With the prevalence of CGI special effects in movie production today, the art of puppetry and animatronics has become extremely rare. The vast majority of filmmakers now prefer the slicker, more versatile work of a computer over a craftsman, and while certain CGI creations are undoubtedly amazing, there’s just something about the old school charm of a movie puppet — especially when it comes to its ability to terrify. The tangibility and inherent creepiness of a puppet on screen is something that, in my opinion, CGI has still yet to match, and the following 24 examples — ranked by their scare factor — prove that there should still be a place for puppets in a computerized world.
24. Fireys – Labyrinth
Real-life puppet master Jim Henson is best known for his cute and cuddly muppets, but these dancing, decapitating puppets were horrifying.
23. Gremlins – Gremlins
Gremlins is a perfect movie, and the idea of the film’s wonderful Chris Walas-created puppets being replaced by soulless CGI monsters in a modern reboot is a recurring nightmare of mine.
22. Audrey II – Little Shop of Horrors
Notoriously difficult to operate, this giant man-eating plant — designed by Lyle Conway — was definitely worth the trouble, as it ended up looking amazing.
21. Terror Dogs – Ghostbusters
The terror dogs’ appearances were split between animatronic puppets and stop-motion animation. Guess which version held up better?
20. Skeksis – The Dark Crystal
The Jim Henson movie that makes Labyrinth look like a trip to the beach, these reptilian creatures are some of the scariest villains to ever appear in a “kids movie.”
19. Dying E.T. – E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
Carlo Rambaldi’s E.T. is supposed to be cute and lovable, but when he turns pale and sickly? That thing will haunt you forever.
18. Kuato – Total Recall
Rob Bottin and his team created a number of amazing puppets for this trippy film (like eye-popping Arnold), but this grotesque mutant was the one most likely to give you nightmares.
17. Rancor – Return of the Jedi
There’s not much in the Star Wars universe that could be considered scary, but this beast is one giant exception — despite the fact that he was brought to life by an 18-inch puppet.
16. Gmork – The NeverEnding Story
Yet another downer of a puppet-filled ’80s kids movie, this one takes the cake with its Swamp of Sadness and villain called The Nothing, but the scariest thing about it was the vicious wolf-like Gmork.
15. Chucky – Child’s Play
Now we’re getting into the real frightening stuff, as this is the first actual horror movie entry on the list. The creepy doll was always a little too wisecracking to be super scary, but he’s still managed to become one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time.
14. Hungry Beast – TerrorVision
Considered by many to be one of the worst movies ever made, you’ve got to hand it to TerrorVision for coming up with an original monster that was seriously disturbing.
13. Mutant Creature – Leviathan
Another critically-panned movie, Leviathan also has some of the most underrated special effects ever thanks to the legendary Stan Winston. The beast of the film was designed to incorporate human and amphibious properties, making this ever-changing baddie pure nightmare fuel.
12. Dr. Pretorius – From Beyond
Body horror was big in the ’80s, and few movies did it better than this one with its deformed, human-eating , interdimensional puppet-doctor.
11. Zombie Baby – Dead Alive
Speaking of body horror… wow. This might be the grossest movie ever made, but the film’s littlest monster also takes the cake for its most terrifying.
10. Graboids – Tremors
This Kevin Bacon movie is campy as hell, but those giant sandworms are legitimately scary, and impressively executed, utilizing a mix of mechanical and hand puppetry techniques.
9. T-Rex – Jurassic Park
This megahit is best known for being the first movie to realistically incorporate CGI on a large scale, but the film’s best dinosaur scenes come courtesy of puppets from Stan Winston — none more impressive (or horrifying) than the 20 foot tall, 40 foot long, 17,500 pound Tyrannosaurus.
8. The Shark – Jaws
The original blockbuster, it wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the small army of lifelike puppet sharks employed to terrifying effect. They’re the reason you’re still afraid to go in the water.
7. Pumpkinhead – Pumpkinhead
Stan Winston directed this horror film, so you just knew the titular monster would be brought to life by a puppet. But I don’t think anyone expected Winston to come up with something that literally looked like it crawled up from the depths of Hell.
6. Trantor the Troll – Ernest Scared Stupid
I stand by my childhood assertion that this is the scariest movie ever made, and this disgusting troll ringleader is the reason why.
5. Werewolf – An American Werewolf in London
Still the greatest werewolf transformation on film, Rick Baker’s mastery over puppetry — and depicting pure horror — might never be matched.
4. Brundlefly – The Fly
Who ever would have thought a human/fly hybrid would be so frightening? Besides creature designer Chris Walas, I mean.
3. Alien Queen – Aliens
At 14 feet tall, the queen — which took over a dozen puppeteers and a crane to operate — is maybe the most intimidating creature on this list.
2. The Thing – The Thing
The Thing is often pointed to as the peak of what can be accomplished with practical effects, and it’s hard to argue with that assertion, especially when looking at all the horrifying forms the puppet alien takes on throughout the film.
1. Chestburster – Alien
All of the effects in Alien are great, but the chestburster scene, with its ferocious, blood-drenched creature, lives on as one of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in the history of cinema — and definitely the scariest to star a puppet.