Many film fans feel quite fortunate to have grown up in their particular generation, and I am no exception. How lucky to be an eight year-old boy when the original “Star Wars” premiered! This franchise radically changed cinema in many ways. The technical wizardry of these movies incited audience curiosity, which gave rise to a sudden surge of behind-the-scenes documentaries. These films greatly increased audience appreciation for the inspiring creativity and variety of the practical effects work that went into the making of their favorite movies.
During the eighties, practical special effects were still the standard, and many films from this decade contain the finest examples of this work. Being especially fond of horror and science fiction, these eight films from these two genres are excellent examples of quality practical effects. Some of these films are enduring classics, some have faded to obscurity, and one of them is total schlock! While some have aged better than others, all the movies below represent admirable efforts to entertain, and they do it all with wicked cool practical effects.
1. The Thing (1982)
Much like the humans in the isolated Antarctic outpost, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” was in the right place at the wrong time. The film debuted when the summer cinemas were brimming with blockbusters, and “E.T.” was everyone’s favorite alien. No surprise then that the dark tone and gruesome imagery of “The Thing” didn’t strike a chord with audiences more attracted to the ugly (but adorable) duckling from outer space.
However, “The Thing” found new life on home video, and gradually became regarded as one of the great horror films of all time. This is due in large part to the grotesquely beautiful creature design by the now legendary Rob Bottin. The aberrant forms he sculpted set a standard for instinctive repulsion matched only by H.R. Giger’s alien. With both, it is the hybridization of human and alien that creates the terror. The familiar and the foreign are fused into frightening visions that ruthlessly infect the psyche, injecting a pervasive unease which lingers long after the credits.
It is not just Bottin’s artistic skill that is to be praised, but also the animatronic, puppet and stop-motion techniques that were applied to bring these loathsome monsters to life. The unpredictable way that they quiver and contort is simply not reproducible any other way. There are minor variations in the motion of mechanics and puppetry that CGI has not yet been taught to emulate convincingly. When studying the impossibly smooth motion of CGI effects, you can practically hear the hard drives humming.
I believe practical effects are a necessity for certain films, and “The Thing” prequel from 2011 is a disappointing example. While a lot of practical effects were used during production, all of them were later computer “enhanced.” Although CGI effects continue to improve, the creatures fail to convince because the artifice is still obvious. Though John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is over thirty years old, it remains one of the best examples of the enduring power of practical effects in their ability to startle and amaze.
2. The Sword & The Sorcerer (1982)
Albert Pyun is not a director whose name is widely known because his filmography is mostly comprised of schlocky, low-budget fare. However, as a thirteen year-old boy, I thought that “The Sword & The Sorcerer was pretty rad! Swords, evil wizards, and half-naked babes?! I’m there!! Having watched the film as an adult, it is still lots of fun, as long it is approached as a good bad movie. “The Sword & The Sorcerer” is not a film to take seriously; it’s a cheese fest that gives you a little nostalgic journey back to your childhood.
Despite the low budget, extremely hammy acting and cheap set design, there are some surprisingly good special effects to be found here. Viewers may be surprised to discover that the evil wizard Xusia is played by Richard Moll, the towering bald bailiff from TV’s “Night Court!” His make-up is very good, and Moll relishes in the villainous role. At the end of the film, when Xusia is revealed to be hiding inside another human body, his method of emerging is exceedingly gratuitous but very well done. There is also the laughably ludicrous three-bladed hero sword which can fire two of its blades like missiles!
3. The Dark Crystal (1982)
It’s a shame that Jim Henson and Frank Oz only ever worked together on this one film, but “The Dark Crystal” is so thoroughly infused with splendid practical and puppet work that it seems as if these two men combined a career’s worth of creative inspiration into a single movie. The story is a straightforward hero’s journey, but what stands out is how every single scene is positively bursting with creatures, vegetation and landscapes of unique and striking design. Brian Froud was the conceptual artist, and the density of the detail in every environment is a feast for the eyes.
This movie is so jam-packed with ideas that one wonders how the filmmakers managed to fit everything in! It’s not just the sheer numbers of creatures that are present, but the sharp differentiation between them. All the designs are distinctive and suggest a lot about the creatures’ nature. The brief glimpses we get also do a brilliant job of suggesting that though this world is beautiful, you’ll get eaten if you’re incautious! The puppetry and animatronic work which brought all these creatures to life is extremely admirable, especially when you discover how much painstaking physical labor was involved.
The Garthim’s crustacean-inspired carapaces are evocative of body armor, apropos as they are the soldiers of the evil Skeksis. However, the Garthim suits were so heavy that the actors had to be suspended on wooden racks between takes in order to recuperate. The simplistic Podlings are literally a people of the land, as their appearance was inspired by potatoes! The Skeksis and the Mystics are perfect opposites, both visually and thematically. Our hero couple of the Gelfling race provides a more familiar face for the audience to relate to, yet the puppetry used to animate them keeps them from being too human.
The sets are marvels of architecture. I’m particularly fond of Aughra’s house with its massive moving model of the solar system. The castle which contains the Dark Crystal and the evil Skeksis is a wonderfully twisted and organic sculpture, and its final transformation from a dark, forbidding lair into a shining prism of light is breathtaking and a beautiful evocation of the film’s theme of restoration and renewal.
4. Krull (1983)
Due to my tender years when I first saw it, I also have a soft spot for “Krull.” It’s rather an odd movie, as it tries to combine medieval fantasy with some strong science fiction elements. It’s as if the film is trying to be “Star Wars” and “Excalibur” at the same time. Come to think of it, that may have been a line from the pitch in the boardroom! Anyway, “Krull” may feel quite dated to modern eyes, but it has a fast-paced, enjoyable story with varied set design, very good practical effects and the chance to see some now famous actors in early roles. Look for Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson!
To defeat the enemy, the hero Colwyn must first find the Glaive, an ancient weapon that is an amusing kit bash of a ceiling fan and a shuriken! It’s an interesting choice, as the Glaive requires mental as well as physical dexterity to use effectively. There are also horses with fiery hooves, laser battles with the evil Slayers, a giant glass spider, and the Black Fortress of the Beast. A lot of creative inspiration went into this film, and the variety of creatures, locations and landscapes is to be admired given the modest budget.
5. The Neverending Story (1984)
This film is a rarity; children’s fare that isn’t afraid to be dark and actually quite scary at times. It’s a superb fantasy adventure, and even though I’ve not read the book it’s adapted from, I can feel the strong literary influence in the quality of the story and the characters. A young boy chased by bullies hides in a bookstore and begins to browse. Despite being warned by the shopkeep that his choice “isn’t safe”, he steals “The Neverending Story” and begins to read. As the story in the book unfolds, the young boy becomes the hero Atreyu, and embarks on a perilous journey to save Fantasia.
The world is filled with wondrous creatures, the most prominent being Falkor, the giant, flying dog-dragon creature who is the hero’s steed and best friend. A combination of animatronics and stop-motion is used to bring Falkor to life, and although they are rudimentary, a child’s imagination is more than potent enough to accept it. A plethora of puppetry is applied for the phantasmagoria of good and evil characters, all of which are distinctive in appearance and personality. The set design is a lovely mix of detail and minimalism, and each scene has specific look that feels right.
My favorite scene involves a conversation between the hero Atreyu and Morla, The Ancient One, who is a gigantic turtle hiding in a swamp. The facial animatronics are terrific, and the rear projection used to put the tiny boy in a scraggly tree in the foreground of the shot does a fantastic job of making the turtle’s head look as large as house. The animation of the face and the massive weight suggested by the slow movements really create a powerful impression of mass. It may be a puppet, but Morla feels as big as a mountain!
6. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott’s “Alien” set multiple standards for sci-fi / horror films, and creating a follow-up that would honor the original while successfully continuing the franchise was no small task. Thankfully, the producers chose James Cameron, fresh from his early success with “The Terminator.” A Roger Corman protégé, the economy of Cameron’s production budget and the quality of his screenplay resulted in the first of many science fiction milestones in a long career.
“Aliens” is one of those rare sequels that is just as great as its predecessor, but in a different way. It’s less of a horror film and more of an action drama, as Cameron introduces the military element into the mix. The production design of the space marines’ weapons, armor and vehicles all have their real world inspirations. Like the original “Star Wars” films, “Aliens” takes place in a used universe, and the wear and tear enhances the gritty reality.
One of Cameron’s many wise decisions was how he presented the aliens. Instead of investing long hours in their sculptural design, the alien suits were simplified. As the creatures were always shot in shadow, the mind’s eye is encouraged to fill in its own terrifying details. Cameron also hired gymnasts and acrobats to be in the suits while hanging them upside down on wires and even reversing the film, anything to achieve unusual movement, obscure the human form and preserve an aura of mystery. Here’s a nifty fact: the horde is represented by only six suits!
Cameron’s crowning achievement is the alien queen. The conception, development and construction of this character is a stunning achievement on every level. I can think of no other movie monster more fully realized in terms of its physicality and personality. The nomenclature doesn’t fit the stature, but the alien queen is quite simply the greatest puppet ever made. The implacable ferocity of this avenging mother is barely matched by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and the final confrontation the Sulaco’s cargo bay is one of the greatest WWF-style throw downs in science fiction film history!
7. The Fly (1986)
In the horror genre, writer/director David Cronenberg reigns supreme as the corruptor of the human form. The term “body horror” was created to classify several filmmakers’ work in the eighties, and this designation fits Cronenberg’s movies like a surgical glove. In almost of all of his stories, the characters experience an invasion/alteration of their physical form and are helpless to stop it. “The Fly” is one of the most well-known, and certainly the most creative when it comes to realizing the challenging practical effects for the main character’s metamorphosis.
In the original film, the teleportation device simply swapped human parts for fly bits. In Cronenberg’s version, the machine merges human and fly at a molecular level. The intruder fly DNA causes Seth Brundle’s body to slowly transform into an appalling amalgam. The many stages of Brundle’s disintegration are a master class on make-up and latex appliances. At first it’s just a hair or two, a fingernail. Then Seth’s skin becomes mottled and more growths appear as his entire body begins to break down.
The principal actors, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis fell in love on the set, and their early scenes together are awkwardly charming and very human. The genuine romance between the couple results in the most heartbreaking finale in any horror film I’ve seen. The final transformation scene is a hideous yet fascinating presentation of puppetry and animatronics, and I cannot imagine it being done better using any other technique.
8. The Monster Squad (1987)
Shane Black is one of Hollywood’s great unsung screenwriters. While his work varies in frequency and quality, his best scripts rub shoulders with Joss Whedon in their wonderful characters, scintillating dialogue and stories that entertain while deftly avoiding insulting the intelligence. Unfortunately, wit is not often appreciated by movie audiences, and most of Shane’s efforts outside of action movies have not made big splashes. Such was the case with “The Monster Squad”, which is a damned shame because it is a perfect homage to the monster movies created by Universal Studios in the 1950’s.
A group of young boys get together in a tree house to share their love of classic monsters, and soon discover that they need to find and protect a powerful amulet from these monsters in order to save the world. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The young actors are engaging, the high contrast cinematography evokes the black and white visual stylings of the original films, and the comic atmosphere keeps the mood cheery while still offering lots of good old-fashioned creepy moments.
Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, The Gill-man and Frankenstein are all present, and while their looks are updated, very little of their classic appearance is altered. Dracula’s white skin, shiny black tuxedo and red-lined cape make him a dapper death-dealer. The Wolfman is slightly more muscular, and has more lupine features, but he is still very much a wolf-man as opposed a four-legged animal. The Mummy is appropriately raggedy, but the addition of milky-white eyes and yellow teeth are nice details. Frankenstein is the least scary looking, but I’ll not say why in case you haven’t seen the movie!
The Gill-man is the one monster whose appearance is significantly changed. I’m guessing it’s because the Gill-man is the only character created by Universal instead being adapted from other source material. Dang copyright laws! The Gill-man’s face is radically different, coming across much more fish-like. However I feel that the lack of humanity in the facial features makes the monster seem more extraterrestrial as opposed to earthborn. However, the overall suit design is splendid, and the multihued skin, scaly plating and spiky fins make for a very interesting interpretation.
Author Bio: On the day David was born, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. As such, he has always loved science fiction and science fact, and when having Deep Thought, his gaze usually drifts skyward.