Many of cinema’s most memorable monsters are the ones that always remain just out of sight. After all, unless you’re Rob Bottin or Guillermo del Toro, no filmmaker’s creature design can match the intangible horrors lurking within our own imaginations.
Sure, there are plenty of flicks that benefit from shining a light on their gruesome antagonists – The Thing, The Howling, Pumpkinhead (I know there are better choices than the latter, but GOD did Gollum-on-roids freak me out as a kid). Then there are other movies. Ones that allow us only brief glimpses of the devil in the dark or the camera-shy serial killer. These are the movies that crawl under your skin in a way no conventional creature feature could.
So without further ado, here are ten of the scariest monsters and killers no one’s ever seen. Least no one living.
#10 THE MIST (2007)
This film and the Stephen King short story it’s adapted from find their power in our fear of the unknown. Here’s the concept: An otherworldly mist rolls into Bridgton, Maine, one morning. Within it lurks an ecosystem of inter-dimensional monsters let loose upon our world thanks to a misguided military experiment (go Army). Those stupid enough to walk into the mist are ripped to shreds within seconds. David Drayton, played by Thomas Jane, and his son hole up in the neighborhood grocery store with the local townsfolk, hoping to wait out the catastrophe.
Sure, you see some monsters in this movie. But more often than not, we’re shown just a tentacle of an unseen behemoth as it drags some poor soul to his death. All the while the townspeople stare out through the storefront windows wondering what will come for them next. It’s no wonder director Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption) was drawn to this story… it’s a perfect horror movie concept.
#9 CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)
Here’s another Stephen King short story turned midnight movie. The children of Gatlin, Nebraska, sacrifice anyone over the age of 18 to He Who Walks Behind the Rows, an ancient fertility god living in the town’s cornfields. As if living in Middle America wasn’t Hell enough. But while the movie is meh, its concept is intoxicatingly weird. You never see He Who Walks Behind the Rows, except for the times it’s burrowing through the soil like a mole on meth. But the deity’s presence looms large over Gatlin and its kill-crazy kids. Frankly, it’s eerie to watch Linda Hamilton wander past those endless miles of maize with the knowledge that something’s out there. Waiting.
#8 FINAL DESTINATION (2000)
Death. It’s going to come for you one day. It might get you in your sleep. It might drop a three-ton glass plate on you, making your innards resemble an inkblot test. But death is the ultimate intangible fear. Which is why Final Destination’s concept — that if you cheat death, its (literally) unseen hand will then actively orchestrate your demise — is such a universally terrifying idea. Even better, Tony Todd makes an appearance, hamming it up as Bludworth, the film’s not-so-subtle personification of death.
Oh I’m not out of factoids yet. Final Destination was co-written (with Jeffrey Reddick) by Glen Morgan and James Wong (who also directed), the writers behind many of the best “The X-Files” and “Millennium” episodes.
#7 PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)
For the cost of a used Nissan Altima, director Oren Peli created a national sensation. He did it all with creaking stairs, swinging chandeliers, and powder footprints. Nothing else. That’s right — Paranormal’s overactive demon remains invisible for the entire film. Which sounds lame. As does the recycled set-piece where we watch the world’s most basic couple snooze while Satan tries to snuggle with them like some maladjusted child. But the scares are so subtle and the setting so relatable that Paranormal Activity transcends its limitations to become a master class in minimalist horror.
#6 THE FOG (1980)
Director John Carpenter was so dissatisfied with the first cut of The Fog, he reshot 30% of the film. That’s commitment. Maybe not the same commitment it takes to come back from the dead, conjure up a supernatural fog, and kill your murders’ ancestors 100 years after the fact. But hey, who’s keeping score? Scoff at The Fog’s seemingly “Scooby Doo” inspired plot all you want, Carpenter really cranked up the gore dial on this post-Halloween ghost story. Still, it’s The Fog’s silent spirits that will haunt you the most. They kill virtually every person who glimpses their seaweed-shrouded forms. Which makes them menacing enough. Yet it’s the way these ghosts never utter a sound when they’re cutting off heads with cutlasses that makes them so dreadful. But what do you expect? The undead sailors of the Elisabeth Dane are an icy lot. Which is why they understand revenge is a dish best served cold.
#5 THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)
Unlike the other movies on this list, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is based on actual events. In 1946 a serial killer nicknamed “The Phantom” brutally murdered five people in TexArkana, Arkansas. Sure, TTTDS’s dry narration and goofy comic relief date the film, but the cornier bits lull you into a false sense of security. So when the Phantom shoots Helen Reed in the face or carves up Peggy Loomis’ back with a pocketknife, the violence is shocking. Both in real-life and the film, the Phantom was never caught. Hell, no one ever even saw his face. The filmmakers do show him, or his boots at least, standing in line to see TTTDS at the end of the movie. It’s a cool meta moment, albeit a tasteless one. Still, I’m sure the image made a few TexArkana moviegoers cringe in 1976.
#4 THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002)
Richard Gere in a horror movie may sound strange. But no more odd than this flick’s monster, the Mothman. If you know your cryptids, the Mothman is an otherworldly being that can foretell the future. Some people have described it as a man in black with a bussing voice. Others say it’s an insectile alien with glowing red eyes. In the movie, however, the Mothman doesn’t have a definite form. But it does appear to Gere at one point as the blurred silhouette of a man. It doesn’t sound like much on paper… but the image of a distorted shadow whispering the universe’s secrets is unsettling. As the mystery unravels we have to ask ourselves: Is the Mothman a product of Gere’s fraying sanity? Or a being beyond human comprehension?
#3 CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Producer Val Lewton was given just $150,000 to make this movie. The budget constraints forced the creative team to come up with inventive ways to suggest the monster rather than show it. Even if said monster is a Serbian woman who turns into a panther when she gets turned on (I’m not kidding). But there are two reasons to watch Cat People. First, the use of low lighting demonstrates just how little you need to show an audience to elicit fear. Second, it is allegedly the first movie to EVER use a false scare. The technique, dubbed “The Lewton Bus,” refers to a moment in the film where a woman is about to be attacked by the panther. We hear a hiss and the woman turns in surprise… only to realize the sound was made by a bus stopping nearby. My theory? Every time a feline is used as a false scare in a movie, it’s a nod to Cat People.
#2 IT FOLLOWS (2014)
I dig retro horror movies. So when I saw It Follows, with its synth score and slow burn pacing, I embraced it. The film’s real achievement, though, is its monster: a sexually transmitted haunting that can look like anyone. It always knows where you are, and it’s always lumbering toward you with deadly intent. I mean, think about it… this movie’s monster is just a series of kinda ugly people walking toward teenagers. What makes that rather absurd image scary is the idea that these people aren’t actually human. That they’re masks worn by some silent, single-minded entity. One that never shares its motivations or reveals its true form (if it even has one). Sounds like fear of the unknown to me.
#1 BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
This isn’t one of my favorite horror films. It’s one of my favorite movies period. Black Christmas earns its place on my cinematic pedestal because of its villain, Billy. We only see him a handful of times throughout the film. Even then he’s lit in silhouette, his bulging eyes vignetted. Eyes we often see through as he butchers sorority girl after sorority girl, all the while screaming like a maniac. What do I mean like a maniac? He is a maniac. But what makes Billy even more frightening is that he’s a demented enigma. We don’t know what he looks like or where his madness stems from. Nor do we ever learn why he targets the sorority sisters he hunts throughout the film. All I want for Christmas is another movie with a killer this terrifying. This slasher was also brought to life by the same director who made A Christmas Story. How’s that for irony?