The Secrets Behind Your Favorite Movie SFX
The chest-burster in “Alien”
Everybody knows this one, but few know it was totally unscripted. John Hurt had been doing this crazy thing at social events for a while, bursting suddenly into wild convulsions until a little alien popped out of his chest – he’d been kicked out of practically every Wendy’s in the Tri-State area for pulling that shit. The script had simply called for him to burp after a pungent meal, but from the twinkle in his eye that morning, I suspected he might try something wild. And behold, when he let rip with his jerking, shuddering antics, a glistening alien baby was born, cinema history was made, and John became banned from yet another film set.
The rotating head in “The Exorcist”
We knew this would be one of the more challenging scenes to film, in which the demonic child spins her snarling head a full 360 degrees around. Linda Blair was one of the most intensely “method” child actors I had ever worked with, and insisted on doing all of her stunts in the movie for real. Her preparations for the role included voice lessons with Randy Savage and an all-satanic diet of devilled eggs, blood orange and polenta. Most notably, she employed an unlicensed physical trainer to rotate her head an extra 15 degrees further around each day. It goes without saying that the finished results were astonishing! Just to think, the only thing that holds us back from swiveling our heads all the way around is a lack of gumption. The untapped secrets of the human body never cease to amaze.
The flying plane of glass in “The Omen”
You must remember this bit. Towards the end of the movie, a large pane of glass slides off the back of a speeding truck and shoots at high speed towards David Warner’s character, cleanly decapitating him. It was such a tricky effect to get right. In the script it was originally supposed to be a kettle that clonked him on the noggin, but David kept insisting there was no such thing as a “kettle truck” and called for a better idea. Finally, we relented and replaced it with a sheet of razor-sharp glass. Intent to go on living, David also insisted we employ a stunt double for the decapitation shot. On the day, things went without a hitch and the head came flying right off! It was a terrifying moment but a bona fide slice of movie magic. We never did learn that stunt guy’s name. Rest in peace, whoever you were.
The crippled foot in “Misery”
This scene still makes me queasy, just thinking about it. Not only was this horrifying moment not in the script, but Kathy Bates didn’t even know we were filming. All throughout the shoot, James Caan had been playing countless pranks on his co-workers – leaving fart cushions on chairs, stuffing jelly into shoes, hiding crumbled-up crackers in beds – good natured stuff, mostly. But it was a very long production, and one day Kathy just snapped. I just thank my lucky stars we were able to capture her vengeful shenanigans on camera. She never did apologize, and to this very day one of James Caan’s shins is 90 degrees more angular than the other.
The cats in “Cats”
Without a doubt, the greatest ordeal of my whole career. They always say to never work with children, animals or Dame Judi Dench, and I wish to God I had listened. We could have simply used special effects to depict the titular felines, but Dame Judi had other ideas. Striving for authenticity, she ate only tuna throughout the shoot, pooped in a box and licked herself clean each morning. More often than not, she would miss the box. At the wrap party she brought everyone a dead bird – luckily, animal control came quickly to take her away. Anarchy reigned supreme on the set. Really, it’s a miracle nobody was killed, although James Corden did maim a stray during rehearsals. Looking back, I should have seen the warning signs – I mean, it’s the only film to be financed entirely by blackmail. On day 431 of shooting, I finally cracked and caught one of the last choppers out of there. I guess I’ll never know if they ever finished that movie.
Alex Griffiths is a writer based in London. His work has previously appeared at Points in Case, Slackjaw and Little Old Lady.