Ever since the excited squeals at the brand new concept of CGI after the release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), filmmakers have been making full use of computer generated effects in both horror and sci-fi movies. Over the years, visual effects companies have perfected their skills at creating realistic looking monsters and aliens, but horror fans know that the best-looking beasties are created by practical effects. Seeing flailing foam rubber limbs, gallons of fake blood and mechanical puppetry makes a horror fan’s heart skip a beat, reminders of a simpler era when special effects artists had to spend time carving, engineering and sculpting props to make a scene look real. While I realize that it does take considerable time and skill to master CGI effects, there’s just no replacing the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into forming a creature with your own two hands.
Let’s send a shout-out to the original Godfather of Gore, Hershell Gordon Lewis – who will turn 86 next month – as we reminisce about some of the best horror movie practical effects that the genre has to offer.
10. Slither (2006)
A small town is taken over by an alien plague, turning residents into zombies and all forms of mutant monsters.
While there is some CGI used in James Gunn’s horror movie homage, Slither, the fact that a huge chunk of the effects were practical gives it a place on this list. From start to finish, the transformation of Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) into the ropy alien with the hive mind and the orally fixated slug babies was magical in its stomach churning awesomeness. Entire rooms were filled with gooey, twisted gobs of alien flesh that twitched and writhed across the floor. Created by Todd Masters and Dan Rebert, the pressure cooker Brenda Balloon that spewed those hungry little slug babies was a sight not soon forgotten by audiences and one that even ten years later holds a special place in horror fans’ hearts.
9. Splinter (2008)
Trapped in an isolated gas station by a voracious Splinter parasite that transforms its still living victims into deadly hosts, a young couple and an escaped convict must find a way to work together to survive this primal terror.
One of the coolest and most original monsters to come out of cinema in the last fifty years, the malleable monster from Toby Wilkins’ Splinter is the perfect blend of both practical effects and a willing, flexible, contorting gymnast. Formed from random pieces of its victims, the mangled, spikey lump of torn flesh twists, flops and jitters, shooting black darts of infectious death at any living creature in its path. Created by Quantum Creation FX’s Justin Raleigh and Ozzy Alvarez, this alien creature is sure to be a thorn in the side of your nightmares.
8. Day of the Dead (1985)
A small group of military officers and scientists dwell in an underground bunker as the world above is overrun by zombies.
George A. Romero has never been shy about showing the disgusting things both monsters and humans can do to each other although no other character from the three Dead films shows his true douchiness like Captain Henry Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) did in Day of the Dead. At the end of the film when he abandons his men and runs away, he nearly escapes, even after being shot by genius zombie Bub (Howard Sherman). It’s not until he opens that door at the end of the hallway where he meets karma at last in the form of a herd of zombies that everyone watching cheers. Effects master Tom Savini spared no expense when it came to ending Rhodes. As zombies literally tear him in half, his guts spilling across the floor, both horror and special effects fans sighed contentedly.
7. The Blob (1988)
A strange lifeform consumes everything in its path as it grows and grows.
While the blob itself isn’t necessarily scary – it looks like something you might have gotten for a fifty cents from a bubble gum machine as a kid – what it can do to the human body is mighty disturbing. What does it want? We have no idea since the Blob doesn’t have eyes to read or a heart to plead to or a brain to convince. It’s just a giant ball of opaque goo that dissolves anything organic that it comes in contact with, including people’s faces. The sight of the movie’s characters being sucked up into this giant ball of mindless, acidic jelly has stricken stomach-churning terror into the hearts of horror fans since the original was released back in 1958.
6. The Fly (1986)
A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.
When David Cronenberg decided to remake The Fly (1958), horror lovers perked up their ears. With his brilliantly horrifying reputation preceding him, everyone expected something amazing and they were not disappointed. The transformation of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into the buzzing, puking, mutated mess that fans call the Brundlefly takes the whole film to finish. Special effects artists Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis were not finished with their jobs after one little five-minute scene. As a matter of fact, the story is the transformation. After watching this spectacular use of FX props and makeup, you can’t help but notice the little insect buzzing around the room – an imagine yourself turning into him.
5. Braindead (1992)
A young man’s mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey. She gets sick and dies, at which time she comes back to life, killing and eating dogs, nurses, friends, and neighbors.
Before Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was a splatterpunk master interested only in how grossed out he could make an audience in one sitting. His crowning achievement, 1992’s Braindead, is quite possibly one of the most gag-inducing zombie flicks of all time, thanks to the special effects mastery of Richard Taylor and Bob McCarron. There’s everything from a luncheon that served decayed ear and puss flavored custard to an entire horde of zombies being liquefied by the lawnmower wielding Lionel (Timothy Balme). But the best part has got to be Rita’s (Elizabeth Mulfaxe) hyperactive, blender-avoiding, zombified baby.
4. The Thing (1982)
A research team stationed in Antarctica become trapped by unfrozen, body morphing alien being.
The idea of a monster that can make itself look like anyone doesn’t seem very exciting, does it? Because the alien looks like whomever it’s inhabiting, no special effects are needed, right? You couldn’t be more wrong. You see, when the creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing takes on a new shape, it must transform. It’s here that we see Rob Bottin’s masterpiece: a screaming, oozing, flesh-colored mass of whipping tentacles and spurting liquids that still sends horror fans running for the aerosol torch. The worst part about the Thing is that it continues to have the leering, distorted face of the last guy that it took over, waving it around like the world’s ugliest lollipop.
3. The Beast Within (1982)
A young man researches his bloodline when he realizes his growing pains are quite a bit different from the average teenager.
Not much about The Beast Within makes sense. There are creatures are a little bit bug, a little bit possessing ghost and a little bit human. There might even be some Wendigo thrown in there as well. But no one remembers Tom Holland’s foray into monster movies for its well thought out storyline, do they? No, people watch The Beast Within for Tom Burman’s gruesome, drawn-out, cringeworthy transformation scene as poor Michael MacCleary (Paul Clemens) is finally taken over by the insane spirit of his dead father… or a giant cicada. Well, he turns into something nasty, that’s for sure.
2. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.
The greatest werewolf transformation in cinematic history hit movie screens back in 1981. John Landis’ outstanding work of art was created using a ton of different props ranging from foam latex to rubber suits to acrylic hair to an animatronic head. It’s not just a quick little flash, either. It’s a three-minute-long scene of hirsute, bubbling nakedness and bone-cracking body stretching that holds up with horror fans even 35 years later – not to mention Jack’s continually rotting body, with its fetid pieces falling off in chunks as Jack happily told David what was going to happen to him. Rick Baker’s Oscar was well deserved.
1. Alien (1979)
After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown distress call, their landing on the source planet finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious lifeform. Continuing their journey back to Earth with the attacked crew having recovered and the critter deceased, they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.
So many of the effects in Ridley Scott’s magnum opus are fantastic. From the ship itself to the alien queen, the effects crew did a phenomenal job, a fact that was not passed over by the Academy since Alien won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1980. Everything was well thought out and meticulously developed to create a sense of dread and isolation, along with the three stages of the actual alien: the springy tailed, suffocating face hugger, the invasive, savage chest burster and, of course, the H. R. Giger-inspired queen bitch herself. Considered one of the biggest shocks in cinematic history, the scene of Kane’s demise is particularly hardcore, brutal and bloody, and one that both fans and crew members recoiled from with their own forms of cinematically induced chest pains.
In all honesty, there are just too many well done and memorable practical effects in movies to count. Sometimes even the most random horror flick can have some fantastic, handmade effects. You can’t talk about the subject without bringing up every single one of these films, as well as Adam Green’s Hatchet series, Beetlejuice (1988), Silent Hill (2006), the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Hellraiser (1987), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jaws (1975) and Scanners (1981), as well as those iconic classic monster movies from yesteryear. I’m sure there are some other greats that didn’t make my list, but I’m also sure you guys won’t mind letting me know what they are. 😉