Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Heath Holland On...Monster Movie Makeup Men

by Heath Holland
These guys made the monster real.

We’re just days away from October 31st and before you know it, Scary Movie Month will have come and gone. October is not long enough! Seeing as this is the last chance I’ll get to spotlight an area or aspect of horror cinema (for now), I can think of no better way to close out the month than to say thank you to the men behind the monster makeup who created the creatures and the icons of the movies that haunt my dreams.

Monster movie makeup goes all the way back to the silent days when Lon Chaney, Sr. earned the nickname “the man of a thousand faces.” Using materials like cotton, wire, spirit gum, and even membranes from eggs which he would then stuff into all the holes on his face, Chaney turned himself into monsters for movies like The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927). The stuff he did to himself in the pursuit of makeup perfection was often painful and chipped away at his health, contributing to a rapid physical decline. His work lives on and is still as effective as ever, cementing his reputation as the godfather of special effects makeup.
Enter Jack Pierce, the father of Frankenstein’s monster. Arguably the one person to whom horror movie fandom owes the most gratitude, Pierce is the guy who made many of the Universal Monsters jump to life. His first contribution of note happened in the late 1920s when he transformed Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) into a disfigured man with a permanent, maniacal grin in The Man Who Laughs. This disturbing character was one of the primary influences that comic book creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger drew upon when they introduced The Joker in 1940. Look at a picture of Conrad Veidt in the film and then look at a picture of The Joker. It’s the same guy. Later, while on staff at Universal, the mercurial Pierce suggested to Bela Lugosi (who insisted on doing his own minimal makeup) that he add greasepaint to his face to create a pallor, and history was made. Pierce then struck up a working relationship with Boris Karloff in which they both brainstormed the physical appearance of Frankenstein’s monster and later the title character from The Mummy, two more icons of horror. Pierce was also responsible for making The Bride of Frankenstein look beautiful and deadly, and later created all the makeup effects for Lon Chaney, Jr.’s turn as The Wolf Man. While the Universal Monsters weren’t necessarily created by just one man, it was undeniably Jack Pierce who we can thank for the iconic looks of these creatures that have endured for generations.

Then there are the more modern special effects makeup guys who shaped my childhood by creating things that stuck in my head long before I was allowed to see most of the movies themselves. I’m talking about guys like Tom Savini, who brought zombies to horrifying life in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. He also worked on the first and fourth entries in the Friday the 13th franchise, meaning he was there for the birth of Jason Voorhees and what was intended to be the death of the character, as well. And while I’m guilty of damning the overall film with faint praise, his work on “The Crate” segment of Creepshow is a standout in ‘80s horror. Tom Savini is a legend in not only special effects makeup, but film in general for his massive contributions.
So is Rick Baker, the guy who brought a werewolf to life in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. With his practical effects that offered our first real look at a lycanthropic transformation in what appears to be real-time, Baker made it all so believable and so painful. I’m an apologist for the tepid sequel An American Werewolf in Paris, but even I have to admit that werewolves created with CGI just don’t have the physicality of Rick Baker’s creation. Using careful editing and cinematography, it’s easy to suspend disbelief in John Landis’s film, making the creature appear real. A perfect example aside from the incredible transformation scene is the sequence that takes place in the London Underground as the man flees up the escalator. It shows us ALMOST nothing, but when it does reveal the monster, it’s an incredible, life-like realization of something that doesn’t actually exist. Of course, I also have to tip my hat to Rick Baker for his makeup effects on Michael Jackson’s iconic music video/short film for Thriller, which John Landis also directed. Over thirty years later, it’s still a must-watch this time of year.

Then there’s Stan Winston, the man who brought Terminators to life and proved that dinosaurs were real in Jurassic Park by crafting life-size recreations out of latex, foam rubber, and metal skeletons. And while the iconic Alien from Ridley Scott’s movie was the vision of surrealist artist H.R. Giger, it was Winston who oversaw the Xenomorphs on James Cameron’s Aliens and introduced the 14-foot-tall Alien Queen, which was essentially a big puppet. When the suit for the title character didn’t deliver on the set of Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped Winston’s name to the director and producer, and the rest is movie history. Winston’s creations aren’t just a part of horror culture; they’re a part of mainstream pop culture. He’s now left us, but his creations live on.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention KNB EFX group, which was founded by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger back in 1988. While each man is a giant in the effects field and has their own makeup achievements, the company KNB gets the credit for the Deadites in Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness for Sam Raimi, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child for Stephen Hopkins, the vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn for Robert Rodriguez, and most of the Scream movies for Wes Craven. In recent years, Greg Nicotero has moved to the forefront of the field and is now one of the chief creative people behind The Walking Dead as a producer, director, and makeup supervisor. Nicotero has become synonymous with great special effects in the current genre marketplace.

There are so many more people responsible for bringing the horror to life. Before last week, I wasn’t familiar with the name Rob Bottin (much to my embarrassment), but I sure am familiar with his work. He got his start working with Rick Baker, but later went on by himself to create werewolves for The Howling, the ghosts in The Fog and the creature in The Thing for John Carpenter, the creepy devil guy in Legend, and--even though it’s not horror—Bottin designed and created Robocop for Paul Verhoeven.

There are guys who are less of household names, but whose work freaks out horror fans each October and beyond. Giannetto De Rossi is an Italian makeup artist who worked with Lucio Fulci on Zombi 2 as well as The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. I knew the movies and his work, but not his name. What about two of Stan Winston’s protégés, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., who realized the ghouls of The Monster Squad and brought life to the Graboids in Tremors? What about guys like William Tuttle, who worked with Bela Lugosi on Mark of the Vampire, or Lee Greenway, who created the alien creature in The Thing from Another World, which apparently made such an impression on John Carpenter that he made his own version of the story thirty years later.
There are so many more people who have contributed to the vast tapestry of horror cinema than I could possibly name here. They’ve influenced not only fans, but the generations of men and women who will create the effects magic today and tomorrow. While I’ve tried to list a few of the special effects geniuses that have had a big impact on me, there are countless more than I can list. Maybe you can shout out some of your own favorites in the comments section below. I owe these guys so much; their work made the creatures come to life and made the stuff from our collective nightmares take form and walk around on screen and in our minds. My eternal thanks goes out to them, not just out of a sense of indebtedness, but also because they make it SO EASY to believe.

3 comments:

  1. I remember when I was a kid watching hundreds of VHS rentals over the years waiting for the FX credits to show up, remembering the names and the work from previous movies. I always thought Winston was in his own class, but David Cronenberg always had the most visceral stuff, no matter who was actually doing it in any particular movie.

    Hopefully there'll be a resurgence in practical FX as people get jaded by the digital flatness we have now. Until then I can keep making my own crude blood/gore squirting devices and hanging eyeballs for Halloween.

    And sometimes Thanksgiving.

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  2. Love this, lots of interesting facts I did not know, cheers Heath

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