To be scared is human; to be reduced to a quivering lunk of wide-eyed terror apparently remains Hollywood's idea of divine.
Thanks to the new bag of special-effects tricks for creating wonderment, shock and the occasional gagging sound in row 23, this summer is shaping up as particularly "intense."
"Conan the Barbarian" and "Cat People" are already out, and both mince flesh and not words. At the finale of "Conan," Arnold Schwarzenegger lops off a head which bounces, runaway cantaloupe style, down a long flight of stairs. In "Cat People," a black panther tears off an actor's arm with precisely the "fleshy gelatinous snap" its special-effects man intended.
Soon to come upon us are "Tron," a Disney movie in which video games come to horrifying life; "Poltergeist," a violent ghost story from Steven Spielberg; "The Thing," in which the terrifying ice cube from outer space is defrosted once again, and "Blade Runner," which pits Harrison Ford against the robots of a ghastly future. Only the long-awaited "E.T.," a Spielberg movie about a critter from outer space befriended by earthly lads, seems inclined more to wonder than thunder.
No matter how intense these Hollywood products turn out to be, it is unlikely any will match a little number from Australia called "The Road Warrior." With Mel Gibson as a sort of Indiana Jones cum junkyard dog, this imaginatively misanthropic highway epic makes "Raiders of the Lost Ark" seem like a Noel Coward comedy of manners.
For the squeamish, it helps little to say that the cycle of razor-slashings and decapitations has played itself out after more than 50 graphic horror movies flooded the market in 1980.The wizards of special effects have already moved on to "transformations," as in "An American Werewolf in London"; terror derived from "unseen forces," as in "Poltergeist," and the Big Zap effect -- eye-popping light shows of the sort "Raiders" provided for the opening of the forbidden lid.
Nevertheless, the gore of yore remains in the fore.
In "Cat People," a likable, gangly young actor named Ed Begley Jr. loses his arm to a ferocious black panther in what is one of the most arresting dismemberment scenes of the year. The achievement is Tom Burman's -- a veteran special-effects man whose credits include "My Bloody Valentine," "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween III," his current project.
"How we did it was up to us," Burman said. "We made an impression of Ed Begley's arm, and made him a fake one out of gelatin and stuff which we attached to his body with a harness. Then we put some raw meat between his fingers, and he actually stuck the fake arm into the leopard's cage. The leopard ripped it off so fast it scared us all to death . . . This special gelatinous stuff . . . would sort of stretch just before it snapped. We were looking for that fleshy gelatinous snap."
Burman's crew mixed 15 gallons of fake blood, "but we didn't use it all."
Alas, the dismemberment business does not have a lot of social prestige, even in Los Angeles, and Burman is getting out. "I've done more pumping-blood stuff than anybody," he said, "but 'Halloween III' is my last. The money is good. But what I want to do next is direct my own film."
The effects for "Poltergeist" were done at a giant of the special-effects industry, Industrial Light and Magic. ILM specializes in postproduction effects -- those created in the lab.
"I would be loath to work on a dismemberment film," says Richard Edlund, supervisor of visual effects at ILM."And in fact there isn't any blood at all in 'Poltergeist.' There isn't even any language, or murder or sex. And yet we had real trouble getting a PG from the ratings board. They wanted to give us an R because the film is so 'intense.'"
"Intense' seems to be the code word for the new Hollywood thrombosis -- in other words, the blood that runs cold is no longer on the screen, but in your own veins.
"'Poltergeist' is a family story -- I meain, it's about a family," Edlund explained. "It's a ghost story, but a very intense, torturous one. We're using unseen forces. There's a typhoon, there are ectoplasms we developed with laser techniques and there's a real surprise at the end. Also, there's this, ah, this esophagus."
There's, ah, this esophagus?
"That's all I can tell you, sorry. A, ah, rather large esophagus."
The human anatomy has always taken a beating in the movies, and never more so than recently. Nobody who went to "Friday the 13th Part II" was surprised to see an ax embedded in a skull, or a canoe full of severed limbs. Nobody who pays to see "Bloodsucking Freaks" ("Scenes of nude women guillotined, drilled in the head and otherwise mistreated will turn off most viewers." -- Variety) is likely to expect Julie Andrews among the flowers. And those who ventured to David Cronenberg's "Scanners" ("10 seconds: The pain begins. 15 seconds: You can't breathe. 20 seconds: Your head explodes") were anticipating not intelligence, but brains.
It is not always so easy to tell what to expect, however. So it was with furrowed brow that cable television entrepreneur Ted Turner returned to his Marietta, Ga., home two years ago, his wife Janie clinging palely to his arm. "Where's the nitwit who suggested we go see 'Alien?'" he inquired loudly, as associates fled across the lawn and into the protection of nearby woods.
The bloodthirsty creature that clawed its way out of John Hurt's chest cavity in that film took many other moviegoers equally by surprise -- but like the gelatinous snap in "Cat People," it also got "Alien" talked about, which is what a film requires for success.
Thus we can expect from the remake of "The Thing" an ending more spectacular than that of the original. The first time around, James Arness' monster met its end by a primitive electrical means. The effect, shocking then, would hardly dim the lights now.
The special effects on the remake are by Rob Bottin, who did "The Howling." Werewolves have been depicted on screen a number of times, but Bottin went them all one better with his huge, erect-walking figments of a goose-pimpled imagination. He caused them to transform before our very eyes, complete with the bone-cracking noises of supernatural metamorphosis.
For this summer's "Thing," Bottin had a budget of $1.5 million for his monster alone, and if the new Thing is not a whole lot scarier than the old Thing, somebody's head will roll in Hollywood.
"I've stayed away from the graphic dismemberment stuff," said John Dykstra, the Wunderkind who set up ILM expressly for "Star Wars," in which humans generally escaped serious harm, although life and limb were considerably less assured for other galactic species. His current project is the forthcoming Clint Eastwood vehicle "Firefox," in which he says more metal gets rent than flesh. But with the expertise available in special effects today, "the limitation of gore is really the taste of the producer or the director of the movie," according to Dykstra.
In television, however, a network censor also gets into the act. "I remember when I was doing 'Battlestar Galactica,' we were going to have a beheading. But the ABC guy wouldn't let us use a guillotine. 'You have to cut the head off with a sword,' he said. 'A laser sword would be fine.' I asked if we could beat the person to death with a gun, instead. 'Yes, that would be fine,' he said, 'just as long as there's no guillotine.'
"It gets pretty silly when that happens," Dykstra said.
To talk to the big guns of visual effects, it often seems as if the grisly, blood-spurting gags of the trade are done not by any of them, but by forces Beyond Human Understanding. And yet, They Are There.
"I don't do that sort of thing, with all due respect," said Robbie Blalack, whose credits include "Wolfen," "Altered States" and "Cat People."
"The parts in 'Cat People' I did were optical effects, such as when Nastassia Kinski is naked and she chases the rabbit and jumps on it and eats it. I worked on 'Airplane' -- the opening credits where the tail of the plane appears in the clouds. I'm realy not into the tendons and bullet-wound department.
"But sure, Hollywood will continue to market that sort of thing, because there's a market for it. It'll continue to be done by independents, because low-budget horror films are still a way to break into filmmaking."
One such break-in artist is Jon Torp, president of an enthusiastic company named Runamuk.
"Yes, the mad-slasher cycle has ended, and now we have these 'unseen-force' movies," Torp said. "But the big studios will still be explicit with gore, because they'll have to be. It's the same thing that happened with explicit sex -- now you just can't go back to the way it was in the early Sophia Loren movies.
"If there's going to be gore, it has to be clever gore. One reason 'Friday the 13th' did well was that somebody was lying in bed, and an arrow was shoved up through him . People hadn't seen that before. It was different. And the arm in 'Cat People' helps bring them in."
Torp does not have the resources of ILM at his disposal, and he is still trying to produce a script called "In Broad Daylight," in which "daylight itself becomes a terrifying unseen force." The special effects in that project will be mechanical.
"For example, a rotary lawnmower runs into a bag of nails and peppers the victim with them. So you get a bag of nails, and you put a radio control on the lawnmower, and just do it. We also videotape the scene, so we can play it back right away to see what it looks like."
Not everyone takes matters that seriously.
At Runamuk, the lads have dreamed up a comedy parody called "Lifesavers," written by Torp and Tom Greene.
"It's kind of like 'Airplane,' with 'Alien' in it," Torp says. "Somebody is eating a little doughnut, and suddenly the Pillsbury Doughboy erupts from his chest."