Make up and practical effects in Nightmare on Elm Street.
An iconic example of terrifying practical effects and makeup. Source: New Line Cinema

CGI has become a very prominent aspect of film today.

Whether it’s a big action blockbuster, a sci-fi adventure, or even mainstream horror films, it’s very clear that the use of computer generated effects have revolutionised how filmmakers are able to tell a story.

Decades ago, producers didn’t have the luxury to incorporate realistic and seamless CGI into their footage, and with recent developments in motion capture, animations and even de-aging software, production companies are preferring to implement computer generated images into their films.

“The bigger the better.”

The use of digital effects in horror isn’t unheard of. With last year’s IT being rather dependent on their creation of terrifying CGI monsters, as well as an abundance of crappy B-list movies that simply don’t have a big enough budget to pull it off, it’s becoming more and more popular to find creatures and demons that have been made through computerised technology.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand why people would resort to using CGI in their films. They are able to produce flexible images that can do pretty much whatever they want it to do. Restricting the object to practical effects like puppets or animatronics could in turn make the figure seem robotic or unrealistic when done poorly. It’s easier to CGI in a giant deformed monster that crawls around in the dark, than it is to perhaps get an actor to wait hours for makeup and crawl around in a very unnatural way.

I’ve always said that there are countless factors that come into play when making a good horror movie. Whether it’d be the set design, a killer script (pun not intended), superb acting, how scares are built, or even makeup and costumes, the horror genre tests every single aspect of the production crew.

Creepy, unsettling and real. Source: Umbrella Entertainment

This includes the use of special effects.

Cult-classics like Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing or The Exorcist have all benefited from their excellent use of practical effects, which do hold up to this day (…to an extent). Granted, some may have been due to their production being years before the sudden popularity of CGI in films, but it is very evident that they have made an effort to utilise practical effects. Part of the ‘movie magic’ is making something unbelievable real, whether it’d be dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or hideously terrifying monsters like the creature from The Thing.

Practical effects that hold up to this day…somewhat. Source: Warner Bros.

The reason practical effects are far more impactful than CGI is because the threat feels much more real. The problem with CGI is that, when noticeable, people tend to disconnect with the film more because it seems less real.

One of the most important things in a good horror is a strong, scary antagonist. If the main villain isn’t scary, then the film doesn’t work entirely. Horror is built through the threats being made to the protagonists. We get scared whenever one of the characters is at risk because we feel like we are there with them. This doesn’t work when our protagonist has to pretend to be afraid of something that will be edited into the footage later.

Ghostface, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jason have become so iconic because they aren’t just some CGI monster created from someone’s computer. They’re iconic because they rely on an amalgamation of different factors like makeup, costume, script, acting and the practical effects. Even more recent examples of horror icons like Annabelle depend on how terrifying the designers make the prop. They’re terrifying, they’re threatening, but most of all, they feel very real.

The only solid reason for using CGI would be if a large, wide shot was required of the entire figure.

For example, the only CGI used in the original Jurassic Park film was the wide shots of the tyrannosaurus rex, velociraptors or the landscape. Every single-close-up shot was done using animatronics and practical effects, which demonstrates why the original holds up so well to this day.

A groundbreaking use of CGI in cinematic history. Source: Universal Studios

Thing is, you shouldn’t ever really need a wide shot of a monster in a scary film. The best horror films never/rarely show the antagonist, which in turn adds to the mystery and threat of the film. After all, it’s far more terrifying to be scared of something we can’t see, than something that we are given a clear view of every ten minutes or so.

Practical effects also generate better performances from the actors.

Something I found really interesting in IT (2017) was that Andy Muschietti made an effort to separate Bill Skarsgard from the rest of the cast, so that when he was first revealed as Pennywise, the fear from the younger actors would be genuine as they wouldn’t have seen him in character before. It’s challenging for actors and directors to coordinate where they would look at and pretend that an invisible creature was attacking them.

“You’ll float too.” Source: Warner Bros.

Of course, the use of special effects is really up to the producers. If they see that CGI is needed for certain sequences and can incorporate them well into the film, then they are obviously more than welcome to add that in.

My point is, when done poorly, CGI can easily ruin a horror film. As an audience, it’s far more engaging and believable to have an antagonist created through a culmination of different departments (makeup, costumes, animatronics, etc.) than a monster made from a computer.

I love all things film and pop-culture. I make puns sometimes too.