In the face of ever-improving CGI in today’s movie industry — some of which doesn’t even resonate that well — it’s important to bring attention to practical effects in iconic horror movies and why they worked. A solid person wearing makeup and synthetics can ring true where a glitchy computer graphic doesn’t. We’ve narrowed it down to just Universal Monsters because there are so many movies that would have gone nowhere without the skills and talents of the masters listed here!
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
While some prosthetics used even in the 80s and 90s were obviously fake, this movie did an incredibly realistic job. Lon Chaney, playing the Phantom, was known not only for his great acting skills but also for his superb makeup skills. Chaney actually did his own makeup for the Phantom! His depiction is still the most accurate to the original novel’s description to date.
THE MUMMY (1932)
Boris Karloff’s makeup and wardrobe as Imhotep in THE MUMMY gave him an authentically aged and mummified look. It’s fascinating to see the transition from mummified Imhotep to a rejuvenated Imhotep, and all the stages in between. Jack Pierce, who apparently hated latex appliances, was the man behind the makeup for this ancient monster. Pierce was the head of Universal’s makeup department, so he worked on many iconic movies, including the ever-popular FRANKENSTEIN.
THE WOLF MAN (1941)
Before animatronics and CGI, werewolves were transformed by prosthetics: wigs, false teeth, and time-lapse photography… and a full moon, of course. The makeup for the Wolf Man was great in that it portrayed a lycanthropic monster while still allowing Lon Chaney, Jr. to move about freely and make some facial expressions. This was one of the notable times Jack Pierce reluctantly used a latex appliance (the Wolf Man’s nose).
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)
Another great feat of effects from the 20s, the Hunchback takes the Number 2 slot. Not only was there almost as much hair involved as for the Wolf Man, but the body prosthetics and fake teeth were truly impressive. The Hunchback is another great example of Lon Chaney’s amazing makeup skills, and he also did a great job with his body movements and mannerisms, making the effects that much more convincing.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
With its functionality, realistic resemblance to a scaly fish creature, and amazing detail throughout the entire suit, the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is something to behold! Even watching the creature “breathe” outside of the water is entertaining. Two suits were made to accommodate two actors of different heights (The 6’ Ricou Browning and 6’4” Ben Chapman). While the final design for the gill man came from a team of workers at Universal Studios, a great deal of credit must go to the multi-talented Millicent Patrick for finding cohesion and bringing the final project together.
Honorable Mention: THE INVISIBLE MAN.
Although this list focuses on makeup, prosthetics, and suits, the visual effect produced by double-exposing and overlaying elements of film in THE INVISIBLE MAN is brilliant. This creative brand of camera magic undoubtedly contributed to the use of CGI that compliments the great practical effects we all love.
What do you think of our Top 5? Did we miss any monsters or effects that should have been listed? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter!