Choosing which two movies I wanted to talk about for my Drive-In Double Feature wasn’t easy. As all the entries this past month have shown, there are endless combinations — none of them wrong, each one utterly singular and wonderfully creative. I had a couple ideas bouncing around (ones I’ll save for next year, or maybe before then) but I finally decided on Beetlejuice and The Frighteners since Beetlejuice — more specifically, its potentialsequel— has been in the news lately.
See, for years now, people have been clamoring for a Beetlejuice sequel — but what they don’t realize is they’ve had a Beetlejuice sequel for years already: The Frighteners. Let’s look at some of the obvious comparisons:
Both are about the dead interacting with the living, specifically the dead helping the living accomplish a goal.
Both are about a living person using the dead to dupe other living people.
Both feature smart-assed ghosts.
Both prove that even the dead can still die again.
And perhaps most damning of all: both were scored by Danny Elfman! I mean, c’mon people!
The similarities don’t end there.
The catalyst in both films is a car wreck: in Beetlejuice, a car accident kills the Maitlands, which allows them to interact with the dead. In The Frighteners, Michael J. Fox and his wife are also in a car accident; the crash kills the wife, but near-death experience allows Fox to — you guessed it — communicate with the dead.
Plus,look at this car chasefrom The Frighteners. Everything is very lush and green, hills are winding, homes are painted white and almost look like models. Tell me these locations don’t look exactly like the model set Adam Maitland builds of the little town in Beetlejuice! Thecar crash at the endof Beetlejuice (the one that takes place on the miniature model) looks identical to the one that happens in The Frighteners. Hell, they even both involve antique model vehicles!
Both also have interesting MPAA ratings: Despite the violence being comical in nature or happening offscreen entirely, The Frighteners was deemed far too violent, and the board forced an R-rating on an unhappy Peter Jackson despite him making as many cuts as he possibly could. Yet Beetlejuice — which features a perverted ghost marrying an underage girl, corpses who talk about suicide, one crotch grab, and one use of “fuck” — snuck by with a harmless PG.
And there is one more loose, tenuous parallel: in The Frighteners, Michael J. Fox lives in an home he never finished building, and it’s in need of major repairs; in Beetlejuice, after the Maitlands die, the Deetzes move in and make major repairs and changes. The homelife in both films, the disarray — it’s too blatant to ignore.
But despite their numerous similarities, the reception to either film couldn’t have been any different. While Beetlejuice became a smash hit and an 80s classic, and probably the most memorable film production for all those involved, The Frighteners failed at the box office and became a mere footnote in Peter Jackson’s filmography. It was also Fox’s last leading role in a live-action feature film. However, in recent years, people seem to be coming to their senses and have now realized what a goddamn gem The Frighteners is, and it has developed, as the cool kids say, a “cult following”.
I remember seeing The Frighteners in the theater with my folks when I was 12 years old. It blew me away. I’ve always been into two things: scary stuff and funny stuff; The Frighteners knocked it out of the goddamned park with both! Aside from just being incredibly fun and well written and beautifully shot, it has tons of incredible special effects. In fact, it required more digital effects shots than almost any movie made up until that time (thanks, Wikipedia!)
I originally saw Beetlejuice as a small child, most likely from a video store rental. I don’t remember when I saw it I just remember being so young that stuff about the film didn’t make sense to me until years later. Like when the Maitlands drown; I didn’t realize they were dead. When Geena Davis trots the horse statue in front of the mirror to show she has no reflection, I had no goddamned idea what was going on. When the Maitlands possess the Deetzes and force them to dance to calypso music, I couldn’t have been more lost — but damn if that wasn’t a great scene to a toddler!
A double feature of Beetlejuice and The Frighteners makes more sense the longer I sit here and type (also, the more beer I drink.) Beetlejuice is a wonderful ode to the practical effects of 80s horror — even utilizing ‘old-school’ stop motion animation in several scenes. The Frighteners shows the turning of the tide, blending both practical effects and digital effects but leaning more on the latter. Both films would be nominated for and win several Saturn awards. Beetlejuice would even win an Academy Award for best make-up!
Both films also have huge, colorful supporting casts — Beetlejuice with Sylvia Sydney and Dick Cavett; The Frighteners with Dee Wallace, John Astin, and Jeffrey Combs!
It feels silly summarizing both films, especially Beetlejuice since it has become so embedded in the pop culture collective consciousness — so I’ll skip the summations. But trust me: these movies are the perfect double feature, not simply because they compliment each other, but because one feels like an extension of the other. Go watch both…now!
Until a few weeks ago, I had totally forgotten that my first obsession as a kid — before I started making home movies, before I started making zines — was special effects. More specifically: the latex-laden, gore-filled, squib-bursting effects I was consuming via every horror film I watched on a daily basis.
I was talking with a buddy recently (super talented and humble Todd who runsJunk Fed– buy all his creations; follow all his media outlets), and he had mentioned how, as a kid, one of the first things he wanted to be when he grew up was a special effects guy. And that’s when my memory was jogged, and all those long-buried similar hopes and dreams of my own came flooding back. I, too, wanted to be a special effects guy!
I remember once filling a ziplock bag with red food coloring and water and then taping it to a little square of Styrofoam, and then taping that contraption to my chest. I threw on an old white t-shirt, grabbed a sharpened pencil, and ran into the kitchen where my mom was. “Hey, mom, look!” I shouted. She turned around to see me thrusting the pencil into my chest – into the DIY squib – and having blood splatter out of the wound, soaking the shirt in red. The pencil, buried deep in the Styrofoam, stood erect from my chest like a little diving board. Boy, was I proud of that one. Later, I would see the movie F/X and it made me realize that if there was a Hollywood movie based around the art of creating effects, it must be pretty well-regarded.
Besides being inspired by the films I was watching, my fascination with gory make-up was also fueled by my regular intake of Fangoria Magazine. And it was in this magazine that I came across ads for theJoe Blasco Make-up Artist Training Center. I was convinced this is where I had to go. Thankfully, I strayed from that path because upon doing some research on the school for this article, I’ve found nothing but atrocious reviews for it. Dodged a bullet there!
Eventually, my serious interest in pursuing make-up effects as a career waned as I got older, but my fascination with the craft never dulled and my love of horror films has only grown as the years have gone on.
With all that said, there are certain ‘Masters of the Craft’ – guys who created some of the most memorable special effects from the mids-70s to the late-80s, the heyday of practical horror effects. So with this list, I wanna point out who they are and what my favorite work from them has been.
The late Dick Smith was the godfather of make-up effects. He was the king. He invented the now standard method of using multiple facial prosthetics versus one single face mask, which was a less restrictive approach and allowed actors to use more facial expressions underneath their make-up. One of his specialities — and something I don’t anyone has come near to perfecting the way Smith did — was age make-up. He made Dustin Hoffman look120-years-oldinLittle Big Manand made David Bowie look150-years-oldin The Hunger. He’d use his unbelievable knack for age make-up in several films, like The Godfather and Carnal Knowledge, and even won an Academy Award for his work on Amadeus. But it was his contributions to the horrific The Exorcist that changed the special effects game forever. As his protégé (the recently retired) Rick Baker tells it:
The Exorcist was really a turning point for make-up special effects. Dick showed that makeup wasn’t just about making people look scary or old, but had many applications. He figured out a way to make the welts swell up on Linda Blair’s stomach, to make her head spin around, and he created the vomit scenes.
He also wroteThe DIY Monster Make-Up Handbook, something I’d check out from the library religiously as a kid. In 2011, he was awarded theAcademy Honorary Awardfor his life’s work — the first ever make-up artist to be so honored. I implore even the toughest brute with the blackest heart to watch that video and not get a little misty.
Something I feel most of the young FX dudes from the 80s share is a wild streak: long hair, scruffy faces, heavy metal t-shirts. Rob Bottin, in my opinion, was the epitome of the insane special effects guy from the 80s — not only displayed in his look, but also his work. And there was that one time he caused anexplosion on set, and it doesn’t get more insane than that.
He got his start by sending drawings to then-established FX guy Rick Baker, who loved what he saw and agreed to hire him. And how old was Bottin at the time? He was just 14-years-old. Bottin would go on to create some of the most mind-bending, wet and wild effects of the 80s and 90s: All the creatures from The Thing (1982); He designed the legendary look of RoboCop (1987), a movie which includes the infamous ‘toxic waste melting man‘ scene; Jack Nicholson’s bizarre transformations in The Witches of Eastwick (1987); All of the eye-popping, head-unfurling, conjoined-baby effects from Total Recall (1990); and the trippy lizard scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997). But the scene I love the most that Bottin created is from The Thing. It’s perhaps the most tense, horrifying, and unbelievable (and memorable!) sequences in horror effects history:
Kevin Yagher is one of the lucky few FX people to make it out of the 80s unscathed, working with regularity and even transitioning into doing make-up and effects for TV. And though he’s stayed continuously busy, it’s three of his contributions to the genre during the 80s that literally changed the face of horror.
Prior to Yagher’s involvement, Freddy Krueger’s face was mostly obscured by darkness in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). But after joining the crew on the sequel, Freddy’s face became noticeably more menacing, the burn patterns more realistic and intricate. It became ‘the Freddy Krueger look’, one that was a fan favorite during Yagher’s run for ANOES 2, ANOES 3, and ANOES 4. Note the differences between the original Krueger make-up on the left and Yagher’s Freddy on the right.
Yagher would also create two more pieces of horror history during the 80s: Chucky, the doll from the Child’s Play series, and The Cryptkeeper from the Tales from the Crypt TV show. Kevin Yagher’s contributions to horror have been historic to say the least.
For the uninitiated, K.N.B. is an acronym for Kurtzman (Robert), Nicotero (Gregory), and Berger (Howard), the three dudes who created what would end up being (still) the most prolific special effects company ever. Launched in 1988, the group has worked on almost any relevant film project, horror and otherwise, not to mention a multitude of TV programs. It’s no exaggeration when I say ‘every production’; a quick peek at Greg Nicotero’sIMDB pageshows a glimpse of just how massive their scope has been. Robert Kurtzman left the group in the early 2000s, but even hissolo careerhas matched the enormity of what Nicotero & Berger continue to do. I could write pages upon pages about their contribution to the genre, but the one that immediately comes to mind – the one that actually truly shocked me when I first saw it (pardon the pun) – wasIntruder (1989). The “last great slasher of the 80s”, Intruder is full of humor and horror, the way slashers oughtta be. And boy, those special effects. Look at the gif below and then find a copy of Intruder to watch, immediately.
Another anonymous magician who dreamt up some of the most memorable imagery and characters from the 80s (and pop culture’s collective childhood), Chris Walas is responsible not only for creating the look of the Gremlins, but also the unforgettable ‘melting Nazis’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also gave everyone the heebie-jeebies with his spider creations in Arachnophobia (1990) and would go on to direct the criminally underrated The Vagrant (1992). His greatest contribution however, would have to be the effects he supplied for David Cronenberg’s 1986 masterpiece, The Fly – effects that won him anAcademy Award.
Dealing more with puppets and puppet design and stop-motion claymation rather than all the aforementioned splatter, The Chiodo Brothers stick out on this list – but I’d be remiss not include them. They created the Crites from Critters; they created the Killer Klowns from Outer Space; they created the goblins from Ernest Scared Stupid. Oh, and they created this purdy lady right here:
Much like K.N.B., I feel like Tom Savini’s contributions to the genre are too vast to itemize here. Plus, I mean, c’mon! It’s Tom Savini! The Sultan of Splatter! You know what he’s done. To compartmentalize his career into 3 sections, he:
Made headshots look real and gruesome
Made zombies pulling people apart and eating their guts look real and gruesome
Made Jason Voorhees as a kid look real gruesome.
My favorite work of his is from Day of the Dead (1985). Everything Savini became notorious for was put on full display in this movie: the headshots, the eviscerations, impalements, thezombie puppets, thehalf-bodies, the roundedmachete-bladetrick. All of it! Like most of his brethren, Savini slowly transitioned out of SFX in the early 90s to focus on other things, mainly acting and occasionally directing.
When it came to providing effects for the big guns – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, to name a few – the late (great) Stan Winston was the go-to guy. Giant, realistic dinosaurs? Liquid metal bad guy from the future? Lubed up Xenomorphs spitting deadly acid? No problem. As the tide began to turn and as computer animation and effects started to become more commonplace, even though Stan Winston’s initial work was very traditional, he was still able to make a fluid transition and work harmoniously with the new technology. And it’s because of his respect and understanding of these new ways, combined with his old-school approach that his resultant effects were some of the most believable things captured on film. Watch this pissed off T. rex attack a car full of small kids. Then watch the trailer for Jurassic World. Then come back and look me in the eye and tell me modern CGI doesn’t suck a big one.
Last but certainly not least, the man of the hour, Rick Baker. The man is as big a legend as the rest of them, but somehow more. He created the blueprint of the now-standard look of werewolf transformation scenes in An American Werewolf in London (1981). He did the zombies in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. He made bigfoot for Harry and the Hendersons. He made Eddie Murphy white in Coming to America and made him obese in The Nutty Professor. Men in Black, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Hellboy. Rick Baker did it all. His imagination was limitless, his skills and abilities unmatched. It’s hard to pick one thing of his that stands out because it’s all so different. But I’ll end with a classic.
To all the special effects people – past and present – like the schoolteachers, garbagemen, and social workers of this world you’re often shamefully overlooked and underthanked. But to the effects wizard of the late 70s and 80s who helped shape my warped and wonderful mind: I can’t thank you enough!