... is Worth a Pound of CGI
In Tod Browning's Dracula, there's a great scene where Jonathan Harker arrives at Dracula's castle and The Count bids Harker follow him up the stairs to his rooms. Bela Lugosi, in his inimitable role, walks up the stone stairway, across which is spun a huge spiderweb. He passes through the cobweb without even disturbing so much as a thread. Harker looks on dumbfounded and is forced to push away the thick webs so that he can follow. A spider scuttles away into the darkness.
It's an amazingly creepy moment, and few cinema special effects have ever surpassed it for me. How is the Count's unnerving act achieved? Simply with an edit: Dracula approaches the web, cut to Harker's reaction, cut to Dracula on the other side of the web. Just like that.
You can pick up the Browning Dracula on DVD for a few dollars. It's worth it. Sure, the script is lumbering and melodramatic by today's standards, but I guarantee, if you sit in a darkened room with no distractions and immerse yourself in the black and white world of Browning's interpretation, you can't fail to be enveloped by the dark, dank atmosphere and the claustrophobic story.
If that scene was being made today, it would go very differently. Dracula would beckon Harker, and turn with a swirl of his cape into a tight close-up. Harker would not see The Count's face morph for an instant into the visage of some hideous fanged-demon. Dracula would approach the cobweb, which would unwind strand by strand around his dark form. He would pass through the untwining web which a digital spider would then re-spin behind him. The sequence would have fifteen different CGI shots, thirty or forty cuts and a whole swag of obvious over-the-top sound effects. It would be impressive, possibly, but it would not be in the least bit creepy.
The modern cinema of the fantastic has lost its imagination. It has also lost its respect for the ability of the audience to have an imagination. In the Browning Dracula the spookiest moment of Dracula passing through the spiderweb happens way off screen, deep in the imagination of the viewer. No amount of clever CGI can ever hope to compete with that.
It's time for ideas again. We're all tired of seeing intricately detailed dinosaurs, gravity-defying superheroes and toothy aliens that look like they have bad head colds. We've seen it. It's boring.
How about this for an idea Hollywood? Take away a third of the budget you spend on special effects and put it into creating some decent original stories. And for Pete's sake, take some risks for a change.