10 Gnarliest Practical Effects in Horror Films

Practical f/x rule, CG drools.

Days Practical

A film is dated the moment it is released. To exist out of time is an impossibility. You can spot the seams of any “classic” if you watch with a modern eye. You may allow yourself a chuckle or even an eye-roll. That is not to say that the film has failed you, or that it is not worth your attention. It’s just old. Don’t worry, that baller CGI-fest you’re currently praising will sink into history as well. Now, some movies can surprise you. When it comes to the horror genre, more often than not, the practical effect retains an emotional response longer than that of the weightless computer cartoon. We dare any modern film to achieve the horror or the revulsion of the scenes listed below.

You will notice that most of these picks come from the gooey era of the 1980s. This was a brilliant decade where artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and others could piggyback off the technical milestones of John Chambers and Dick Smith. For a brief window, before audiences submitted to the computer, technicians pushed the craft of makeup effects to brazen new heights, and the images they produced are unshakable.

Keep reading for a look at the 10 best practical gore effects as voted on by Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, and myself.

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10. The Digestion Process from The Blob (1988)

The Blob Remake

Starting its life as a late 50’s drive-in shocker starring Steve McQueen, Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob is justifiably known today for far more than it’s less-than-hip title. The precision and craftsmanship of Tony Gardner and his crews’ practical effects work is unarguably a highlight of 1980s horror. Featuring lo-fi materials ranging from glitter to spandex, they were able to craft the incomprehensible in three dimensions without the crutch of today’s computer-generated effects. And the gags aren’t just merely gross and grimy, they have a visceral gut punch when you see the toll The Blob takes on its victims, melting their faces and encasing them in its Pepto pink slime. If you are feeling fatigue from modern-day special effects, crack open The Blob and relish in its gooey goodness. – Jacob Trussell


9. Frank’s Resurrection in Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser Lives

Hellraiser has such practical FX sights to show you. Because Larry is a soft man made of tea sachets and apologies, he nicks his hand on an old rusty nail and starts gushing buckets of blood. Unfortunately for the heroes of Hellraiser, this revives sadomasochistic fuck boy Frank… which, fortunately for us, entails a truly gnarly special effects sequence. Bones lubed up with K-Y Jelly pop through the floorboards and Frank wrenches himself from one dimension to this shitty attic with visible effort. Like getting out of bed on a Monday. A nervous system assembles before our eyes and Frank screams because reassembling yourself is hard work. But he’s back baby. And he needs more blood. – Meg Shields


8. The Orgy from Society (1989)

Society

Practical effects in horror films are typically focused on gory bloodletting or monster makeup, but sometimes they take a far more fantastical turn. The presence of f/x artist Screaming Mad George pretty much guarantees it, and while his filmography is stuffed he’ll most likely remain best-known for the “shunting” scene at the end of Society. The film’s class commentary comes to grotesque and slimy life as the wealthy literally feast on the poor — not through cannibalism, but via fleshy absorption. The sequence is equal parts disgusting and magical, and if you can pull your eyes away from the sticky madness you’re a stronger person than I am. – Rob Hunter


7. The Lawnmower Attack from Dead Alive (1992)

Dead Alive

Long before The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was a young sicko who made splatter movies with his friends that contained more gore and carnage than a slaughterhouse orgy. As far as cinematic madness goes, few movies are as crazy as Dead Alive. This scene proves why. Here we have a soccer game with a severed head instead of a ball that’s interrupted by a lawnmower massacre. Limbs fly everywhere, intestines wrap around machinery, and blood pours as freely as a water fountain. It’s madness, sure, but the scene is also a masterclass in lowbrow practical effects wizardry. Anyone who says that splatter movies aren’t real art can go fuck themselves. – Kieran Fisher


6. The Chestburster from Alien (1979)

Alien

“Its head will move and it’s going to have teeth.” That’s all Ridley Scott told Veronica Cartwright before filming the xenomorph’s birth from John Hurt’s chest. Sounds simple enough. The actors walked onto the set and saw Hurt strapped into the dinner table contraption. Stuffed inside the rig were chunks of meat obtained from the local fishmonger and butcher shop. 1, 2, 3, – BOOM. The thing with teeth bursts forth from Hurt’s chest, a geyser of blood spewing across Cartwright’s face and her erupting scream was 100% genuine. Total, absolute fear captured through onset trickery. – Brad Gullickson


5. The Head Explosion from Scanners (1981)

Scanners Pop

If the head explosion from David Cronenberg’s Scanners isn’t the most well-known and recognizable (non-character) practical effect in horror cinema then I don’t know what is. The scene has been GIF’d to hell and back, but even watching it now the effect loses none of its visceral awe. The combined talents of makeup artist Stephan Dupois and special effects supervisor Gary Zeller — one helped design and pack the fake head, and the other blew it up with a shotgun after the explosive charges failed — created the effect, and its ubiquitous presence in pop culture continues to fool people into thinking Scanners is an exciting and thrilling watch. – Rob Hunter


4. The Blood Geyser from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare On Elm Street

There’s really nothing more satisfying than a good practical effect. But if I’m being honest, nothing gets my blood pumping more than an in-camera optical effect. And the mother of all of these optical illusions is nestled in Glen’s (Johnny Depp) death scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Borrowing a trick from Hollywood legend Fred Astaire (who used the same idea in 1951’s Royal Wedding), Craven and crew built a rotating bedroom set so that when blood comes geysering out after Glen is pulled into his bed, it will appear like the blood is eerily spreading across the ceiling. The haunting image of the blood rising perpendicularly from the bed instantly became iconic, and this specific effect would soon after be repeated in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and Lionel Richie’s music video for “Dancing on the Ceiling”. – Jacob Trussell


3. The Final Transformation from The Fly (1986)

The Fly Transformation

In David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Jeff Goldblum plays a charming but wackadoo scientist working on a device that will allow for instant teleportation. In an effort to woo Gina Davis he offers her the exclusive rights to his story, providing that she keeps it a secret until it’s complete. Somewhere along the way he accidentally mixes his DNA with that of a common housefly. Oops. This starts to transform our buddy Jeff into a human-fly hybrid. Before long he becomes a massive, oozing, slimy insect that no fly-swatter in the world could defeat. The final iconic creation is so terrifying and impressive that special effects wizards Chris Walas and Stephan Dupius picked up Oscars for their efforts, while the rest of us had to settle for nightmares. – Chris Coffel


2. Norris’ Cardiac Arrest in The Thing (1982)

The Thing Cardiac Arrest

Formally, the beginning of the defibrillator sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing is a jump scare. And what a form it is. When Norris’ sternum cracks open as a defense mechanism against the shock of the electric paddles, there’s no way to expect it…or what comes next. Dr. Copper’s forearms fall through the gaping chest and the Thing from Another World’s toothy maw snaps shut. It’s a stunt made all the more convincing through the use of actual amputee stand-in. What comes next is the exhilaratingly horrible result of a burnt out 23-year old Rob Bottin, who slept on the set and was hospitalized for exhaustion when the film wrapped. Acid-colored tentacles whip out of Norris’ new chest cavity, and his head makes a break for it. Palmer says it best: “you’ve got to be fucking kidding.” – Meg Shields


1. Full Moon Transformation from An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf In London

The birth from man to beast should not be a pleasant experience. Before An American Werewolf in London, films like The Wolf Man and I Was A Teenage Werewolf depicted the moonlight transformation as a calm, natural event. There is Lon Chaney Jr. sitting still in a chair while an unseen makeup artist quietly applies hair one frame at a time. John Landis called bullshit on that. When it came time to film David Naughton’s beastly makeover, Landis demanded that the audience experience the terror and the pain of his bone-breaking ordeal. That meant no shadows, as few cutaways as possible, and one astonishingly talented effects wizard at the helm. Rick Baker achieved the impossible and was rewarded with the very first Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. He’s scored six more since. While Sam Cooke serenades his nightmare to the tune of “Blue Moon,” Naughton screams and tears his clothes off his person. “JESUS CHRIST! I’m burning up!” The hand is the first to stretch into its animal form, followed by his heels, his feet, his back, head, and face. Baker achieved this grotesque miracle with a series of change-o body parts that allowed a technician to distort the limbs into impossible shapes. The skin would have split if made from the usual foam latex, so Baker concocted a urethane elastomer that they could plasticize to an extreme state of stretchy, flesh-like material. The demonic hound from hell that climaxes the film is impressive, but it’s that glorious mixture of performance between actor and artist at this moment that sells the rest of the horror. We would experience many more werewolf transformations after this one, but none as brutal or agonizing. Smooth CGI morphing cannot even compare to the rich, relatable, emotional torture on display in An American Werewolf in London. – Brad Gullickson

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.