Monday, October 11, 2010

31 Days of Halloween - Day 11

For today I've decided to share what I consider to be the five best monster designs created for the movies. This is based almost exclusively on physical appearance and execution of that design into a convincing three dimensional creature completely suited to the story it was created for. My decisions were also motivated by factoring in whether or not I believe it is possible to surpass this design. So, while Dracula as played by Bela Lugosi may be THE iconic Dracula, and one whose look has been imitated countless times, I don't believe that it's impossible to create an equal, or better designed Dracula. For example, I like the look of Nosferatu better. Likewise, as much as I love the look of the Bride of Frankenstein, or the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth, I don't necessarily believe that their look could not be surpassed using a different design. I also think that there are really ONLY five monsters whose designs cannot be surpassed.

5. Godzilla

from the movie Gojia (Godzilla) 1954
Designed by Akira Watanabe
Sculpted by Teizo Toshimitsu
Portrayed by Haruo Nakajima

Watanabe took his inspiration from an article on prehistoric life published in Life magazine. The article was illustrated with paintings by Rudolph Zallinger and Zdenek Burian.  Watanabe combined aspects of the Iguanadon with those of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and adding to it the plates from a Stegasaurus.

Before constructing the suit to be worn by Haruo Nakajima, Teizo Toshimitsu created  scaled down clay models of the creature with different skin textures with the version depicted with an alligator like skin texture chosen over the others.

Over the years, Godzilla's appearance has changed going to a friendly-looking almost puppy dog look in the early 70s to a more cat-like fearsome look in the 90s to an aggressive version with longer, more formidable spines in the 2000s, but no matter the changes, he's clearly recognizable as Godzilla.

Designed with a low center of gravity and a massive tail and legs, his bipedal dinosaur design seems deceptively simple. I think it's the spinal plates that not only complete his look, but take his design to a place that can't be topped. He's immediately recognizable, even to someone who has never seen a Godzilla movie, and has a distinctive silhouette. There are few characters who share such recognizability and deceptively simple design, including Mickey Mouse.

Aside from being a terrible movie, the 1998 American Godzilla movie made the mistake of trying to design Godzilla from the ground up. Based on the tiger, Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, this new Godzilla seemed uninspired and lacked the personality, or presence of the classic, true, Godzilla.

4. The Xenomorph
from the movie Alien (1979)
Designed by H.R. Giger
Portrayed by Bolaji Badejo

Everything about the xenomorph was perfect and convincing. It was found in a really bizarre alien landscpe featuring a giant biomechanical pilot who seemed to have grown into the machinery around it. It had a lifecycle with an egg, a parasitic delivery system shaped like a hand with too many fingers, a steel teethed eel like embryo which exploded violently from the chest of the lifeform incubating it, and it had an adult form, humanoid like the human it grew inside of, but like nothing anyone had ever seen in any movie before. It was sleek and skeletal with double opposable thumbs on each hand, a spiny tail tipped with a knife-blade-like stinger, weird growths on its back which looked like exhaust pipes on a motorcycle more than anything else, amplifying its own biomechanical look, it had that strange elongated head ending in a fearsome mouth full of metal teeth and a tongue that shot out like a lance which was tipped with it's own set of wicked jaws. It also had acid for blood, and best, and most frightening of all; it had no eyes.

Never before had an alien in a movie looked so alien. A feat even more impressive because this was still a man in a costume, but you never once thought it looked like one. H.R. Giger was the perfect designer to choose for something new, and the biomechanical stylized sex organs that filled his artwork lent themselves perfectly to everything he touched in this movie from the crashed alien spacecraft to the xenomorph's eggs and the xenomorph itself.

The xenomorph has yet to be topped in terms of creating an alien even more alien, but instead has inspired a slew of thinly disguised copies in comic books and other movies.

3. The Cyclops
from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Designed and animated by Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen has created and brought to life a wide number of memorable creatures in the films that he brought his mesmerizing stop-motion animated special effects to, but by far the best of them was the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (actually there were 2 Cyclops; one with a single backward curving horn, and the other with two forward curved horns). Not merely a giant man with one eye, Harryhausen gave his Cyclops a very credible yet fantastic look without going overboard. A wooly legged, cloven hoofed satyr from the waist down, the Cyclops' upper body resembled a djinn, with its pointy ears and wide nose. The horn rising up from the center of the Cyclops' head is what really takes the Cyclops that final step into becoming something perfect and memorable from a design standpoint. I also liked the way that Harryhausen handled the single eye, clearly conceiving of this creature and it's skull structure to be designed for one eye only, rather than typical depictions that even though they station one eye in the middle, still leave in sockets for the eyes that would normally be there on a face with two eyes in the usual places.

Harryhausen was also able to get a lot of expression with only a single eyebrow to work with. Combined with the personality that Harryhausen's brand of stop motion infuses into his creations (I love the Cyclops licking his chops as he roasts a sailor, and some well chosen sound effects for the Cyclops' roar and you have a fearsome creature that can only inspire imagination.

2. The Creature from the Black Lagoon
from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Designed by Millicent Patrick
Sculpted by Chris Meuller
Portrayed by Ben Chapman (on land)
and Ricou Browning (under water)

This is an absolutely perfect monster design. The Gillman looks like the prehistoric manfish he's meant to be, sympathetic and threatening, sleek, and unlike so many other rubber suit monsters; alive. Like the xenomorph in Alien, even though you are aware that you are watching an actor in a costume,  you never think about that, so convincing is this creature in depicting a living, breathing, lifeform. When it's on land, it gasps for air like a fish, with it's big fish mouth gulping and it's gills breathing in and out. It's eyes  look so alive.

It's an incredibly detailed, well thought out and designed costume that never looks like a rubber suit, bunching up around the actors' elbows or knees as it moves. Both actors also deserve a lot of credit in bringing the Creature to life. It must have been hard to walk on the ground, and to climb around in that costume between the oversized webbed hands and feet and the limited vision afforded by the mask, but the Creature never appears clumsy. Ben Chapman gives him a nice walk and some ferocious speed when it's called for making the Creature seem to be moving naturally and not like someone in a costume. Likewise Ricou Browning gave the Creature a distinctive swimming style unlike how a human would move under water, again letting us forget we're watching anything but the real deal.

Whenever announcements are made of an inevitable remake, I can only pity the poor creature designer. What could you possible do to make the Creature look any better? No doubt they'll be instructed to make the new creature more ferocious looking, and it may even be pretty cool looking, but it won't look better. It can't.

1. The Frankenstein Monster
from Frankenstein (1931)
Designed by Jack Pierce
Portrayed by Boris Karloff

This version of the Frankenstein monster wins hands down as the greatest movie monster design of all time. Not only is it a brilliant design constructed on the features of just the right actor, but the Frankenstein monster has been depicted in countless movies since then, and not a single other design even comes close to being as good as this one, let alone threatening to surpass it. Like Godzilla, everyone recognizes this Frankenstein monster, whether they've seen the movie, or the sequels made by Universal which featured this same design. Once it's implanted in the mind, it cannot be purged. This is probably why other designs fall so short. The make-up artists and conception artists have this version filling their minds and in trying to move as far away from it as possible, they find there seems to be nowhere else to go.

From the flat top head, scars, gaunt face, heavy eyelids, neck bolts, costume, boots and black fingernails, this monster is truly a sum of its parts, all brought to life not by Dr. Frankenstein and an electrical storm, but by Boris Karloff and the astonishing make-up by Jack Pierce. Pierce also designed Universal's Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, and others, and while they are all great, iconic designs, none of them come close to his crowning achievement, the Frankenstein Monster. 

I recognize that this is exactly the kind of post that invites differences of opinion and welcome you to share in the comments section below.




Stephen said...

Nice list and write-up, John! You won't get any arguments from me, I'll just sit back and enjoy the conversation.

Michael Jones said...

I'd push Godzilla up to #2 but I can't argue with any of your choices. Give us a list of the top 5 worst!

Martin Arlt said...

Can't argue with any of those. I especially like the Alien. After decades of movie aliens, you would have thought we'd seen it all. Then along came Giger's alien, which looked like nothing we'd ever seen before. It's beautiful, elegant, and scary as hell.

Robert Pope said...

No arguments here! Great post, pal.

ShaggyDoo said...

Groovy list, I was glad to see the Creature at #2. That was my favorite monster as a kid so I would probably put it at #1 just because back then I thought the movie was so amazingly boring yet still sat through the whole thing to look at the monster. The Frankenstein monster is very cool, but I thought the movie was too. I should probably give Black Lagoon another try...

Mother Firefly said...

Great Post! I agree with Michael, give us a list of the worst. I too love the Creature from the Black Lagoon (I've even been able to see it three times in 3-D at a local cinema) but I never thought about what a great design it was.

John Rozum said...

A worst monster list could include 100s.

The beauty of this list is that even though there are MANY monsters I love and think look great, when it came down to deciding which ones couldn't be improved on as far as their appearance went, this is all I could come up with.

If I made a list of monsters that couldn't possibly look worse, I'd have a lot of candidates. Still, I love a challenge, and am tempted by the suggestion. So, this will give you something to look forward to in next year's countdown.