Low-budget special effects are an integral part of so-called “campy” horror. Although a bit difficult to define, camp is best understood as cheesy, excessive, and even silly. American critic Susan Sontag, in his 1964 essay Camp Notes, describes it as “the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. There’s no genre that loves the unnatural more than horror.
The most iconic movie that defined the campy horror genre is, of course, diabolical death. Released in 1981, The evil Dead only had a budget of $375,000. Director Sam Raimi and the main actor Bruce Campbell, who have been friends since childhood, were determined to make a horror movie together, even though they had no money or connections. Raimi and Campbell ended up asking just about everyone they knew in their lives, gathering just enough donations to end up making one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Due to this small budget, they had to get creative.
Raimi brought his college friend Tom Sullivan into the special effects fold. Sullivan had a fondness for stop-motion animation and puppets, which was exactly what Raimi needed for his vision. In addition to the slapstick shooting style that Raimi added, Sullivan’s special effects made diabolical death what it is, unique and highly entertaining, and the film has remained one of the greatest horror films to date. Its raw, messy look only adds to its charm, and even with larger budgets for subsequent sequels, the evil Dead the films retained their look thrown together for special effects. Roger Ebert, in his review of Evil Dead 2: Dead at Dawn said the film’s “dirty, low-budget intensity gives it an adorable quality that hi-tech movies wouldn’t have.”
Low-budget horror has since been defined by over-the-top, relentless gory practical effects that are both gruesome and somehow entertaining – even sometimes humorous.
But is it just nostalgia, or is there something more to low-budget special effects that suits the horror genre so well?
The Call of Campy Horror
Campy horror movies are just plain fun. For a time, particularly in the 80s and some of the 90s, they pretty much defined the horror genre itself. Whether it’s Freddy Krueger’s toys for children or the decidedly entertaining adventures of Ash from evil Dead, horror had an element of fun that was almost like the kind of terrifying thrill you’d get at a carnival. And it was because of how horror embraced the camp.
Being campy doesn’t mean you don’t care about gender – it’s actually the other way around, a kind of celebration. As writer Christopher Isherwood said of camp, “You can’t camp on something you don’t take seriously. You don’t care; you don’t care. You express what is fundamentally serious for you in terms of pleasure, artifice and elegance”.
Modern horror films have moved away from this style, favoring hyperrealistic, psychologically dark horror instead – and it works, it’s scary enough. But, there is something fun in the horror that is missing. The sheer fun of it, which comes from the campy, at once sincere and silly, over-the-top horror that entertains audiences to this day.
Camp Horror is something we come back to watch again and again, especially with friends, as it’s at the heart of it, so very enjoyable. It doesn’t take away the creepiness or the horror either. Watching an obvious prop twitch as fingers pop out of its eyes is still horrifying, even if it’s clearly fake – and the fact that it’s clearly fake is what allows us to enjoy it so much, while the idea of the horrible thing that is happening does not lose its horror. And that’s part of why camp horror may even be the best genre. By embracing its ridiculousness and exaggeration, it allows audiences to enter the very bizarre and surreal, the grotesque and the horrifying; pushing the boundaries of what’s possible as far as possible – which creates its own kind of anticipation, as well as anxiety, as we wonder how far box How’s it going?
Show the unnatural through exaggeration
The more real something seems, the more we want to justify its reality. The more explanation one wants, or at least logical coherence. With campy horror, we’re invited to ditch logic for fun. To suspend our disbelief and enjoy this suspense. Low-budget special effects embrace this suspension, taking advantage of our willingness to believe, to bridge the gaps between what we’re asked to see and what we actually see. The special effects are crude, unrealistic, and even seem to break the rules of what could be considered typical special effects for a movie.
For example, Tom Sullivan, when he was working on special effects for diabolical death, took the typical formula for making blood (corn syrup and food coloring) and added coffee to it – just to make it look different and weird. It’s been given such creative freedom that the resulting special effects are even more fantastical, bizarre, and unnerving, making them fit all the better into the equally bizarre story they serve.
But there’s a fine line between what’s campy and what’s bad. The passion Sullivan had for his work is evident, which makes his work enjoyable even though it is unrealistic and could be called “bad”. It helps that everything is done by hand. But, when the effects are just plain bad without the obvious effort involved, like the terrible CGI sharks in 3D jaws or the painfully rendered CGI werewolf in An American werewolf in Parisit remains only to laugh at the film, rather than with it.
The fun of low-budget special effects, when they work well and help the film, comes from a sincerity and passion that we can feel while watching, rather than feeling like whoever made it that we see didn’t care how it would look or be received.
Humanity in an unpolished look
There is a certain appeal in seeing something done wrong. Low-budget horror seems to thrive in a place between not taking itself seriously, but taking its project and working very Cordially. And it’s even more apparent when the way a prop or special effect is done is so blatant. When we can recognize the fact that what we are looking at was clearly created and is not real, we have an almost unconscious recognition of an artist and their work on display. There is an excitement behind the effort, however amateurish – even a kind of impatience, as if the artist is in a hurry to tell you the story, and has put the pieces together.
The visible effort in prop crafting and special effects adds something we don’t always think we want. After all, we assume that the best special effects will be the most realistic. But there’s almost something annoying, even annoying at times, about something that’s done too well – almost perfectly. Flaws are attractive. They add a space between the medium and the audience that seems to make the flaws themselves their own art form. Digital effects such as VHS tape imperfections or shaky cameras are even used to enhance the horror through the very flaws they produce. There’s something about seeing a shaky, grainy video, or the crackle of sound on an old vinyl record, that has a strong appeal. This appeal is also present in low-budget horror effects.
It’s not just that the technology in most of these low-budget horrors is old and we feel nostalgic when we see it. There is something in the flaws themselves that adds a humanity to what we see – the touch of a human spirit and an imperfect hand at work. Humans are, at least, imperfect. And we’re drawn to explorations of that, sometimes more than we’re drawn to something perfectly well done. A flawed visual effect is no less authentic to him, and perhaps more so.
As Sontag put it in his aforementioned essay, “Things are campy, not when they get old, but when we become less involved in them and can enjoy them instead of being frustrated by the failure of attempt.” Campy horror isn’t trying to make you believe it’s real, and because of that, we can enjoy the messy, messy look that fails reality, but succeeds in imagination and, more than anything, to pleasure.
By comparing the original Jaws movie at jurassic park, we have an obvious example. Flaws Spielberg encountered while trying to get the animatronic shark to work hampered the film, and so there are very few scenes where the shark is visible. When visible, it is painfully inaccurate and clearly unreal. Yet there is something more disturbing, even terrifying, about the vague glimpses of a fin, or the sensation of almost the seer, that the highly visible, and indeed very impressive, dinosaurs that dominate the screen of Jurassic Park. Even the robotic movements of the shark as it maddeningly moves its jaws trying to eat Quint are somehow more disturbing than the realistic Velociraptors.
Low-budget special effects are a big part of why campy horror is so fun and engaging. Horror fans will continue to revisit these hugely engaging and enjoyable films for years to come, and we can only hope that horror embraces its roots and makes more such films in the future.