Like almost all genres of film, horror hinges on the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Often the most important job of a director is keeping our suspension of disbelief alive no matter what is happening on screen.
With the heavy use of CGI in horror films in the last 20 years, keeping this belief alive is becoming all the more difficult, as our eyes and brain are trained not to believe what is impossible. It is the director’s responsibility to choose how best to use CGI to create the effects, or even whether to use it at all.
Throughout film history, we have been asked to believe some impossible and ridiculous things. The great horror directors have a certain talent for making us believe these images long enough for the film to be effective. While practical effects are more restrictive than CGI, they are, however, physical and therefore easier for us to believe. Our minds know that the extraterrestrial from Alien is not real, yet because it is an actual physical object, we more easily ignore this fact.
John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece The Thing, provides us with an example of near-perfect special effects. The film holds nothing back, in fact, special effects are at the forefront showcasing a refreshing level of confidence.
The practical effects by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, are still some of the most impressive ever put on screen. It is fair to say that if those effects had been made with CGI, the film would have been an utter disaster. The reason the film is so effective is the fact the creatures are all practical. They have a weight and look to them impossible with computer effects. It turns what we would look at as ridiculous, into something legitimately unnerving and terrifying.
Over the last 20 or so years, the monster film has hit a significant decline. While I wouldn’t just blame CGI, I think it is fair to say this is part of the problem.
The success of a monster flick hinges on the reveal of the creature. If the reveal falls flat, for the most part, the film does too. A great example of just this is the 2007 blockbuster I Am Legend. The first half is a great suspenseful horror film, while the second half is a third rate action monster movie. Somewhere along production, a decision was made to use CGI “vampires”, and this decision ruined the film. The film creates a certain level of tension that once the monsters are revealed goes out the window.
We have seen this same problem in countless recent horror films, from Signs to Cloverfield. It is always the same, yet producers and many horror directors don’t realize that they need to cut back on CGI.
Of course, CGI can be a great tool, in fact there are many examples where it is used to great effect. Guillermo Del Toro is the obvious example of a filmmaker who understands how to use it to amplify a monster or effect. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro used CGI to remove part of the legs of the “pale man” making him impossibly skinny. What we get is, in my opinion, one of the most disturbing creatures in film history. While what is on screen is actually physically there, we also know that what we see is impossible and the effect is brilliant as a result.
While it certainly has a place in cinema, horror directors need to be careful with their use of CGI.
CGI allows for everything to be possible, practical effects forces creativity to create what is impossible. With directors like Del Toro using CGI to improve practical effects, there is a solid, terrifying horror future ahead, if more directors follow suit.