Special Effects are truly something special. The makeup work from the amazing Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or London After Midnight had audiences reeling as he set a high bar for makeup. But look at what movies like Nosferatu and Faust did for special visual effects, and especially the science fiction Metropolis. These films may have been made in the silent era, but they’re amazing to watch simply because of what they accomplished with but a handful of people and practical effects versus today’s studios and their mega-million dollar effects budgets.
The problem: Money does not equal quality.
If you watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, the practical effects work of Rob Bottin still proves mindblowing over thirty years later. Today, would a major Hollywood studio actually spend time and money on practical effects, or just go with CGI? In the end, CGI is not always cheaper than practical effects, but in the United States, we live in an era where one incident can lead to major lawsuits. Therefore, with insurance contracts and a bevy of lawyers, CGI may be the cheaper deal for Hollywood because there is less risk taking with cast of crew.
Even so, most independent horror filmmakers have no choice but to go the practical route because you do get what you pay for. Absentia is a decent film with great characters and a solid story, but watch for that CGI in the tunnel and you’ll probably guffaw at its cheesiness – a level of pungent Limburger to rival a SyFy production. Writer/director Mike Flanagan should have shelled out more money to a qualified digital artist to fix that mess, or he should have come up with a more practical solution.
Many horror fans know the work of Rick Bottin, Rick Baker, Tom Savini (who often draws upon his experiences in Vietnam to create accurate looking carnage), Ray Harryhausen, John Dykstra, and Stan Winston, but few know CGI effects masters, unless you mention District 9’s Neill Blomkamp. But that will change in time.
During the interim, however, independent horror filmmakers are certainly taking chances with CGI, but like Flanagan, they have to be careful. Within the first five minutes of The Howling Reborn, a computer generated explosion had me laughing – and pressing the fast forward button. Later, two characters jump out a window, and the shattering glass is clearly digital – painfully so. Even the wonderful Japanese horror, Phenomenon got this one wrong with a broken windshield. Yes, this detracted from the movie, but only for a moment. Still, one moment can be enough.
Special effects are not the movie (hear that Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich?), but should help tell the story. We don’t need awful distractions such as fake blood spatter, which is laughable in its own right. The sad part is that more and more low budget films seem to be going the CGI blood route – I guess it beats the muss and fuss of all that fake blood.
Fake blood was used in my short horror Too Many Predators, and it was a nightmare. The “blood” could stain anything permanently and it was hard to control. My script had called for a blood spattered room, but with the product, we could only afford one little spot of blood. Sigh.
Regardless, whether practical or digital, special effects need to work to keep audiences focused on the story. If the effects falter, then the audience is pulled out of the world the filmmakers worked so hard to create. For instance, the CGI work in The Devil’s Advocate is fairly solid. I’m not just talking about the demonic changes in some of the characters: the water outside Milton’s office on top of the building is digital. Yet, as for Blade, once I saw this on cable, I balked because much of the blades, blood, and impalements during a fight scene were clearly “painted on” and that was embarrassing.
What are your favorite special effects laden horror films? Whether practical or digital, let me know what’s impressed you – and what left you cringing.
(Photo for The Thing from All Latest Moviez.)