As a young boy my grandmother would read me stories about monsters: Chimera, Hydra, Medusa, Minotaur. The descriptions of these creatures toyed with my imagination endlessly. They terrified me, but I wanted so badly to see them in real life. Sometimes I’d think about them so vividly that I’d have trouble falling asleep. My eyes would scan the dark corners of my bedroom and my heart would beat faster and faster as I imagined what might be coiled in the shadows. VHS tapes of Jason and the Argonauts, Godzilla, and King Kong became ritual viewings as my interest spread out from classical mythology and into cinema.
My appetite for classic sci-fi and horror flicks continued well into my teen years, and while I may not spend nearly as much time with them these days, they have clearly left their mark, as you may be able to tell from the commercial I created recently for NWG Solutions.
Developing that spot was a dream come true for me. It was as if all of those hours I spent watching special features weren’t for nothing. I still get made fun of for it by my girlfriend, but knowing what goes on behind the projected illusions in a film is what makes me tick. It’s why I do what I do. SFX greats like Stan Winston, Rob Bottin and Tom Savini made my favorite nightmares into realities, and while my version is far more friendly, I used what I learned to try and achieve that classic practical effect look from the era before CGI became the standard.
Since we are coming up on Halloween, I figured I would share some of my favorite pre-CG practical effects films. Most are widely-renowned as classics, but I’m always shocked at how many friends who grew up post-Jurassic Park haven’t seen some of these. Any others you want to add? Want me to do more posts on horror or cinema in general? Let me know!
Not nearly as focused on “horror”, as it’s predecessor, but it’s all for the better. This is a perfect action film that took all of the strengths from the visually dense, tone-driven and claustrophobic Alien(1979) and fleshed them out into a story of military underestimation, corporate greed, survival, and the sheer female force of both Ripley and the Alien Queen as they protect their respective children. The special effects hold up wonderfully. The puppetry of The Queen is a marvel. The characters are well-defined and perfectly cast. You won’t find a better paced or plotted sci-fi/action film. It’s just the best there is.
Stan Winston was one of the greatest FX pioneers in cinematic history. This was one of his few efforts as a Director, and it’s pretty underrated in my opinion. The story is lean, but really shines through its creature effects and design, as well as its atmosphere. It has a strong cult following, but quickly became serialized with some straight-to-video-quality sequels. It’s great fun, and is made all the more effective by great use of light and shadow to show just enough monster to keep the audience glued to the screen.
John Carpenter’s snowy horror, The Thing, is a master-class in tension and paranoia. The creature in this film can take the shape of any biological entity, so while the audience squirms as the characters try and figure out who can be trusted, the transformational sequences release that excruciating tension in chaotic scenes of the most disturbing and impressive practical effects ever put to film. I also love how un-Hollywood the ending is. Kurt Russell and John Carpenter were a dream team in the 80’s.
An American Werewolf in London:
This is John Landis in his prime. Fresh off of helming the comedy classics Animal House and Blues Brothers, he jumped to the horror genre with a classic B-movie homage done with a raw hipness and dark humor that keep it fresh to this day. It makes you cringe and hide one minute, then laugh the next. It’s pure popcorn fun with a few choice jump-scares (that remind us why less is more), and still contains one of the best werewolf transformations ever put to film. Landis honed his techniques here and recycled a few tricks in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video a few years later.
I’m a huge fan of David Cronenberg. Everything from Scanners to M. Butterfly to Eastern Promises. His work in the 80’s was heavily focused on mirroring mental and psychological transformation with grotesque physical mutation. In The Fly, we see him explore the nature of transformation from brilliant scientist, Brundle, to Brundlefly at just about every level: from the body to the mind to the soul. It’s a slow and very gross process, but one that certainly leaves a mark on your brain. Does for arm wrestling and eating snack cakes what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.