Nothing lights up horror forums like the debate between computer-generated imagery (CGI) and practical effects in movies. To the dismay of many, CGI has become the standard for major effects in modern-day films, popular for its practical uses, budget-friendly expenses, and logistical ease. But no matter how popular CGI becomes, there will always be a large contingent of moviegoers loudly proclaiming that special effects work better when kept away from a computer.
There’s no denying that CGI can conjure images that chill horror fans to their core, but for decades, practical effects like makeup, artificial gore, and animatronics were the dominating force behind every scare that made audiences shut their eyes. Only one look at the success of Paranormal Activity proves that fans still gravitate towards horror that feels real.
Practical effects take us back to a time when horror movies sparked our imaginations and connected us to the screen in ways many claim CGI can’t. Let’s look at some practical effects that made us fall in love with horror, as well as the wild stories behind capturing these effects on film.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
If there's one thing Alan Grant taught us, it's that surviving a Tyrannosaurus rex isn't easy. It's a lesson Alan Scott, a crew member on the set of Jurassic Park, learned firsthand after getting stuck inside the film's infamous T-rex.
The big bad of the franchise, the T-rex is 9,000 pounds of robotics. When moviegoers think about what goes into creating a machine of that scope, it's often in relation to how much time and technique goes into making it believable. Rarely do they think about the physical risk involved when bringing it to life.
Personal safety was at the forefront of Scott's mind when he volunteered to put the dinosaur's skin on - which he needed to do from inside the animatronic. To make matters worse, the dinosaur had to be turned on to give him access to the area that wasn't finished. When Scott talked about the risk, he said:
If the power was shut off for some reason, the head would move from its powered-up position to its powered-down position - and all of the hydraulic cylinders and sheets of metal inside would move. So, as I was crawling inside this thing, I said to the guy on the controls, “Don't shut it down, and make sure nobody trips on this cord. I'm going to be inside, and if this thing moves, with all those hydraulics inside, I'm dead.”
In perhaps the worst luck in history, a power outage struck while Scott was inside the T-rex. Scott was able to pull his hands and feet towards his chest, preventing him from falling prey to the hydraulics, but he was stuck for hours before his coworkers could pry him out.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Friday the 13th is one of the biggest horror franchises of all time. Starting as a low-budget slasher, the original film gave birth to one of the most renowned antagonists in horror history, thrusting Jason Voorhees through 12 films as well as video games, novels, and countless victims. While the masked terror created a legacy of his own, director Sean S. Cunningham's commitment to breaking boundaries shocked audiences and laid the foundation for Voorhees to stalk targets for decades to come.
Modern films benefit from experience and technology to safely pick off their victims one by one. Before relying on CGI, filmmakers had to get creative to effectively scare their audience. Although innovative techniques made cinematic terrors feel real, they sometimes had dire consequences for the actors.
Harry Crosby learned that firsthand when his character, Bill, met a grisly end at Jason Voorhees's hands. Not only was he pinned to the wall by arrows, but the final arrow went straight through his eye. Unfortunately for Crosby, the makeup artist used a wetting agent known as Photo-Flo - a mix of chemicals that helps reduce water spots on negatives - to make the fake blood look realistic as it soaked into Crosby's clothes. After the mixture was smeared across Crosby's face, including his eyes, the team realized Photo-Flo was unsafe. Not only did Photo-Flo cause Crosby excruciating pain, but it also blinded the actor for six months.
The mistake is a harsh reminder that the casts and crews of these films were the pioneers of the genre. Without years of experience or references on which to base their decisions, they had to make things up as they went along.
- Photo: MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s horror classic Poltergeist is arguably one of the most influential films in horror. Its success resulted in two sequels, it served as an inspiration for a multitude of films, and it still ranks as one of the best horror films of all time.
Poltergeist focuses on the Freelings, a middle-class family who moves into a haunted house. The seemingly friendly ghosts soon turn malicious, and the story becomes a rush against time for Steven and Diane Freeling to save their daughter.
Unfortunately for the cast, strange events weren’t limited to the film alone. After several tragic accidents and even an exorcism, the production was largely rumored to be cursed. As for what could have started the curse, superstitious fans suggest it was Spielberg’s use of real skeletons rather than prosthetics.
Craig Reardon, the special effects and makeup designer, explained, “At the time, it was cheaper to acquire human remains than make realistic skeletons out of plastic.” It’s hard to imagine how they got the green light to use human remains, but it was the '80s, and back then, it wasn’t all that uncommon. It looks like staying within budget was worth importing bones from another country and - according to some - allegedly unleashing a curse upon the production.
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In a time when it was uncommon to see supernatural creatures snacking on human femurs, Day of the Dead twisted stomachs with visceral depictions of characters shuffling off the mortal coil. The most disgusting demise was awarded to Captain Henry Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) when a group of ravenous zombies tore his intestines out.
Pig guts and chicken parts were purchased to replicate Rhode’s intestines, but after a mishap with a refrigerator, they were accidentally left to rot - for weeks. The mistake wasn’t caught until it was time to shoot the scene, and by then, it was too late to do anything but move forward with putrid meat. The crew had no choice but to work with what they had on set, forcing Pilato to be covered in rotten, rancid meat for hours on end.
- Photo: New Line Cinema5490 VOTES
Practical effects can take months of meticulous planning, but sometimes the best effects result from happy accidents. Cult-slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street is known for the grisly ways characters meet their demise.
In one of the film’s most gratuitous sequences, Freddy Krueger pulls Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) into his mattress, and what's left of the teen’s remains erupts in a geyser of bodily fluids. The unusually gruesome death shocked audiences, but it also shocked the crew when an accident on set forever altered the scene.
A rotating set was supposed to help control the flow of fluids as they dripped out of the mattress, but when the set was pushing in the wrong direction, hundreds of gallons of liquid were dumped onto the floor. The result is one of the most remarkable effects in the movie.
Because the room was thrown off balance, the red liquid didn’t just pool on the inverted ceiling - it sloshed back and forth, furthering the sensation of the characters being trapped inside a nightmare. Sparks from the electrical equipment covered during the spill almost caused a fire, but the crew was still left with footage that was probably impossible to replicate, even if they tried.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox6397 VOTES
When done correctly, practical effects can make the audience forget they're watching a movie - they can also make actors forget they're filming one, too. In Ridley Scott's Alien, the Nostromo crew members gather around Kane (John Hurt) after an encounter with an unknown species leaves him unconscious. Unbeknownst to the cast and crew, a baby alien was about to burst through Kane's chest in one of the most iconic and gruesome scenes in horror history.
To ensure he captured genuine shock during the infamous scene, Scott didn't prepare the actors for what to expect while filming. Veronica Cartwright, who plays ship navigator Lambert, said, “We read the script. They showed us a mock-up, but they didn't show how it was going to work.”
A key piece of information Scott kept from the cast was that Kane's chest cavity was filled with cow organs, clams, and oysters. When the alien jumped toward the actors, a compressor hidden under the table showered them with real animal guts. The shock of having real body parts land on her face was enough to cause Cartwright to panic and faint.
Considering that a majority of the actors were at least mildly traumatized, this is a stark example of the lengths filmmakers would go to back when visual effects weren't as straightforward as animating them on screen. Scott's commitment to horrifying the audience at the expense of the film's cast may be questionable, but it worked in the movie's favor. Who doesn't think of the Chestburster scene when they think about Alien?