’s just a kid! And yet every time he makes an appearance alongside Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, he’s utterly ghastly. Maybe it simply boils down to looks. Maybe it’s the fact that he can only communicate by clicking his pearly whites together. Or maybe the sight of him means that your number is up, and you’re off to an eternity of torment.
Some of the monsters on this list lean toward the baroque. Others are characterized by streamlined aesthetics. Brundlefly, the horrible end result of a series of unfortunate scientific experiments in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, is probably best qualified as “gross.” All hail Cronenberg, crowned king of body horror now and forever. Turning a good-looking guy like Jeff Goldblum into a gruesome portrait of mutation takes skill, and Cronenberg makes it look effortless.
Seth Brundle doesn’t do much to help his cause throughout the film, of course, but it’s not really his fault: meddling with nature costs him his ability to reason as a man. Seth responds to his most primal urges. He puts an arm wrestling opponent in a sling, and sparks a tryst with a woman he picks up at a bar. He also dissolves John Getz’ hand and ankle with corrosive vomit. If Seth’s plan to turn himself, his lover Veronica (Gina Davis), and their unborn child into a single entity wasn’t the last straw, the melting and the puking probably would have been.
If you made it through that cavalcade of horrors, sit tight, because we’re not done yet! Honorable mentions are in order for those of you still sitting at your keyboards (and kudos to everyone who hasn’t taken cover under their blankets by now). Our 10 might be the most frightful fiends on the block, but don’t count out our runners-up:
Did the monsters that kept you up long past your bedtime make it onto our list? Let us know what you think in the comments.