They had (horror) faces then

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Earlier this week my friend Bill Ryan posted to his Facebook page an image of John Barrymore from the 1920 silent version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Bill did this to point attention to his review of Kino-Lorber’s Deluxe Collector’s Edition DVD and Blu-ray on his film blog The Kind of Face You Hate, which you should be following if you have a lick of sense and a modicum of good taste. Though I am of course familiar with the Barrymore Jekyll-and-Hyde and own an earlier DVD release of it, the image Bill singled out gave me pause. Unlike Fredric March’s later, Oscar-winning turn as the same character(s), which benefited greatly from the makeup job of Wally Westmore, Barrymore’s was accomplished with a minimum of prosthetic add-ons. The Great Profile donned a dome-like hairpiece that gave his atavistic Mr. Hyde a simian silhouette and added finger extensions for a subtle spidery affect, but the effects work on his face (from what I understand) was all Barrymore… practical, in-camera, acting. I was reminded of that great line from SUNSET BLVD. (1950) — “They had faces then” — and I began to lament how modern horror movies have devalued the human face in all its intricacies with the advent of CGI. 

Dead Birds

This shot from the Civil War era horror movie DEAD BIRDS (2004) is fairly representative of how horror is particularized in the New Millennium, where shocks boil down to SCARY CGI FACE! (If I saw John Barrymore’s Hyde in my back yard at dark o’the moon, I’d run the other way; if I saw this thing, I’d hit it with a rake.) I’m not sure when this pernicious trend started but I lazily attribute it to J-horror, JU ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) and its sequels and the 2004 American remake produced by Sam Raimi (no stranger to scary faces). These movies were fairly modest in their application of computer generated imagery and JU-ON even relied on Old School techniques, involving actors actually being in the frame, with only their eyes and mouths amped up with digital chicanery. But via the normal course of FX brinksmanship, we soon were treated to (afflicted with) an endless chain of CGI-altered faces from both the big box spookers and their dime-a-dozen imitators. One could even imagine the executive producer barking orders into his Smartphone “No, bigger… BIGGER. Bigger eyes, a bigger mouth, bigger teeth! Go big, GO BIG!” And look what they’ve stuck us with.

Nothing Left to Fear 2013 movie pic3

The desperation to go big, to create tentpole moments in horror films, to evoke buzz-generating water cooler conversation pieces has prompted modern horror movies to slather on the CGI like so much Miracle Whip.


How quickly these effects have timed out, though. They are as predictable as the fake cat scare. Mind you, I understand the philosophy of the device, to remove from the frame any trace of humanity, evoking the ultimate worst case scenario in the loss of loved ones to something ancient, infernal, insatiable — the eradication of the soul, the erasure of memory, emotion, devotion, affection. But in removing humanity from the picture, we realize suddenly that what is truly scary isn’t its absence but rather its corruption. For inhumanity to deliver the gutpunch, we need to see the humanity.

Exorcist actual

How simple it is, really. A little makeup to take the blush out of a little girl’s cheeks, a canted angle to add a measure of dread, the tilt of the eye to connote contempt… and acting. This is why THE EXORCIST (1973) is just as scary in its talky first half as it is on the back nine when forty special effects men just about jump out from behind the couch to go BOOGABOOGABOOGA. And yet even these genius filmmakers were corrupted by the CGI carrot, with director William Friedkin giving his blessing thirty years after the fact to tart up THE EXORCIST with a bunch of digital houha so the film could compete at the box office with more contemporary fare.

Exorcist digital

How awful is this? (Rhetorical question. Answer: wicked awful.) Not only does it make Regan McNeil look like Kevin Bacon but it robs the frame of the very humanity that is needed to communicate the horrible heartbreak of Regan’s corruption. If anybody actually prefers THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU NEVER SAW to the original, well, I don’t ever need to meet that guy.


I find myself drawn increasingly more — it should come as no surprise to you — to older movies, whose antiquity better communicates otherworldliness to me than all the digital trickery Hollywood can muster. This shot of a nun gone mad from Benjamin Christensen’s HAXAN (aka WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, 1922) gives me a pretty chill, with the nun’s habbit making her seem swallowed byshadows and her insane face marking her as both victim and predator. The actress’ prominent teeth remind me of a shot from William Castle’s THE TINGLER (1959)…


… that has stayed with me over the thirty-odd years since I first saw that movie. In the context of the plot, and a point at which a murderer receives his karmic comeuppance, this scene should be cathartic or even provide a laugh (and I’m sure among the hipsterati it does) but for me it troubles, it bothers, it scares. Put that all down to actor Philip Coolidge, who so beautifully communicates a man eaten alive by his own unchecked capacity for evil.

House on Haunted Hill

Speaking of William Castle, who would ever forget the exceptionally disturbing housekeeper from HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). Even if the character proved to be a through and through red herring, Leona Anderson’s performance had the benefit of total commitment. Sister of cowboy actor “Broncho” Billy Anderson, Leona Anderson went on the public record to say “Never look like you’re not serious” and obviously practiced what she preached.

Carnival of Souls

People are always asking me “Slow zombies? Or fast?” but it’s the wrong question. The real question is “Pale zombies… or rotten?” Give me pale. As CGI has dominated ghost movies, so prosthetic appliances have overwhelmed the zombie subgenre. (You may quibble with my inclusion of a moment from CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which is not a zombie film per se, but indulge me in this, as CARNIVAL seems a clear influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and certainly does establish a precedent for whey-faced ghouls pursuing the living with stiff-legged determination.)

Night of the Living Dead

There was an odd, only slightly inelegant beauty to the undead in the Romero film that was carried over to a degree in its first sequel but completely absent by the third leg of the original trilogy. All sensuality was gone and the dichotomy shifted from the veil separating life and death to cage match thrills for the monster truck mentality… squibs and prosthetic appliances and zombie bites and rubber guts.

Eyes without a Face

Georges Franjau’s LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (EYES WITHOUT A FACE, 1959) made literal the expression “a mask of horror” by abstracting the human face, isolating the eyes of its heroine (Edith Scob), all that remains of the woman she once was. These are the faces that continue to haunt me — operative word “haunt.” Remember when movie-makers tried to haunt you rather than pummel you over the head with an exhausting succession of shock images, each one ramped up higher than the last, when notes of beauty and melancholy were woven into the overall fear tapestry? Boy, I sure do.

The Haunting

The scariest person in THE HAUNTING (1963) and she’s not even supernatural. Cast in the small role of a New England domestic with some very peculiar house rules, Rosalie Crutchley unnerves you not with hollow eyes and hyena teeth… but rather in the slightly off cast of her voice, in the slight tilt of her head, that look in her eyes, and a smile that comes out of nowhere like Leatherface behind the sliding steel door. It’s a brilliantly executed performance, and as fleeting as a clarinet solo. Mrs. Dudley is in and out of THE HAUNTING in a trice… and yet you think about her long after she is gone. That, my friends, is a haunting worth screaming about.

18 Responses They had (horror) faces then
Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : January 31, 2014 6:25 pm

CGI is not just a Problem in horror movies. It´s everywhere.
I really loved The Wolf of Wall Street, but all these sterile
digital images are just not my cup of tea.
Does nobody shoot on location anymore ?
Thank God there are still enough old movies to discover.

Posted By Jenni : January 31, 2014 6:57 pm

Poor Kevin Bacon!

Posted By Jenni : January 31, 2014 7:00 pm

It is interesting to me and a bit gratifying when once in a while I can get my teens to sit and watch a classic movie with me and especially if it was known for its special effects, they will comment that they appreciate what was done as no CGI existed yet. Case in point: this summer my 10 year old agreed to view Jason and The Argonauts with me and he really enjoyed it, especially with Ray Harryhausen’s great effects; TCM was airing his work as he had passed away earlier in that month.

Posted By Ben Martin : January 31, 2014 7:19 pm

One horror face that stays with me is also from a William Castle film but instead of Phillip Coolidge in The Tingler its the creepy, ghostly housekeeper (Leona Anderson?) in House on Haunted Hill. Wish i could drop in a still from that – it still gets me.

Posted By Jack Favell : January 31, 2014 7:33 pm

Personally, there is nothing more haunting or more tragic than Conrad Veidt’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, but it’s because the distortion is really Veidt’s face. Yes, there is makeup, but the face is not altered in the camera as with so many Joker incarnations. The way he hides his smile is more horrific than any CGI special effect ever could be.

Another great, frightening face in film is that of Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus – there is something so obviously sexual, raw and evil about her face in the nun’s cowl, with only red and blue highlights to accentuate it… it’s highly disturbing.

My favorite horror film face though is one that probably will not even be thought of by most fans here. It is Ernest Thesiger’s heavily lined visage in The Bride of Frankenstein. The perfect face for horror! Lit from above, this one particular shot from the film has become my favorite image from any horror movie ever made:

Posted By Robert Hubbard : January 31, 2014 7:41 pm

It also seems that the template for these CGI scare faces is more insectile/beastial and predatory – some sort of tangible predator whose intent is to devour. That seems to be the modern horror paradigm – predator to prey.

Posted By Amy : January 31, 2014 8:36 pm

What, no Lon Chaney?

Great post. I’ve always steered clear of “Haxan” because I figured it would scare the stuffing out of me, and that one screenshot shows me I was right.

Does CGI supposedly cost less for horror effects than good old makeup and lighting? I have a hard time believing that, so I wonder what the real driver of the change is.

Posted By Blakeney : January 31, 2014 9:32 pm

Thoughtful post, and so agree – taking the human element completely out of the “scare” moments removes a lot of the scare.

CGI can certainly come up with some terrible stuff. But there’s an acute sense that “Oh, this is CGI” and it’s already becoming somewhat old hat. The scariest moments come from the jarring notes in what is otherwise commonplace, and from actors that are gifted at striking that balance. (Mrs. Danvers [Judith Anderson] from Rebecca still scares me more than a lot of horror movie villains!)

Posted By Shuvcat : January 31, 2014 10:13 pm

There was a great quote by someone or other about ten years ago as CGI was becoming big: “When anything can happen, who cares what happens?” They were getting bored with digital cartoons even then.

However, it does make the effects of older films all the more eye-popping. I was talked into watching “Sh! The Octopus” last year and I’m so glad I got to see THAT scene (viewers will know the one I mean). Even creepier when you take into account they didn’t HAVE CGI back then. Brrrrrr.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : February 1, 2014 12:13 am

Ben Martin, you inspired me to include Leona Anderson from HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in our roster.

Posted By Dan Day Jr. : February 1, 2014 2:57 am

This is why there are no great horror film stars any more. The classic monsters are “classic” because they are really human beings (Chaney Sr. and Jr., Karloff, Lugosi, Carradine, Cushing, Lee, Price, etc.). Something that actually exists will always be more haunting than a special effect.

Posted By Gene : February 1, 2014 3:43 pm

Love the rake idea. Otherwise all I can say to this post is AMEN!!

Posted By Ben Martin : February 3, 2014 1:12 pm

Oh well done Richard! Thank you! A scary face indeed!

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2014 4:39 pm

I must give credit to Sam Raimi for using some practical effects make-up for his scary gypsy lady in Drag Me to Hell though. I don’t recall any CGI effects on her.

Posted By chris : February 3, 2014 9:04 pm

My favorite part of “Carnival of Souls” is the image of all the “zombies?” rising out of the water. I think that might have had an influence on Romero when he made “Land of the Dead” when he had the living dead jump into the water to rise out of it later.
As for the “The Exorcist” Kevin Bacon look, does that mean we can use “The Exorcist” now in the Seven Degrees of Kevin?

Posted By Doug : February 4, 2014 12:55 am

Shuvcat, I know exactly the scene you mean in “Sh-The Octopus!”-these days with DVd we can hit rewind and slow motion and all of that-imagine being in the audience when it first came out-things were going crazy every 22.5 seconds!

Posted By Kelly : February 5, 2014 11:45 pm

Great article. Thank you.

Posted By The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of February 7 | Parallax View : February 7, 2014 5:17 pm

[…] Richard Harland Smith gathers a gallery of film grabs to buttress his argument that, when it comes to horror films, even close-ups of the actors’ faces were more creepy and unsettling before CGI came along to tortuously distend every wild eye and manic, death’s-head grin. […]

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