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 runs Junk 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 the Joe 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 look 120-years-old in Little Big Man and made David Bowie look 150-years-old in 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 wrote The DIY Monster Make-Up Handbook, something I’d check out from the library religiously as a kid. In 2011, he was awarded the Academy Honorary Award for 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 an explosion 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’s IMDB page shows a glimpse of just how massive their scope has been. Robert Kurtzman left the group in the early 2000s, but even his solo career has 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) – was Intruder (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 an Academy 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, the zombie puppets, the half-bodies, the rounded machete-blade trick. 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!