In anticipation of this Friday’s release of “The Wolfman” remake, Scene-Stealers contributor Trevan McGee takes a look at the best onscreen creature transformations ever. If you have a Top 10 idea of your own, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s Trevan:
To be clear, actors –– the good ones at least –– transform themselves in every performance they give. But this list isn’t for the Charlize Therons or the Golden Age Robert De Niros. It’s for the David Kesslers and the Seth Brundles of the movie world –– characters that underwent actual physical transformations on film.
10. Frank and Freddy in “Return of The Living Dead” (1985)
Zombie movies are a surefire genre for transformations, but what sets Frank and Freddy’s zombification apart in the best zombie movie George Romero didn’t make–is its sense of humor about the whole undead process. Frank and Freddy take most of the movie to become undead and they complain about it incessantly. “It hurrrtttts,” Freddy complains during the movie’s last third. And with good reason, by the time the duo are finally zombies, their body temperatures have dropped to somewhere in the 70s and all of their internal organs have stopped functioning. While this is one of the two technical transformations on the list (more on that when I get to it), there isn’t a definitive transformation scene like some of the other movies on the list. But what it lacks in technical demonstration, it more than makes up for in its humor and originality. The slow undeath is a concept that Peter Jackson revisits in “Dead Alive” and Edgar Wright recreates in “Shawn of The Dead”––both to hilarious effect.
9. Ash and Evil Ash in “Army of Darkness” (1993)
The final chapter of the “Evil Dead” trilogy abandons any thread of seriousness and embraces the slapstick and physical elements that first appeared in “Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn.” And there isn’t a scene that better epitomizes this than when series hero Ash meets, or rather, births his doppelganger. But what makes this transformation so memorable is the odd balance it strikes between hilarious and unsettling. Ash’s body is literally betraying him. He’s sprouting first an extra eye and then entire limbs. It’s a process that should be horrifying, but because of director Sam Raimi’s love for wide angle zooms and Bruce Campbell’s intentionally ham-fisted performance during the scene, it becomes vaudevillian.
8. Sir John Talbot’s transformation in “The Wolf Man” (1941)
A fairly tame transformation by today’s standards, Lon Chaney Jr.’s role in Universal’s original nod to lycanthropes introduced the onscreen transformation and ignited the imaginations of horror and science-fiction geeks the world over.
The use of progressive fade-ins to simulate the transformation was groundbreaking at the time.
7. Tetsuo loses control in “Akira” (1988)
Our bodies have all betrayed us at one point or another be it spraining an ankle walking down the same stairs we’ve been up a down a million times or developing cancer or an autoimmune disease. Tetsuo’s transformation at the conclusion of “Akira,” in which his newly developed telekinetic powers outgrow his reach and generate a seismic amount of cellular growth, plays on the most horrifying aspect of an onscreen transformation––the complete lack of control a character has over the physical vessel they are most familiar with. Transformations, the truly unsettling ones, play on the fragility of our bodies and the often taken for granted concept that they will remain relatively intact…
6. The beast betrayed in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)
…and at other times they’re just awesome. Like in Francis Ford Coppola’s last good movie, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Granted, the film has its faults, such as Keanu Reeves’ and Winona Ryder’s wooden performances and Coppola’s distracting obsession with in-camera special effects, but all of that is quickly and completely balanced by a magnum performance by Gary Oldman and some of the best creature effects the genre’s ever seen. Unlike many of the unwitting victims on this list, Dracula has full control over his dark abilities and he (as well as Coppola) delight in demonstrating them whenever possible. Throughout the movie’s 128-minute runtime, Dracula is a withered old man, a wolf, a werewolf, a green mist and a jilted Transylvanian nobleman. But his most fearsome form is that of an 8ft. tall bat. Appearing in front of Mina Murray as a man, he connects with the one woman who can redeem his cast-down soul. But when his time with her is interrupted, he becomes a red-eyed monster, renouncing God and lighting a crucifix on fire simply by breathing on it. Dracula stands in stark contrast to the rest of the entrants on this list and makes the case that a creature in conscious control of its form may be more frightening.
5. Regan’s head spin “The Exorcist” (1973)
Sure, it’s a given, but for good reason––it’s terrifying. Seeing sweet, innocent, pre-crack-addicted Linda Blair become a green-eyed, baritone-voiced vessel for the Antichrist is hard enough, but when Regan begins to spider walk, vomit blood and masturbate with a crucifix, well that just goes above and beyond. But the cherry on top of the demonic sundae that is Regan’s possession is the head spin. Somehow, it manages to surpass of that previously mentioned imagery and linger even years after seeing the movie. Regan’s transformation is the definitive loss of innocence, as it combines a definitive symbol of purity and a definitive symbol of evil.
4. Max Renn’s vagina stomach in “Videodrome” (1983)
The first of two appearances by director David Cronenberg, who has made a career off of violating the body in new and unexpected ways. Like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “The Exorcist,” there are plenty of transformations to chose from here, most notably the iconic scene where Max (James Woods) effectively enters and becomes his television set. But the gaping hole in Renn’s stomach that seemingly appears out of nowhere is far more troublesome and essentially defines how characters in Cronenberg movies react to situations that would leave the average person either immediately on the phone with 911 or on their way to the emergency room themselves. Renn is curious, intrigued really, by the gaping, decidedly genital-shaped hole on his abdomen. So much so, that he decides to fish around in there with the hand that happens to be holding a gun. Altered perception? Maybe. But that doesn’t change the fact that Renn sprouted a new orifice in his belly and then left his gun in there for safe keeping.
3. Norris gets the paddles in “The Thing” (1982)
With the exception of Dracula, all of the members of this list are victims of their transformations, not the perpetrators. But the creature at the heart of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” actually seeks out characters to transform itself into.
Wisely, Carpenter used the uncertainty and paranoia this created to great effect as any member of the cast could be something far less human and far more sinister. When The Thing first reveals itself to the crew, it’s memorable, but when we meet the creature a second time, it’s unforgettable.
2. David Kessler’s first transformation in “An American Werewolf in London” (1981)
No transformation list is complete without it. John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” sets the standard by which all other physical transformations are measured. Rick Baker’s makeup effects set a new standard and watching it even today it’s still chilling. The amount of detail, up close and intimate camera work and David Naughton’s tormented performance make his suffering tangible.
But it’s actually the sound editing that plays a big part in making the transformation memorable. The sound of Kessler’s tendons and bones stretching is cringe-inducing even now. Let’s just not mention the horrible puppet they used for the shots of the actual werewolf terrorizing London.
1. Seth Brundle into “The Fly” (1986)
Seth Brundle’s transformation into the BrundleFly gets the top spot because it’s everything a movie transformation should be. While working on a teleporter, Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) gets his DNA accidentally merged with a fly’s. At first, he experiences some pretty sweet side effects, including enhanced strength and dexterity, but it isn’t long before his fingernails are falling off and he’s vomiting acid all over everything before he can eat. What makes “The Fly” so unsettling is the methodical way in which director David Cronenberg breaks down Brundle. Like Max Renn in “Videodrome,” Brundle isn’t weirded out or concerned when he begins to sprout insect hairs on his back or cause compound fractures during arm-wrestling matches, but is instead fascinated by his slow, inevitable decay. Chris Walas turns in some truly fantastic creature effects that make the whole miserable experience reasonably believable.