This week, the horror world took some hits.
First, we got news that Betsy Palmer, who we all know for playing Jason Voorhees’s mother, passed away at the age of 88.
I can count on one hand how many scenes in horror films genuinely scared me as a kid, which now that I think about it, would make a great idea for a post. Excuse me while I go jot down some notes…
The first Friday the 13th film I saw all the way through was Part 3, which as a result, will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite of the series. It actually has nothing to do with the fact that it’s the one in which Jason gets his iconic mask, but more for the creative kills and Richard Brooks’s body language and overall portrayal. Those were the days when Jason moved like a shark, and not so much like a lumbering linebacker, no disrespect to Kane Hodder intended.
It did scare the living daylights out of me though, but mostly for the scene near the end when we see him without the mask for a few seconds, clawing at the window. Jason’s de-masked scenes have always been my favorite scenes of the series.
But even though Part 3 is technically my favorite, it’s not the one that scared me the most. That honor would go to Part 2, more specifically this shot.
That shit MESSED ME UP. I had nightmares of the camera zooming in on Ms. Voorhees’s head, with her voice over on top, telling the story of what happened to Jason. And of course, at the last minute, her eyes would pop open.
I was a weird kid. I chased that high whenever I could, whether through books, film, and later on, through music. This naturally lead to a love of practical makeup effects. While other kids were outside sporting it up, I got off on scares – being scared, and more importantly, scaring others. I wanted to make monsters. Hell, I wanted to be one.
I spent a lot of time reading up on it. I had subscription to both Fangoria and Gore-Zone. I devoured every bit of industry media I could find, and it was obviously much harder back then, which is is exactly what made it special. Getting that issue of Fangoria in the mail every month was like Christmas. And it was through those pages that I discovered names like Dick Smith, Rob Bottin, Steve Johnson, Tom Savini, Stan Winston, Jo Blasco…and Rick Baker.
Baker announced his retirement from the effects world this week and it’s one of the biggest blows to the industry that we’ve seen in a long time. The eclipsing of practical effects by CGI has been happening for a while now, but seems to have exponentially increased in recent years, to the point that guys, no MASTERS OF THE CRAFT, like Rick Baker, haven’t been able to get work. Their treatment is a major black eye on the industry.
You don’t need to look any further than the debacle of 2010’s The Wolfman, in which Baker’s very competent, beautiful makeup effects (his return to werewolf cinema) were covered up by cartoonish CGI, to see the direction we’ve headed. I remember being angry just watching it in the theater.
But the biggest shame is the loss of the next generation of practical makeup effects artists. Yes, as long as there is cinema, there will always be a need for makeup, but will there be a need for the kid sitting in his basement, creating creatures by hand that look better on camera than anything Hollywood is putting out there now? We’re not just losing one of the greatest artists in cinema, were losing the craft as we know it, and all the potential it could hold. For more on this, I recommend this great piece by John Squires over at Halloween Love. I both love him for what he does over there and hate him for almost always doing it faster and a little better than I do.
So, let’s rewind a little bit. Back in the days when you could reliably make a living in monsters, I decided somewhere around the age of 14 or 15, that was exactly what I was going to do. I remember being about 12 and doing a lot of werewolf makeup for Halloween. I’d apply hair to my arms and face, and come up with ways to do “prosthetics” by using any cheap trick I could find in magazines, crafting snouts and brows out of paper mache, rubber, and spirit glue. To this day, I can remember the smell of the glue stuck to my face and arms, and how hard and painful it was to yank all that hair off.
Somewhere around 1992 or 1993, I decided to get serious and started looking into schools. Welcome to this post’s third act.
Jose Blasco’s ads ran quite a bit in Fangoria back then, and not having the luxury of the internet in those days, it was the only school I’d heard of or found that would suit. My logic at the time was that I would go to the Orlando location over Hollywood, purely because it was closer to home. Knowing that college was just a couple of years off, I went ahead and sent off for the information packet to see what it was all about.
Let’s dive in.
Notice that the letter mentions that you can take a tour of the location. I brought that up to my parents, but it wasn’t happening. Once a year, I’d go to Myrtle Beach with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, but that was the only vacation I was ever likely to get. Taking off to Florida to go check out a makeup school just wasn’t something either one of my parents were going to spring for. You uh…can imagine my dad’s reaction. “You want to do what now?”
I mentioned earlier that I’d messed around with bootleg effects makeup at home, but never anything along the lines of most of what’s listed here. The prospect of this got me more excited than ever. While other people were working at degrees in things like Business Administration and Mass Communications, I’d be taking classes in “Oozing Puss and Bladder Effects” and “Carnage Simulation”! CARNAGE SIMULATION! And my parents didn’t want to take me on a tour…Come on.
The packet is actually quite extensive and includes a lot of ancillary info, but I just had to include this page. Let me digress a second to comment on the charm of the production of the packet itself. Instead of slick, glossy paper with loads of fancy graphics, this thing is bare bones. It almost has a DIY aesthetic to it. All of the pages are cobbled together with black and white photocopies of behind the scenes pictures on regular, plain white paper. it reminds me of old flyers for DJ’ing gigs I used to make, using nothing more than paper, scissors, glue, and a copier.
Turns out, all you need is a a few rough materials and a lot of imagination to make something more charming and effective than a bunch of slick computer graphics could ever do. Imagine that.
Back to business. You’ll see that this page is centered around Blasco’s work on Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S. I’m well familiar with the cult status of that one and I’ve always wanted to check it out, but I guess now’s a good a time as any to say with great shame that I never have. You better believe I’m doing something about that straight away. I’m also ashamed to say that until some quick IMDB’ing just now, I had it stuck in my head that Ilsa was played by Sybil Danning. How did I make it this far into my life knowing so little about sexy Nazi death camp wardens?
This page got me a little excited too. It’s a spread of students’ works. I always like looking at this sort of thing, whether it’s from this school or Savini’s or any other semi-pro work. At the time I sent off for this, it got me jazzed that in a few years, I might be doing the same thing.
Out of curiosity, I checked out the names of the students featured on this page on IMDB, and Matthew Mungle actually went on to some pretty big things. He worked on Schindler’s List, Inception, and a lot more professional work.
So, I guess you’re wondering what happened? Did I follow this dream and go on to be the next Rob Bottin? Sadly, no. I have worked in film quite a bit in various capacities, but near the end of high school, I traded practical effects for a more practical line of work. When it came time for college, I settled on majoring in Film and Video Production and Editing. In my long college career, I’ve worked on everything from cutting 16mm with a Flatbed Steenbeck editor to using Final Cut, as well as interning at the SC Film Office, and doing PA work on a lot of films shot here in the state. (At what point did this post turn in my resume? Sorry about that…)
As for special effects work, I spent years working in the biggest, baddest, scariest haunted house in Columbia, SC and had a blast doing it. I also did some effects work on a shoe string budget film called Head Cheerleader, Dead Cheerleader. The shining point of the entire thing was that it starred scream queen Debbie Rochon, but that was just about the only thing it had going for it. More on that some other time. Trust me, it’s its own post.
I’d love to say that I saw the writing on the wall and got out of the makeup game before it took a downturn, but the truth is I just didn’t have the balls to chase the dream. I kind of regret that now. I have had some great experiences in the industry, and as of this writing, I’m actually working on returning to school in a few months to continue my studies, but it’s for a specialty that’s far less fun and more tedious. While I will be paid to create art digitally, I’d rather be surrounded by liquid latex and animatronics.
Bottom line: Hopefully we, the fans and industry professionals alike, will learn from our recent losses. I’m happy that people my age and younger are still coming to the conventions, getting the autographs of the special effects giants that are still around, and dreaming of being just like them. I’m happy that I, myself have gotten to meet Tom Savini a couple of times and had some great conversations with him. And, I’m happy that a show like Face Off is doing so well. I just hope it’s not too little too late.