Do you remember going to the theater or popping a VHS tape into the VCR of a newly-released horror film where animatronic monsters and blood-soaked sets horrified helpless unsuspecting characters? Nowadays, advancements in computer animation and graphics technology have allowed movies to unlock the limits of where fantasy and horror narratives can go. Despite this, we also live in an age of nostalgia. Many of us long for the classic feelings associated with our childhood.
In the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, practical effects in horror films were the norm. Creature features, slasher films, and haunted horror all made use of prosthetics, make-up, animatronics, and buckets of the gory red stuff. These effects imbued the character of these classic horror films with a timeless quality. So, the question stands: what are some of the best horror films that made use of practical effects?
10 An American Werewolf In London
At present, we’ve witnessed countless werewolf transformations across television and film. But no werewolf transformation quite does the art service like the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London. In this film, David, a traveler, is the unlucky survivor of a werewolf attack.
Weeks later, he is warned by the ghost of his friend who was killed in the very same attack that he will transform into a werewolf and that he must kill himself to avoid harming others. Of course, David brushes this off as a hallucination and experiences one of the greatest werewolf transformation scenes in cinema. The practical effects only heightened the horror and frightening reality of this scene.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser was a seminal horror film that thoroughly explored the use of practical effects. Of course, prosthetics and make-up were used to create the infamous cenobites. However, the most stomach-churning scene came when Julia witnessed her former lover, Frank, being resurrected.
This wasn’t a simple resurrection, however, as Frank was previously torn to pieces at the start of the film due to the mysterious puzzle box. A simple drop of blood morphed and grew into muscles, bone, and eventually appendages. Despite this horrific scene, Julia still managed to have feelings for the guy!
8 Evil Dead II
Sam Raimi’s splatstick (horror/comedy) Evil Dead II mastered the art of practical effects. The film was a sequel of the first Evil Dead film with comedy injected into the plot. As the main protagonist, Ash Williams became an icon with this film.
While he is the reason the demonic horror is unleashed on the cabin, he must deal with his possessed girlfriend as well as the possession and deaths of others who come later. Everything from mounted deer heads cackling at Ash, Ash’s severed hand wreaking havoc, and even the gluttonous zombified suit for the possessed character, Henrietta Knowby, were the height of practical effects during the '80s.
7 A Nightmare On Elm Street
Freddy Krueger has been terrorizing fans for years, whether it be a crossover with another horror icon, Jason Voorhees, or as a downloadable character for a video game like Mortal Kombat (2019). But it all started with A Nightmare on Elm Street.
In the dream world, Freddy can manipulate his victims’ worlds. He shapeshifts and morphs into anything that might be scary. All of this is handled with practical effects with a lot of artistry behind the transformations. Let’s not forget the infamous blood geyser that Johnny Depp’s character was reduced to in his own bedroom!
6 Child’s Play
Chucky’s terrifying murder spree across several films was aided by an actual doll and animatronics. Those terrifying facial movements were the work of robotics designers and animators.
An animatronic doll very much feels like what a doll that has come to life might be like. This made Chucky one of the most terrifying monsters in cinema during his prime. He was also virtually unstoppable as several movies have proven!
While the Xenomorph still remains a fixture of sci-fi horror in pop culture, its ferocity wasn’t always a CGI animation. In fact, Ridley Scott’s Alien made use of a giant puppet complete with a puppeteer that would, of course, stay offscreen.
It’s amazing to think that the crew created an entire horror feature centered around a puppet without ever truly giving its animation secret away. And, perhaps, one of the most shocking scenes to utilize practical effects in a horror film was the chestburster, a juvenile alien that emerged violently from a crew member’s torso.
Poltergeist frightened many households in the ’80s. Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper made us respect the supernatural world with the haunting of the Freeling family. But no other scene quite shook us like Marty’s disturbing hallucination. The spooky antics drop Marty to see a raw steak moving on its own across the kitchen counter before realizing the chicken leg he was munching on was teaming with maggots.
As Marty rushed to the bathroom to splash water in his face and grasp what he just saw, he began to peel away at a cut on his cheek. This results in him peeling his entire face off. This movie magic was nothing short of manufactured flesh and Steven Spielberg’s very own hands (used to tear the flesh off dummy Marty’s face).
3 The Fly
Jeff Goldblum may have stirred the world with his exposed chest and sex appeal in Jurassic Park, but a few years prior he was terrifying audiences with his gruesome transformation into a monstrous fly. The Fly follows Seth’s (Jeff Goldblum) quest to make teleportation a reality. However, he inadvertently fuses his own genetic make-up with a fly when trying to use the machine after a fly entered the testing area.
The film makes heavy use of prosthetics and make-up as Seth slowly evolves into a fly throughout the course of the film. While attempting to make his significant other “his” forever by fusing her with him, she rips off his jaw, which kickstarts his final transformation. The scene is nothing short of spectacular and horror fans owe it to themselves to witness it.
2 The Thing
John Carpenter’s The Thing really challenged the use of practical effects with the film’s very basis. The alien lifeform terrorizing a crew during an excavation in Antarctica is capable of transforming into any living being. This pushes the crew to search for methods of learning who is actually themselves and who is the thing.
In one such scene, one of the crew members suffers what appears to be a heart attack. In an attempt to save his life with chest compressions, one unlucky crew member learns that the man is actually the alien shapeshifting lifeform the hard way. His chest cavity opens into a gaping maw and bites off the arms of the individual performing CPR. The thing then proceeds to morph into a grotesque monstrosity, all powered by the magic of practical effects.
1 Dead Alive
Before Peter Jackson became a household name with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was developing and filming horror films. His film Dead Alive, is, perhaps, one of the goriest films you will ever see. Of course, the over-the-top zombie and gore effects were intentional to add a comedic element with its complete absurdity.
The film follows a virus that begins with a Sumatran rat-monkey that lands in a zoo. The film's protagonist takes his cantankerous mother to the zoo, where she is bitten. What happens shortly after is nothing short of grotesque zombie horror as she slowly transforms and begins killing her pets and caretakers, who all reanimate to continue the horror. At one point, there is an entire bloody pile of indiscernible gore that reanimates into a monster and begins attacking the living. The gore effects in this film were next-level for the genre.