Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Movie Monsters: The New Kid on the Block

Since the very early days of movie making, movie buffs have been spellbound by the transformations of the actors through makeup, into monsters and fantastic characters. The makeup artist was not only an artist, but also scientist experimenting with materials. Actors like Lon Chaney did his own work, using things such as wax, fish skin, and grease paint to lay emphasis upon certain facial features for different roles.

At first, producers were unsure if audiences would attend “horror films.” But after the success of a stage version of Dracula, they were convinced at Universal Studios to proceed with the play Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre in 1930, by Peggy Webling, which had premiered three years earlier in London. They cast an obscure English actor, William Henry Pratt (Boris Karloff) to play the monster. His success in this movie made him a star. The film became an instant classic and started the new genre of the horror film.

The man who transformed Karloff was the makeup artist Jack P. Pierce. He was the head of Universal’s makeup department and devoted three months to researching anatomy and surgery for the project. He concluded that a surgeon who was going to transplant a brain would cut the top of the skull straight across, wedge it open, put in the new brain, and then sew it shut. Ergo, the flat, squared off head. Pierce was involved with almost every film the studio produced in this genre.

Before the ability to enhance our monsters through computerized digital manipulation, the makeup artist was the creator of our favorite movie monsters such as: Erik, The Phantom of the Opera; Zenobia, The Gypsy Witch; The Adominable Dr. Phibes; The Creature from the Black Lagoon; Count Dracula; The Mole People; The Mummy; The Fly; The Wolf Man; and Count Orlock.

Finally, there is a new kid on the block. He can use all of the new technology, but his creations pay homage to the great makeup artists of the past. In fact, he spent almost ten years as a makeup supervisor before starting his career as a director. I’m referring to Guillermo del Toro, who learned about makeup and effects from the legendary Dick Smith (The Exorcist). Del Toro was born in Mexico in 1964 and was raised by his Catholic grandmother, which is probably why the use of religious relics and artifacts seem to always make it into his films. His favorite movie monsters are Frankenstein's monster and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

He weaves magical things and magical occurrences into the life of his films, with the brush strokes of a surrealist painter. As he put it, “It feels like I have to have a melting watch. It feels like I have to have a melting face next to it. It feels like an eye should be floating in the sky.”

Does this sound like anyone familiar to you?

Where I grew up the Salvador Dali museum, before it moved to Florida, was in nearby Beachwood Ohio. I became a huge fan of the surrealist, as did many of my friends. I even now own a Dali etching.

Guillermo del Toro uses clockwork designs and motifs, archangels, insects or insect imagery, and likes to use amber as a dominant color in his films. He has also said, "So I riff on things and I riff like a stream of consciousness. The head of the faun has the horns and so does the reproductive organs of a woman, and the tree and the dagger and there are so many echoes in the movie (Pan’s Labyrinth) of this shape, so what I do is I work on my notebook.”

He is in a position to follow his heart these days, something that few directors are able to accomplish presently. He turned down a chance to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2008) to work on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).

Jack Pierce studied human anatomy in an effort to make the non-human characters more lifelike. Guillermo del Toro disarms us with his curiosity, through the “supranatural” dimension (instinctive or collective), to place his characters and images into the creature concept.

1 comment:

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Very interesting. I am reminded of my cousin, Donnie Greene. Donnie loved horror films and make-up and as a teenager in the late 1960s-early 70s worked hard on the craft and even did make-up for Count Dracula on a Cleveland TV station. He also created his own Star Trek film, complete with a realistic set and friends/actors dressed up like the characters. Not easy to do before computers and phones that take video! Unfortunately, Donnie's life was cut short tragically before his potential was realized, but I've tried to keep an open mind about horror films and their role in exploring human hopes and fears, in honor of my creative cousin who would have loved seeing all the developments in this field.