The amount of work that goes into special effects in this industry should never be overlooked. From the gore to the imaginative creatures, these are amazing feats created by talented people. And fans still love practical effects, even though the artists might not be idolized as much as they were during the FX heyday of the 1980’s. Practical makeup and creature FX are still important to the genre, even when they’re getting replaced on bigger productions with CGI.
But hope is not lost. The legacy of special effects makeup is not going away, it’s just changing. Into what, we can’t really say at this point.
Special effects have always been changing, though. Aside from clothing and hairstyle, effects are the easiest way to look at a movie and determine what time period it’s from. We all have our favorite monsters, too. Some of them were designed decades apart, some only a few years or even months, but each one of them changed the game moving forward.
The Xenomorph in Alien is one of the most unique, terrifying, seminal designs in horror history. There had never been anything like it when it first showed up on the screen and the essence of that creature is impossible to recapture. The nightmarish aspect of it, the fact that it is kept hidden, too. That was a key part in making it so scary. Sometimes the way to show faith in your monster is to know when not to show it.
Conversely, of course, there’s The Thing. John Carpenter was convinced that if you had a creature that worked, that was like nothing ever seen on the screen before, you could show it as much as you wanted. And he was right. The only problem was that it was too much for critics at the time, so The Thing went largely unloved for years. But the makeup professionals of the industry knew the genius of what Rob Bottin had done. So, despite less than stellar box office returns, The Thing was a major kickoff to the FX revolution of the ‘80s.
Pumpkinhead is one of the most iconic creatures in the genre’s history. It’s a shame that the feature, which is a classic, was sat on for a couple of years before being given a small theatrical release and then dropped on home video. It’s a classic monster movie wrapped up in a revenge story, truly more imaginative than it is given credit for. The monster is like a walking nightmare, a spindly and almost reptilian demon, a monstrous form stretching out a human skin. No surprise then, that a seminal monster effort would be the directorial debut of FX legend Stan Winston. But he let apprentices Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis take the reigns on this creature, leading them to become legends in their own right.
The Werewolf in An American Werewolf in London
I’d say “David” but then again, there were two werewolves in the film. Either way, the werewolf design in this movie and the amount of work that went into it represent some of the most important effects work in the history of filmmaking. It was this feature that led to the creation of the special effects makeup Academy Award. Rick Baker was the first person to win that Oscar and went on to win it again in his career six times.
To really talk about revolutionary movie monsters, we have to go back much closer to the beginning. Hollywood was, in many ways, in its heyday in 1933. It had just boomed and everything was still fresh. The film industry was erupting. When King Kong came out, nobody had ever seen anything like it on the screen. They probably hadn’t even imagined it. The creature himself was designed through a combination of stop-motion miniatures and large-scale versions of Kong’s head, hands and feet so that they could blend the shots together in a way that was surprisingly seamless for the early ‘30s.
Bruce, the Shark in Jaws
Bruce might seem like an odd choice for this list, even though he is a Hollywood legend. The backstory surrounding this shark is infamous. It was an incredibly elaborate animatronic that just didn’t work. They lost the first shark they built the moment they dropped it into the water. Unlike every other creature on this list, this one changed the industry by not working. It malfunctioned, it was jerky, and because of that it was barely shown in the movie. And that was the best decision Spielberg and the whole crew could have made. Because of Jaws, people realized just how little you can show and still craft a suspenseful horror film.