Hubcap Spaceships, Giant Spiders, and The Charm of Low Budget Special Effects

By David Konow

Examining the low budget special effects of Hollywood yesteryear, and how directors turned limitations to their advantage.

It’s really too bad that today’s generation doesn’t understand what’s so fun about the low budget movies of yesteryear. We lost the drive-ins a long time ago, and gems like Plan 9 From Outer Space don’t even play on late night TV anymore. When the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez co-directed Grindhouse came out in 2007, audiences didn’t even understand the concept of a double-bill, and many left theaters without realizing there was a whole other feature after Planet Terror.

This is really a shame because when you worked for a producer like Roger Corman, you got real hands-on experience working on a feature, even if it wasn’t high art. (That many alumni who worked with Corman went on to the Hollywood A-list speaks for itself.) Yes, a lot of times the results were laughable, but with a lot of these films it’s remarkable to see what people could do with a few bucks and some ingenuity back in the day.

Rob Zombie, who is a huge B-movie fan, loved how directors of the drive-in era were able to work on miniscule budgets. He told Direct TV magazine, “Sometimes real genius came out of it. There is more passion and heart and iconic imagery in Plan 9 From Outer Space than there is in most of the crap that comes out now. Sure it’s a clunky movie, and of course it’s primitive, but it probably cost about five hundred bucks to make. Give anybody five hundred bucks today and they can’t even order a sandwich with it, let alone make a movie.”

These days so many fans love to make a game out of pointing out a movie’s “gaffes” or mistakes, and a lot of this began with Ed Wood’s movies, which had visible mistakes galore.

But Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the screenwriters of the Ed Wood biopic, developed an appreciation for the hard work directors like Ed put into their work from working on low budget movies themselves.

Alexander recalled worked long, long hours for $105 a week, “But we were doin’ it because we were having fun,” he says. “At that point, I could sort of look back at Ed Wood’s films and say that maybe the people who made fun of him were wrong. Maybe they’re just kickin’ this guy around and saying, ‘Oh isn’t he incompetent, isn’t that funny?’ Ed directed half a dozen features. That’s pretty good for someone who came out to Hollywood to break into the movies. Most people who come out here to be directors don’t direct anything.”

And once Ed’s life story hit the big screen, there was the hilarious irony that Tim Burton made a $20 million dollar movie that copied bargain basement effects in immaculate detail.

“On all of Tim’s other films, he worked off storyboards,” Alexander says. “On this movie he worked off frame enlargements. I remember going down to the stage where the crew was putting up the laboratory set from Bride of the Monster. If you can picture this laboratory, the painted stones on the wall, the crew had a giant, life-sized blow up of that wall from Bride of the Monster, and they would copy each stone!”

One day, Scott brought his parents down to the Ed Wood set. When they saw paper plate flying saucers on visible wires swinging around miniature cardboard buildings, his mother said, “This is it? This is the kind of stuff you did in high school!” Scott tried to tell her, “Mom, it’s supposed to look bad, it’s kinda hard to explain…”

One Ed Wood alumni recalled the flying saucers in Plan 9 were indeed paper plates, but according to the Wood biography, Nightmare in Ecstasy, they were hubcaps. There isn’t a lot of documentation that’s been left behind on this stuff, and people figure it’s easy enough to guess how low budget effects were created and it’s another fun game you can play when watching the movies.

In Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, a love letter to horror great and schlocky, he singled out one drive-in perennial, The Giant Spider Invasion, and his description of the film’s primary deadly arachnid certainly lives up to the hype.

“In spite of the title, there is really only one giant spider,” King writes, “but we don’t feel cheated because it’s a dilly. It appears to be a Volkswagen covered with half a dozen bearskin rugs. Four spider legs, operated by people inside this VW spider, one assumes, have been attached to each side. It is impossible to see such a budget-conscious special effect without feeling a wave of admiration.”

As it turns out, King guessed right. The spider was indeed mounted on a Volkswagen with eight people moving the legs inside the car. Richard Albain, who went on to create the FX in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, was the man who built the VW spider.

“We had to physically make this thing move, so the quickest, cheapest way is to buy a Volkswagen bug,” he says. “It’s low to the ground, the engine’s in the back, and we can put everything on the frame on the front. We built off it, we welded everything to the body. We used it as a mode of transport, of making it move, and it was low enough to the ground where we could hide it. That way we could drive it up over the hill, and into the city. And the same time we’re rowing the legs, and trying to keep everybody in synch!”

Now on to the king of the man in suit monsters, yes, Godzilla. Even when watching his movies on T.V. as a kid, it’s pretty easy to discern it’s a guy in a big rubber suit. As Godzilla biographer Steve Ryfle explains, “The basic formula of a stunt actor in a latex costume, miniature sets, mechanical models and explosions has remained mostly intact because it has become a tradition, and something that is viewed as an essential part of a unique genre with its own aesthetics.”

As Ryfle explains, keeping Godzilla a guy in a suit isn’t just a matter of budget. “Japanese FX artists are very skilled at digital effects, and an all CGI Godzilla could be done in Japan, but Koichi Kawakita, the SFX director for the ‘90’s Godzilla movies has said that to abandon the man-in-suit would take away Gozilla’s ‘Japaneseness.’” And as one L.A. Times reporter covering the making of a Godzilla film put it, the “feel of cheap camp is all part of Godzilla’s enduring charm.”

“Because Hollywood FX people are obsessed with cutting-edge technology, it’s easy to look at the Godzilla franchise as something stuck in a low-tech time warp,” says Ryfle. “But the Japanese filmmakers don’t necessarily see it that way. They still place a high value on things that are made by people, with human hands, as opposed to ones and zeroes floating around on a hard drive. So ever since its inception, Godzilla has had a handmade quality that makes him rather unique.”

And just because Godzilla wasn’t made from CGI or animated via stop motion meant it was easy to play him. As a kid, you’d think it would be fun to play Godzilla, stomping on little buildings and swatting toy planes, just like you’d think being your favorite character at Disneyland would be a great job, until you realize how hot the suit gets in the summer. Likewise, playing Godzilla was no day at the beach.

Orson Welles once said the absence of limitations is the enemy of all art, and if you use limitations to your advantage, you can get great results.

The suits weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds, and trying to move around under all that weight was rough. During the course of making a movie, Haruo Nakajima, who was the man inside the suit from 1954 to 1972, would lose ten to fifteen pounds. There were also mishaps and accidents. Nakajima passed out several times from the heat of the costume and the bright lights on the set. “In the movie Varan the Unbelievable, a miniature tank exploded between his legs and burned his nuts,” Ryfle says.

Orson Welles was once quoted as saying the absence of limitations is the enemy of all art, and if you use limitations to your advantage, you can get great results. This doesn’t just apply to B movies either. Every great filmmaker has had to deal with limitations in their films, and it often turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Who hasn’t heard the classic story of the mechanical shark repeatedly breaking down during the making of Jaws? By showing the shark less, the movie was even scarier, and as Steven Spielberg said in the documentary The Universal Story, “By the shark not working, it allowed me to be much more experimental and find a way to make the surface of the water, and the threat of the unseen, as powerful as having seen the shark too early. I think the film would have made half the money had the shark worked.”

So don’t curse your limitations if you’re lucky enough to finally get a movie made, embrace them. They can lead you to some terrific places.

David Konow is a southern California-based writer with a passion for the schlocky films of Hollywood past. His book, Reel Terror, chronicles the history and impact of horror movies.