A Filmmaker's Guide to Monsters

Which Monsters Are the Most Effective and Why?


A monster is always scarier when they look human. This is the main point underlying films such as: Psycho, Interview with the Vampire, Dorian Gray and Red Eye. There's something about familiarity that disassociates us from guessing that they'd do any harm. But has this become overused? Have we forgotten the basic notion of being a monster is to look scary? Or are we moving away from Freddy vs. Jason and into The People vs. OJ Simpson? 

How do we define a monster?

Well, commonly the definition for a monster is: a large, ugly and unkind imaginary creature.

So our question here is not why they crossed over into our world (because that was obvious to counter the mass of "monster" films coming out during the early cinematic era)—our question is actually: When do we come up with another idea?

What is going to counter this new one of human monsters?

When we define a human-monster we are looking for familiar or even overly aesthetic good looks, charm, control, and a lack of human emotion/empathy. So, if we know exactly what we are looking for in these characters—how are we still fooled by them?

Here we are going to investigate how effective human-monsters are up against their imaginary creature predecessors and see which one is the actual monster and which one is all too obvious. 

The Human Monster Archetype

An archetype that basically gives us a person with absolutely no kindness in their body and performs their acts out of their own self-satisfaction. The idea of this happening might be cruel and unusual—but in our world today, it isn't far off.

At the central point to this, there is an "effective" count. In this section, I will be using a 1-5 count. 1 is low and 5 is high to keep it simple. I will state a one or two sentence reason and then you can decide on whether you're in agreement or whether you disagree.

Let's have a look at some examples and ask ourselves some questions:

The Silence of the Lambs

When watching this, you should be thinking about the following things:

How is speed used to control the tension and what kinds of speeds are we looking for? 

How is colour used to familiarise and defamiliarise the audience from the human-monster? 

How are camera angles used and how do portray ambiguity and tension?

Effective Count: 5

Tension is built correctly by using a walking pace to control human familiarisation. But the most iconic thing is the fact that we see the back first—the ambiguity is really in the shot. 

Psycho

Look out for the following:

How is tension built through angle—how are the camera angles and cuts used to increase or decrease the pace and why? 

Notice the sound—how is sound used to imply that this scene is supposed to be the work of a human-monster? 

POV—how is the POV shot used to control what we see and when we see it? How effective is this? 

Effective Count: 4

Although I expected it, the fact that Norman Bates isn't even in the room when she realises his crimes is just brilliant. The whole idea of using the POV is incredible for creating this delightfully scary scene. 

The Exorcist

Please stop to think about the following whilst watching this iconic scene:

How does the angle of the shot act as part of the concentration on the human-monster? What is it doing? 

How do the colours add to the horror? Notice the contrasts between the room and the colour of blood. 

Finally, how is sound used to intensify the experience with the human-monster and why?

Effective Count: 4

This is possibly one of my favourite movies of all time, so I'm biased—but this is such an incredible scene. Just watch the way the tension is controlled through movement and statics. Mind-blowing. 

Therefore: 

Our human-monster is familiar and therefore, probably scarier than something that looks nothing like us. But even though this is the case—notice how we have to overdo the technical side and control everything just right in order to create and build the atmosphere. Let's see whether we have to do that with the other team, shall we? 

The Monster of Imagination

This is an archetype that a lot of films have discarded in favour for monsters that look and behave "just like us." You may even go as far to say that they've modified these monsters of imagination from their roots in order to adapt them into "provocative" horrors and away from their true purpose. Let's explore how the original monsters hold out using the same "effective" count and some questions:

Interview with the Vampire

Let's look at these vampires then, here are some questions that you may want to explore:

How is colour used to control the appearance of the characters through contrasting? 

How is clothing used to a) denote a particular era and b) to show a particular class of person? How does this change the way in which we perceive the character? 

How is speed used and why? Is there much tension build up or are the characters relying on the act of monsters alone to show the audience the horror?

Effective Count: 5

These monsters are in great design—they have both contrast and style. I believe there isn't as much over technicality required here as in the human-monster psychopath style. But, it is ultimately up to you. 

American Werewolf in London

This scene requires your concentration—think and explore the following ideas:

How is colour used and what is so important about colour and contrasting to make the monster appear more frightening?

How is cinematography used to control what we see and when? Why is this controlled at all and how important is it in the perception of the monster?

How is sound used to control tension and speed? Is there much need for soundtracking/non-diegetic music in this scene? How important is it? 

Effective Count: 5

The movie is pure gold, but this scene is not only iconic for inspiring Michael Jackson's Thriller but it is also an amazing work of cinema. Check out the cuts and how angle and height is used against zoom and speed. It is a masterpiece.

AVP

Look at this for an introduction to monstrosity and think about the following:

How are we introduced to a monster before seeing the monster—how effective is it and why do we need it?

How are angles used to make various things look bigger and smaller—what is the impact of making the people look smaller than they actually are? 

How is darkness used to prepare the audience for the arrival of the monster?

Effective Count: 3

I wasn't overly happy with the film—but it had a good use of monsters and a great control of speed. The technical work and script are brilliant, but I found it a bit predictable. What do you think? 

Therefore: 

The monster of imagination is quite effective as it needs less technicality and is more easily adaptable to storyline. But, the psychotic human-monster has more depth and emotive aspects that connect with the human experience. So, they may both be good in their own way...

Personally, I believe that there are much more possibilities with monsters of imagination, so that is where my allegiances stay. 

Part II: The Problem of Predictability with Human Monsters

You will need to find a way to get over the bound of making your human-monster as predictable as the Transformers films. There are many ways of doing this and not many of them have been used. We're now going to look at the style of characterisation and exactly why people are moving away from using this archetype in modern horror. The type has most probably become a thing of the 90s, but there is a possibility that we are now modifying ourselves so that we know exactly what to look for in this character. Hopefully, we can find some answers together from studying some examples and in what way they may be considered predictable and in what way they are a subversion from normative horror culture. This is the main argument that actually scares filmmakers away from using the human-monster archetype. If you don't get your psycho right, you may be ruled as being generic or being stereotypical or even predictable.  

The Schizophrenic

An absolute favourite of mystery/thriller this archetype is a tad bit overused. I know many films that have portrayed this as a work of art and some that missed the mark completely. The good thing about using a schizophrenic is that you can detach and attach them as per scene; but then you have to maintain the character being several others and filmmakers are often scared away by the stigma of psychotic danger that is attached to this character and how it is made only worse by their portrayal of it. Ultimately, it is a good idea in theory—some practice may work from extensive research and accuracy. But, Shymalan in his recent Split missed the mark by a flying mile. 

Effective Count: 2

The Charismatic Lady-Killer

Overused but under-appreciated. I think this archetype has serious potential but is used in completely the wrong way. There is a lack of actual knowledge of psychopathy when making these films and they turn out to be dull and generic with nothing actually charismatic about them. American Psycho was the game-changer for this and I really do believe that if there was any film that got it right it was this one. After its release, it has yet to be equalled and still remains the marker for others to meet. The characterisation isn't over-the-top and it is absolutely believable since the amount of normality surrounding it would never make the others question anything odd about his behaviour. Patrick Bateman is the ultimate embodiment of the psycho—but also fits into the modern Byronic Hero symbol as well. 

Effective Count: 5

The Heretic

Say what you will about this archetype, but an influenced heretic is hard to find. The idea that this would be cliché is common—but there are many possibilities for this complex character of vulnerability. This is because it is the very essence of human emotion and attachment that ultimately destroys them and makes them into this monster. In the film Like Minds we see this through the theme of friendship. The idea that human relation can cause monstrosity is actually very clever that it is a shame that it is not something used more often. 

Effective Count: 4

The Criminal

This one is dead overused, but doesn't always have to be ineffective. There are ways to make this archetype work—for example in the film Kalifornia the archetype works solely off the backs of the arguments between the other characters about whether to trust them. Brad Pitt portrays someone we should fear, but don't for the vast majority of the film because it's Brad Pitt. Only when we get to the inner-workings of the mind do we see that this guy probably shouldn't be trusted with anyone or anything. Throughout these arguments between characters, there's a certain amount of discrepancy that is pushed aside and brought back anytime something goes a bit wrong. There's accusations and mind-games, control and allowance—this archetype has potential but is often done in a cliché and ineffective style. 

Effective Count: Possible 4 

The Maniac

Let us just take our time to appreciate how Jack Nicholson portrays the perfect isolated maniac. The characterisation may seem a bit far-fetched and sometimes, a bit cliché. But, there are ways that you can make it count. The first thing you should do is ditch the fanciness—don't do the whole quite killer thing, it's dead and buried. The next thing is never keep your tension at a minimal—there should always be an element of tension, no matter how small. You must keep the audience waiting. The last rule is open spaces are your friend. Notice how this film uses a large open floor plan and a garden maze for its most intense scenes—but then reduces it to a bathroom when we see a conflict. 

Effective Count: Possible 4.

The Troublesome Loner

This human-monster archetype we see almost all the time in horror. From Psycho to Battle Royale there are several tick boxes for creating this masterpiece. Since the bar was clearly set by Ezra Miller's portrayal of Kevin in the psychological thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin—it has been difficult (in my opinion) to watch another film about a troublesome loner and not compare it to Miller's masterpiece. This is basically the opposite of "The Charismatic" archetype and holds such a great impact. 

Effective Count: 5

Conclusions

I feel that there are certain archetypes that we should avoid (most of which I haven't mentioned here as I don't want to be overly critical). But there are many examples of the human-monster coming out in modern popular culture in ways that are not cliché and overused. The idea is to allow your actor some room to research and expand—but still give them a guide of what you're looking for. Extensive research is required for portraying mental illness as it is so commonly used as a theme for villainy and motivation for crime. I would (if you can) steer away from Schizophrenia as a motivator and I would focus on how your character interacts with the world.

So, whether your character is Bale's portrayal of a classy businessman gone wild, Nicholson's isolated nightmarish villain, Redmayne's under-the-influence innocent of villainy, or even Miller's robotic, detached and dark icon—I'm sure that your next project when dealing with Monsters will go down brilliantly!

Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur

I hold a degree in literature and have experience in filmmaking and musical and Shakespearean theatre. Loves: Cillian Murphy, MJ, Bob Dylan, Sushi, Analysing Movies, Analysing Books, Theatre Acting - My Blog: 5ft2blog.com

Now Reading
A Filmmaker's Guide to Monsters