Top 5 Practical Effects Films

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of practical effects. When a creature or effect is actually created using items that exist in the tactile world, they will always be more memorable. This is not to say that CGI (computer generated images) do not have their time and place. It is impossible to argue that the use of computer driven effects in cinema has not lead to advances in what filmmakers can accomplish… But that said, many filmmakers have simply become lazy when it comes to their effects. Instead of  building creations that will stand the test of time, they tend to just blend into the gooey, glossy CGI mess that so many movies these days fall victim to. In college I wrote a term paper painstakingly detailing the advantages of the original Star Wars trilogy (before the 1997 “restoration”) opposed to the recent prequel trilogy. The main argument was that the original trilogy holds up in our memories and has become a staple in our culture because of how palpable the sets and creatures are. We have such a visceral reaction to the Rancor, Wampa and all of the patrons of the Mos Eisley cantina compared to any of the beasties in the prequels because they are one more step to reality. We can imagine what it must be like to be in their presence because they actually existed in some factual form. More times than not CGI creatures and effects tend to feel flat and artificial. My militant opposition to the computer infiltration of the cinema has mellowed out a tad since my college years. Programs such as Smoke, After Effects, Houdini, Maya and a handful of others have help complete landscapes and textures that would not have been possible in years past. And more and more we are seeing affective blends of practical and digital. However, I still stand by the statement that a practical effect will always produce a more deep-seated emotional reaction from the viewer. Below is a list of 5 of the best examples of this.

5. Freaked (1993) – Alex Winter/Tom Stern

Freaked is the brainchild of actor Alex Winter (better known as Bill S. Preston, Esq., and the dreamy blonde vampire that looks like he plays guitar in Winger from the Lost Boys) and his writing partner Tom Stern. Originally conceived as a $100,000 starring vehicle for the band the Butthole Surfers, the movie’s budget ballooned into $12,000,000 when Joe Roth (the then head of 20th Century Fox) became interested. Winter and Stern had recently found some cult success with an absurdest sketch comedy show on MTV called “the Idiot Box” and it was agreed– drop the band and give the movie a similar approach.  The duo had to rewrite the script in order to get a PG-13 rating, eliminating much of the obscene material. During post production, Joe Roth was fired from the studio and the new head honcho that replaced him did not share his affection for the film. The postproduction budget was drastically cut and the title was change from Hideous Mutant Freekz. Upon screenings of the film, it was decided that film was simply too weird and it opened on a whopping two screens nation-wide. The odd thing about this action on the studio’s part is the fact that the film received almost universal critical praise at the time of its release. Since, it has garnered a mass following and until its release on DVD, was one of the most sought after out-of-print titles on VHS. So what exactly is this movie about and why is it on this list? Alex Winter plays a über rich and über morally corrupt Hollywood star, Ricky Coogin, who is “convinced” to become the spokesperson for an evil chemical corporation. On a trip to South America to promote the corporation’s newest chemical, Zygrot 24, Ricky and his posse befriend a crazy sideshow leader named Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid in easily his most entertaining role ever). He soon kidnaps them and using the very same chemical that they were there to promote, turns them all into hideous mutant freaks for his sideshow. Sight gags galore occur along the way as the newly deformed Ricky and his untimely mutant friends try to escape the clutches of the evil made man (and his giant rasta eyeball henchmen, appropriately named Eye and Eye). And besides some quick transitions, almost all of it is done with prosthetic make up, animatronics and clay animation. Because the movie was “toned down” in order to receive a PG-13 rating, the absurdity is based more around innuendoes. The result is a unique mix of over the top visuals with more subtle obscenities, kind of like a live action version of “Ren and Stimpy”. This films also boasts an impressive collection of cameos from the likes of Brooke Shields, Mr. T, Bobcat Goldthwait, John Hawks, William Sadler, Deep Roy, Morgan Fairchild, Sam Raimi and Ted Theodore Logan himself, Keanu Reeves.

4. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) – Joe Dante

Gremlins 2 is probably the best example of how much fun you can have with a movie when you decide to put down the keyboard and stylist and pick up the latex and paint. While not being as much of a classic as its predecessor, this chapter goes for one of the best rules for sequeldom, bigger is better. Pretty much everything in this movie is bigger than before. Instead of the small town of Kingston Falls, this film is set in New York City. Instead of one type of vicious gremlin, here we have dozens. And instead of a budget of $11,000,000, we have $50,000,000. The plot here is that the lovable couple from the first film is now working in a state-of-the-art skyscraper where apparently nothing works and unholy experiments are taking place in labs. This whole plot is just a set up for the gremlins to run-amok and ingest all kinds of different chemicals and hormones in order to develop in fun new ways.  Originally the design and oversight of production for the creatures was done by Chris Walas (who will come up again when we discuss the 2nd film on this list) but the reigns were handed over to one of the greatest masters of practical effects in the business, Rick Baker (who will come up in the next film), for this chapter. Because of Baker’s skill with animatronics and make-up, mixed with a bigger budget and advances in technology since the first movie in 1984, we now have a wider range of gremlins to choose from. We have a bat-gremlin, a spider-gremlin, a vegetable-gremlin, a brain-gremlin (voiced by Tony Randall), and a sexier-than-it-should-be female gremlin (femlin for short). There are also more expressively animated traditional gremlins. In the first movie we would see many of the shoots of the creatures from the waist up, or they would be attached to an object that would help them move (i.e. a ceiling fan). However, in the sequel we see them not only walking more, but dancing. In a film that relies on practical effects, there is a not-so-subtle message about the dangers of our society being too reliant on technology to run our lives.

3. American Werewolf in London (1981) – John Landis

As I stated above, I have warmed up tremendously in recent years to the advantages of using CGI in movies. However, there is one genre of horror that I will stand adamantly opposed to the use of it in: Werewolves. Cursed, American Werewolf in Paris, any of the Underworld movies, the Twilight movies with the werewolves, the Wolfman remake– the list of examples of god-awful CGI werewolves goes on and on. The transformation of man to wolf is a process that I imagine has got to be a painful one. And that pain can not be adequately expressed without seeing the stretching of the skin and the dislocating of the bones. When it comes to these effects, CGI just doesn’t cut it. While there are a handful of great lycanthropic films that feature practical effects, (The Howling, Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers, Silver Bullet, Kibakichi, Bad Moon, the Company of Wolves, Monster Squad), one stands head and tails above the rest, American Werewolf in London. The transformation scene alone in this film would put it on this list. David Naughton’s transfiguration from man to wolf with”Blue Moon” playing in the background is one of the all time iconic scenes in horror. Plus it is just downright grueling to watch.  On top of that you have the ever decaying walking corpse of Griffin Dunne and a werewolf Nazi dream sequence. It is a true testament to the beauty of John Landis’ imagination and Rick Baker’s mastery of his craft that it is 30 years later and filmmakers haven’t been able to come close to touching what they have pulled off here. The special effects in this film were so impressive that the Academy created the category of Outstanding Achievement in Make-up specifically for it (not surprisingly Rick Baker holds the record for most nominations, 10, and wins, 6). Back in February of this year when the almost unwatchable remake the Wolfman finally came out, Rottentomatoes.com put together this pretty extensive list of the best and worst of werewolf transformations through the years: Best and Worst of Werewolf Transformations

2. The Fly (1986) – David Cronenberg

Stomach turning doesn’t even come close to describing certain scenes in this movie. Ever so loosely based on the 1958 film of the same name, this 1986 feature broke new ground in queasiness. The grotesqueries of this film could not have been properly conveyed by any means other than prosthetics.  In my last top 5 list I tackled the genre of body horror. While numbers 5, 3 and 1 could all easily belong on that list, this one kind of takes the cake. Directed by the creator of Videodrome, in it we see Jeff Goldblum’s character morph into a fly in the most painfully slow manner. While testing a teleportation device he has created, Seth Brundle (Goldblum) accidentally combines his DNA with the DNA of a fly. Soon after teleporting his notices a boost in energy and strength. He attributes this to the act of his molecules being separated and reassembled. In reality, his body is a war between two different species, and for the next hour and a half we see the effects.  All in all there are seven different stages that we witness between human and fly, each one more vivid and horrific than the last. During the process we witness Brundle loosing teeth, hair, nails and skin.  Body parts fuse together, his head and torso bulge and every part becomes discolored. All the while he takes a scientific approach to the metamorphosis. Without giving away too much, the final stage of the transformation is one of the most impressive monsters have to be seen on screen. Possibly the most brutal scene was cut from the movie– in an attempt to find a solution to his problems, Brundle tries to transport a cat and a monkey, and in doing so he creates a hideous hybrid of the two. The two headed creature lunges at him and he beats it to death with a metal pipe. He then begins to scale the wall onto the outside roof. There he begins to feel a sharp pain in his side and he loses control and falls to the ground. A insect like leg emerges from his side and in horror he tears it off using his teeth. Mel Brooks was the uncredited producer on this film even though he was involved with the production from start to finish. Much like his involvement in David Lynch’s the Elephant Man, Brooks did not want his name, which is normally associated with comedy, to tarnish the picture credibility.

1. The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter

One day, when I have way too much time on my hands, I would like to try and map out when the use of practical effects reach their pinnacle. If I were to take an educated guess I would say 1989. Of course there are practical effects that can be done today that are far more advanced than those done in the 80’s.  But there was a certain point that was reached when special effects artists began to use computers to create effects that normally they would have gone the practical route for in the past. Therefore more emphasis was put on what was possible in the digital realm and less what was possible in the practical realm. With this in mind, you can’t help be watch a film like The Thing today and wonder what effects and creatures would they have created the same way, and what would have been created with CGI.  And more so, how that would change the feel and legacy of the movie.  I suppose that is the key question that I am trying to instigate in your mind as you read this. There are so many fun and frightening moments in this film that you can watch it over and over again and still be startled– It is one of those films where you can watch it on two levels.  On one hand you can view it for its suspense-filled plot of a group of men stuck in research lab in the south pole with a shapeshifting alien parasite making its way through the dwindling party.  On the other hand, you can sit back during the effects-laden scenes and be in awe of what you are watching and the fact that they were able to pull it off using latex and animatronics. So much heart and soul was put into the effects in this movie that the special effects artist, Rob Bottin, had to be hospitalized from exhaustion because he was putting too much time into his work and forgetting to sleep. Luckily, another practical effects wizard, Sam Winston, stepped in to help out. In this case, we don’t have to wait too long to find the answer to the question I stated above, a remake/prequel of the Thing just wrapped on principle photography and is due in theaters next year.

Special Feature:

Just to show that I am not a complete luddite and can, in fact, appreciate good CGI effects when I see them, here are my Top 5 CGI Effects Films:

5. District 9 (2009) – Neil Blomkamp

4. El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) (2006) – Guillermo del Toro

3. Starship Troopers (1997) – Paul Verhoeven

2. Jurassic Park (1993) – Steven Spielberg

1. Gwoemul (the Host) (2006) – Bong Joon-ho

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7 Responses to “Top 5 Practical Effects Films”

  1. Violet streak Says:

    Couldnt agree more. And thx for not giving away to much of the movies I haven’t seen. Can’t stand when people do that!

  2. Half of the fun of Fangoria magazine was watching the FX being applied. CGI just isn’t the same viscerally.

  3. The amazingly talented and creative, late STAN Winston really requires proper credit for his work here… definitely agree on the practical FX vs CGI debate though. CGI has its place but creatures and characters really come alive when made from something physical

  4. Great list. I would add Jason and the Argonauts’ Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion magic.

  5. gwaaan ghost

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