I like bad special effects. I like low budget movies. I like stories that are put together from string and scrap and heaps of limitations and somehow still work. I’m not against CGI or great FX. These things can be awesome. It isn’t ultimately the FX that make a sci fi / fantasy / horror story work. It’s the story itself and its ability to draw me in, to encourage me to pretend with the filmmaker.
Sometimes, too much polish can be a bad thing though. I’m not going to be some old guy who says, “The films were better in my day” because that’s nonsense. But I do think something special was lost when human beings gained the ability to put anything on film and make it seamless, if they have enough time and money to invest.
In the horror classic The Night of the Lepus giant rabbits attack a community. They just don’t do so very convincingly. They’re either bunnies running in slow motion through miniature sets or blurry folks in bunny suits attacking actors. But to me, that’s the charm of it. That’s what makes it work. A giant bunny movie with amazing FX would somehow seem more ridiculous to me, more absurd.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a scary film, not just for the premise, but for the brilliant execution. The thing itself is created through a host of practical effects, camera tricks, puppets, etc. And that’s why it seems so bizarre. It moves in weird ways. It looks like something you can actually touch. And it remains hideous, inhuman, and strange. A CGI thing could never measure up because it stops being a strange element in the film. Instead, it becomes just another actor. It integrates so smoothly into the universe of the film that it stops being a foreign element. And that’s so often what makes horror work.
But it’s not just horror. It’s all fantasy. Krull is a favorite film of mine. A low budget spectacular with magic and heart. And, yes, the movie looks like it takes place on a soundstage. And yes, the FX, while solid, are not entirely convincing. And, yes, it’s a movie about rescuing a princess from a monster sorcerer from outer space. And that’s what makes it awesome.
I think that’s what bugs me most when people complain about FX. It’s not much different than when someone reads a book looking for spelling and grammar errors. Or reads a comic book to find a tiny mistake in continuity. I’d compare it to someone combing over a home to find the one spot of rust or the one crooked nail. If you can’t enjoy your dreamhouse because it has a spot of water damage in the basement, then that’s not the house’s fault. That’s yours.
So it is that stories are created by humans and are thus limited by what humans can do. Novels will have spelling errors. Movies will have unconvincing FX. You can either sit there and remark upon what everyone else has already accepted or you can just shut up and enjoy yourself. Or at least shut up and let the rest of us enjoy ourselves.
This isn’t to say that I excuse all bad FX. Some work. Some don’t. And I enjoy a good high budget fantasy / sci fi / horror flick now and then. But The FX are merely the tools employed by a creator, just as the alphabet is merely a tool for me to share the thoughts in this sentence. The second the tool becomes more important than the idea is the moment everything gets confused.
I have seen movies with amazing FX that left me cold, and I have seen movies with terrible FX that thrilled me. And the reverse and all points in-between. I’ve read books full of errors that left lasting impressions and I’ve read flawlessly edited novels that did nothing for me. But when you get right down to it, the number of spelling errors in a story shouldn’t usually be a deal breaker. And the guy in the bunny suit . . . he’s just a means to an end.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,