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Spooky is Coming – The Best and Worst Special Effects in Horror

October 1, 2023
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There is a particular pheromone in the air this time of year that certain people can sense like a bloodhound on a trail, namely those with a proclivity for all things spooky. If you observe your goth girlfriends closely, you can detect the signs that they’ve got the scent; dark gourds appear in the house, she cackles quietly to herself randomly, and the horror movies take center stage. The first two are just for you to enjoy, but the third… 

For as long as film has existed as a medium, the horror genre has made its mark. Widely regarded as the first such movie, Le Manoir du Diable (“The House of the Devil”) was released in 1896. With a runtime of around three minutes, it was not so much scary as it was a wonder of new technology, but it stoked a supernatural fire that has been burning ever since. 

The Golden Age of Horror began in 1920 with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu in 1922 (which considered one of the best horror movies of all time and set a lot of the locked in a lot of vampire clichés that stand today) and lasted into the late 1930’s. Focus shifted between unsettling the audience, a focus on less supernatural sources during World War II, slasher films (which spawned the subgenre of zombie flicks), the occult, and body horror or gore.

No matter what type of horror film you watch though, one aspect of the cinematic process that is ubiquitous across the spectrum is the special effects. Creating the monsters and demons on screen that terrify children and adults alike is no simple process and done well can leave a lasting impression on even the staunchest critic, even if it passes so quickly the conscious mind can barely process it. An excellent example of this is a certain scene in the 1997 science fiction horror Event Horizon; trying to determine where the experimental vessel had been, the recovery team accesses the ship’s video logs. All is normal… until it’s not. The scene in question lasts only 12 seconds but contains some of the most disturbing imagery of the whole film. On the other hand, badly done special effects can pull the audience away from their immersion, turning horror into unintentional comedy. See anything from James Ryan Gary or any of the Puppet Master sequels. So what makes excellent special effects? I have examples.

Best In Show – John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

A group of American scientists in Antarctica who encounter an extraterrestrial life-form called "The Thing". 

The Thing assimilates and imitates other organisms, which means no one can be sure if anyone is who they say they are…

Released in 1982, the practical Cronenberg-like body horror effects produced by the mastermind Rob Bottin may look a little dated by today’s standards, but BARELY. Made from chemicals, food products, rubber, and parts, even 41 years later, The Thing is still a gold standard for making you crap your pants.

Worst in Show – Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

As a sequel in the 80’s, I don’t know what anyone expected, but this one is genuinely terrible. The acting? Bad. The plot? Bad. The shark? You get the idea. The love and care that made the first film such a classic must have been left in a box in the prop department, because if the shark had been any cheesier, I would have tried to put a quarter in it outside of a grocery store so a baby could ride it.

Best Single Scene – Head Explodey, Scanners (1981)

Scanners are men and women born with incredible telepathic and telekinetic powers. There are many who exercise the benefits of their special gifts in a safe and judicious manner. However, there is a group of renegade scanners who plan to create a race that will rule the world.

Ever want to see Michael Ironside blow up a guy’s head with his mind? Of course you have, and so this is the movie for you. This film isn’t Cronenberg like, it is from the direct talents of Canadian body horror master David Cronenberg (the Baron of Blood) himself. Cronenberg later stated that Scanners was his most difficult film, due to both the special effects and complex storyline. During one of the most difficult scenes, two men in suits are sitting at a table in front of an audience. One is going to “scan” the other with telepathy as a demonstration… In reality, the person he’s chosen to scan is an immensely powerful telepath and telekinetic, and after a brief mental struggle, the other man’s head explodes. A lot. To get the effect, a shotgun was used, as explosive charges just wouldn’t do the trick. It’s a must see on YouTube if you’re the type of heathen that won’t watch the whole film.

Worst Single Scene – Talking Goat, Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Before you roast me, hear me out. The rest of the movie? Pretty damn good. Raimi returns from the Spider Man side quest to put in a respectable work in this occult horror in the mid 2000’s. However, deep sigh and eyeroll, the talking goat was handled poorly. It makes sense in context to have a goat, demons roasting people is funny, but the goat was so terribly fake that it was like looking at a train crash happening in slow motion. Practical effects well executed are generally better than CGI for a host of reasons, but in this case, maybe let Skynet take a crack at a reshoot.

Good horror should keep you engaged with the story and the characters, and great horror can have you leaving the theater more than a little shooketh on the ride home. Any special effects artist that can bring that question, that suspension of disbelief to the party should be commended as a master of their craft. But if they bring forth trash, well, maybe they’ll get a visit from their poorly built creations. I guess we’ll have to see what offerings this Halloween season has in store…

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