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Silicon, Paint, and Duct Taped Saints: Practical Effects in Horror Movies

The breaking point of any horror movie always comes down to the same dreaded statement: “That doesn’t look real!” A writer can concoct a plot so scary, readers and screenwriters will shit themselves in the safety of their own cozy homes. However, if the same blood-curdling images of depravity and disgust can’t be translated effectively to screen, all that’s left is an incredulous audience. This is the problem we usually see in film adaptations of horror stories.

The best example available is the original screen adaptation of It. No offense, Stephen King, but the original made-for-T.V. horror flick suffered from cardboard sets and rubber teeth. The 2017 iteration benefited from the updated makeup and costume as well as the help of spooky CGI effects. However, some of the best Halloween films have used the illusion of lighting and mastery makeup and costume design to subvert lack of CGI special effects, compelling even the staunchest skeptics believing in the terrifying unreality of horror movies.

Of all the horror movies that took “when life gives you lemons, make terrifying monsters” to heart, some have better examples of ingenuity and creativity in practical design than others. Each of the three examples in this article did something spectacular to take their monsters out of the storyboard and send them running into the night.

William Shatner Never Looked Worse: Halloween (1978)

With its 40th anniversary remake now scaring a new generation of sugared-up teens, one wonders what it is exactly about “Halloween” that is so gripping and terrifying? The “monster,” after all, is a man and of all the films to hit the October roster at the time, it is by no means the bloodiest. Audiences were still reeling after the graphic debut of films like “Jaws” and “The Exorcist,” which capitalized on stunning effects makeup, million dollar animatronics, and an MVP line-up of actors. “Halloween” director John Carpenter only had $300,000 to get the movie off the ground in 1977, so costuming and set design had to be minimal in order to cut cost. Jamie Lee Curtis would end up buying her own wardrobe from J.C. Penney for around a hundred dollars just to cut cost! Most of the money had already gone to salary, camera equipment, and creating the illusion of fall in the dead of summer. Artistic director Tommy Lee Wallace had to create a highly-stylized, highly-scary image with very little costuming and makeup. And that’s where Michael Myers was born out of; a black truck-driver jumpsuit and a mutilated Captain Kirk mask.

The mask has been a focal point of high praise from critics and designers in Hollywood for years because it plays with a truly scary concept: the most horrible monsters are often human beings. Michael Myers doesn’t need eight arms and giant teeth to be scary. His silence, foreboding stature, lust for violence, and hidden face make him menacing and genuinely terrifying. Wallace had the idea to use the Captain Kirk mask – with the eye holes widen and a few tears added – because he wanted Myers to be just human enough to be recognizable, but torn and battered enough to be disturbing. The fact that the mask was only two dollars at the convenience store must have been a pretty nice incentive as well. The rest was up to the actors, the direction, and a critically-acclaimed movie score.

Rust and Beauty: Saw (2004)

“Saw” is not just a film franchise; it’s a cult of its own. A short film written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell in 2004 turned into an eight-movie Halloween monopoly that released a hit every October for six years. The newest film, “Jigsaw,” finally revealed the origin story of the creepy little theater puppet running the sadistic shit-show. From the conception of the first film, director and production designer David Hackl has committed to one element that has made the series of movies gripping, tense, and sometimes dangerous; real, functioning traps.

The booby traps in “Saw” make the films utterly unique and equally awful. Some highlights include the “scalping machine,” the “Venus Flytrap,” and the “Needle Box,” all of which sound like a horrible Saturday night. Each involuntary player of Jigsaw’s games is challenged to complete a painful task or else die at the hands  – or jaws – of a contraption straight from hell. Hackl has attended to the trap designs in every film in order to make sure they were 100 percent authentic: real turning gears, real metal frames, and real explosives. Most traps were designed dull, so to speak, so as to not actually injure the actors, but a few – like the water box in “Saw V” – had the real possibility of danger during production. Actor Scott Patterson had to submerge his head in a sealed container full of water for as long as he could, adding the element of real peril to his performance.

To Hackl, it was all part of the spectacle. His imagining of the “Saw” universe capitalized on grime and mechanical horror. He wanted to create a combination of “rust and beauty,” and in doing so created an iconic set of scenes on which they based an entire franchise on.

A Director, a Carpenter, and Five Tired College Students: The Evil Dead (1981)

Not only is “The Evil Dead” one of the best examples of practical effects on this list, it is my personal favorite horror movie. It might even be one of my favorite movies. It’s a perfect underdog story that makes the depth and quality of the work put out seem incredibly. Few people watching would know, but “The Evil Dead” rose out of ingenious camera work, homemade rigs, and the acting chops of a few film majors fresh out of school.

Sam Raimi was a huge horror buff and made his own short flick for consideration at the 1979 Sundance Film Festival. While his prototype film, “Within the Woods,” didn’t receive the greatest reviews, he was told to try again and given a $90,000 paycheck to make a horror film that would captivate American audiences. Quickly, he raised the rest of the money through donations and begging his family for their spare change. He cast the protagonist, a determined and sensible Ash Williams, with the best man for the job (and coincidentally the first to respond: his close friend Bruce Campbell, who was also a film major and attempting to make it as an actor.

Thus began several months of hard work. The crew filmed on location in a cabin deep in the mountains and had no access to the usual set dressings of traditional films. Steve Frankel, the film’s art designer and carpenter, got around using fly wires and other props by building sophisticated rigs that could “levitate” actors and other contraptions that could tear holes in walls and, in one dramatic scene, spray Campbell with several gallons of fake blood.

The rest of the film relies on savvy camera work. This film popularized the use of the “shaky cam” in dramatic scenes. The real reason they used it? They couldn’t actually afford a Steadicam. The beginning and end shot of the movie, some of the best camera work of the film and of the decade, was concocted by strapping the camera to a bike and riding it through the cabin. Where Raimi had to take liberties on money and time, he made up for through smart editing and even smarter cinematography.

Needless to say, making evil real takes a lot of work; most of these films were nightmares to make. Carpenter wondered often how he’d stretch the money to pay his actors’ salaries. Hundreds of hours were poured into making the contraptions in “Saw.” Campbell called working on “The Evil Dead” “twelve weeks of mirthless exercise in agony.” Yet, I think we can all agree, the results have left us on the edge of our seats ever since. There is a benefit to practicality in film; a more real experience is a better experience.”

Delaney Dammeyer

Elizabethtown '20

Delaney is an aspiring anthropologist with an interest in journalism, writing for both her school newspaper and Her Campus. She enjoys music, food and art and can usually be found writing about those things as well as culture, identity and the crazy reality of human experience. She can't wait to see where this takes her!
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