The Golden Age of Special Effects

Steven Thorley Blogs

Utilisation of Special Effects

I’d like to look at films featuring practical special effects and focus on some of the artists and directors that made films which utilised them during the 1980’s.

Not elaborate CGI effects but much more refined use of practical effects.

Practical effects, when done correctly, can be much more involving than CGI and can be both effective and memorable.

There’s nothing on here remotely offensive by today’s standards, some audiences may even find the films amusing. But if you appreciate the craft that went into them and can forgive the passage of time, then they’re all worth revisiting.

Lot’s of variety here too, so I’m sure something will appeal.

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Artists working on Freddy Krueger’s makeup

Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4 – The Dream Master (1988)

After a dreadful first sequel and a solid third, The Nightmare on Elm Street Series had enough fight in it for one more breathe of imagination, and it came in the form of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master.

The franchise had gradually begun to enter its formulaic style by now, but there was still leaps of imagination, style, and creativity present.

The special effects were handled by Steve Johnson and his team of special effects wizards, and they are particularly vivid and striking.

The final scene involving souls escaping from its badly scarred villains body are quite something.

The Dream Master clearly has feminist overtones, and actress Lisa Wilcox presents a very strong and likeable female character in her role as Alice Johnson.

The Dream Master is a strange film but next to Wes Craven’s first instalment, I think it’s the strongest sequel and has aged very well.

Sadly this would be the last jolt of imagination this series would receive, but this one film is worth revisiting.

‘Man is the warmest place to hide..’

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s The Thing (He attached his name to his films as a stylistic choice) was overshadowed greatly by the release of E.T the Extra Terrestrial, which was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Subsequently, The Thing failed at the box-office, and along with another commercial failure, Big Trouble in Little China, would cause director John Carpenter to distance himself from big budget Hollywood movies, to which never looked back.

As for The Thing, its most memorable element would be the special effects by Rob Bottin. They were really cutting edge back in 1982 and are still effective now. Such an intricate attention to detail was present in these designs, and they are equally repulsive and quite breath-taking in measure.

The film itself has classic Hitchcock suspense overtones and relies on dramatic tension built up in the first hour with the special effects extravaganza taking up the latter half of the film.

It’s director John Carpenter’s best film after Halloween and one of the most important horror films of the 1980’s.

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Still from the movie Poltergeist 1982.

Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist was a joint effort between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and director Steven Spielberg. There is some debate to this day over who had more involvement on the production, and I personally can’t see definitive Spielberg or Hooper in the film. So, it was probably an equal combination of both.

Poltergeist has some quite heavy-going horror sequences and typical sentimental Spielberg tropes.

The film incorporates lots of special effects courtesy of regular Steven Spielberg collaborators Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren, whom formed part of ‘Industrial Light and Magic’ and the effects may have aged but still have power and resonance.

The beauty of Poltergeist is it starts off very subtlety and uses its ending for some really well staged, majestic, and awe-inspiring creations.

True, it’s a horror film, but there so much craft presented here: it’s hard to not just admire it as benchmark in the abilities of cinema.

The film is also a veiled stab at the political climate of the time, and the suburban nuclear family. It’s not by coincidence the films plot is centred around a television set.

‘Whenever the time was right, he’d come back..’

The Prowler (1981)

The Prowler was one of those systematic 1980’s slasher films with a difference. It had some very well-conceived special effects courtesy of effects artist Tom Savini. Whom served as a combat photographer during the Vietnam war and used his memory of incidents in that conflict to influence his work.

This film is probably amusing to teenage audiences and older audiences, but there’s something so unpretentious, yet well-crafted about it. Cinema doesn’t need so much dressing or exposition; modern cinema is drenched in exposition.

The Prowler’s title sort of speaks for itself, but for fans of subtle yet effective effects, you can’t go wrong with The Prowler. It’s one of those formulaic, slightly grainy, nostalgic gems of 1980s cinema.

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Pumpkinhead 1988 movie still.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Special Effects artist Stan Winston was certainly a pioneer who would go on to do some extraordinary work and left behind an amazing legacy.

His directorial debut came in the form of Pumpkinhead (a twisted morality tale with Grim Fairy-tale elements), and it didn’t disappoint, but it also didn’t quite present what you’d expect of Stan Winston either.

Stan Winston, on his first and only shot at directing, decided to play it safe, and his work here is vivid and effective, but it’s also very subtle. We only see the creature Pumpkinhead – named after its particularly large occiput, or ‘The Vengeance Demon’, sporadically and towards the latter half of the film.

The film is deliberately formulaic and reminiscent of 1950’s era monster movies, only with lots more style. Stan Winston is effectively re imagining the cinema of his youth.

As it stands Pumpkinhead is a magnificent creation and despite its strange shaped head and demonic proposition, is quite a wonder to behold.  There is a very atmospheric score provided by Richard Stone also.

‘In space no-one can eat ice-cream..’

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

The Chiodo Brothers would make a name for themselves in the 1980s in the form of a film featuring strange, murderous, and unpleasant creatures from another planet called ‘Critters‘. But it was in ‘Killer Klowns From Outer Space’ that they would seal their legacy as cult film special effects artists and creators.

Believe it or not the clowns in the film aren’t really clowns, but homicidal aliens that have taken the guise of clowns to harvest human beings for sustenance.

Despite the bizarre premise, this is well done, and the ‘Clowns’ themselves are really menacing and disturbing. The film has tongue in cheek sense of humour, but still manages to get under the skin.

The film has grown into a cult classic and holds a decent 74% on Rotten Tomatoes with possible sequels or television shows on the cards.

‘Demons to some. Angels to others..’

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Image from movie Hellraiser, 1987.

Hellraiser (1987)

English writer and director Clive Barkers novella ‘The Hell bound Heart’ would be made into classic 1987 horror film ‘Hellraiser‘. The film has exquisite fetishistic costume design and atmospheric cinematography, but it was Bob Keen and his effects teams jaw dropping special effects which really made Hellraiser memorable.

The scene where the character of Frank Cotton is reformed from blood, incorporated reverse photography, and you witness a physical rebirth of a man, with all the pain, goo, and majesty you’d expect if such a process was real, combined with Christopher Young’s powerful orchestral score.

It’s easily one the most memorable sequences over the past 30 years of horror cinema.

Hellraiser ticks all the creative boxes and excels on its relatively small budget. It’s a testament to just how good this film is that none of the sequels captured anything close to its perfection.

The house featured in the film was a real property in North East London, and I’ve seen it, and it’s creepy.

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Image from movie The Beyond, 1981

The Beyond (1981)

I’m going to switch it up a little, in the form of Italian director Lucio Fulci’s surreal horror masterpiece ‘The Beyond’.

The Beyond features lots of practical effects but the film overall has a style all its own. In other words, despite practical effects, they never seem out of the ordinary as the whole film is unusual.

I’m a huge fan of Italian Cinema, especially horror cinema and giallo. Lucio Fulci was an excellent director, who didn’t always give it 100% which is unfortunate. But his strongest efforts are classics.

There is a scene in ‘The Beyond’ involving Tarantulas which is creepy: especially if you’re an arachnophobe.

1980’s Italian horror film directors do appear to have an overwhelming aptitude for style and mood but may not always capture the most effective use of their cast.

That being said, you never watch these movies for the acting…its always the style.

Many Italian horror films use contemporary rock music style scores; some are excellent, and some are the wrong fit.

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Green screen example from modern day movie making.

To Conclude..

I love practical effects and prefer them over CGI in every way. I like subtle use of special effects in film or for them to be crafted intricately.

No rushed, cheap, CGI… yuck!

Lots of film directors still use them on their productions but they are certainly not as prominent as they used to be.

CGI for the most part looks dreadful and it is testament to flaws of technology that we have created. Something that’s ageing quicker than practical effects ever did.

I’d like to see CGI ditched altogether. I think it encourages film-makers not to use their imagination. And, I think backdrops can be understood by a good cinematographer without filling them in with a computer.

I mentioned strong female characters once or twice here, and realistic effects. When cinema reflects real life themes it’s trying to be organic, and there’s no wrong in presenting strong women in film or channelling practical effects that imitate real life trauma. When we don’t do either we’re left with synthetic, corporate cinema which has been manufactured to fit political correctness, subdue new generations, and distance the audience from the film.

Back to the 80’s

Most of these films came out in the early to late 1980’s, and they all have stylistic similarities, perhaps they were testing the waters in the 1980’s. I think Cinema moves that way or it did, it tests things out to see what it can or cannot get away with.

From the much more expansive 1960’s, to the really controversial cinema of the 1970’s, through the 1980’s and the self-referential period of the 1990s, cinema progressed. Now we’re just re-going over the same themes repeatedly.

This years Hereditary was good, but nothing I’d not seen before.

It’s become unorthodox to want to connect to the otherworldly, alternative, topical, divisive, controversial, or even the natural and organic cinema. Unorthodox to challenge the audience, evoke discomfort, shock, engage and entice.

There’s no debate – there has been a seismic shift away from cinema that may have subversive or alternative overtones. In a metaphorical sense the camera is slowly moving away, as opposed to getting right up in your face.

Perhaps we’ll all get a reboot of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ commissioned for us to watch when we get back from work in the evenings.

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