With the increasing reliance on digital technology to create special effects, practical effects have become supplemental, serving as a model to be built upon by various digital designers. There’s something lost from the pure, tactile pleasures of seeing real slime, real prosthetics, and other special effects. If necessity is the mother of invention, the computer-generated imagery that makes up most of what we see nowadays seems to lose track of its core aesthetic aims.
Things sure do look cool sometimes, but there is something to be said about the films of yesteryear, or DIY and lower budget filmmaking where necessity did breed invention. Consider the budgetary constraints of Jaws (1975) and how a very specific, oft-copied brand of terror was born when they knew they couldn’t show too much of the shark.
10 The Bandaged Disguise in The Invisible Man (1933)
Based on a novel by H. G. Wells, James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) is a timeless tale of hubris gone amok. After turning himself invisible, Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) races against time to turn himself back before a side effect of the transformation causes him to do some devious things. Most of the film gets away with fun gimmicks, like a bicycling riding itself and floating objects, but the most exciting moments are when the Invisible Man unwraps the bandages that shroud his face. Piece by piece, the cloth is stripped away to reveal an invisible framework. Even today, it’s stunning to see something so audacious from nearly 100 years ago.
9 The Slimy Amoeboid Entity in The Blob (1988)
The remake of The Blob from 1988 sees a small town being attacked by a giant, single-celled entity, aptly referred to as a blob. Created initially as a biological weapon, it was launched into space and proper cover-ups were made. Good riddance. Back with a vengeance, or something akin to vengeance, the blob seeks only to feed off of human flesh and expand ad infinitum.
What could seem like a giant piece of bubble gum pushing people around is done well here, the effects team showing how the blob absorbs and disintegrates whoever it comes into contact with. The Blob‘s gooey and messy and a good time.
8 The Clunky Body Horror of Robocop (1987)
Robocop (1987) is a down and gritty sci-fi film that starts with the obscenely violent execution of its main character, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), and then shows us his resurrection as a single-minded robotically enhanced law enforcer. The best moments are when we can see Murphy’s face, stretched at the edges and stapled back into the robotic body that he is a prisoner of. Until he overrides his circuitry, there is little humanity to the character, but Murphy’s every gesture, awkward and boxy, is what makes Robocop such a fantastic experience.
7 Otherworldly Horrors in From Beyond (1986)
The scientists at the center of From Beyond (1986) use a device called the Resonator to open up previously inaccessible recesses of the pineal gland. In doing so, they gain access to a plane of unspeakable horror, and perverse pleasures. One of the scientists who dies during the initial experiments ends up coming back in a transformed state, bathed in pink light, his flesh contorted and slimy. The effects in this film are gross and funny, and stand up to the test of time. From Beyond renders H. P. Lovecraft’s abstract descriptions of different worlds in a way that is rubbery, wet, and full of strange sounds.
6 The Charming Ugliness of E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)
It is a testament to the power of the Spielberg touch that such an ugly creature could win over the hearts and minds of the viewing audience. E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) is, simply put, a wonderful film. A nice little named Elliott finds a freakish imp hiding in his trash, and then goes on the adventure of a lifetime.
Through whatever alien process, Elliott and E.T. form a symbiotic relationship, and the two – along with a gang of latchkey kids – try to bring the alien back to his ship. The whole movie, from E.T.’s little sausage fingers picking up Reese’s Pieces, to the burnt-in-your-brain image of a pallid E.T. lying motionless in a river, is a tour de force of effects done right.
5 The Small Beginnings of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starts with a fantastic macro photography sequence of alien cells swimming around on their home planet, that then travel through space to our dear planet Earth. The cells then descend to the planet’s surface within rain droplets, and spread their tendrils across the faces of the leaves, until they become beautiful blooming pods. That is how their plan begins, a slow sprawl, then total control. The film isn’t a pyrotechnic display of freaky creature shocks but is all the more ominous the feeling that it induces, that those you are closest with may not be what they seem. It’s a bold introduction to small creatures with large ambitions.
4 The Star Gate Sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The “stargate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a trip. The scene finds David Bowman on the last leg of his mission, suddenly flung across time and space through an aurally hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic journey through practical effects wizardry. The sequence is remarkable, eliding easy explanations. It is an instance in which the abstract imagery matches the pure controlled chaos of the unknown. Additionally, this is a long scene where parallel tracks of light jettison toward the camera and droplets of strange liquids spread like newborn celestial bodies. Oft copied though never equaled, 2001 is an all-time genre high. Perhaps in more than one sense.
3 Decomposition in The Fly (1986)
When Seth Brundle invents a teleportation device, he doesn’t suspect that a stowaway fly will be undoing. The computer, mixing up the DNA of Seth and the fly, ends up fusing the two – marking the beginning of a slow, disgusting transformation. What’s great about The Fly (1986) is that it walks us through every aspect of Seth’s experience, from superhuman agility and strength, the odd sugar craving, to the realization that he is becoming much more fly than human.
The best moments are when he accepts matter-of-factly that aspects of his former self are no longer important to the fly creature that he is becoming. Seth, seeing a loose fingernail, plucks it away from his flesh like it’s a foreign object. As harrowing as it may be, Seth’s calmness in the face of scientific exploration remains a fascinating thing to watch.
2 The Chestburster in Alien (1979)
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” Do taglines get any better than that? Alien (1979) was a perfect marriage of cast, crew, and design team, where everything worked in perfect harmony in service of making a fantastic film.
To single out any one detail immediately brings to mind another aspect of the film that warrants just as much praise – be it the never-ending side view of the Nostromo, the cross-hatched eggs beckoning a peek inside, Ash the milk-filled robot, or even the sleek silvery-black alien itself designed by H. R. Giger, “the perfect killing machine.”
1 The Blood Test in The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a classic in every sense of the word. The film sees Carpenter once again turning to Howard Hawks for inspiration. While the original is still a fine movie, it is the Carpenter version that takes the core conceit of men trapped in an arctic base, both hope and trust dwindling rapidly, and pits them against a shape-shifting alien. The best scene is when a blood test to smoke out the imposter leads to a flamethrower misfire, men being tied to the thing itself, and a bloody effects-laden attack sequence. The Thing looks just as good today as it did back in 1982.
NEXT: Unbelievably Real: Stan Winston’s 10 Greatest Movie Creations