There’s no one ingredient that makes a horror film effective. Every solid fright flick varies wildly in its approach, using different storytelling and cinematic tricks to hopefully achieve the genre’s common goal — to scare the wits out of as many viewers as possible. One almost surefire way to do this is with an effective monster, both unsettling in concept and horrifying in appearance. It isn’t easy to imagine such a monster, let alone to create one from whole cloth, which makes it all the more impressive, and frightening, when a film manages to do just that.
And overwhelmingly, the best creatures in horror movie history were created not using CGI, which usually ages as well as milk left at room temperature, but rather with practical effects such as prosthetics and animatronics. Whether new or old, these horror classics prove that the extra work yields dividends in effective scares. Here are 15 horror movies so convincing you won’t believe they used practical effects.
15. The Cabin in the Woods
None other than Heather Langenkamp, who played one of Freddy’s few recurring victims in The Nightmare on Elm Street series, did special effects and makeups for the meta-horror extravaganza that is Cabin in the Woods, along with her husband David Leroy Anderson. The film, which gradually reveals itself as much more than the standard kids-gone-camping genre entry, features a version of almost every classic movie monster in its explosive final act, many of them glimpsed for only a few frames.
With so many creatures on the loose, you’d expect the filmmakers to cut corners using digital imagery, but no—Anderson recounted for EW his experiences creating the film’s most memorable monsters, including the ballerina with a gaping, fanged hole for a face (all makeup) and the merman, whose bloody blowhole was a major breakthrough for the devoted effects team.
Eight years before making his blockbuster impact with Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn helmed this oddball horror comedy, whose witty banter is undercut by some of the most stomach-churning creature effects ever put onscreen. The plot concerns an alien that infects a local car dealer (Michael Rooker), turning him gradually into a tentacled monster that uses townspeople into gluttonous incubators for alien slugs that possess others to become part of this parasitic lifeform. The film manages to keep showing new iterations of this alien life cycle, each more disturbing than the last.
In creating a pastiche of ’80s horror, Gunn and special effects artist Todd Masters sought to recapture the “grittiness and grime of old prosthetic effects.” The effects team began working five months before filming to create memorable visual effects like alien slugs made from thermal gel and casts of Michael Rooker’s face at different stages of his monstrous transformation.
13. The Conjuring 2
The first Conjuring was effective largely for being old-fashioned, relying on bumps-in-the-night and subtle changes in atmosphere to tell a standard yet captivating exorcism story. Its sequel goes farther into jump-scare horror territory with some of its most notable set-pieces, but luckily, returning director James Wan has the visual flair to make it all work — often by shunning digital effects.
According to Wan, CGI was used mostly to edit out background details like surveillance cameras to make the film period-appropriate. Many assumed the film’s most memorable monster, the top-hatted Crooked Man, must be a digital effect as well, but in fact, he was played by Javier Botet, whose tall stature and mastery of unnatural movement has made him a horror star in his own right, featured previously in [REC]. Still, to achieve the Crooked Man’s unsettling walk, Wan tweeted that “it was shot in slow mo with @jbotet walking backwards, then sped up in editing and reversed.”
12. The Fly (1986)
Canadian body horror maestro David Cronenberg directed this tragic film about scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) turned into a monster by his own technology, a story that wouldn’t be half as devastating without the Oscar-winning effects illustrating Brundle’s painful transformation. To achieve this, effects designer Chris Walas designed the final “Brundlefly” creature first before going back to create each in-between stage that would show Goldblum on his way to becoming his monstrous final incarnation.
Goldblum spent hours in makeup to make himself look sufficiently diseased with facial lesions, coarse fly hairs, bald patches, crooked prosthetic teeth, and eventually physical deformities. Near the film’s conclusion, Brundlefly comes bursting through Brundle’s deteriorated skin, looking not like the enormous house-fly you might expect, but truly like a science experiment gone wrong. The asymmetrical creature was made using a full-sized suit controlled using various rods and cables.
Not long before The Fly, Cronenberg directed Videodrome, a film far more idiosyncratic and confounding in its surrealist storytelling, but no less impressive for its creative use of special effects. The story revolves around a sleazy UHF programmer named Max Renn (James Woods) who begins experiencing bizarre hallucinations after being exposed to an experimental frequency broadcasting disturbing scenes of sexualized violence.
As with any Cronenberg film, the most disturbing effects concern bodily transformations, and in this case, a fusion of technology and human flesh. A television breathes and pulses with unsightly veins like an animal, while Max Renn’s stomach opens to accept a living videotape, before his hand gradually fuses around his revolver to create an entirely new sort of extremity. These effects are uniformly creative and unsettling, precisely because of how practical and tactile they look.
The look of Ridley Scott’s horror-sci-fi landmark Alien would be impressive just for the used, industrial design of the transport spaceship the Nostromo, but it’s the titular extraterrestrial creature that truly steals the show, in all its reincarnations. Biomechanical Swiss artist HR Giger designed all alien elements of the film to give the creatures an appearance that’s otherworldly yet organic, using some not-so-subtle phallic imagery.
Giger airbrushed entire sets by hand and designed iconic elements of the Alien universe, including the alien egg made from fiberglass and filled with cow’s stomach innards, and the full-grown alien whose body he molded from plasticine, also using snake vertebrae and Rolls Royce cooling tubes. And that’s not even mentioning the famous chestburster scene, filmed using high-pressure squibs and an artificial torso, or the animatronic head created for the scene in which Ian Holm’s character is revealed to be an android.
9. The Descent
Most of Neil Marshall’s cave-exploring hit The Descent relies on nothing more than claustrophobia to frighten audiences, but when it does veer into straight horror-territory in the third act, Marshall has the monsters to make it work. The “crawlers” our female protagonists encounter after hours of trying to escape an unmapped cave system are uniquely horrifying for being so humanoid but for their coarse skin, Gollum-like posture, and distorted features.
The creatures were designed by makeup artist Paul Hyett and kept hidden from the actresses until their sudden reveal in the film, at which point star Natalie Mendoza said she nearly wet her pants. The effect was achieved using nothing more than extensive makeup and prosthetics, plus some creative cave-lighting that allowed the creatures to remain terrifyingly obscured during their time onscreen.
It doesn’t get much bloodier than Re-Animator, a 1985 horror comedy adapted from an HP Lovecraft story and directed by theater-veteran Stuart Gordon. Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a scientist working on a serum that can reanimate dead bodies, but inevitably turns them into violent, zombie-like creatures. The many reanimated corpses showcased throughout the film are shown in all stages of decay, including one that walks around wielding its own decapitated head.
John Naulin, who worked on the film’s makeup effects, noted that he had never used more than two gallons of fake blood in one film, except on Re-Animator, where he used 24 gallons. To achieve the proper look for the reanimated flesh, he studied a book of forensic pathology and photos taken from the Cook County morgue of all kinds of corpses.
In Hellraiser, a puzzle box opens our universe to an alternate one inhabited by pain-worshipping humanoid monsters called Cenobites, the most iconic of which is Doug Bradley’s heavily-acupuncutred Pinhead. But he’s only one of many unsettling, unfailingly creative glimpses we get of this alternate universe throughout the film. Also featured are the bloated, wound-picking Butterball, the faceless chatterer, and the skeletal insectoid Engineer, all created on the film’s measly million-dollar budget.
Designer Bob Keen and the rest of the Hellraiser effects team were also tasked with designing the puzzle box and a beating human heart (made from some tubing, glue, and a condom) from which the character Frank is gradually reconstructed from a flayed corpse. Because of their practical effects work, every cut of flesh in the film still feels tortuously real 30 years after its release.
6. Dead Alive
Long before he became preoccupied with CGI for the Hobbit films, Peter Jackson was just a New Zealand director making horror films so excessively gory that ey make the original Evil Dead look tame by comparison. The endless gore effects are essentially the star of his early splatstick effort Dead Alive (known as Braindead outside North America), wherein a Sumatran rat monkey bite leads to an entire town being transformed into zombies.
Throughout the film’s runtime, Jackson shows off his horror craftsmanship while proving there’s no line he won’t cross — disembodied limbs crawl across the floor, a zombified mother tries to force her full-grown son back into her comically inflated womb, and zombie sex leads to a mischievous zombie baby, who later bursts through the head cavity of a main character. According to LittleWhiteLies, the film made extensive use of puppets for some of its grotesque characters, while wax and other pliable material were used to create the zombies’ spattered flesh.
5. An American Werewolf in London
The centerpiece of John Landis’ England-set horror comedy An American Werewolf in London is undoubtedly its transformation scene — still probably the greatest realization of werewolf mythology ever put onscreen, for which effects artist Rick Baker won an Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. In fact, the award was invented specifically to recognize his scene-stealing work in the film.
It’s no wonder why, as the effects work (along with actor David Naughton’s wailing performance) illustrates just how agonizing turning into a werewolf might actually be. We see every new burst of hair and the painful growth of each lupine limb through a combination of animatronic body parts and prosthetics. Also notable among the film’s effects is the convincingly mangled appearance of several characters who return to speak with Naughton’s character after their deaths.
4. The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The monster in The Autopsy of Jane Doe appears to be nothing more than an unidentified corpse, played to pale, cloudy-eyed perfection by Irish actress Olwen Kelly, who used her experience with yoga and controlled breathing to stay deathly still even during lingering shots. Though the crew spent months going over footage of her body looking for muscle twitches to be removed during post-production, those are about the only digital effects used in the modestly-budgeted film.
The prosthetic effects are impressive, first for showing the body as otherworldly and flawless while remaining true to the grotesque details of forensics – star Emile Hirsch even visited a Los Angeles morgue to prepare for shooting – and then later for the grisly depiction of the wounds the mysterious body inflicts on her dissectors.
David Lynch’s first film is still probably his most unsettling, which is saying something. The film follows its anxious protagonist through a gray industrial world shot to look alien and hopeless before a woman he barely seems to know arrives and insists he is the father of her mutated newborn baby.
The mutant baby is a convincing creature as pitiable as it is horrifying, constantly rasping in its struggle to breathe and staring up through tiny black eyes. It’s all the scarier today, since Lynch has still refused to reveal how he created the baby, only dropping teasing clues like “it was born nearby.” He even went so far as to blindfold the projectionist who worked on Eraserhead’s dailies during production. John Patterson of The Guardian speculates it may have been created using a skinned rabbit fetus, but even that probably wouldn’t look as strange as the baby Lynch created for this incomparable film debut.
2. Day of the Dead
Its predecessors Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead may be more famous, but this finale to George Romero’s Dead trilogy finds the director and his makeup artist Tom Savini reaching their peak in terms of undead effects. Hundreds of Pittsburgh natives were painted to appear like nauseatingly-green-skinned zombies, the most grotesque of which are seen with faces half-missing and organs dangling from their opened chest cavities. Every frame is convincing, despite the fact that many of Savini’s props failed during filming.
Of particular note is a zombie who actually gets a name — Bub, a member of the walking dead who verges on being sympathetic despite his hunger for flesh and lobotomized behavior, perfectly realized by Savini and portrayed by actor Howard Sherman to tow the line between human and monster.
1. The Thing (1982)
Perhaps no film has made an alien look so convincingly otherworldly as John Carpenter’s The Thing, released to scathing reviews on the same weekend as E.T. In this decidedly different extraterrestrial tale, an alien life-form with the ability to consume and then perfectly imitate any living thing wreaks havoc on the paranoid men inhabiting an isolated Antarctic outpost. Effects designer Rob Bottin worked seven days a week to create the film’s incomparable creature effects, which usually show the alien as an ever-changing mass of tentacles and dripping flesh, with select humanoid features belonging to those it’s trying to assimilate.
Among the film’s most shocking moments is the infamous “chest chomp” scene, for which a double amputee was hired and multiple moldings of the actors made to truly sell the moment. This scene, and one immediately after in which a decapitated head grows legs and crawls around like a spider, show just what practical effects can accomplish when accompanied with the right amount of effort and creativity.
What other horror films used a surprising amount of practical effects to achieve their scares? Let us know in the comments.
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