What We Lost: How CGI Hurt Horror

What We Lost: How CGI Hurt Horror

Horrorific content by Brian B. on June 07th, 2020 | Culture |

Movies from any given decade tend to have their own feel. There’s a difference between a 1990’s sci-fi flick like the 5th element and the Star Wars sequels that came out these past few years. The same’s true for horror films.

Many of the most famous horror franchises today, such as Friday the 13th and the Nightmare on Elm Street, launched in the 1980s. The 80s and these big horror franchises helped push horror straight into the mainstream, just as the original Star Wars films furthered Sci-Fi’s appeal a few years before.

One of the easiest ways to pick out (most) older movies from newer films is looking at the special effects. CGI is all the rage today. While some recent horror films have avoided using as much CGI as other genres, computer animation is becoming more common. In the 1980s, it was all about practical effects.

So, when someone got eviscerated and their guts were spilled on the screen, there was literal gore. Sure, people didn’t actually get murdered on screen, and the blood and guts were fake, yet it had a real, physical presence. Even when the practical effects looked bad, they still had a certain weight. Sure, it might have been red paint splashed on the actor’s face, but it was something.

Now, a lot of actors spend their time in front of green screens, reacting to unseen characters and horrors that will later be brought to life on computers. The film industry is filled with talented animators and actors. Still, it’s hard to fake a physical presence. (Admittedly, a lot of actors have improved their greenscreen craft compared to a few decades ago but it always feels like a real physical presence is lost.)

Of course, practical effects were limited in the 80s as well. Yet instead of hindering horror films, the limitations may have made many terrors even more terrifying. In the 80s, monsters, demons, and all the rest often stayed in the shadows before striking. An entire movie might contain only a few flashes of the evils involved.

This heightened the scares when done right. We tend to fear the unknown. Many children fear the dark. Why? The unknown likely plays a role. Once the lights are off, you can’t see what’s going on around you. Us adults know that typically nothing is happening (or maybe your pet is being a derp). Kids don’t know that and the unknown in the night can be terrifying.

In the original Predator film, the Yautja (the name for the Predator’s species) stayed hidden behind an invisibility cloak for much of the film. It struck unseen from the jungle. The production team may have gone with a usually invisible Predator due to technical limitations. However, creating the invisibility effects for the monster was quite tricky, involving chroma techniques and multiple shots. Either way, the Yautja’s invisibility always had you watching over the actors’ shoulders.

Another great example is the Alien in the original Alien film (which actually came out in 1979, but I’m going to fudge the decades here a bit). You rarely see the Alien until it’s ready to strike. Its sheer presence alone conveys pure terror. If the xenomorph is on screen, things are about to go down.

Watch newer iterations of the Predator or Alien films, and you’ll frequently see the monsters far more often. This can lead to a loss of suspense and some horror movies end up feeling more like action movies. Consider the original Jaws (which came out even earlier in 1975). You rarely see more than a fin and glimpse. When the shark does rear its massive, teeth filled head, you’re so shocked you don’t even notice the somewhat cheesy effects.

Check out the shark movies that followed after, like Deep Blue Sea (and yes, Sharknado), and the big fish often spend more time on screen. These movies can still get you to jump in your seat, but there’s not as much shock or horror when the creatures simply appear. In Jaws, a mere fin got your heart pumping. In some newer films, a mouth full of teeth elicits an eye roll.

Of course, that doesn’t mean modern filmmakers always rely on too much CGI. The filmmaking industry continues to improve with technology and talent, and plenty of great horror films are produced today.


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