Kirk vs Pickard. Marvel vs DC. Fast zombie vs slow zombies. Staked to a fire-ant hill vs forced to look at naked pictures of Whoopie Goldberg. These are the choices we face each day. Among those of us who dabble, with varying degrees of success, in the field of special visual and makeup effects, the raging debate is between CGI and practical effects. Computer generated images have allowed us to realize fantasy images that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Take away the flashy animation and green screen and it’s hard to imagine how terrible most superhero movies would be. Check out the 1990 Captain America movie. That’s a big bucket of yikes right there. The fact that special effects technology just wasn’t where it needed to be spared us many projects that would likely have been major cheese-fests like John Boorman’s aborted Lord of the Rings or the Silver Surfer movie that would have starred Olivia Newton John. The filmmakers of that latter project claimed to have figured out a way to make a metal board float a few feet off the ground and they would use this to make the movie which is the moment I realized that Hollywood was populated by crazy people. So thank God for CGI, right? Well, not so fast. Sure, if your spend $500,000,000 you can create an amazing CGI world but Holy Crap, did I just type $500,000,000? That doesn’t leave much room for error does it? And if you try to do it on the cheap you can get some pretty dire results. I’ll take the hackiest werewolf suit over a computer werewolf that makes it look like I’m watching somebody playing a video game. No matter how skilled the artistry of the legion of CGI animators employed…and watching the credits of some films makes it seem as though they employed the nation of Taiwan…the advantage of practical effects is that they are real. Reality captures realism pretty well. The subtleties of actions in the real world are hard to fake, unless one is willing to fork over huge dollars to do so. (I would also argue that using real on set effects forces one to do it right the first time. When James Caan is getting shot full of holes in his death scene from The Godfather that’s the real guy with an unbelievable number of real bullet squibs attached. Mess up that scene and you’ve lost an entire day of shooting AND you have to go tell James Caan that he has to spend another 3 hours having wires attached to him. Think that’s going to end well? There’s no better motivating factor in doing a job well than the knowledge that you get one shot at doing so.) Well, before this turns into another episode of Old Man Yells at Clouds, let us take a look at some of the most memorable gruesome effects, kicking it old school. #10- ROBOCOP – Toxic splash The original Robocop was a real crowd-pleaser, one of the few films I have ever seen that got the crowd applauding after it was over. Over the top satire and great effects combined to make one of the seminal 80s movies. Predictably they tried to remake it and equally predictably it did not resonate. Robocop is a gory movie. Real gory. It’s one of a very few movies that skillfully juggles laughs and brutality (director Paul Verhoeven did it once more with Starship Troopers). When Peter Welles gets shot up it ain’t pretty. But nothing prepares you for the fate of one of the bad guys near the film’s climax. Now this fellow, played by Paul McCrane (a real go-to actor if you need a character who is a first class jerk) richly deserves his fate but in the words of Oscar Wilde, one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh long and hard at what happens here; after driving into a barrel of toxic waste, the poor sap runs around with his flesh literally melting off of his body in long dangly loops. It’s almost a mercy when he runs in front of a car driven by his pals and explodes in a gushing spray of flesh and fluids, like rotted watermelon dropped off a high-rise. No amount of CGI could equal the splattery muckiness of this shot.
#9- DEAD ALIVE – Lawnmower man I wonder how many fans of Peter Jackson’s work on the Lord of the Rings series are even aware of the incredible early films that he cut his teeth on. From low budget gorefests to semi-porn puppet films he…wait, semi-porn puppet films? Yeah, Meet the Feebles which, I swear to God, I once saw in a video store next to The Neverending Story, The Secret of Nimh and Legend of the Overfiend. Those were fun times, when the Mob used video stores as money laundering operations and could not give less of a rat’s ass on what they rented. Anyway, the point is that Jackson was a pretty amazing filmmaker back in the day, able to provide a lot of bang for the buck, which is probably why he got the nod to bring Tolkien to the screen. When people ask you “What’s the goriest movie ever made because I met this girl/guy and I want to see if they are in it for the long haul.” you should, after asking if they literally meant girl/guy, point them toward Dead Alive aka Braindead, his 1992 zombie comedy. When the bite of the fabled Sumatran Rat-Monkey proves infectious, an entire town in New Zealand soon falls victim to a zombie plague. Things look grim for our heroes as they are cornered in a house surrounded by scores of the ravenous undead…and then…
Not since the explosion at the Ragu Spaghetti sauce factory have we seen such a display of thick and chunky, followed by a scene straight out of a Warner Bros cartoon where the hero tries to run away and the blood on the floor just keeps him running in place. Hysterically funny, it was mostly ignored on release but has gained its rightful reputation since. #8- THE OMEN – The pane…the pane… The original Omen movie came as something of an anomaly. Horror movies were still pretty much the unloved stepchild in Hollywood so it came as something of a surprise in 1976 to see Big Name Actors giving their all in a story of the antichrist’s arrival on Earth. Thank The Exorcist which had broken the floodgates a few years earlier, showing that there was money to be made in taking horror out of the low budget ghetto. The Omen proved a valuable investment, returning about 20 times its cost in the USA alone. Director Richard Donner is not a filmmaker who leaves a distinctive mark on his work but his films have made a mint load of money and include a lot of faves. The Omen is glossy and slick, the antithesis of most horror, which makes the shock scenes all the more shocking, none more so than the fate of a photographer who has figured out when supernatural forces are about to kill someone by the appearance of a shadow on their picture…and now sees one such shadow across his own neck. In a scene that foreshadows the convoluted Mousetrap Game shenanigans that would be the bread and butter of the Final Destination series, a truckload of pane glass windows slides down the street and we see the results in lovingly rendered slow motion and multiple angles.
Sure, that may seem like ordinary stuff to you whippersnappers raised on Network TV shows where detectives discuss plot points over the eviscerated remains of this week’s victim but trust me, there were a lot of wide eyes in the theater. #7- THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN – Gently down the stream Although my friend and filmmaking co-conspirator Christine Parker swears by this film…it’s terrible. But who am I to judge, we all have films that we love despite the fact that everybody else is looking at us funny. “The Man Whe Turned To Stone? Really? Are you talking about the one they made in 1956? That The Man Whe Turned To Stone?” So I see where she’s coming from. But from most ordinary standards, The Incredible Melting Man really drops the ball. Little more than a remake of The First Man Into Space (which I vastly prefer) it’s about an astronaut who goes into space, comes back and melts. Yep, that’s about it. He melts, melts, melts and then he melts some more. At the end (Spoiler Alert) he melts. A janitor hoses down the stain. The end. This was advertized as “the first NEW horror creature”. The ad man must have woken up laughing for weeks after coming up with that one. Now the film does have one weapon in its arsenal and it’s a damned good one; makeup effects by a young and hungry Rick Baker. Baker never does a bad job. Give him no money on a crap movie and he will still be the best part of the movie (coff-Octaman-coff). The melting effects are awesome and there is a single scene that manages to stick in the brain long after everything else is washed away like tears in the rain and/or a melting man after the janitor finds him: A fisherman gets his head ripped off by the melting man, with said head tossed into a stream. The movie periodically cuts back to the head slowly drifting along. Then it falls off of a waterfall and cracks open on the rocks below. It’s disgusting and great and the filmmakers knew they had captured some gold right there. From a storytelling standpoint I fail to see what they were going for here…the broken head is never seen again. Why they edited it the way they did is a mystery. Maybe it’s a metaphor, like it symbolizes a nation adrift in a slow moving sea of social change. In a sense, in a very real sense, are we ALL not melting men? Ha! Kidding, look, they made a movie about a guy who melts, slack must be cut.
#6- WRONG TURN 2– Split the difference The Wrong Turn movies are based on a very simple and scientifically proven premise; West Virginia is full of cannibalistic inbred who will kill you. To those readers who are from West Virginia–you know what I’m talking about. Wrong Turn 2 is that rare sequel that is better than the original but the high point comes early. A reality show contestant thinks she has run over a teenage but it turns out to be a West Virginian cannibal (but I repeat myself). She gets an axe to the head for her troubles but it’s delivered with more than the usual guston and goes clean through to the road. The camera is at foot level and we see her legs fall off in opposite directions while a glorious splash of blood and guts land with a plop. It’s beautifully disgusting.
#5- AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON – I am Jack’s dangling neck piece American Werewolf in London is one of the classics of modern horror, the template for the horror with some comedy films that would follow and features a man to werewolf transformation that will be hard to beat. Rick Baker pulled out all the stops on this one. Decades later they made a multi-million dollar Wolfman movie, wisely hired Baker and then unwisely went with a digital transformation (the film was a troubled production and the choice to go with CGI may have had as much to do with the need to make the shooting schedule work as for any artistic considerations. It looks great but will anyone remember the transformation scenes 30 years from now or even next week?) But it’s not the wonderful transformation effects of American Werewolf in London that I wish to speak of. It’s Jack’s neck. After a werewolf attack wounds David and kills his friend Jack, David recuperates in a hospital only to be visited by the apparition of Jack, looking very mauled up. Actor Griffin Dunne cheerfully informs David that he will become a werewolf and that he needs to kill himself…or something . I can’t pay attention because there is a piece of foam latex on Jacks horrible horrible neck wound that just keeps dangling and bouncing, hither and yon, to and fro, far and wide. It’s hypnotic and it’s bothered me for around 3 decades now. I learned a lot from that scene, one of which is the value of danglies, little bits of latex or gelatin, anything you can put on horror makeup that adds a bit of motion to the effect. Genius on every level, the recent reluctant retirement of Rick Baker from film tells us a lot about where cinema is going and what it tells us ain’t good.
#4- THE FLY – Soups on. David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly remains one of the most intelligent and grotesque films ever made, all the more remarkable since it was a remake of a film that, while well liked, is a pretty silly concept. Eschewing the ridiculous “Help me, help me” human head on a fly’s body idea for something quite a bit more plausible, Jeff Goldblum’s character instead ends up as a human/fly hybrid thanks to a teleporter turned gene splicer. Hilarity ensues. One of the nastier concepts involves his new manner of feeding, which involves regurgitating acid vomit on food and then lapping it up. This is actually how flies eat, something to keep in mind the next time one lands on your potato salad. They also, and this is scientifically verified by wikipedia, “deposit feces constantly” which Cronenberg thankfully omitted. It’s bad enough when Goldblum demonstrates this trick on a donut but even worse at the end when some poor dope’s hand gets the barf and scarf treatment. Fascinating behind the scenes footage of the scene right here shows the problems inherent in using practical effects–things do not always go as planned. A wax hand pumping goop did not work as well as had been envisioned and was replaced with a technique that combined practical in camea effects and some later fx trickery.
#3- THE FLY 2 – Taking it up a notch The sequel to The Fly does not get nearly the love that Cronenberg’s movie does but it’s an enjoyable ride that offers a far less bleak denouement while still serving up the red meat. Hey, remember that great scene I just mentioned where the Brundlefly barfs on someone’s hand? Yeah, let’s take that idea and run with it.
#2- ALIEN chestburster – Pop goes the xenomorph- Alien was the right film for the right time. An ambiguous ad campaign, killer word of mouth, great marketing, all conspired to get a lot of asses into the theater, with virtually none of us knowing what to expect. That just does not happen any more, does it? For better or worse we often go to movies with enough pre-knowledge of what to expect that we could practically write the IMDB entry. So anyway, there we were, watching a big budgeted re-imagination of It! The Terror From Outer Space when things went straight to hell for an unfortunate astronaut. The infamous chest burster scene, so horrifying that it was hard to tell who was reacting more, the audience or the actors. As it turns out, the reactions were much the same and for the same reason–they had no idea how bad it was going to be. And it was very bad indeed. There aren’t many gore scene that deserve their own special “behind the scenes” video, but this one does and here it is:
#1- THE THING – chest cracking teeth popping arm biting goo flinging…holy crap. Yeah, it doesn’t get any better than this. John Carpenter’s remake of the 50s classic stunned moviegoers by 1- being superior to an already great movie and 2- showing us sights unimagined in our nightmares. The titular Thing went from the original giant walking carrot to a shape-shifting colonial organism, capable to assuming the identity of anyone it infects or just going all tentacle teeth bitey fleshy slime, as realized by the groundbreaking brilliance of Rob Bottin’s practical effects. The scene that stands out among many stand out scenes occurs as one character seems to suffer a heart attack. When the kindly doctor hits him with the electrified defibrillator the “dead” man’s chest splits open in a huge toothed maw that promptly bites his arms off and then tries to escape attempts to burn it by allowing its head to break off and scuttle away on crab claws. Wow.
I should mention that when I first saw this movie the week it opened, the idiot behind me, upon seeing this scene and having pretty much an infinite number of stupid sounds to come out of her cake-hole, went with “That’s not real.” I’m a high school teacher, I have heard many foolish things in my life, but that right there is in the top 3. The 2011 prequel ended up favoring digital over practical effects and barely made a ripple either at the box office or in the hearts of fans. Genre films are still struggling with the right balance between the unlimited possibilities of computer generated graphics and the tactile reality of practical effects and we will no doubt have many more opportunities to see things on the screen that were once only found in our darkest dreams.