(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: some of the best movie monsters you may have missed!)
Ridley Scott has a new movie hitting theaters this week, and for those of us who love his 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien, that news is improved further by the knowledge that his latest is a new entry in the franchise. Of course, 2012’s Prometheus fit that very same bill, and we all know how that turned out. (Not terribly if you ask me, but let’s stay focused here.) Alien: Covenant may end up featuring equally stupid human characters, but judging by the trailers, it’s made at least one important improvement. It’s bringing back the fast-moving, wickedly dangerous, and endlessly terrifying xenomorphs (in some form or another) to wreak bloody havoc.
Through the franchise’s ups and downs the aliens themselves have remained some of the most beautifully nightmarish monsters to ever grace the screen, and if we’re being honest, few others come even close to comparing in the area of horrifyingly effective design. Still though, there’s no shortage of memorable movie monsters from the Graboids in Tremors and the river monster in The Host to the creepy subterranean killers in The Descent and the alien monstrosities of John Carpenter’s The Thing. These and others made the cut earlier this year right here on this very site.
But what of the frightening creatures in movies that maybe didn’t find a spot on that list or any other? The seven movies below aren’t nearly as well known, and they’re not all great necessarily (although I’d go to the mat for half of them), but the common thread between them is in the design and presentation of their monsters. Some are terrifying, some are fun, and others are darkly beautiful, but all of them deserve to be seen by more eyeballs.
Rawhead Rex (1986)
Unwitting Irish farmers accidentally release a leather-clad pagan deity from the ground where its been imprisoned for decades, and soon the creature begins tearing a new one through the small village nearby.
Yes, I am starting with the one guaranteed to get me the most flack as common knowledge states that the film’s biggest weakness is its creature design, but how else could I share that I had the poster on my wall for a couple years as a teenager? George Pavlou’s mid ’80s creature feature can’t hold a bloody candle to Clive Barker‘s source novella (even if Barker himself did write the script), but the film works on a visual level if nowhere else. Part of that comes in the solid gore effects, daylight action, and a blasphemous golden shower (this may just be the ex-Catholic in me speaking though), but the big draw here is in the deceptively goofy Mr. Rawhead Rex.
Barker himself describes Rex’s look as basically a 9-foot phallus with teeth, but there’s still something uniquely menacing about the film’s monster. He’s in some ways a collective of masculinity’s worst traits shaped into a walking, growling, killing machine, and that comes across in his leather and metal outfit that looks like he belongs in a GWAR cover band celebrating their recent renaissance fair gig. He’s also rocking his male pattern baldness while hoping to distract you with his his glassy eyes, bloodstained teeth, and Michael Bolton locks. It sounds like I’m making fun of him, I know, but even with flaws exacerbated by the film’s low budget he retains an original look that has no real comparison in other films. He’s a beast, but the brutality comes in a ripped, monstrous yet human-like package. He resembles a cenobite on steroids, and while that would still only rank him in the top forty monsters to spill from Barker’s wickedly fertile mind, Rex remains a memorable yet underseen movie monster.
[Rawhead Rex is currently unavailable outside of import DVDs, but Kino Lorber recently announced a new 4K restoration with limited theatrical release and Blu-ray to follow.]
The Teddy Bear in Dolls (1987)
A group of strangers take refuge from a storm in a creepy country estate, but what should have been a peaceful night’s rest turns to terror when the house’s other occupants make their presence known.
Director Stuart Gordon will always be best known for Re-Animator (and not well-known enough for From Beyond), but movie monster fans owe it to themselves to check out this darkly comic, grue-filled romp sooner rather than later. Fans of the recent Krampus should seek this one out too, as it does the monstrous doll action better, grimmer, and with more gruesome results. Gordon fills his film and this house with all manner of deadly toy figures, from marching soldiers who fire real projectiles to more traditional dolls that come to life via stop-motion animation to do terrifically terrible things to people. One of their creepier endeavors sees an unsuspecting young woman begin a transformation into one of them, and it’s not a pretty process, especially when it comes to replacing her eyes.
The one I’m all about here though is the biggest doll of them all… a giant ten-foot tall teddy bear. He comes stumbling through the trees looking every bit like a big, huggable lug of a stuffed bear, but that child-friendly facade soon rips away to reveal the snarling beast within. The creature bites off a woman’s arm and kills her husband with a back-breaking bear hug before feasting on his flesh. Most films involving killer dolls, from Child’s Play to Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, find thrills in small toys turning bad, but Gordon’s teddy bear breaks that mold just as it breaks through its initially plush exterior from the inside out.
[Buy Dolls on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.]
Bank robbers flying to safety are forced to make a middle-of-the-night detour into a rural field, but while they’re looking for stolen cash, something unnatural is looking for them.
Clowns get most of the press when it comes to creepy character types, but scarecrows are every bit as unsettling, even in silence. Those wanting proof need look no further than films like the well-known Dark Night of the Scarecrow and the relatively recent Husk, but for my money, the best of the bunch is this late ’80s horror flick. It’s a low budget affair, but it features some suspenseful sequences and grisly demises on its bloody road towards dawn. It’s a slow burn, but honestly my only real complaint is that 29 years later, we still haven’t gotten the promised sequel, Scarecrows II: The Final Straw. (I’m not kidding.)
The film’s title characters are legion, and while much of their power comes through even when they’re standing still, we’re also treated to these straw-filled killers in action. They stalk their prey, look on from the shadows, and deal them grievous bodily harm. Burlap sack masks are scary enough (see The Orphanage, Friday the 13th Part 2, The Strangers), but they take on an even spookier weight when you know it’s essentially acting as skin and holding in nothing more than straw and pure evil. This also means that the sack has the depth and shadowed contours of a human face, and that just magnifies their creepiness even further.
[Buy Scarecrows on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.]
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