The hospital explosion in The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s Joker blowing remotely blowing up a hospital whilst dressed as a nurse is one of the most iconic images from The Dark Knight, and the scene was made even better by a problem with the detonator. The explosion didn’t occur at the moment it was supposed to but Ledger remained in character, repeatedly hammering the detonator switch in visible annoyance. When the explosion did occur, it caught the actor off guard, causing him to flinch and enhancing the realism of the scene.
The orcs in Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings trilogy holds up remarkably well when compared to modern fantasy films, and the reason is simple: instead of relying CGI, which would by now look outdated, Peter Jackson used practical effects wherever possible. One of the best examples is the orcs, who were mostly played by actors wearing extensive prosthetics. The costume department did such a good job that the original orcs look far more convincing than their CGI brethren in the more recent Hobbit films.
The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s fairytale take on the nightmare of Franco’s regime, features some incredibly memorable practical effects. However, one character in particular is seared into the memory of everyone who has seen the film: the Pale Man. Easily one of the most visually frightening monsters to grace the silver screen, the Pale Man’s haunting appearance was achieved entirely with makeup and prosthetics.
The Merman in Cabin in the Woods
Lauded by critics for its razor sharp satire of horror genre conventions, Cabin in the Woods also featured some excellent practical effects. The best example is the demonic Merman that is seen in the facility towards the end of the film. The creature – which sprays blood out of its blowhole after devouring a character – is testament to the skill of the costume designers, who managed to take a patently ridiculous idea and turn it into one of the scariest moments in the entire movie.
The werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London
Werewolves have been undeniably rinsed by Hollywood, but when An American Werewolf in London came out in 1981 the genre was still fresh, and the movie absolutely terrified audiences. This was thanks in no small part to the astonishing practical effects that the film crew used to bring the werewolf to life. The transformation scene deserves to be singled out for particular praise for its clever use of puppets, prosthetics, makeup, and liberal amounts of gore, resulting in what was, at the time, one of the most shocking sequences ever seen in a horror film.
The chest burst scene in Alien
The Alien franchise contains some of the most iconic costumes and practical effects in the history of cinema, largely thanks to the efforts of master of the macabre H. R. Geiger, who designed the titular Xenomorph. The infamous scene when the alien ‘hatches’ out of a character’s chest cavity was achieved entirely without CGI, instead relying on puppets and prosthetics. Director Ridley Scott deliberately didn’t tell the actors what was about to happen, so their horrified reactions are completely authentic.
The alien invasion in Independence Day
One of the most important films in the alien invasion sub-genre, Independence Day stunned audiences when it was released in 1996. The initial invasion scene made use of incredibly detailed models – including a reconstruction of the White House – that were then spectacularly blown up. The end result was incredibly convincing, and arguably still looks better than many CGI heavy scenes in modern alien invasion flicks.
The doll in Chucky
The most iconic haunted doll in the history of cinema (sorry Annabelle), Chucky proved that puppets can be as terrifying as the most expensive special effects. The puppet, who was designed by Kevin Yagher, was controlled by nine puppeteers who had to work in perfect coordination to bring Chucky to life. One of the advantages of using puppets over CGI was that the film’s actors were interacting with a real, physical entity, making their reactions much more natural and authentic.
All the practical effects in Slither
Of all the horror sub-genres, body horror relies the most on visuals to terrify the audience. Slither, James Gunn’s directorial debut, revolves around a town that gets invaded by a race of alien parasites, and it is packed with absolutely disgusting practical effects. From the slug-like aliens themselves, to sequences where people’s bodies begin grotesquely transforming before their stomachs dramatically explode, Slither proved that practical effects can be as nauseating as the best CGI.
The miniature figures in Revenge of the Sith
George Lucas apparently held off on making the Star Wars prequels until he felt that technology had progressed enough to make his vision a reality. As well as utilising cutting edge CGI tools, the filmmakers also took advantage of new and improved practical effects. In particular, miniatures were used extensively, with one of the best examples being the setting of Anakin and Obi-wan Kenobi’s epic showdown in Revenge of the Sith. The miniature set was extremely detailed, complete with moving machinery and flowing ‘lava.’