Horror Movies and Special Effects


Special effects have been strongly associated with horror movies ever since Max Schreck donned the infamous vampire makeup in Nosferatu.  Horror is a genre that puts everything on the line in regards to the physical boundaries of at least semi explainable human anatomy and any and all possible items that can be used to destroy it. There are decapitations, eviscerations, monsters, dead animals, rotting corpse and pretty much anything else that you can think of that have already made their way into horror cinema.  Before the fat cats in Washington created dem fancy images making computers, everything was done practically with foam, rubber, latex, and a healthy dose of Karo syrup.  Monsters and deformed people were sculpted, not drawn or fabricated with ones and zeros.  I don’t want this to turn into an article about how old school effects are better than computer generated images because truth be told, they both have their place in the genre.  What I want to talk about instead is the importance of well executed special effects.

The reason I bring up this whole topic is because I have a very specific pet peeve in regards to one very specific visual effect.  The green screen process.  The invention of the green screen and computer generated background really are only limited by the artist’s imaginations, which in turn is an amazing tool for filmmakers.  They can turn skylines into post apocalyptic landscapes, they can transform a crappy warehouse into Times Square, and they can even add massive crowds of people to create a larger than life sporting event.  My gripe comes from when the filmmakers (or special effects houses) get lazy.

There are moments when watching a TV show or a movie where the actors are so blatantly within a green screen environment that it immediately takes me out of the moment.  One of three things almost always happens: the background looks laughably out of place, the actors clearly have a weird line around their silhouettes, or they are lighted for an indoor scene when it’s supposed to be taking place outdoors.  It just kills the mood for me.  This of course can be excused in lower budget productions because making the process look really good is expensive and difficult and if it isn’t perfect, I’m probably one of five people who notice.  I get the fact that the vision was bigger than the budget and I respect that they are trying to make the most out of it, but for the sake of shifting the topic a bit, the other digital pet peeve that is the bane of my existence is computer generated blood.

I just don’t get the concept of computer generated blood at all.  It never looks real.  It’s either lit way too light for the scene or it flies though time and space breaking all the laws of physics.  When did all of this start by the way?  What was wrong with exploding blood soaked condoms or spraying a high pressure hose of red liquid on someone?  When was the consensus made that digital blood was better or more efficient to use in any situation?  Anybody with me on this?

Ok, rant over.  Sorry about that, I had to get it out of my system.  So let’s start to talk about some instances when special effects work.

Take for example the film Martyrs.  I won’t be giving away any spoilers, but if you have seen the film, you know exactly what part I’m talking about.  When a girl gets tortured in what must be one of the most painful ways possible, the gore in the film is justified and startlingly realistic.  It’s absolutely disgusting to look at, but in a way, it’s beautiful to see that the hard work by the makeup and special effects department turn in something so chillingly effective.  In that scene the makeup worked so well that I had to actually stop watching the film.  Not because I was taken out of the moment, but because it was so realistic that I was disturbed.  Not too many movies can have that effect on me.

Sure it is very refreshing to see a film that has scares and tension that has little to no bloodshed in it, but let’s face it, sometimes we just want to see the blood pouring down the screen.  Lately in horror it has become more of a game of one-upmanship where the most ridiculous and horrible eviscerations are always trying to be topped.  What is the point of this if it doesn’t look real, or even remotely plausible?  For me, gore is most effective when they force the viewer to fill in the blanks.  Take for example the Asian girl who jumped in front of a train in Hostel.

We see her contemplating, then jumping on to the tracks not only to distract the evil people from our main character, but also because she couldn’t possibly go on living with such a disfiguration.  So if you forget in the scene, we see her jump, hear the impact and then see people waiting on the platform getting struck with flying blood.  It’s simple, effective, and mysterious.  It perfectly executes a little tool held over from literature.  They give you the basic visual skeleton of what’s happening, but the most disturbing part of it all is where your mind goes for the actually image that you have put together in your head.

It’s no secret that the appeal for a large number of horror fans is the gore, killing, and the absolute carnage (and possibly boobs).  Considering the main focus, the effects have to be believable to the viewer.  Through our many years of growth and development of horror film viewing, special effects have become a long way as well as presenting us with a base of what we as viewers believe that gore should look like.  Many times in film, gore doesn’t look like it does in real life, but that’s mainly because of that large catalog of films that gave us a visual of what intestines look like when they get ripped from a body.  If we saw gore that looked like it really does, we would think it looks fake.  Well, I think that’s a pretty interesting paradox.  What do you think?

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