Monsters, creatures, alien beings, paranormal spooks, the list of creative threats runs indefinitely in the realm of the horror genre. It’s easy for our wildest fears to exist within the darkest corners of our minds, but when we call on them to manifest in reality – it takes a handful of talented individuals, a variety of resources, and a few gallons of blood. While the term ‘horror’ was not representative of a film genre until the 1930’s, the elements of terror were in full development at the turn of the 20th century.
From the mind of a master professional trickster came a genre of frightening, gruesome, provocative, shocking, grim, scary, and progressive nature. Georges Méliès graced the world with the genre’s presence Le Manoir du Diable in 1896. Portraying ghosty apparitions of witches, bats, cauldrons, and skeletons all disappearing in smoke clouds, this silent film was the beginning of viewer exposure to macabre specters. This magician-turned-filmmaker produced the existing genre we know and love today brought to life by talented tricksters of the decades that followed. To this day, practical, technical, visual, and special effects artists continue to pull the wool over our eyes, which we’re sometimes thankful for, as the darkest parts of our inner psyche are manifested for the screen.
1950’s: Monsters, Mutants, and Makeup!
Ripe with post war insurgence and a hunger for a more connected, reality-based genre, the 1950s saw an era parting ways with the typical spook tales from years earlier and the Universal monster movies of the 1930’s. Films were finally re-categorized under the First Amendment as modes of free speech, allowing filmmakers to be in control of the content they wished to share. These artists brought light to the screen in the form of monsters. Creature features sprawled from the imaginations of some of Horror’s most legendary creators. Horror slowly, but steadily gained a more mainstream channel as audiences lined up for giant bugs, unnatural beasts, werewolves, monsters and their brides, animal hybrids, and those from other planets.
To bring these monsters to life on the screen brought the factor of practical effects to the forefront. If the filmmaker wanted to have a 50-foot tarantula terrorizing his characters, he would need to make one up, literally. Bart Sloane concocts The Blob out of a simple silicone and vegetable dye mixture and puppetry. The Gill-Man of Creature From The Black Lagoon, one of the world’s most famous movie monsters, is made from a foam latex suit designed by Milicent Patrick. The War Of The Worlds presents city distraction and spectacular color special effects headed by Gordon Jennings. Godzilla himself is brought to the screen by veteran effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, using a questionable substance of concrete or plastic. A student of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, establishes the Dynamation technique of using rear projection and overlap on smaller screens to combine animation and live action, as seen in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath The Sea. It is probably one of horror’s most prominent decades as artists were not only granted the freedom to craft with free rein, but to align their skills with both the growing availability of technology and more natural resources at hand.
1960’s – 1979: Night of The Living Realism
With censorship loosening the belt, theatergoers progressed into the 1960’s with a more realistic mindset. Discussions revolved around counter-culture themes creating a plausible, applicable environment for the maturing genre of horror. They wanted more blood as splatter features rose to the top and the beginnings of mobile, functioning special effects put tangible fears in the same room as the actors. Realistic effects as seen in The Shining, Carrie, and Halloween all contributed to horror’s prime stable collection as the genre focused more on what the effects looked like if the film’s situations really played out. Tony Pantanella creates practical effects on a budget in Night of the Living Dead, a responsibility originally placed in the hands of newcomer Tom Savini, but he was called to the army and had to pass the torch.
If the 1960s and 1970s are representative of anything it’s the long calm before the storm. This light lull in cinema advancement and a steady application of technology and artistry still produced some of Horror’s greatest and most iconic films. Ub Iwerks uses real and animatronic birds to give the allusion of a mass attack in The Birds, Robert A. Mattey’s problematic animatronics ironically portray cinema’s most realistic shark in Jaws, and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s effects master Douglas Trumbull displays full-sized models and props, colored filters, and an extreme eyeball close-up. Paul Pepperman uses a fishing line and some handy angle work with metallic spheres to bring the floating weaponry of Phantasm to life. Dick Smith invents a new walk, vomit color, and neck movement abilities as he brings the devil to earth in The Exorcist.
Tom Savini, arguably film’s most incredible practical and visual effects artist, returns from war and emerges to tear apart the living in Dawn of the Dead beginning the era of body horror. All of the anticipation waiting for film’s new, fresh era is all in good virtue as audiences and fans of real horror would be exposed to the depths of space and the innards of the human anatomy when obscure artist H.R. Giger’s fantastical, horrific, symbolic beings burst onto the scene at the very end of the 1970’s with Alien.
1980’s: The Gooey Golden Age
It’s nearly impossible to pick the decade that defines horror, but there’s an argument to be made when it comes to the 80’s and the genre’s peak in prime practical effects. Over the course of the decade technology and fan desire finally catch up with one another, meeting a balances center between ability and desire. This slimy era of film gave the fans something to look at and look away from. Tangible effects, both as props and characters evolved within the scenes, sometimes even morphing into one another. Visual effects creators and artists ran in stride against one another as they attempted to do what none of the others have done before turning the horror genre inside out… literally.
This golden age of grossing out the audiences begins with Rick Baker‘s astounding transformation scenes combining prosthetics in robotics in An American Werewolf in London. Rob Bottin quickly follows up with the pneumatic wolf mutation with The Howling and grotesque monstrosities of The Thing. The Industrial Light and Magic (ILC) crew terrorizes suburbia with a killer clown, a destructive tree, genuine corpses, and the visceral portal to the afterlife with the lost souls of Poltergeist (left we forget the face-tearing scene). Screaming Mad George takes us deeper into the human anatomy than we wish to see in Society while John Naulin’s work in Re-Animator is doused in 24 gallons of artificial blood. The legendary Savini continues his untouchable practical application in Evil Dead and Day Of The Dead. Chris Walace puppeteers animatronic Gremlins and transforms man into insect in The Fly, one of the many David Cronenberg gross-outs of the decade. The wildcard of the 80’s arrives within the later part of the decade when Kevin Yagher uses extreme robotics to animate everyone’s favorite killer doll, Chucky, in Child’s Play.
It wasn’t until the rise of the machines that the digital age reached film in a visually horrific representation guided by Adam Jones and the ILC crew for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Using some of the first techniques of motion capture, computer graphics, and animation gearing toward technical, the ILC paved a way for a lasting film factors.
1990’s: Technical Trauma
audiences became a little more sophisticated, slow move away from actual special effects as practical work somewhat disappeared with impressive expert spurts in the likes of Savini’s metamorphic vampires in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, the bold visual effects orchestrated by Wes Takahashi for The Frighteners, and the KNB EFX Group facilitates a dreamworld based in reality using modern practical animatronic work to draw Freddy Krueger from the world of dreams into reality in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. While the early 90’s still nurtured practical effects creating a heinous imagery and movie monsters in horror with Candyman, Tremors, Nightbreed, and Dead Alive, the dawn of the technical age was in full force.
Towards the late 90’s science fiction and horror worlds begin to collide. CGI was gaining traction in the film industry being a quick, cheap, and easy application to create something out of nothing for the screen. This decade defined the era of hybrid CGI and practical effects work. For some it worked, for others the films were immediately dated as technology grew rapidly and CGI progressed from one level to the next just within a few years. Event Horizon’s hybrid CGI and practical visual effects by Caimin Bourne, the stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen and Jim McPherson’s recognizable hand in Army of Darkness, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas advanced, but classic stop animation led by visual effects artist Pete Kozachik all contributed to the transition between real and generated. However, the greatest contribution to horror films of the 1990’s would not be screens and graphics, but slashers and serial killers as a more true crime wave gained immense popularity in the genre.
2000’s: Back To The Basics
As we enter a new age with cinematic technology operating in its highest capacity, one can’t help but observe the mass call for special effects reversion. Fans plea for the nostalgia of practical art as the majority stand against the use of CGI application while the horror genre continuously expands. While artificial visuals projected by digital applications have added a more realistic experience allowing filmmakers to push the boundaries of the human eye, many hold in contempt as being disingenuous and, ironically, fake.
CGI use is briefly brought to the forefront, but with more sophisticated visuals in films like 2017’s IT, Cabin in the Woods, whose special effects are all headed by David Leroy Anderson and wife Heather Langencamp, and the dark, dream realm cultivated by CafeFX led by Everett Burrell in Pan’s Labyrinth. Shifting back to practical objectives, Todd Masters makes our skin crawl with the reemerging theme of body horror in Slither, as does the KNB EFX group supervised by Jim Schwalm in Drag Me To Hell, and the Fractured FX and Spy Post Digital teams for Insidious and The Conjuring. Steve Newburn shows off his minimal, but horrifically authentic skills in Hereditary. Greg Nicotero, a special effects artist for the masses tackles television bringing the most authentic forms of the dead into the living rooms of average families weekly with an acclaimed series, The Walking Dead.
The past decades of the millennium see a grossly enthusiastic call for filmmakers to hit the trifecta using a careful, balanced, and creative us of CGI, make-up, and animatronics to bring on the horror. We may analyze the trends and see the patterns repeat and evolve, revert to the glory days of applications and delve into the great beyond of development, but the true purpose of film special effects is to fool the viewer in the most genuine way possible. It doesn’t matter that these extraordinary artists trick our eyes and mind as long as they do it right.
Who are your favorite special effects artists? Which horror films have the best use of practical effects? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!