Horror’s Lost Art: A brief history of air bladder effects in horror films


The practical makeup effects of yesterday were majestic works of art. Unfortunately, today’s CGI effects cannot recapture their magic. One of the more unique practical effects methods was the use of air bladders, which contributed to some of the most memorable moments in horror history.

The early 1980s were the pinnacle of special effects makeup in horror. Audiences were treated to a deluge of groundbreaking horror films featuring some of cinema’s most awe-inspiring and indelible images.

Transforming Special Effects

The impetus of this early ‘80s special effects boom in the horror genre was the sudden influx of scripts featuring transformation scenes. Films such as Altered States, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London depicted detailed metamorphoses from man to beast. Other films, such as Scanners  and The Thing contained more surreal and horrific moments of bodily mutation and destruction.

A plethora of techniques were utilized to bring these nightmarish spectacles to life. Various techniques often had to work in concert to pull off the complex effects that fastidious directors, such as John Landis and John Carpenter demanded. One major technique that was utilized in many of these films was air bladder effects.

Air bladder effects employ plastic/latex balloons or “bladders” hidden underneath the surface of foam latex or similar prosthetics. A system of plastic tubing is attached to the bladders, which allows them to be inflated surreptitiously. These bladders, usually hidden under skin prosthetics, created the appearance of the skin shifting, bubbling, and pulsating as they were inflated. The action air bladders produced was particularly conducive to the transformation scenes that were so prevalent in the early ’80s. and they imbued such scenes with a startling verisimilitude.

Altered States – William Hurt – Courtesy of Warner Brothers

The Air Bladder Triumvirate

Special effects pioneer, Dick Smith had experimented with rippling skin effects in his work on The Exorcist by utilizing the cleaning fluid trichloroethane, which created the desired bubbling effect when applied to foam latex. Eventually, Smith developed and perfected the use of air bladders to achieve these types of effects for Ken Russell’s Altered States.

In Altered States, Smith’s air bladders were featured in the mind-bending moments when William Hurt’s Eddie Jessup regresses into a primate. We watch in utter amazement and horror as his arm bulges and pulsates as he fights to ward off his regression into primitive man. Smith’s air bladder work in Altered States set the stage for the extraordinary effects that would follow in the next couple years.

Smith made further advancements to air bladder effects in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. In the film’s climactic scanner showdown, bladders filled with blood were utilized to create the bulging, bursting vein effects.

Image Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Rick Baker, a protégé of Dick Smith, was hired to create the makeup effects for Joe Dante’s The Howling. In the early stages of production, Baker’s friend, John Landis enlisted him to develop the effects for his own werewolf film, An American Werewolf in London. Baker ultimately departed The Howling to join Landis’s film.

Landis endeavored to depict a werewolf transformation without all the archaic optical effects and sleight of hand that was so prevalent in prior onscreen transformations. Baker, utilizing a variety of the techniques he learned from Dick Smith, gave Landis the most stunning transformation in the history of cinema.

The sequence was so magical that Landis was able to achieve his goal of  shooting it in on a brightly-lit set without sacrificing any of its mystique. We truly believe that David (David Naughton) is transforming into a werewolf before our very eyes. Baker’s work was so triumphant that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed him with the inaugural Academy Award for Best Makeup.

While Rick Baker chose to exit The Howling, he remained somewhat of a consultant to his protege, Rob Bottin who ultimately became the film’s special makeup effects creator. Bottin’s primary responsibility was to build the effects for the film’s centerpiece werewolf transformation.

Bottin’s transformation leaned much more heavily on air bladder effects than Baker’s, but it was yet another showstopper, and it remains the most memorable thing about The Howling, a weaker film than An American Werewolf in London.

A year later Bottin was hired to design the special effects for John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. The plot of The Thing deals with an arcane alien lifeform hiding itself within the bodies of the men populating an Antarctic research facility. When the alien reveals itself, we are treated to astonishing shape-shifting transformations from man to amorphous, hideous creatures.

Bottin designed a collection of the most frightening, jaw-dropping, and idiosyncratic effects in the history of horror. The Thing is truly the gold standard for horror makeup effects, and its brilliance couldn’t have been achieved without the use of air bladders (both the classic air bladder mechanism as well as the “blood” bladder technique that Dick Smith developed for Scanners).

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

A Lost Art

Sadly, air bladder effects proved to be a bit of a flash in the pan as they were almost endemic to early 1980s horror cinema. By the late ’80’s the technique had almost completely vanished. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to their demise, but it’s very likely that the cumbersome, trial-and-error nature of air bladder effects proved to be a major deterrent. In addition, the poor box office returns of John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Beast Within (a film whose much vaunted use of air bladder transformations was the centerpiece of its marketing campaign) in 1982 almost certainly put the brakes on further films cut from the same cloth.

Air bladder effects and practical monster transformation sequences have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Today, such scenes are accomplished via CGI; as a result, they simply don’t have the same impact as their practical counterparts. Modern remakes such as 2011’s The Thing (one of the worst horror films of the 21st century) and Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman (2010) have almost entirely eschewed practical/air bladder effects in favor of CGI.

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that we will ever see another horror film take full advantage of air bladders and all the other dazzling practical effects techniques that create pure movie magic. Any effort to employ such effects is now doomed to be undermined by the “aid” of CGI. All we are left to do is mourn the cinematic art that once was.

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