Friday, December 14, 2012

Beneath the Skin: How they Did the Transformation Scene in 'An American Werewolf in London'

"An American Werewolf in London" has one of the most realistic appearing werewolf transformation sequences that I have ever seen. The movie was made in a time when CG effects were very expensive, and practical effects were king. While some companies now solely rely on CG as a crutch for their movie monsters, I find that those that still do it old school tend to have monsters that are far more real looking and convincing than their digital counterparts.

It's easy to see that the CG transformation lacks the weight and terror that the practical effects bring to the table. There's several reasons for that, from pacing issues to lack a of convincing sound effects. Most of which were handled quite well by "An American Werewolf in London."

The special effects for An American Werewolf were created by Rick Baker. The sequence shown above was so good, that he received an Oscar for it.

The animatronics used to create the two minute long agonizing werewolf transformation scene were quite elaborate. There were several animatronic heads made for the facial changes of the shot. While the skin and fur are now long gone, it's easy to see how they made the forehead and cheek bones protrude, and more importantly, how they made the lycanthrope jaw extension look so good.

The sections of the cheeks and forehead move by pushing air through syringes.

The animatronics consists of a fiberglass shell, foam and wolf hair. The teeth in the jaw are larger than the actor's teeth, but smaller than the final teeth of the werewolf, which I believe is one of the things that lends to the scene's realism.

When taking into consideration that Baker was 30 years old and worked with a crew with an average age of 19, many of whom never worked on a film before, I think they did a fantastic job.

But it's not just the visual effects that make this scene scary, it's the sound effects as well.  This storyboard from the movie shows us that these sounds were desired from the very beginning of the movie design.

The sounds of bones crunching, hair growing, the feet elongating and the spine popping are so well timed, that it makes the scene all the more believable. Truly, it's a work of art that has yet to be outdone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Top 13 Scariest Ghost Movies

There are a lot of ghost movies in the world, and like ghosts themselves,  some are good, some are bad, and some are downright terrifying. The good ghost movies avoid cliches and get right into the suspense and horror of being haunted by the vengeful dead.

Here's my list of the top 13 scariest ghost movies. Enjoy!

13. The Devil's Backbone (2001)

"What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber."

1939, near the end of the three year Spanish Civil War, The right-wing Nationalists are about to defeat the left-wing Republican forces. Carlos, son of a Republican war hero is dropped off by his tutor at an orphanage that is far away from civilization, where an undetonated bomb sits ominously in the courtyard. The orphanage is run by a strict headmistress  Carmen, the kind Professor Casares, and the brutal, sociopathic caretaker Jacinto who hides a terrible secret that the ghost of Santi, the boy who disappeared when the bomb fell, is desperate to share with the living in an effort to stop Jacinto from getting away with murder.

This cinematic masterpiece by Guillermo Del Toro is a wonderfully scary ghost movie that is both an allegory for the Spanish Civil War, and a terrific fairy tale all wrapped up in one.

12. The Dark (2005)

Sarah and her mother have not been getting along. Her mother thinks that a trip to visit her father in Wales will be just the thing to fix their strained relationship. But she's dead wrong.

While taking a stroll along the cliffs near the sea, they come across a memorial with a missing plate, with the word Annwyn (pronounced ah-noon) written on it. Annwyn is the Welsh afterlife, and is represented by the water.

Soon afterward, Sarah vanishes while walking along the beach and is replaced with a girl named Ebrill- the dead daughter of a local shepherd and the town pastor, who died tragically when her father, desperate to save her, gave her to the sea where she was swept away to Annwyn. In an effort to get her back by exchanging a life for a life, he convinces his followers to throw themselves over the cliffs to enter Paradise.

Ebrill did come back, but something returned with her, something evil. Soon the sheep began throwing themselves off the cliff and into the waters.

When Adele and Sarah visit James, the sheep begin to once again throw themselves off the cliff, an ominous sign that the evil that Ebrill brought with her into the land of the living has returned.

This little known ghost movie has an interesting folk-lore premise and some very creepy scenes that you have to see to believe. It is based on the book "Sheep" by Simon Maginn.

11. Fragile

Jaume Balagueró's "Fragile"  is about Amy Nicholls, an American Nurse, who gets a job at the dilapidated English children's hospital, Mercy Falls, to help transfer the last eight patients to a new hospital prior to the building being shut down for good. Soon after she starts working there, Amy learns that there is a malevolent spirit, called "The Mechanical Girl", a ghost wearing orthopedic braces that is attacking the children and breaking their bones.

This ghost movie has a tense atmosphere, and a strong female protagonist who will do anything to protect her young charges. It covers the themes of loneliness, and the bonding that occurs between nurses and children when they are patients in a hospital and suffering from an incurable, often painful, disease. Unfortunately, some nurses become too attached to their wards, and will do anything to keep them in the hospital.

The paranormal elements, and the mystery behind the Mechanical Girl is well done and creates an eery amount of suspense and dread that many other ghost movies fail to produce.

10. Shutter (2004)

After being involved in a hit-and-run accident, a photographer, Tun, starts to see white faces appear in his photos. It is soon clear that the ghost of the accident victim is haunting him, and she won't stop until she gets her revenge.

The original version of "Shutter" is a fantastic Thai horror movie that has a lot of really intense, scary moments that you have to see to believe. When the ghost appears in the apartment and begins to haunt Tun's girlfriend is when the movie really starts to get good.

9. The Orphanage (2007)

You  may have noticed that this is the second movie with Guillermo del Toro's name on it that appears on my list of Top 13 Scariest Ghost Movies. There's a reason for that. He has a great talent for story telling and interweaving historical set pieces with heart breaking tragedies and his appreciation for horror movies shows in every work he undertakes.

In "The Orphanage," Laura and her husband Carlos have moved back in to her childhood home, which also happens to be an orphanage. She wants to turn it into a home for disabled children. While living there, her adopted son Simon makes a friend with a masked boy, Tomas, and starts playing a hiding game with him, where they hide other people's possessions and Simon has to find them in order to get his wish granted.

Unfortunately, Simon uncovers his adoption papers and learns that he is HIV-positive. Angry with his adopted mother for not telling him the truth about his past, or that he is deathly ill, he runs away and hides from her. Laura desperately searches for Simon, and encounters Tomas, whom she believes is a ghost.

After six months of searching, there are strange banging sounds in the home, and other instances of paranormal activity, which leads Laura to believe that the ghosts of children that died at the orphanage are responsible for her son's disappearance.

The interaction between Laura and the ghosts makes some really good scares, with my favorite being the one where she plays a hide-and-seek game with them.

8. Stir of Echoes (1999)

"Stir of Echoes" is based on a book of the same name by Richard Matheson, which I highly recommend by the way.

Tom is a normal guy living in a working class neighborhood in Chicago. One night at a party, his wife's sister Lisa, convinces him to let her hypnotize him. Tom doesn't believe in it, but ends up being hypnotized anyway.  Lisa ordered him to become more open-minded, but instead of making him be less cynical and jaded, it actually opens his third eye and allows him to receive messages from the dead.

This movie is one of the most underrated movies from 1999. It was completely overshadowed by "The Sixth Sense," which pales in comparison.

"Stir of Echoes" is more of a slow burner, and involves a tormented man attempting to solve a murder and find the body of the dead girl that is haunting him and his son (who can also communicate with the dead). The slow build of tension and suspense allows the frightening conclusion of the movie to stick with you for quite some time. At least, I know that it did for me.

7. The St. Francisville Experiment (2000)

"The St. Francisville Experiment" came out one year after "The Blair Witch Project," and the found footage film's influence on the movie is hard to miss. It follows the same format of introducing the people involved in the ghost hunting experiment, laying down the folklore and local legends of what occurred in the mansion as a means to set up the foundation for the scares of the movie, and then proceeds to place the group of four strangers in a building over night; a formula for the boiler room plot device where some of the tension is caused by the fact that the people that are involved in the story cannot leave or run away from it.

In "The St. Francisville Experiment," ghosts of the slaves of the sadistic murderer, Delphine LaLaurie (an actual historical figure in New Orleans who has had her name slandered and has been branded as a serial killer according to local legends) haunt the LaLaurie house. A group of four people has been gathered to enter the house and spend the night. While there, they record everything that they experience, and it's soon clear that they are not alone, and that the ghosts are real.

Unfortunately for the ghost hunters, the vicious ghost of the house's mistress has remained behind, and has turned the tables on them, making the ghost hunters, the hunted.

This is one of those horror movies that are best when watched in the dark, when you are all alone and in the mood for a good scare. While there are some cheesy moments in the first half of the movie, once the action ramps up and the ghosts start to haunt them, it really gets good and spooky. Fans of "Grave Encounters" will especially like this ghost movie.

6. The Ring (2002)

Based on "Ringu" a book by Koji Suzuki, this ghost movie is about a cursed video tape. After you watch the tape, the phone rings. The voice on the other end says, "Seven days." After seven days, the vengeful hungry ghost of Samara comes for you and kills you.

The main character, Rachel, is a newspaper reporter. When her niece dies of fright, she begins investigating the circumstances surrounding her death and uncovers a cursed video tape. If she can't find a way to placate the ghost that killed her niece, she will soon be its next victim.

"The Ring" is one of those rare U.S. remakes that was actually better than the original film. In this case, it is a remake of  the Japanese horror film, "Ringu."  While some of the main plot points of the original movie have been dropped, the U.S. version added several layers to the myth of the Video Tape of Death, added character development to make us really care for the main character's young son, and overall created a well paced and scary ghost movie.

The movie was so good, that it brought J-horror into popular American culture, well, at least in many horror circles at any rate, and that's a good thing. While Americans generally don't scare as easily as the Japanese (or so I'm told), there are story elements from Japanese culture that are absolutely fascinating. The mixture of American and Japanese ghost stories has created a wonderfully terrifying movie.

Actually, "The Ring" has two scary movies in one, the first is the absolutely creepy cursed video tape that perpetuates the curse, and allows the ghost to kill more victims, and the second is a movie that is more fast paced and suspenseful ghost story than it's overseas counterpart.

5. Darkness (2002)

"Darkness" is a film directed by Jaume Balaguero, the co-director of [REC] and [REC] 2, and stars Anna Paquin in what I think is the best role I have ever seen her play.

The movie is about a teenage girl, Regina, who moves into a haunted house in Spain with her family. Her father suffers from mental breakdowns and periods of psychotic attacks, so when he first starts having problems it is thought that the stress of moving into a new home is the cause of it.

Regina's little brother Paul, suddenly becomes terrified of the dark, and claims that something is living under his bed. As her father slips further into insanity, her brother becomes more and more afraid. After observing the power outages in the home and her father and brother's behavior, she believes that the power outages and their problems are related. So she hunts down the architect of the house and learns that it was built for a dark magic ritual, and that the ghosts of the children that were killed there are roaming the halls while a dark presence is waiting to kill the last sacrificial victim.

4. Session 9 (2001)

"Session 9" is one of the best psychological horror films I have ever seen. On top of that, it is also one of the scariest ghost movies out there, which is why it is on this list.

I love ghost stories that take place in abandoned insane asylums. Between the atmosphere and the eerie backdrop of a dilapidated building that always seems to have at least one wheelchair left behind, they always manage to creep me out.

In "Session 9", Gordon Fleming and his hazmat removal crew are hired to take out the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital, which was shut down in 1985. One member of Gordon's crew uncovers an evidence box in a tunnel beneath the hospital. Inside the box are nine tapes of therapy sessions with patient number 444, Mary Hobbes.

When Mike finds a working tape player, he starts to listen to the tapes, which slowly uncover the bizarre, twisted mind of a killer suffering from multiple personality disorder. As we learn about the personalities and what happened to Mary, the members of the cleaning crew begin to be killed off, one by one. But is it the ghost of Mary, or the evil entity that claims to possess her who calls himself Simon that is killing the men?

This low budget film more than makes up for its small pocket book with big scares and intense, spooky scenes that will leave on the edge of your seat, constantly looking behind you to make sure that something isn't standing right behind you, waiting to pounce.

3. Grave Encounters (2011)

Pouty-lips girl aside, "Grave Encounters" is one of those movies that actually earned the hype surrounding it. Really, it is. This found footage film features ghost hunters that were a part of a paranormal reality TV show called "Grave Encounters." The ill-fated sixth episode took place in the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, which was shut down years ago, and is supposed to be haunted.

What was meant to be another installment in the series turned out to be the last episode the crew ever filmed. It starts out innocently enough, with the crew interviewing people about the hauntings and talking with the groundskeeper, who shows them a window that opens by itself every night.

They lock themselves inside the building over night to begin the paranormal investigation and capture everything on camera. One by one, the crew begins to disappear, and it's made apparent that the building is not just haunted, it's sentient and has become a labyrinthine maze of horror. The ghosts of former patients and the doctors that performed terrible experiments upon them, up to and including transorbital lobotomies, won't leave them alone. Trapped in a realm of forever night, where the pitch black darkness threatens to swallow them whole while they are relentlessly hunted and hounded by the tormented souls of the tortured dead at every turn.

What I really loved about this movie is that it wasn't predictable, and it borrowed ideas from "House of Leaves" and faerie abductions, where time has no meaning and dawn never comes to bring light to the world. The terrible fate of Lance Preston and his crew induces mind numbing horror in the viewer, and it reminded me a lot of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

2. The Changeling (1980)

"The Changeling" is based on true life events that author Russel Hunter claims to have experienced when he lived at the Henry Treat Roger Mansions in Denver, Colorado.

Composer John Russell is a grieving widow looking for solace. He moves into a secluded estate near Seattle Washington in an attempt to return to composing music and picking up the pieces of his broken life. It is soon clear that he is not alone, and the house is haunted by a violent ghost of a young boy who was murdered there years ago.

Some of the best ghost stories have settings that take on a personality and life of their own. Much like the hospital in "Grave Encounters," the Victorian house that Russell lives in has a looming presence. There are tense moments when you can practically hear the house breathing as the poor man attempts to uncover the mystery behind the ghostly apparition's origin.

The scares in this ghost movie are subtle and the tension builds up beautifully in this utterly terrifying ghost movie. Don't watch this one alone. I mean it.

1. Poltergeist (1982)

"Poltergeist" is about a middle class American family, the Freelings, who move into a haunted house. The dark malevolent forces are playful at first, but things take a bad turn once their youngest child, Carol Anne, is stolen and taken over to the other side; the Land of the Dead.

Diane and Steven Freeling have to confront the invisible forces that are manipulating objects in the home and becoming increasingly dangerous as they attempt to get their little girl back.

Once they contact parapsychologists from UC Irvine, they learn that it's not just one ghost inhabiting their house, but a whole slew of them, and they are being led by an evil presence called "The Beast," who is using Carol Anne to manipulate the other spirits and use them to its own gain. What exactly it means to accomplish is never truly revealed, but this doesn't matter.

All I know is, you shouldn't build a house on a cemetery that is still inhabited by interred corpses. It never ends well.

"Poltergeist" has to be the scariest PG movie ever made.

Never before has static on a television instilled so much horror.

Even at 30 years old, this horror film still manages to scare me. It's the clown man, that damned clown doll. Gets me every time.