Come on, let’s admit it: as far as horror goes, practical special effects are the best because when has a CGI monster ever been scary? – Never, that’s when. So when something like recent British indie ‘The Hallow’ comes along, it’s no wonder horror fans get a bit excited.
Above: The creepy practical effects used in last year’s ‘The Hallow’.
The film is set in rural Ireland, where a British family make the mistake of trespassing in woods haunted by a whole manner of “fairies, banshees, and baby-stealers” – cue some proper monster effects that conjure up memories of the old school creature features.
For those whose memories have been eroded by years of digital mediocrity, here’s a rundown of some of the greatest and most iconic practical effects monsters to tear it up on the big-screen.
King Kong (1933)
The Monster: The undisputed King of Skull Island and the original icon of monstrous stop-motion animation, Kong.
Practical Magic: As impressive as the punch-ups between Kong and Skull Island’s resident dinosaurs are (with groundbreaking miniatures work), the real magic is in the close-up effects work, which reveals Kong to be more man than beast.
Talent Behind The Monster: Marcel Delgado is credited as the genius that created most of the Kong effects (from the designs and vision of director-producer Merian C. Cooper). He paved the way for many more visual effects masters in the decades that followed.
The Monster: The Xenomorph. It’s half bloodthirsty alien, half re-imagined lady-parts, or so designer H.R. Giger would have you believe.
Practical Magic: The alien design took the old ‘man in a suit’ style of effects to the next level, with its biomechanical body and sleek, demon-esque head. The magic touch, however, is the protruding tongue with its own little face. Inspired.
Talent Behind The Monster: Swiss surrealist Giger famously designed the monster, but the head was sculpted by Italian SFX maestro Carlo Rambaldi, who also made E.T. – the anti-Xenomorph.
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
The Monster: The American werewolf itself, though it’s more the transformation than the actual monster that makes this an absolute howler.
Practical Magic: Not only did it push the boundaries of effects work, but you also feel every bit of the bone-cracking agony David Kessler (David Naughton) goes through as he transforms.
Talent Behind The Monster: Rick Baker, the master of monsters. He apparently spent months designing the wolf’s extending snout, for the sake of a seven-second shot. Kudos for his effects work on David’s decomposing BFF Jack (Griffin Dunne) too.
The Howling (1980)
The Monster: The other werewolf to claw his way into cinemas the year previous, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), whose transformation is just as impressive.
Practical Magic: With its bubbling latex skin and finger-splitting claws, Eddie’s ‘wolf-out’ is pure ‘80s B-movie brilliance – and though it seems campy now, was also groundbreaking. Regrettably, it loses marks for spawning arguably the worst franchise in horror history.
Talent Behind The Monster: Rob Bottin, who took over after Rick Baker left production to work on ‘American Werewolf’. Why there hasn’t been a ‘Howling Versus American Werewolf’ movie by now, we’ll never know.
The Thing (1982)
The Monster: Known simply as ‘thingy’ to his friends, a shape-shifting parasitic alien that can imitate the any living organism.
Practical Magic: Despite having no set form, ‘The Thing’ is a true classic of movie design, with every one of its skin-crawling guises iconic as the last. Its crowning glory (or gory, perhaps) comes as one victim’s opened torso transforms into a spider-like spaghetti monster with a tiny man’s head. Horrifying.
Talent Behind The Monster: Our man Rob Bottin again. These gruesome effects would be his masterpiece; though he also did memorable effects work on ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Total Recall’.
The Fly (1986)
The Monster: ‘Brundlefly’, the stomach-churning combo of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Golblum) and a housefly, after the two are fused in a teleportation experiment-gone-wrong.
Practical Magic: Each stage of Brundle’s transformation is ickier than the last, beginning with the odd, unsightly hair, through to fingernails dropping off (and the rest), and his final incarnation as bug-eyed dollop of mutated flesh.
Talent Behind The Monster: Chris Wala, who nabbed an Academy Award for his troubles. That he didn’t ‘vomit drop’ on the Oscar while at the podium remains one of cinema’s greatest crimes.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The Monster: The Pale Man, a nightmarish monster who likes to eat children and has his eyeballs in the palms of his hands, as young girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) learns when she tumbles into the dark fairytale-like world.
Practical Magic: A truly great monster should make you recoil in horror, which the Pale Man certainly achieves. The trick of the design is that it taps into the uncanny – terrifying because it’s almost but not quite human.
Talent Behind The Monster: We can only credit the warped and fantastical mind of director Guillermo del Toro, who attributes the saggy flesh of The Pale Man to his own experiences with weight loss.
The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
The Monster: The Merman, who Hadley (Bradley Whitford) spends the whole movie wishing he could see – then deeply regrets it in the bloody climax.
Practical Magic: There are few surprises for horror fans these days, but when Merman crawls into shot, with a shark-like mouth of razor sharp teeth, a grotesque blubbery body, and bloody blowhole, it’s a genius design that no one is expecting. The true money shot of this super-smart meta-horror.
Talent Behind The Monster: Though the product of David LeRoy Anderson’s AFX Studio, the true brains behind the Merman were designer Joe Pepe and sculptor Hiroshi Katagiri.
‘The Hallow’ is available on DVD now.
Picture credits: Occupant Entertainment, RKO Radio Pictures, Universal, Polygam Filmed Entertainment, AVCO Embassy Pictures, SLM Production Group, Estudios Picasso, Lionsgate.