Horror and VFX have been tangoing together since the early days of film, right from Méliès to the latest bore of a Saw movie—because you can’t show the reanimated embodiment of stitched together exhumed corpses or the undead chowing down on a man’s interior without some visual trickery. So let’s take a journey across space and time to see how showing horrific things to scare the crap out of people in a dark room has challenged and pushed makeup artists and designers to create fantastical and gruesome things that aren’t really there.
Magician turned filmmaker Georges Méliès is credited with making the first-ever horror and vampire movie in 1896 with his The Haunted Castle—and while it may not have the visual cunning of his later films The Impossible Voyage and A Trip to the Moon, it showcased the theatrical effects of the diesel and steam era—with Méliès making use of the magician’s tools of illusion and sleight of hand—while establishing the long-running link between horror and VFX.
Méliès’ “The Haunted Castle”
Fast forward a couple of decades and you have F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu, which makes sparing use of special effects to tell its tale—like superimpositions, stop-motion, winches, dissolves, and trick shots which showed a tomb or doors opening on their own to hammer home that this Nosferatu dude is a supernatural badass. And in the ghastly face of this undead abomination, we see the effectiveness of makeup’s ability to transform the human face into a monster—in this case via some pointy ears and false teeth. Other horror films from the 1920s with pioneering FX include Swedish horror Häxan (1922), which used stop-motion, double exposure, and innovative makeup to create scary demons and tell the story of witchcraft and torture. And The Phantom of the Opera (1925) which featured one of the masters of grotesque makeup Lon Chaney, who not only took the starring role but used his makeup skills to expertly and horrifically transform himself into a deformed ghost, which still looks creepy to this day.
Boris Karloff in “Frankenstein”
From here, the next great leap for makeup kind was the Universal Studio horror movies, particularly Boris Karloff‘s Frankenstein which featured the talents of makeup artist Jack Pierce. The iconic makeup has now become the enduring image of Frankenstein’s monster with a flat-topped head, bolts in the neck, the large scarred forehead, and heavy-lidded eyes. Pierce went on to work on other iconic Universal Studio horror monsters like The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941). And while Pierce’s work—which would be hugely influential—was pioneering the art of makeup, King Kong (1933) was showing the world what could be done with stop-motion. Willis H. O’Brien‘s stop-motion special effects, which he combined with other effects like matte paintings, miniatures, and rear projection, gave the movie its haunting and uncanny aesthetic. His vfx wizardry made sure the film blew audience’s minds with visuals they’d never seen before, like Kong climbing the Empire State Building, and fights between a giant ape and dinosaurs.
Kong climbs the Empire State Building
Makeup, costumes, and camera trickery would remain the mainstay of horror movie FX over the next few decades, like Man Made Monster (1941), which featured a protagonist with a glow-in-the-dark head courtesy of cinematographer and special effects supervisor John P. Fulton (who previously worked on Frankenstein). In the 1950s Creature from the Black Lagoon gave us another famous movie monster, where a foam-latex costume was used to create an amphibious creature known as Gill Man. We laugh now, but like all horror special effects, it’s relative to the period and terrified the innocents of 1954.
Skip forward to the 1960s and the rise of splatter movies is keeping the VFX industry on its toes—these movies showed gruesome OTT deaths, like Blood Feast, which, as you can gather from the name, is all lo-fi gore and violence that’s heavy on the vulnerability of human flesh. This was when special effects were taken to ludicrous levels and insane deaths were all the rage (Dario Argento, anyone?). The decade also gave us George A. Romero’s gory Night of the Living Dead, which showed that you could do horror FX on a low budget (the blood was Bosco Chocolate Syrup) and still terrify people. Morticians wax was used for wounds and roasted ham and entrails from the butchers did for eaten flesh.
The gore-fest that is "Blood Feast
But it was Romero’s second zombie movie Dawn of the Dead in 1978, with special effects by Tom Savini, that really upped the game for VFX in horror. Savini was influenced by his time in the Vietnam War and the FX were brutal and garish and disgusting. Then, the following year with Alien, visual effects took another big leap as technical advances in animatronics and liquid and foam latex meant an new era was ushered in. The era of body horror began, and we no longer had to use our imagination to compensate for the horrible distortions of earlier decades. Now our darkest nightmares were featured close-up, in full color and painstaking, brain singing detail.
Chestbusting scene in “Alien”
The 1980s were a golden age of special effects, giving us masterpieces such as the real-time mutation in An American Werewolf in London by Rick Baker, who won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work in the film. The decade also gave us The Thing, with effects by Robin Bottin, which showed a horrible alien creature brought to repulsive life and set a whole new standard for visual FX. The crew used all manner of techniques and materials to create the horror on screen from hand puppets, marionettes, reverse filming, wires, hydraulics and fiberglass, foam latex and rubber, creating the gore from strawberry jam, mayonnaise, heated bubble gum, cream corn, and other concoctions.
Other notable horror film FX of the 80s were The Fly and Gremlins, both films featuring the talents of special effects wizzo and makeup artist Chris Walas. Other films worth mentioning—even though there are many more I could list—are the Hellraiser films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scanners (head-exploding-say-no-more), Society, and Day of the Dead.
Quite possibly the greatest VFX film ever “The Thing”
So what next? Where could FX go from these films, which still stand up even by today’s standards? Well, after the dizzy heights of the 80s, makeup and prosthetics aren’t going anywhere, because you can’t really beat them when you want to show a gaping wound in the skull of a tortured teen.
Rami’s “Drag Me To Hell”
The next big addition to FX has come in the form of CGI, which gets a bit of a bad name when it comes to horror. But when it’s done well, it can work. Take for instance Sam Raimi‘s Drag Me To Hell (2009), which uses digital effects to show heads with eyes popping out, demonic goats, and people being dragged into hell—all of which look great. Space-horror Prometheus shows that digital imagery can look incredible on film too, and The Walking Dead TV series uses CGI along with more traditional techniques, overlaying computer-generated imagery onto makeup and special effects designer Greg Nictero’s designs. Pan’s Labyrinth is another example of a film that employs CGI, make-up, and animatronics for its fantastical creatures and its this combination of various techniques—old and new—which is where the industry sits at the moment.