e’ve become used to digital characters and creations as an integral part of our cinematic entertainment, from monsters to superheroes and everything in between. While there are reasons why digital effects are necessary and when done properly they can help elevate a film’s visual purpose, practical effects will always reign supreme in genre filmmaking, as you cannot beat having something tangible on the screen in front of audiences (especially when it comes to pleasing horror fans).
As we approach the end of the decade, it feels only right that we take a moment to celebrate some of the greatest special effects that have graced the big and small screens and the brilliant artists who helped bring them to life.
The new decade’s effects offerings kicked off in a notable way, with Oscar winner and industry legend Rick Baker's interpretation of the beloved Universal Monster for The Wolfman. Daybreakers introduced us to a new class of bloodsuckers. The Human Centipede unnerved us with its grotesquely simple effects. And in Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, we saw why it is always a bad idea to fall in love with your scientific experiments.
As far as carnage candy goes, it was Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D that brought the gory goods that year. Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of KNB EFX Group served as the masterminds behind the movie’s extraordinary amount of bloodshed; they had to handle multiple death scenes throughout Piranha 3D as well as the horror comedy’s arduous grand massacre that left hundreds of extras, as well as Eli Roth, in pieces once angry hordes of the murderous fish show up. Co-eds who had descended upon Lake Victoria to enjoy spring break will never step foot in the water again (provided they actually have any feet, once the piranha got hold of them).
At one point during the Crimson Tide massacre, one victim gets her face peeled off via a motorized boat propeller, which is enough to cement Piranha 3D as a memorable slice of B-horror gold. But the fact that we also witness Jerry O’Connell’s manhood floating away from the rest of his disfigured body, eventually becoming a snack for the titular creatures, ensures that Aja’s Piranha will go down in history as one of the most wonderfully ridiculous aquatic horror romps ever.
We saw some truly spectacular special effects at both the studio level and in independent filmmaking. Before digital interference hindered their efforts in the final version of the film, Alec Gills, Tom Woodruff Jr. and the team at Studio ADI created several spectacular alien creatures for The Thing (2011) that paid homage to Rob Bottin’s mind-blowing creations first seen in John Carpenter’s original film decades prior. The very same year, Mike Elizalde and Spectral Motion unleashed some of the coolest monsters this side of the universe for Attack the Block (complete with glowing jaws), and Gary Tunnicliffe gave us copious amount of bodily harm for Scream 4 (most of which sadly ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor).
But it was Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun that delivered a buffet of butchery that made this love letter to grindhouse cinema a standout, thanks to Zane Knisley and other talented artists who created some of the bloodiest and cartoonishly over-the-top deaths and moments of violence during the entire decade. Heads roll, feet get smashed in carnival games. Victims get their heads smashed between bumper cars. There are boundless geysers of blood, bad guys go down with gut-scrambling shotgun blasts, plus one character even suffers the cruel fate of having their genitalia mangled.
But one of the biggest scene-stealers in Hobo with a Shotgun ends up being the terrifying tag team known as “The Plague,” who dish out blunt cruelty to their victims and keep a weird tentacle monster locked away, to boot. If any characters in horror deserved their own spin-off movie by now, it’s “The Plague.”
Horror fans were treated to a bevy of badass practical effects such as Gary Tunnicliffe’s work in The Collector; the body horrors of American Mary; Resident Evil: Retribution, which smartly brought back The Executioner and had Paul Jones handling the zombie hordes as well; and the stunningly marble-esque Engineers in Prometheus designed by Carlos Huante. This year even saw the birth of a new horror icon in the black metal-inspired Bughuul for Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. But the most impressive special effects came out of The Cabin in the Woods, which featured pretty much every kind of creature, character or monstrosity you could possibly dream up.
Spearheaded by Oscar winner David LeRoy Anderson, the amount of practical effects involved with bringing Drew Goddard’s bold vision to life in Cabin is staggering, as his story required Anderson and AFX Studio to create a smorgasbord of creatures, villains, and monsters ready to fuck you up for all eternity (and in this instance, that is quite literal). Some of the highlights: Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain; a sugar plum fairy with a teeth-filled visage; the savage Scarecrow Folk; a blood-thirsty unicorn; and last, but certainly not least, the merman who spouts a geyser of blood out of his blowhole after he’s done consuming his victims.
The Cabin in the Woods was a true gift to genre fans for many reasons, but the biggest has to be the extraordinary amount of monsters on display once all hell breaks loose, and for those of us who can’t get enough monster movies, AFX Studios' commitment to keeping that spirit alive in Cabin is incomparable.
So, how do you follow up one of the biggest creature-centric undertakings of all time? Well, if you’re Fede Alvarez, you do it by ensuring your feature film debut delivers the most brutal and savage effects we’ve seen in a theatrical studio film. That’s not to discount the efforts on other movies that came out the same year: The human body bag moment in No One Lives is still one of the best effects reveals in a modern horror movie. There is also some truly inspired artistry on display in The Lords of Salem and the animatronic work in The World’s End is top notch. But nothing even comes close to what we see in Evil Dead.
Led by prosthetic designer Roger Murray, ED was all about pain, and every character in the sequel suffers. Alvarez’s sequel opens with a young woman being burned alive, and it only gets more heinous from there, with its cavalcade of effects steeped in a harrowing realism like we have never seen before in an Evil Dead film. Often unnerving and downright nasty, Evil Dead has everything (said in a Stefan voice): dead cats hanging by barbed wire, rape vines, geysers of blood vomit, demonic entities, and copious amounts of dismemberment.
Beyond that, Jane Levy’s character Mia scalds herself in the shower, leaving her skin covered in seeping blisters (and eventually splits her own tongue after licking a knife). Well-meaning nursing student Olivia (Jessica Lucas) ends up carving her own face like a Jack-O-Lantern using broken glass. Lou Taylor Pucci’s Eric gets abused in myriad ways, including being repeatedly stabbed by a syringe (almost going through his eye at one point), being stabbed in the chest with a shard of broken glass, and getting a face full of nails after being repeatedly shot at by a nail gun. And then poor Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) gets bitten by the possessed Mia, which forces her to sever her own arm with a meat carving knife, leaving it dangling precariously until it falls off.
And none of the aforementioned even takes into account the viscous-soaked finale that utilizes somewhere north of 50,000 gallons of red goo to create the blood rain that falls as Mia finally triumphs over evil. Groovy, indeed.
This year marked the arrival of filmmaker Joe Begos and his first film, Almost Human, which featured a handful of rad practical effects (which would become a calling card for all of his movies to come). There were also some pretty gnarly effects on display in both Starry Eyes and Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead as well. We were also introduced to the now iconic Mr. Babadook to boot. But the year belonged to the legendary Robert Kurtzman, who kept busy on a bunch of projects, most notably creating the skin-shedding werewolf transformations for Late Phases as well as transforming Justin Long into a freakishly grotesque human/walrus hybrid for Kevin Smith’s Tusk.
When he arrives at Pippy Hill, Long’s character Wallace is unaware that he’s about to be reconstructed into a living monstrosity by the eccentric and reclusive Howard Howe (Michael Parks). After Howard drugs him, Wallace is gradually taken apart through a series of surgeries, as Howard prepares the podcaster’s body for an inhuman metamorphosis into a walrus-esque companion he calls Mr. Tusk. Howard removes his legs, fuses his victim's arms to his body to create flapper-like appendages, and continues contorting Wallace’s frame into a piece-meal conglomeration of nightmares utilizing a collection of human skin and anatomy that Howard has amassed over time, including Wallace’s own tibia bones which would eventually become his tusks.
Building a larger-than-life version of Mr. Tusk was hard enough for Kurtzman, who only had about five weeks to prepare. But the suit, which Long spent many hours in during several days of production, also had to be able to withstand working in water; if you’ve seen Jaws, you know there are always difficulties that come along with immersing any kind of effects in water. A little bit Frankenstein, a little bit Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a little bit Human Centipede, Tusk serves as the perfect reminder that you should never go full walrus.
While every year during the decade had strong effects work, 2015 could be the best. Three movies gave us plenty of reasons to cheer: the red-stained apparitions of Crimson Peak; the zombie-fueled shenanigans in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse; and the over-the-top effects in Deathgasm. But it’s the brilliant creature and characters dreamed up by the imagination of Michael Dougherty, and brought to life by Richard Taylor and the team at WETA, that made the delightful holiday horrors in Krampus that stand above the rest.
As one might expect from a movie called Krampus, the demonic punisher of bad children is truly a thing of nightmarish beauty, with his twisted Santa-like mask hiding his true visage, serpentine tongue, spindly fingers, and weighty stature making for a boldly impressive take on this familiar character from European folklore. Krampus also gives us its interpretation of several other classic Christmas characters and totems of childhood who are unleashed to teach a dysfunctional family about the true meaning of Christmas. That includes a horde of killer gingerbread men who don’t take kindly to gluttonous kids munching on their heads, a yard filled with menacing snowmen that can somehow multiply, a child-eating oversized Jack-in-the-Box with a mouth that would give H.P. Lovecraft nightmares, a garish Cherub doll with a helluva bite, a blood-thirsty teddy bear, a murderous robot who gets a little “stabby” with some scissors, and the evil baby-snatching elves who might still be the most terrifying aspect of Krampus, which is saying a lot.
Because of Dougherty’s dedication to wanting to do as many practical effects as possible, Krampus kept the WETA artists busy throughout production, as they worked to create, puppeteer and manipulate many of the creatures. Krampus has become a staple of many horror fans’ holiday viewing traditions, which is a good thing because you definitely don’t want to end up on the Big Guy’s naughty list.
Exciting things were on the horizon heading into the latter half of the decade. In 2016, Star Trek Beyond featured 50 different alien races in honor of the 50th anniversary of the series, David Marti and DDT SFX created the gigantic, life-like tree for J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, and Green Room brought the pain with a bevy of bodily injuries designed by Michael Marino. Within the realm of horror, Lights Out made sure we had a good reason to fear the darkness again, and in The Conjuring 2, James Wan introduced us to both The Crooked Man and the demonic nun, Valak. But when it comes to films that went balls-out with their effects, Can Evrenol’s Baskin takes the proverbial cake in 2016 with its grotesque and hyper-sexualized descent into hell.
The film follows a rough-and-tumble squadron of police who receive a call to help another police unit in their area, but they have no idea what is in store when they stumble upon an abandoned building in search of their fellow officers. As they make their way through the structure, they come across numerous omens that would provide enough reasons to turn back, including a room filled with entities performing disturbingly lewd sexual acts, and blood-drenched bodies everywhere, sometimes hanging from the ceiling, sometimes left in cages, and sometimes just tossed about on the floor. But the men push forward and find themselves in the middle of a Black Mass, where sacrifices must be made – and man, do these gents undergo some cringe-inducing torture in Baskin by the hand of “Baba” (played by Mehmet Cerrahoglu). He rips out intestines with his hands, hacks his way through one man’s throat, bathing in his blood. Baba even repeatedly stabs another victim in the eyes as part of the preparation for his carnally-charged ceremony involving a woman wearing a steer skull and walking on all fours.
There’s no shortage of horror movies that push the boundaries of gore, but the level of sadistic trauma in Baskin makes the Saw franchise feel like a series of kids movies. At one point, Baba informs one of his sacrificial lambs, “You die as you sleep, and you resurrect as you wake up,” and Baskin serves as a haunting reminder that some cinematic nightmares are impossible to escape. Are you ready to be one with the cosmos?
Throughout 2017, we saw a remarkable array of special effects in genre cinema, from the wildly innovative aliens in Valerian to Studio ADI’s reimagining of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in IT to the amphibious lover in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Julia Ducournau’s Raw even gave us reasons to go vegan with its grisly gore effects. That being said, the biggest showcase for the world of practical effects came from the Great White North in Astron-6 members Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s The Void, which makes perfect sense since their backgrounds in both art direction and makeup effects serve their efforts well in their low-budget, high-ambition affair.
Strange things are afoot at the Marsh Community Hospital after an injured man is brought in by a well-meaning cop (Aaron Poole), kick-starting a chain of unbelievable events. We watch in horror as another patient gets stabbed in the eyes (so much ocular damage going on during the 2010s!) by a nurse who covers herself in his blood, and is shot dead for her heinous actions. But that’s only the beginning: Bev’s corpse begins convulsing while a creature crawls out of her mouth, bringing forth an over-sized monster who absorbs its victims and continues to transform in a fashion that’s comparable to the gooey goodness seen in The Thing.
As things go from bad to worse in The Void, those trapped in the ill-fated hospital come across gooey zombie-like victims that feel plucked right out of a Resident Evil game, and bodies mutate into tentacled otherworldly behemoths that can only be summed up with two words: Holy shit. There’s even a skinless doctor hell-bent on introducing our reality to a demonic plane of existence who would fit right in with some of the nightmarish figures from Clive Barker’s imagination. With only a handful of artists on the crew, The Void’s commitment to bringing a monumental amount of practical effects to life here is remarkably inspiring.
Between the hauntingly surreal effects seen in Annihilation, Tony Gardner’s dedication to upping the ante in Cult of Chucky with one of the year’s most memorable kills and three different takes on the iconic titular doll, the return of Michael Myers in a brand new Halloween, courtesy of Chris Nelson, as well as the rage-fueled zombies in Overlord and head-poppingly unforgettable effects in Hereditary, 2018 was another banner year for special effects in horror and science-fiction cinema.
But it’s Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria reimagining that contains some of the most audacious moments of body horror we’ve seen in quite some time, plus it also transforms Tilda Swinton into a geriatric psychiatrist, making it one of the year’s most memorable showcases for the art of practical makeup, all conceived by two-time Academy Award-winner Mark Coulier. Whether it was contending with the tremendous task of making Swinton disappear behind the façades of Doctor Klemperer and Mother Markos, or tormenting an aspiring dancer by contorting and pulverizing her body in an unholy manner, Coulier and his team had to work fast to bring Guadagnino’s bold new vision to life.
During Suspiria’s finale, where Swinton portrays three different characters and a demonic presence makes an appearance, the effects artists had only five days to contend with challenges as they brought to life Suspiria’s wholly ambitious phantasmagoric climax, resulting in a sequence that was as horrendous as it was exquisite to behold.
As the decade winds down, practical effects are still thriving in genre films. We’ve seen killer creature effects in the Hellboy reboot, a brand new take on the iconic Chucky doll for the Child’s Play remake, a fully functional practical robot with an actor performing inside of it for I Am Mother, an array of killer entities in Annabelle Comes Home and a few ghastly kills in Brightburn as a new villain arose. On the independent side, The Girl on the Third Floor delivered endless ooze and some nasty body horror, and Joe Begos’ Bliss brought the pain (and copious amounts of blood) in gloriously grungy fashion.
For many horror kids who refuse to grow up, though, it was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark's dedication to resurrecting some of the book series’ most iconic characters for the big screen that gave us several wonderfully creepy cinematic treats for 2019. Norman Cabrera was tasked with bringing both Harold the Scarecrow and Big Toe to life, utilizing Stephen Gammell’s original artwork as the inspiration. Artist Mike Hill took on the Pale Lady for Scary Stories, and found a way to make her both charming and completely unnerving at the same time, with a seamless transition between her nightgown and her dress, also akin to Gammell’s original art.
The disturbing design of the Jangly Man came from an amalgam of several different Scary Stories characters, and it was Troy James who used his unique physicality to embody the nightmarish entity that terrorized everyone it encountered in Andre Øvredal’s adaptation this year.
After falling in love with horror at an early age, Heather Wixson has been both a journalist and a proponent of independent horror cinema since 2007. Wixson is the managing editor for DailyDead.com, has contributed to FANGORIA magazine, and was a featured writer at DreadCentral.com and the managing editor for TerrorTube.com. Wixson finished her first book, Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures, in 2017, and is working on her second book project on special-effects artists.