There are two types of people in the audience when you go to a horror movie and a particularly gruesome scene flashes across the screen.
Those who react, and those who watch.
Working in special effects and having had a passion for it my whole life, I’m very much a watcher. I love hearing the muffled sound of fabric shifting against the seats as the audience groans. Most people are too distracted by their own additions to that chorus to notice. But witnessing such a volume of visceral reactions is amazing—and very validating for a special effects artist. Especially because I’m sitting there trying to see if I can catch a glimpse of how it was made, and revel in the artistry.
Some of the earliest practical effects to blow me away were in The Fly. Sure, the prosthetics on his face and body could’ve been better, but the real champion of that movie is the scene where he finally turns full insect and his human form falls off in gross, sticky chunks. I was fascinated by this as a child. I’d rewound and re-watched that scene so many times I’d worn out that exact spot on the VHS.
It took them two weeks to shoot that scene—less than two minutes of screen time. I can imagine resetting the whole thing so it’d fall out when the animation pushes the face forward. Coordinating multiple animations for the head split, from different angles, all while Geena Davis was crying the whole time. Hell, even the limbs falling apart were separate animations that had to be filmed and re-shot multiple times. And poor Geena Davis still had to cry. She said her eyes were swollen and sore by the end of the two weeks.
The Thing is another favorite. The whole movie is basically a creator’s dream. That’s why it did so poorly in the theaters when it first came out. (Well, that and E.T. had come out two weeks earlier.) People said The Thing focused too much on the gore. Critics were even calling John Carpenter a pornographer—which is fine with me because one of the main ingredients for all the slime and goo in the movie is good ol’ KY Jelly. They literally had five gallon buckets of it on set. They also used strawberry jam and creamed corn. So, he at least shopped like one. Gore Porn was born, my friends.
All of my favorite effects in The Thing are in the scene where they’re trying to revive Charles Hallahan’s character. The defibrillator chest chomp and the subsequent beheading is some of the best work in the industry. Rob Bottin worked on that movie seven days a week for over fourteen months, sleeping on set most of the time. Carpenter actually made him check into a hospital after wrap for stress and fatigue. The dedication shows, and I’m now a huge fan of his. I want to be that exhausted one day.
So while most people are lost in the immersion of what’s flashing before them on the big screen, I’m taking notes. For me, the best part of seeing scary or gory movies in the theater is feeling the wave of adrenaline when an effect hits a nerve, and wanting to be the one to make it happen.