‘Alien’ (Ridley Scott, 1979)
One of the all-time greatest cinematic creature designs is also one of the scariest – the titular alien, created by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is a nightmare sprung to goo-dripping life. It’s provocatively sexual (complete with phallic head-shape), elegantly dangerous and combines aspects of both animal and machine; like a Jaguar sports car that could rip out your throat with its tiny hidden sub-mouth. Even its blood is lethal, since it bleeds acid. Throughout the series the creature has been redesigned (I’m particularly fond of the Bambi-like concept in “Alien 3”), but the original still remains the best. It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.
‘Predator’ (John McTiernan, 1987)
Originally, the iconic Predator monster, a kind of intergalactic big-game hunter, had a long neck and sloped forehead, it was more praying mantis than fear-inducing monster. Thankfully, they stopped production and the creature was re-designed by Stan Winston, who gave us the dreadlocked, mandible-faced monster we know and love and are scared witless by. Director John McTiernan expressed surprise at the design since he said that there’s only one great creature design every generation, and they had already had “Alien.” Well, John, there were two great creature designs that generation, and you get to take at least partial credit for one of them.
‘Attack the Block’ (Joe Cornish, 2011)
Sometimes the best aliens are the simplest – and “Attack the Block’s” self-described “gorilla wolf motherf*ckers” certainly fit the bill. Director Cornish’s sleekly black cats, who he spotted silhouetted against a window, helped inspire the creature’s design. Here, the monsters are all fur, claws, and glowing fangs. That said, these aren’t comic creatures, they are scary, fearsome beasts, harkening back to the days before CGI, where, if you saw a monster you loved, you could quickly draw it on a cocktail napkin afterwards. (Those days are gone.) And if you haven’t seen “Attack the Block,” one of the more grossly overlooked genre greats of the past few years, please correct that mistake now.
‘The Thing’ (John Carpenter, 1982)
Unlike many of the alien menaces listed here, what makes the outer space invader in “The Thing” so scary is that it could be anything – or anyone. John Carpenter’s technologically sophisticated take on the Howard Hawks classic “The Thing From Another World,” saw the being able to morph into a host of other creatures, some of them truly outlandish and others, in an equally frightening way, disturbingly human. Carpenter worked with cutting-edge effects technicians Rob Bottin and Stan Winston to accomplish these effects (almost all of them practical) and the fact that they were really there (with actors actually reacting to them) made them even more chilling.
‘Fire in the Sky’ (Robert Lieberman, 1993)
A precursor to “Dark Skies,” “Fire in the Sky” was mostly an ingeniously plotted mystery about a group of backwoods yahoos who are accused of murdering one of their own. They claim, of course, that aliens abducted him instead. That old defense! Of course there is one truly amazing sequence that shows what happens to the abductee (D.B. Sweeney) and it is some of the scariest alien-related stuff that has ever been committed to film. A twist on the classic “gray” aliens that has been part of pop culture for years, these creatures (practically designed by Industrial Light & Magic) are so frightening for the way that they treat their captive – this is just another day on the spaceship for them.
‘Dreamcatcher’ (Lawrence Kasdan, 2003)
Largely derided as a silly, tonally amorphous mishmash of much better Stephen King stories, “Dreamcatcher,” nonetheless, has some pretty amazing aliens and remains something of a relatively minor, excessively campy cult classic. The great thing about “Dreamcatcher” is that there are a whole bunch of them, all designed by famed illustrator Mark “Crash” McCreery – there’s the giant Mr. Grey (another subtle riff on the gray-alien theme), the “sh*t weasels” (scary little fanged slugs), whatever the hell Donnie Wahlberg’s character ends up being (something like a lobster or something). Nothing really makes sense in “Dreamcatcher,” but the monsters themselves are occasionally quite frightening, exemplified by a scene between Jason Lee and one of the sh*t weasels. Don’t drop your toothpick!
‘War of the Worlds’ (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Steven Spielberg knows a thing or two about alien invaders, but most of his intergalactic visitors have been the cuddly, Reese’s Pieces-eating kind. With his remake of “War of the Worlds,” he made a truly bad-ass alien movie. The aliens themselves weren’t as terrifying as they could have been, although with their three-legs and tree-froggish appearance, they were off-putting and strange, but their vehicles – the tripods – were truly nightmarish. In particular there’s the scene where a ferry of human evacuees is trying to escape and is menaced by one of the tripods, which comes out of the water like some deep-sea leviathan. I’m getting chills just thinking about it!
‘Cloverfield’ (Matt Reeves, 2008)
In truth, we don’t know where the Cloverfield monster came from (some nerds claim that it rose up out of the ocean), but whatever it is, it’s pretty damn scary. It’s the last JJ Abrams monster (designed by his constant confederate Neville Page) that we really truly loved. This is the JJ-style monster that felt totally fresh and mind-blowing, before the multi-limbed giant thing got too complicated in “Super 8” and “Star Trek.” (Can you imagine what the JJ-equivalent of the Cantina Scene will be in his new “Star Wars?” Good lord!) As a smart riff on “Godzilla” classics, this monster is pretty ace. So are the scary little goblin guys that fall off of him – that subway scene still gives us the willies.
‘Pitch Black’ (David Twohy, 2000)
Normally I kind of hate the work of designer Patrick Tatopolous; it’s overly referential and hardly ever fresh. But there’s something unique and fun about the creatures he created for “Pitch Black,” the tale of a group of space travelers who crash on a planet inhabited by flying nocturnal beasts. These things have teeth and claws and wings and tails and crazy, horseshoe-shaped heads. They might tip their hats a little too much to the original Giger alien, but what hasn’t? These monsters are truly scary and a highpoint for designer Tatopolous. If you’ve never seen “Pitch Black,” it’s worth seeking out; the third film in the series will be out later this year.
‘The Blob’ (Ivin Yeaworth, 1958, and Chuck Russell, 1988)
The titular blob, which crash lands on earth in a kind of egg-shaped meteor, is so scary because, like Carpenter’s “The Thing,” it’s amorphous. While some of the gags in the original film (which starred Steve McQueen as the world’s oldest teenager) are somewhat dated and hokey, the remake, co-written by “Walking Dead” mastermind Frank Darabont, is hopelessly underappreciated. The latter movie added a few tricks to the rolling ball of goo’s arsenal, and had cool moments like the infamous payphone booth gag (I’m not going to ruin it here). For what is essentially sentient Jell-O, The Blob is pretty scary!