Halloween is right around the corner and this year, my family members are all dressing up as skeletons. Being a movie nerd, I instantly started thinking about which onscreen skeleton I wanted to use as the inspiration for my costume. I ended up putting way too much thought into it and I figured I would jot down some of my favorite skeleton movie moments.
I should also say right at the top that I’m just listing the skeletons I like in no particular order and many of them would be terrible or impossible costumes.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a classic. But not because it’s a great movie. I think it’s beloved because of its character design and art direction. It has an excellent cast and masterfully produced music. The plot, on the other hand, is a little strange with the lead character getting bored with Halloween and then falling in love with Christmas. It’s not really a Halloween movie and Tim Burton’s aesthetic is too nightmarish to be a traditional family Christmas movie. It’s an “in-between” movie, but also not a Thanksgiving movie. Like I said, weird.
And yet, millions of dollars in new merchandise, costumes, and decorations inspired by the movie get produced every year. The movie came out in 1993 and my neighbor just bought a 10 foot tall Jack Skellington inflatable for his yard. Every store from Walmart to Walgreens has something depicting Jack this time of year. I can only attribute this to Jack’s charm. Yes, the character behaves charmingly despite his zealous ignorance on how to treat/replace Santa Claus. But it’s more that he LOOKS charming. Charming and handsome. Which, for a skeleton is quite an accomplishment.
It is obviously natural for skeletons to be scary. Nothing says “dead human” like a skeleton, and yet Jack’s character design disarms that preconception and turns his image into the ideal Halloween ambassador (AKA The Pumpkin King of HalloweenTown) without making anyone pee their pants.
There has never been a more attractive skeleton and there may never be.
This one is timely because Arnie’s T-800 “will be back” this week in Terminator: Dark Fate. But I’m talking about the original. The Stan Winston designed practical prop and stop-motion models in James Camron’s 1984 The Terminator. There have since been several attempts to update the T-800 design but they just can’t beat the original. It’s not even an elaborate design really. The Terminators are robots covered in human tissue as a disguise. So out of necessity, the skeleton needs to be very human-shaped which makes them more terrifying than any other robot design.
One little element I especially appreciate about the design is the teeth. The whole robot is metal but the teeth are (or at least look) enamel. That’s great attention to detail. As if Arnold doesn’t stick out enough in a crowd. Imagine trying to blend in with a chrome grill. I wouldn’t hear a word he says. I would be too distracted trying to figure out how much his dental bills were.
I imagine the thinking was something like: “Skeletons are scary. What would be scarier? Guns. Metal skeletons with guns and red eyes. And they move with a zombie-like pace as they march over the bones of inferior fallen humans. And they won’t stop. THEY WILL NOT STOP” …being awesome.
Jack the Monkey
“We named the monkey Jack.” Really, I love all the pirate skeletons that make up the Black Pearl’s cursed crew. The first Pirates of the Carribean is well-done top to bottom. It’s the hit that proved a theme park ride could (at least once) be made into a great movie. It also turned Johnny Depp into a superstar (for better or worse.)
One of the “pearls” in the art direction of this movie was including Monkey Jack in the curse. The first time the moon reveals the pirate’s “true form” and the monkey passes through the light we get Skeleton Monkey Jack! … because of course. He’s one of the crew and he stole the Aztec gold, too. Ok, maybe it’s not that clever but it sure is fun.
Any kids that lived through the ’80s watched and loved He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. If they didn’t they were robbed of a rich childhood and can’t possibly be equipped for the cultural demands of today.
I’m going to assume that if you’re still reading at this point, we are on the same page and Skeletor needs no introduction. In many ways he’s the opposite of Jack Skellington. It makes no sense that his head is an exposed yellowish skull but the rest of his body is covered in buff blue muscles. He looks like he should have a deep demonic voice that rivals the Cave of Wonders, but instead he has a high pitched nasally voice with the power to annoy He-Man to death. And he is anything but charming. And yet he’s perfect.
Skeletor is at the top of my list for costumes…but I have neither the budget nor the physique to do him justice, yet.
I’m also a big fan of the Frank Langella’s portrayal of Skeletor in the 1987 live action adaptation. He’s not as visually unique as the cartoon but Frank Langella is a “bone-afide” badass… Tired of bone puns yet? This movie was way cheeser than anything I’m going to write here but I still love it.
Jason and the Skeletons
This one is a bit of a lie because it’s not really one of my favorites. I just think this list would be incomplete if I didn’t include the iconic scene from 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. For the time the stop-motion animation and compositing was groundbreaking and help lay the foundation for modern character composting. You could say these are the grand-bone-daddies of cinematic (killer) skeletons.
If you are young and you see this image you might think it’s the Skull Trooper from Fortnite. You would be wrong. Fortnite ripped this design straight out of 1984’s The Karate Kid.
The Karate Kid was the movie that made all the kids my age think they could swan-kick their way out of any problem. It’s also one of my all time favorites.
The skeletons in this movie are the main bullies in halloween costumes ganging up on poor Daniel-son after he drenched Johnny in the bathroom stall while he was minding his own business…hmm, yeah, Danny was no angel (which is the premise that helped make the sequel series on YouTube an acclaimed success) but we are still rooting for him over the Cobra-Cool (Kai?) jocks.
The costume would have been less memorable if Johnny was the only skeleton. But he and his friends all match which is movie language for showing their unity and echoing their black karate gis from their dojo. They are a gang and Danny is no match for them. Good thing Mr. Miagi (inexplicably) shows up to put them in their place.
I was very close to making this my costume this year but I have no tolerance for the kids suggesting/insisting I’m dressed as a Fortnite character, and I’m sure their parents would not appreciate me swan-kicking them for it.
Ze Red Skull
The Red Skull is a classic Marvel Comics villain and archenemy to Captain America. He’s a former Nazi who would come to abandon the ideas of the Third Reich and instead lead a movement of hate against all humans equally. How progressive!
He is a scientifically enhanced super-human fascist obsessed with power and conquest for himself and his Hydra followers. His deformed red skull (and I’m assuming the rest of his body) was a side effect of the Super Soldier Serum experiments gone awry. He’s both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in one. So yeah, on paper he’s little cliche as far as villains go.
But it’s Hugo Weaving’s portrayal in Joe Johnston’s 2011 Captain America that hails him a spot on this list. Weaving is a great actor, but he’s especially enjoyable as a villain (famously as Agent Smith in The Matrix). His stern expressions and deep voice command our attention every time he’s on screen. His casting was perfect for this role and it rivals some of the most memorable villains from Lucasfilm, which makes sense since that is where Joe Johnston cut his teeth in filmmaking.
The Red Skull was recast with Ross Marquand for his scenes in Avengers 3 and 4, but most people have no idea because Marquand does a PERFECT Hugo Weaving as Red Skull Impression.
Dressing as Red Skull for Halloween would be fun, but the Nazi connotations would be far less than comfortable, even if you emphasized the Hydra branding. It’s probably best to keep this one for ComicCon cosplay, if at all.
One of the greatest mysteries in sci-fi cinema was the identity of the Space Jockey from Ridley Scott’s 1977 Alien. The ominous fossilized victim was little more than set decoration before it became the focus of countless fan theories.
Just as with the Xenomorphs, the Space Jockey (originally The Pilot) was designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger whose artwork was actually the inspiration for the Alien screenplay in the first place.
Is it an elephant or is it a suit? Or is it both? Of course, that mystery was finally solved 35 years later when Scott returned to the franchise and released the spinoff Prometheus in 2012. It’s a suit. Fortunately, the answers from Prometheus lead to more mysterious questions in the mythology that I’m hoping we get to explore beyond just more Xenomorph movies.
Many have tried and failed to imitate Giger’s aesthetic. Which has helped cement this fossil into one of the most iconic skeletons in pop culture history.
Army of Skeletons
If you’ve not seen Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness (1992), I can’t help you. I also can’t really describe this movie in a way that will do it justice. It’s the third installment in the Evil Dead franchise starring the great Bruce Campbell. I think technically it’s a “horror-comedy,” but that feels insufficient. These movies are almost a genre all their own that just need to be seen to really appreciate their genius, and their perfect one-liners from the bonehead protagonist.
This movie may have more on-screen skeletons than any other before or since. Chief numbskull among them is Evil Ash who leads the Army of Darkness that Good Ash accidentally summoned while trying to return back to his own time.
Evil Ash would be a fun costume, but I would want to be sure I’m in a crowd that would appreciate the effort.
Let’s go ahead and call this a “skeleton list” because I’m now thinking of at least a dozen more entries I could include, but this post is already rattling in a bit long. I’ll spare you more bone puns for now.
What are your favorite on-screen skeletons?