Special Effects Auteurs (and the particular genius of Screaming Mad George)

Freaked (1993)

Watching the documentary Fantastic Flesh The Art of Make-Up FX an idea came to me. When  auteur theory was being developed by film theorists and critics way back when in the 20th century its aim was to have film directors recognised as the true authors of a film even though film production was both a collective and industrial process. Despite these factors the true auteurs voice, style and thematic concerns could, so the argument went,  be discerned in any of their works. I had the idea that this article would present a complex theory of the special effects artist as auteur but on reflection thought it would be more fun to celebrate the work of Screaming Mad George, and watch a bunch of videos of cool special-effects on the way.

Some context wouldn’t hurt though. So it is interesting to consider which special effects artists have become more well-known to the public than others. Certainly other effects artists could recognise certain work. In  Fantastic Flesh Tom Savini (see below) describes going to see films featuring the work of favoured effects artists as, “the lastest exhibit from your favourite artist”. A potted history might start with Jack Pierce (featured in this 1933 issue of Modern Mechanics!). Pierce was in the fortunate position of being head of Universal’s make-up department when that studio inaugurated the first horror film boom of the 1930s. Counting Boris Karloff’s instantly iconic make-up as Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (both below) among his creations, Jack Pierce could arguably be said to be the granddaddy of special effects auteurs. In the Fanatstci Flesh documentary dire ctor Frank Darabont describes Pierce’s Frankenstein make-up as, “as iconic as the Empire State Building”. Difficult to argue with that really.

Jack Pierce working on his Wolfman

And working on the Monster

Here I’ve already muddied the waters though. Because Pierce was make-up artist on what perhaps remain the most famous iterations of these monsters, but does this make him a ‘special effects’ artist? Ought we to lump Pierce’s special make-up effects in the same category as, say,  Douglas Trumbull‘s effects for 2001: a Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind? And even if we broaden our definition whose Frankenstein are we really talking about? Jack Pierce’s because he designed it? Boris Karloff’s because he performed it? Or is James Whale our classic auteur by dint of directing it? If Pierce is not quite the special effects auteur we are looking for he still possessed the hallmarks of a true artist. According to Fantastic Flesh Pierce was fired from Universal for taking too long to perfect his work.

These questions will have to wait. For now let’s continue our consideration of the ‘star’ special effects artists. Up next, and also coming to prominence in the golden age of the studio system we might highlight the stop-motion brilliance Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. Willis O’Brien followed up his groundbreaking work on the stop-motion dinosaurs of The Lost World (1925) with the legendary King Kong (1933), not to mention Son of Kong (1933) (a youthful favourite of mine despite apparently being much-maligned) and the glory of Mighty Joe Young (1949). Here’s a brief clip of King Kong fighting a T-Rex because, well, because it’s KING KONG FIGHTING A T-REX!!!

Wonderful stuff.

Ray Harryhausen was a protegé of O’Brien, working with him on 1949’s Might Joe Young and going on to animate a number of beautiful monsters in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953); It Came from beneath the Sea (1954) and, later, Jason and the Argonauts (1963); and Clash of the Titans (1981) among many others. I could choose a clip from any of these but the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts was too good not to include. Saying that, I could not resist using this classic bit of policeman-eating from 20, 000 Fathoms first.

From the stop-motion brilliance of O’Brien and Harryhausen we move to the special make-up effects of Dick Smith, possibly most famous for his indelible work on The Exorcist. Could we call Smith an auteur? In Fantastic Flesh he suggests otherwise, pointing out that “your make-up is worthless if the actor doesn’t use it“. In other words, Smith’s make-up effects, are not the star of the show but in service to the story.

The Exorcist

Outside of horror Smith also did the impressive old age make-up for films as varied as Little Big Man (1969), The Godfather (1971), Amadeus (1984). But for the purposes of this post it is better to highlight his horror work. As well as the Exorcist, Smith did effects for Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1977), special make-up effects on Ken Russell’s goofball psychedelic sci-fi Altered States (1980) and the make-up effects for the finale of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), which I’ve included below, because it’s ace: “brothers should be close, don’t you think?!”:

Despite a talent for horror, Dick Smith has a pretty respectable (in the ‘oscar-worthy’ sense) CV. It is by no means intended as an insult when I suggest that the genius for viscera of Tom Savini appears less respectable. Savini’s work on the original Friday the 13th and Maniac showcased his knack for gory death scenes and earne dhim the title the ‘King of Splatter’ but it is perhaps regular collaboration with George A Romero on Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Monkey Shines and Creepshow that showcase some of his most inventive effects. Again, there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of scenes to choose so I’m just going to go for this clip of a swarm of bugs bursting out of a dead guy’s body (are you being entertained yet?):

Now some viewers might have found that special-effect a bit naff after years of suckling at the bitter teet of CGI but I for one (and perhaps this is just age and a pitiable nostalgia) miss real effects such as that. At any rate I cannot currently name any special-effects auteurs who deal exclusively in CGI. That’s not an ideological position however, and if any reader can p0int me in the right direction that would be great. In lieu of such direction however I want to highlight three other famous monster-makers and their contributions to special effects.

Stan Winston did the visual effects for James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) not to mention the first two Predator movies. In the 1990s he also worked on Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, muddying my earlier assertion about real-effects versus CGI as these two films integrate both forms. Never the less I’m going to illustrate his work with this (edited) clip from the original Terminator so as to highlight a stop-motion genealogy that can be traced back to Harryhausen and O’Brien (and further if we want to go all the way back to Georges Melies). Here it is in al its endoskeletonic glory.

Meanwhile, Rick Baker’s genealogical debt was paid of intertextually in his effects work on the otherwise little-loved 1978 remake of King Kong. The interested and studious reader can check out Empire magazine’s neat history of Baker’s work here and enjoy the stills from Men in Black, Micheal Jackson’s Thriller video, Harry and the Hendersons (you heard me) and others. But for our purposes why not enjoy the transformation scene from the always-enjoyable An American Werewolf in London, for which Baker won his first Oscar? See you in two minutes. Altogether now, “bluuue moooon…”

Finally, before turning to the good Mr. George, a nod to Rob Bottin, made famous by his very different werwolf transformations in Joe Dante’s The Howling (which, incidentally, Rick Baker began work before leaving to do American Werewolf). It’s worth watching to better notice the differences in style (we are working towards some idea of the effects artist as auteur after all):

Bottin would do great work again with Joe Dante on Innerspace and Explorers and also had a fruitful (which is to say, gooey and bloody) collaboration with Paul Verhoeven on Robocop and Total Recall. No doubt readers of a certain age are weeping over their computers with nostalgic joy at this point. So to push us all over the edge here’s a clip of Bottin’s magnificent and much-loved effects from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Defibrillators ready everyone!

That just never, ever gets old does it? For anyone wanting to follow up there’s a neat artcile on Bottin and his mysterious disappearance from the world of special effects in the 2000s over at Popmatters.

So now then…

So far we’ve introduced and seen a some sample clips from the effects and make-up work of artists Jack Pierce, Willis O’Brien  Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Stan Winston, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. A question arises. Clearly it is possible to discern a difference in styles but to what extent are those differences a product of the directors choices rather than the effects artist? Stan Winston directed two effects-heavy films, 1988’s creature-feature Pumpkinhead and A Gnome Called Gnorm in 1990, the same year Tom Savini directed a generally well-recieved remake of Night of the Libing Dead. Would studying these films give us a handle on their special effects aesthetic?

It would require a more diligent film scholar than myself to systematically work their way through these effects artists oeuvres to see if it were possible to make  distinctions. But there is one effects artist whose style and personal touch is unmistakable. And that man is Screaming Mad George.

Tempting as it is to provide an introduction, it might be more interesting to watch a clip of Screaming Mad George’s work and see how it compares to the ones we’ve already seen. keeping with the established theme of transformations let’s see Luke Skywalker (oh fine, Mark Hamill then) mutate into a giant cockroach in 1991’s The Guyver (which George also directed):

It might be possible to argue that as a special effects artist Screaming Mad George’s work is so instantly recognisable that he might be considered an auteur. Whereas the other artists discussed here utilise effects and make-up in the service of the directors vision (or do they?) Screaming Mad George’s cartoonish work threatens to unbalance entire films. Cartoonish seems the right adjective here, in the best possible way. There are (perhaps deliberate) echoes of Basil Wolverton‘s grotesques (see illustration below) and the anarchy of imagination of Chuck Jones in George’s work.

Basil Wolverton

The credits for Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 list him under ‘surrealistic visual design and effects’, as if to make a point of how unusual they are. If Dick Smith or Ray Harryhausen or Stan Winston strive to create something that, however outlandish, seems real, Screaming Mad George abandons all pretence of reality. Witness, as an example, the trailer for Children of the Corn 3: Urban Harvest. Though the film appears to be a wierd-child-supernatural-corn-based-cult-moves-to-the-city-leading-to-violent-clash-of-cultures piece- (which would be odd enough) George’s effects don’t seem to have any relation to the internal reality of the film. Why is that guy’s neck able to be stretched so far when he is apparently killed by a whole corn field? What the fuck is that thing at the end? is it a monster of just a gigantic, roaring hunk of mottled flesh? it looks amazing either way, but it also looks entirely different in tone to the rest of the film.

iwant over at hardcoregaming reveals that Screaming Mad George uses

a method he calls “Anti-Realism”. Indeed, there is no trace of digital editing in his works: everything is hand-made, precisely giving it this unsettling feeling of grotesque “irreality”. Here he explains why he chose to create these surrealistic figures: “I don’t like real violence, but I like created violence. […] You can enjoy fake violence even if it’s a really, really horrible thing. But I don’t like violence when it’s real. I don’t like anything that is real.

In 1988’s Nightmare on Elm Street 4 George created the cockroach death scene. Again, even in a film where deaths take place in dreams, thus allowing for a little ingenuity, the Screaming Madness, in all its sticky, gooey, cartoonishness is unmistakable:

For these reasons Screaming Mad George seems to produce his best work for directors who share his visions. In the forgotten-classic absurdist comedy Freaked (1993) (written and directed by Alex Winters from Bill and Ted!) George goes all-out with his designs, as seen in the trailer:

Brian Yuzna, who worked with George on Faust:Love of the Damned (2000), Re-Animator’s 2 and 3 (1989 and 2003), clearly values the carnivalesque imagination he brings to those films. In fact, George’s most well-known work might be in 1988’s Society, also directed by Yuzna. I’ve written about Society elsewhere in a piece on posthuman sexuality  but its still worth soaking in this handily edited clip of the “Top 10 Messed Up Society Moments”:

Screaming Mad George also counts Big Trouble in Little China (1986), the sequence ‘The Cold’ in Necronomicon: book of the Dead (1993) amongst them (imdb pages here). below are a few of his creations. Is it pushing it to suggest that even though images below come from separate movies they all display the same bonkers artistic vision?

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead

Faust: Love of the Damned

Beyond Re-Animator

The Dentist 2

Screaming Mad George’s unique vision has also been used in other mediums. Screaming Mad George’s video game Paranoiascape was released exclusively in Japan on the playstation in 1998



iwant over at hardcoregaming writes that what amkes the game worth playing is its universe:

 There’s no need to point out that it’s one of the most fucked up video games in existence; it’s pretty obvious from the screenshots. Screaming Mad George indulged himself, and his distinct “Anti-Realist” style is easily noticable even wihtout having seen any of the films he worked on. Trying to go into details regarding the game’s monster design is futile if not entirely impossible; it’s just so weird, you really have to see it to understand what it’s like. These monstrosities just don’t fit in simplistic “zombie” or “ghost” categories, they’re something else. But the world these horrible creatures inhabits looks even more disgusting: you’ll travel through organic halls with giant syringes nailed in the blood-red ground, infected intestines plagued with deformed parasites, absurd cities overflowing with human cockroaches, and so on. It’s both gory and ridiculous, disgusting and funny, repulsive and curious and that’s what makes it feel like an idiotic nightmare. This nonsensical atmosphere of plain weirdness is amplified by the unusual gameplay, pinball rarely being the genre of choice when it comes to this kind of aesthetics (you’re smashing a brain-ball with skeleton-flippers after all) as well as by the punk soundtrack, sometimes agressive and sometimes displaying darkwave or industrial influences. The final sequence is completely otherwordly, and the game closes on a dirty FMV featuring the bestiary.

Clearly a polymath George performs with the band Psychosis. Here’s the video for their appropriately titled Transmutation:

So where are we now? Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston are no longer with us. Dick Smith, now in his nineties, received an honorary and still appears to be involved with the amazing looking Dick Smith Special Make-up Effects Training school. Rob Bottin, according to Wikipedia anyway, signed on in the late 1990s to make his directorial debut with Freddy vs. Jason, based on his own 30-page story outline. The project fell apart in 1998, and Bottin’s work did not feature in the film that eventually emerged: “Still reeling from the collapse of his work on Freddy vs. Jason and finding fewer job opportunities that would utilize his talents with practical make up effects, Bottin turned his back on the film industry and retired in 2002. Today, he lives in seclusion in Southern California, refusing to take part in any industry events or press interviews.” Rick Baker continues to work, notching up a record breaking ten nominations for the Best Makeup Oscar and winning on seven occasions. Screaming Mad George appears to have dropped off the effects scene since 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator (another Brian Yuzna joint).

Have we witnessed the end of the great masters of practical effects? In an age of CGI such work is presumably viewed as too expensive, time-consuming or unreliable. The recent prequel to The Thing exemplified this clash, using practical as well as CGI effects to approximate the feel of John carpenter’s classic. But the CGI, for all its technical proficiency, for all one can admire its skill and impressive verisimilitude, lacks the weight and the tactile fleshiness and gooeyness of the best practical effects which, by contrast to CGI, often lacked verisimilitude but made up for this in their inescapable reality as physical objects. It ought to be possible to replicate in CGI anyone of the films mentioned in this post, just as it ought to be possible that their might be CGI auteurs. But let’s be honest, if we’re going to watch a man having his guts torn out by a horde of zombies, isn’t it more satisfying to know the actors were gagging and the stench of rotten offal? That if we had been there we would not have seen a green screen but instead be able to plunge our hands into their torso and eviscerate them ourselves?

Perhaps the best way to answer that question, and to end, is with this montage of the alien appearances in the 2011 prequel to The Thing. Decide for yourselves…

That is all. Goodbye!

About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at sjzenarchy@gmail.com. View all posts by Scott Jeffery

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