Modern horror: Lay off the CGI and bring back prosthetics
The doctor shouts ‘Clear’ and lowers the defibrillators onto his fallen companion’s chest. As he does this, the man’s chest opens into a gaping, jawed mouth and catches the doctor’s hands, ripping them off. The doctor falls to the floor with his arm-stumps gushing blood that’s been made from a cocktail of jam, mayonnaise, gelatin, cream corn and whatever else they used in the good old days. A monstrous head on a spine emerges from the chest, which Kurt Russell duly despatches with his flame-thrower. Meanwhile, the man’s head acquires a life of its own, detaches itself from the burning body and grows a pair of spider legs. Once again, it’s down to Kurt to burn the hell out of the creature.
This is a scene from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing; the film that represents the pinnacle of prosthetic and animatronic-based special effects in horror films. What’s inspired me to refer back to this classic was watching its decidedly uninspiring prequel of the same name, which is due out on DVD and Blu-Ray next month. Aside from a solid lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the film is an unengaging, CGI-enslaved shambles, and a glaring indicator of some of contemporary American horror’s worst habits.
The first of these bad habits is that much of modern US horror cinema is defined by lazy cash-ins, spin-offs and other defilements of legendary films. The second, and the point of this piece, is the tendency to eschew visceral prosthetic blood and gore for that of the digital variety. Digital Gore? Even the term itself sounds as paradoxical as a salt-loving snail. But then at a time when the country’s run by two seemingly contradictory parties who are cosily tucked up in bed together (Lib Dems are the small spoon), why should such inconsistencies surprise us?
The problem with how digital effects are used in The Thing (2011) comes down to indexicality; the sense of direct connection between the horrifying object depicted, the characters interacting with it, and us out here in the real world. The unnatural smoothness of the effects whenever anyone gets ‘Thing-ed’ (a not-so-technical term for when the titular virus takes hold of its victim and mutilates them into a shrieking monstrosity) distances us from the fact that what we’re watching is a human body come undone. Fusing a real on-screen human with digital effects never seems to do justice to the viscosity and crunchiness of the human body.
The 2011 version of the film makes the malleability of the human body far too fast and fluid for it to disturb us. In one scene, we see someone turn from man to ripped-up tentacular mess in under 15 seconds. In another, the ease with which the Thing sprouts new limbs, tentacles and spider-hands in its victims makes it seem like the digital FX whizzes behind it basically vomited their undeniable skills all over the screen, forgetting that this is essentially supposed to be a horror about the human body. The more a body becomes so obviously and fully digitised on-screen, the harder it is to convert it into a feeling of dread and horror in our own bodies.
In Carpenter’s original, seeing a Thing victim – in all his animatronic glory – be stretched and contorted, with his eyes popping out of his head or his head tearing away from the spine, is delightfully excruciating to watch. The jerky, twitchy movements do look mechanical, but then the human body essentially is mechanical. Our bodies are certainly more comparable to pistons, pulleys and a strawberry-jam-gelatin-mayonnaise mixture than they are to the endless 1’s and 0’s of binary code. By digitising a film which is essentially about the internal vulnerability of the human body, we lose a crucial point of contact with what we’re seeing onscreen.
This is not a general tirade against all digital effects in horror films. Used sparingly, they can serve horror’s purpose to shock. Thinking of the original Ringu (1998), the film contains just one major digital effects set-piece. Most of the film is slow-paced, visually bleak, and creeps us out mainly by showing us glimpses of eerie cursed video-tape footage. Just as we reach the point of near-boredom, we’re treated to one of the most iconic and terrifying scenes in horror history, when the vengeful spirit of a girl slides out of the TV screen into the victim’s lounge. The old horror film cliché of ‘less is more’ fits well with the use of visual effects here.
More recently, Sam Raimi’s semi-comical Drag Me To Hell (2009) is an example of a special-effects-heavy horror that actually works. The man who brought us the cult classic Evil Dead films pulls out all the stops, as we have eyes popping out of heads into other people’s faces, shadowy spirits, demonic digital goats, and people literally getting dragged to hell. Despite its heavy digitisation, however, some of the film’s best moments are a throwback to Raimi’s Evil Dead days, with corpses bouncing into upright positions in coffins, psychotic grannies attacking people with gummy, toothless mouths, and several scenes of projectile vomiting and bleeding. The balance here makes it one of the most entertaining, if not strictly terrifying, horrors of recent years.
The Thing, however, is very much meant to be a body horror; a term which has lost some of its value in the mainstream, with digital effects skewing it on the one hand, and pointless torture porn films (Hostel, Human Centipede, more recent SAW films) pulling it in the other direction. Body horror, for me, is distinct because it takes an interest in how major human happenings and questions – viruses, television (Videodrome, 1983), the search for God (Martyrs, 2008) – affect our understanding of the limits of our own bodies. Both the aforementioned films rely much more on make-up than digitisation to emphasise their themes.
Until a horror gets made about our increasingly digitalised world’s effect on the human body (note to self), then prosthetics and mechanics should always take precedence as a means of depicting our own physical fragility.Tagged in: Drag Me To Hell, film, horror, prosthetics, Ringu, sam raimi, The Thing
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