Monsters have been around since the dawn of film, but how does one create a monster that leaves an impression on the audience?
Nothing is more thrilling than the invisible Predator hunting down men in the jungle, or the failed science experiment that just wants to eat you. What is it that makes these monsters so memorable?
Maybe it's the perfect marriage of two elements that create an effective movie monster: design and story. Check out how Entertain the Elk breaks down these two ingredients of monster making in the video below.
How the monster looks is incredibly important. It is what the audience will fear the most throughout the film.
The monster’s design should be uniquely created to fit and thrive in the world it inhabits. In Tremors, the Graboids have spikes that run down its 30-foot worm-like body to show that they can move through the Earth easily and eat as much as they can until they are destroyed.
How the monster moves through the world and the threat it poses for the main character can be shown through its design.
By teasing the audience and characters with little bits of the monster, fear is created about what the design of the monster could be. Little moments like the tail slithering out of a room or a fin coming toward the swimmer creates terror for the audience. The unknown factor is horrifying. The audience doesn’t know how big or small the threat is, and the audience's fears are hopefully realized when the monster is finally revealed.
My assumption on the size of the alien was based on the baby xenomorph that burst through Kane’s (John Hurt) chest. My jaw hit the floor when the 10-foot tall, jet black, slimy, razor-tailed creation was revealed at the end. As a kid, I was scared to death for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and I didn’t think that the xenomorph could be defeated.
Design is effective. It allows the audience to create expectations for the characters and the ability of the monster.
The monster needs to fit the larger demands of the narrative.
The monsters tend to be the direct foil to the main characters. They are an opposing force that tests the main characters’ skill and challenges their deeper needs and anxieties.
As the characters learn about the monster’s “backstory,” it is revealed to the audience what the monster’s motives, habits, rules, and weaknesses are. The audience also learns more about the main characters through their understanding of why and how they should defeat the monster. It is through the “backstory” of the monster that the characters name the monster, and once you give the thing you fear a name, it becomes less powerful.
Monsters have rules.
There are already established rules for certain monsters like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, but what happens when a new monster is introduced to the scene? When there are new monsters, there is a need for some rules so the writer, characters, and audiences know the monster’s abilities and limitations.
The screenwriter must know the rules of the monster before writing the script in order to have a clear idea of what the monster is capable of doing. Does the monster move silently and learn as it hunts, or does it shake the earth as it moves to kill whatever it detects as food? The characters and audience can learn the rules of the monster throughout the movie, allowing time for expectations to be created and then destroyed. Understanding the rules of the monster before writing it creates a well-rounded and worthy monster.
In Predator, the audience knows the Predator is out to kill for sport. His tactics are precise and he is motivated by the US Special Operations soldier’s will to survive. The audience clearly understands why the Predator is killing and soon figures out, along with the characters, how to defeat the monster.
In The Descent, the crawlers are killing because they are constantly hunting for food. Their weaknesses are revealed, but defeat for the main characters is inevitable as there are thousands of crawlers living in the cave. The motive of the monster is understood, and having this knowledge keeps the characters on their toes and the audience on the edge of their seat.
The design and story are what create a perfect and memorable monster. The way the creation looks and exists in the world helps tell the story of the main characters and what is really at stake. Monsters live inside our minds, and putting them into physical form is what makes monsters unforgettable.
What would be your ideal movie monster? Let us know down below.