If you’ve seen Nope, chances are you can’t stop thinking about Gordy. In Jordan Peele’s new horror film about an offbeat kind of alien invasion, it’s not the UFO that provides the film’s best scares. Those come in the form of a chimpanzee named Gordy (may he rest in peace). Gordy appears only thrice in Nope: Once briefly at the film’s opening, once in what is arguably the film’s most unnerving scene and finally in a full flashback sequence that articulates Gordy’s undoing and ultimate demise.
In the world of Nope, Gordy was a showbiz animal who once starred eponymously in a ‘90s sitcom called “Gordy’s Home,” which featured Steven Yeun’s adult character, Jupe, back when he was a budding child actor. The show was beloved by fans and immensely popular, until Gordy was overtaken by his animal instincts. An accidental popped balloon during the taping of the “Gordy’s Birthday” episode caused the animal to fly into a fearful fit of rage, one that ended in chaos and blood, traumatizing child Jupe (Jacob Kim) and shaping him into the huckster that he became.
Taking clear cues from the real-life, horrific tragedy of Travis the chimp—an acting ape who similarly went berserk on a human due to the inherent pitfalls of attempting to tame and exploit a wild animal—Nope expertly mines horror from a naturally creepy and unpredictable creature: The chimpanzee. Cute, cuddly and easily smart enough to be trained, chimps have had a long history in the film and television industries. But in their facial similarity to humans, chimps are also deeply uncanny in addition to being intelligent and disarmingly violent. Peele utilizes this to prodigious effect in his film, but he’s not the first to figure out that an ape gone bad gets under our skin.
Here are 10 more monstrous movie primates:
The fourth installment in George Romero’s anthology film of five horror stories written by Stephen King features something in between an ape and a demon wolf, charmingly dubbed “Fluffy” in the credits. Creepshow’s “The Crate” follows the short tale of—you guessed it—a dusty crate from a centuries-old arctic expedition discovered in the basement of a university. The crate’s contents turn out to be deadly, containing a horrific, furry, ape-like beast with a killer bloodthirst that begins making a meal out of the faculty. Despite being something of a goofy practical costume, with its gaping maw and beady eyes, Fluffy is nothing short of nightmare fuel.
Based loosely on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, Congo surrounds a group of eight travelers who embark upon a journey into the jungle. The quest is to find the son of a mogul and his team of diamond-hunters, who went missing while on an expedition of their own. But the rescue mission discovers a mysterious, unexplored stretch of territory that harbors immense danger: Repulsive, violent gray gorillas, who were bred thousands of years ago to protect the diamonds hidden in their mines. The gorillas in question look more like decayed ghouls than the typical apes we know and love
When athlete Allan Mann becomes a quadriplegic in the wake of a horrible accident, he takes on some extra help from a little Capuchin monkey named Ella. But there’s more to Ella than meets the eye: Before going into Allan’s care, she was experimented on by the very friend who offers to lend her to Allan. Due to the bond between Ella and Allan, and Ella’s unnatural abilities gifted to her by the experimentation, the monkey begins to channel and act on Allan’s suppressed rage—to deadly effect. Though one of director George Romero’s lesser films, it’s a double whammy for spooky monkeys: The film’s promotional material contained a creepy cymbal-clapping toy ape.
Though the classic Hollywood adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel is by no means a horror film, it traumatized me (and I’m sure many others) as a child. This was in no small part due to the Wicked Witch of the West’s loyal, airborne simians, who capture Dorothy and carry her off to the evil, green sorceress. The flying monkeys of the 1939 MGM masterpiece are particularly uncanny with their identical uniforms, blue, distorted faces and avian wings. Though clearly actors in costumes with crude makeup and prosthetics, it’s that very unpolished nature which makes their visages all the more eerie. Sam Raimi, however, took things a step further with Oz the Great and Powerful and his monstrous, fanged, flying CG baboons.
While experimenting on hamadryas baboon Shakma with a serum meant to inhibit aggression, medical student Sam discovers that the serum causes the opposite intended effect. Unable to euthanize the now-vicious creature, Sam leaves Shakma unconscious to play a live-action role-playing game in the research building with his friends. But after Shakma awakens and escapes the laboratory, the students find themselves in an unusual sort of slasher film, hunted one by one by the murderous monkey. As Sam Raimi clearly understood in Oz the Great and Powerful, baboons are fucking scary with their deep-seat, beady eyes and powerful fangs. I, for one, would not be too happy to find myself face to face with the animal, although the poster art for Shakma definitely oversells the horror factor of the monkey’s real appearance in the film.
The equal parts hilarious and revolting events of Peter Jackson’s gonzo, New Zealand splatter-horror Braindead are catalyzed by a fictitious creature known as the “Sumatran rat-monkey”. In the lore of the film, these mutant “monkeys” came to be on Skull Island, when plague-carrying rats infested the island and raped the tree monkeys. Their bite causes, let’s just say, unwanted effects on humans, and creates a world of trouble for the film’s lovesick protagonist Lionel. Articulated primarily through a grotesque hybrid of stop-motion and practical effects, these creatures were conceived by Jackson as having their origins in the canonical home of King Kong (who did not make this list because he isn’t scary in the slightest). The director also managed to sneak in an Easter egg to the Sumatran rat-monkey in his 2005 take on the famous, oversized ape.
Zoology professor Dr. Steven Phillip (Terence Stamp) lives in a mansion on the English coast with three trained chimps he’s been researching: Voodoo, Imp and Link. Link, the oldest of the three, freely roams the mansion in butler’s clothes and partakes in human behavior like smoking cigars. Not long after Phillip becomes accompanied by new assistant and graduate student Jane Chase (Elisabeth Shue), Phillip disappears. This leaves Jane alone in his mansion to contend with a trio of increasingly violent apes. There’s an inherent uneasiness to the idea of having to act alongside three real apes (the kind of unease used to great effect with Nope’s Gordy). But what makes Link a bit more uncanny is that Link isn’t a chimpanzee at all: He’s an orangutan with dyed fur.
What is it about a harmless little toy monkey that has caused it to show up multiple times in pop culture as a horror totem? Well, I mean, just fucking look at it. With its bared chompers and blood-red eyes, cymbal-clapping monkeys are a vintage plaything that look as if they were once forced as punishment upon children who misbehaved. Their uniquely lurid appearance makes them perfect to be utilized as objects for inciting fear in scary stories, such as Stephen King’s short story “The Monkey.” The story was then used allegedly as the unofficial inspiration for the 1984 film The Devil’s Gift, about an eerily similar cymbal-banging monkey who causes death when it claps its instrument together. The creepy toy was also used in marketing for another film on this list, Monkey Shines, and went on to traumatize young children in the 21st century in Toy Story 3.
Unlike the other monkeys in this list, Inga is actually a monkey on the side of good in Dario Argento’s Phenomena. She’s the pet chimp of Donald Pleasance’s Professor John McGregor, a forensic entomologist who becomes a close confidant of Jennifer Connelly’s Jennifer Corvino, a young girl who has a psychic connection with insects. But upon discovering that the mother of the deformed boy who has been killing young girls in the Swiss countryside killed her beloved master in order to keep him from unveiling the truth, Inga retaliates. She viciously does away with the boy’s mother with a straight razor. Though, again, while an ostensibly good chimp, the image of a teeth-bared Inga grasping a straight razor is very Gordy-adjacent.
Another film which left a lasting, negative impression on me during my formative years was the Robin Williams classic Jumanji. The story—adapted from the 1981 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg—follows two young siblings who discover a mysterious board game called Jumanji that brings jungle animals to life when played. It’s an innocent enough premise but one which, even in book form, always unnerved me. And though I have a distinct memory of running into my bedroom screaming and crying shortly after an elephant tramples a car in the film, it’s the monkeys that are the most disturbing. If the coarse, mid-’90s CGI job wasn’t enough to render the animals’ faces less animalistic and more like little demons from a layer of Dante’s Inferno, the young Peter is turned into a monkey as well. A one-two punch of childhood trauma.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.