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The 10 craziest makeup transformations in cinema history

Any great actor should be able to transport their audience to a new realm of reality. A place where they keep their disbelief in suspense thanks to the riveting performance they see before them. Often, however, a performer is in need of a small helping hand to make their character feel a little more authentic. 

Makeup is used in each and every film, whether you’re Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Marlon Brando in The Godfather, with such being necessary to make the skin appear less glossy and sweaty on camera. Usually, this will only mean a little touch-up here and there, but in other cases, more dramatic transformations may be necessary to give the respective actor a new face entirely. 

Our list of the ten craziest makeup transformations in cinema history was not an easy one to construct, with plenty of impressive behind-the-scenes work having to be cut in favour of the truly extraordinary efforts. Morphing the recipient into an entirely new entity, the following list focuses more on makeup and prosthetics than it does on mechanical suits or elaborate costumes. Take a look at our all-time favourites, below.

The 10 craziest makeup transformations:

10. Tim Roth – Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton, 2001)

Let’s forget, just for a moment, quite how awful this 2001 remake of the classic sci-fi novel Planet of the Apes truly is to appreciate the effort that went into the astounding makeup for the movie. Plastered in prosthetics Tim Roth is totally unrecognisable as the intimidating villain, Thade, and even puts on a decent performance in the role, despite having to work with a feral screenplay from Lawrence Konner and William Broyles Jr.

Made-up with dark-set wrinkles and tangled black hair, Roth’s change into an ape is truly impressive, with no resemblance to the British actor being evident.

9. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

“Oh, hee-hee, aha. Ha, ooh, hee, ha-ha, ha-ha,” Heath Ledger’s Joker cackled as he sauntered into Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, instilling a sense of instant threat as he turned the tide of superhero moviemaking. Sporting the kind of eerie makeup you would imagine seeing on a clown in the process of a nervous breakdown, Ledger would change the credibility of blockbuster cinema with his fantastic performance that totally transformed the Australian heartthrob. 

So much has already been said about the Joker’s terrifying position in Nolan’s film, with the chaos-loving terrorist holding a visual presence that is as terrifying as his blasé stance on violence.

8. Colin Farrell – The Batman (Matt Reeves, 2022)

If you were never told that the nasty crook of Matt Reeves’ Batman movie was Colin Farrell then we’re not convinced that you would have ever found out at all. Layered in mountains of prosthetics and pale makeup, the chiselled Irish actor is transformed into a bulging mafia boss who swells with pride in his position at the very top of the criminal hierarchy of Gotham city, the dark location that hosts Reeves’ superhero thriller. 

Playing the villain with a snarling tone and city swagger, Farrell’s performance is undoubtedly elevated by his incredible makeup, allowing him to embody a character so far removed from his actual personality. 

7. Charlize Theron – Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

Sometimes the greatest makeup transformations don’t need to involve heavy prosthetics and the like, instead, they can be subtle, eerie and highly effective. This was most certainly the case for Charlize Theron on the set of the 2003 movie Monster, where she was transformed into Aileen Wuornos, a real-life Daytona Beach prostitute who became a serial killer. Winning an Academy Award for her performance, the visual look of Theron’s character certainly helped her get into gear. 

Bleaching her eyebrows, thinning her hair and giving the actor a damaged complexion that was achieved by airbrushing several layers of translucent washes of tattoo ink and more, Theron’s transformation is truly extraordinary. 

6. Robert Englund – A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) 

Wes Craven’s fleshy supernatural slasher is a creative masterpiece of the subgenre, creating one of cinema’s most subversive and iconic villains, Freddy Krueger. A deceased child murderer who seeks revenge from the grave on the children of those who sent him to his death, Krueger is a grotesque creation, played with a joyous enthusiasm by American actor Robert Englund who doesn’t have to try too hard to make his villain utterly horrifying. 

Starring a young Johnny Depp, the film features revolutionary, grungy special effects and a truly unique sinister entity, straight from the camp underworld. 

5. Ralph Fiennes – Harry Potter Franchise (2005-2011)  

The Harry Potter series is known for its compelling villains, with Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange or Timothy Spall’s Peter Pettigrew also being worthy of a mention on this list. The finest villain of the series is, no doubt, Ralph Fiennes’ Voldermort, with the actor transforming into a ghost-like figure who stalks the story with the ominous threat of the grim reaper, being the perfect villain to face up against the innocent, good-natured Harry Potter. 

Evil, hateful and brimming with untamed anger, Fiennes’ terrifying makeup helps to make the antagonist become one of the most memorable aspects of the whole franchise. 

4. Stephen Ure – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)

Actor Stephen Ure is used to a bit of a movie transformation, having undergone several hours in the makeup chair all in the name of cinema. One of his most beloved characters is Gorbag, an Orc in Peter Jackson’s epic finale Lord of the Rings: Return of the King who kidnaps Frodo and intends to “bleed him like a stuffed pig” until the loyal Samwise Gamgee steps in to save the day. 

There are many hideous Orcs in Jackson’s fantasy trilogy, but Gorbag may be the best looking, with pale yellow skin, haggard teeth and a face that could only have been forged from the depths of dark magic. Where is Stephen Ure? Totally lost in his despicable character.

3. John Hurt – The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)

David Lynch’s celebrated masterpiece The Elephant Man hinges on the humanity of its title character, a heavily disfigured man named John Merrick. Played by actor John Hurt, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the British actor is below all those layers of prosthetics, with the makeup department helping to conceal his true identity as he embodies a strong-willed character abandoned and castaway from society. 

Authentic without being excessive, the use of makeup in Lynch’s touching drama is utterly perfect for the story, blending into the reality of the tale without sticking out like a sore thumb.

2. Jeff Goldblum – The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

By the mid-1980s, David Cronenberg’s taste for fleshy, mind-bending body horror was well established, with his remake of The Fly being his most definitive of the history of the sub-genre, well exploring the emotional and physical torment that goes hand-in-hand with the identity of the movement. Starring Jeff Goldblum, the film follows the experiments of a scientist trying to push the limits of human discovery only to become the victim of his own endeavours.

A self-destructive figure with a god complex, Goldblum’s character goes through a steady transformation that is terrifically realised by the makeup team who clearly reflect his decreasing physical state with gruesome, fleshy practical effects. 

1. Doug Jones – Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

A landmark film for international horror, Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro shows off some of the greatest monster designs in all of cinema, with the Pale Man standing out as the most horrific of the lot. 

Quickly becoming an influential image of cinema shortly after the film’s release, the sight of the Pale Man staring at the young protagonist of Guillermo del Toro’s film with his eyes embedded in his hands became a staggering moment of cinematic brilliance. Both enchanting and aptly terrifying, the design and cinematography of this scene are built to be remembered and forever branded into the memories of film lovers across the world.