Legendary makeup artist Dick Smith honored at Monsterpalooza

dick smithDick Smith may be a common name in most circles, but in the film industry, this name has a very special meaning. Dick Smith was a pioneer in the world of makeup and special effects for television and movies, a craft that made people look aged when in fact they were not, that transformed actors into monsters, most notably a darling 12-year-old girl into a hideous being that now harbored a demonic spirit.

Smith passed away on July 30, 2014, at the age of 92 but left the world with an astounding resumé of artistry that helped make movies look very real. But in addition to his rich body of work he left a legacy of giving, of passing on his knowledge to subsequent generations of makeup artists.

During Monsterapalooza on March 27-29 at the Marriott in Burbank, a tribute to Smith was presented in two forms. One was a museum presentation that featured photographs of his most famous efforts that included Dustin Hoffman’s 100-plus-year-old Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man” (1970), Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972), the demon-possessed Regan played by Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” (1974) and F. Murray Abraham’s older version of Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus” (1984). Also on display were the face casts Smith applied to these stars as the basis for the application of the makeup.

The other part of the tribute was a panel of professionals who were affected by the genius and generosity of Smith. The panel took place on Saturday, day two of Monsterpalooza, and was a roster of stars in the makeup and special effects business, along with two actors who had the unforgettable experience of being made up by Smith.

Among Smith’s proteges is Craig Reardon, whose early work included being on the makeup staff of “Altered States” and “Poltergeist” and later did jobs on “The X-Files.” As a young man, Reardon contacted Smith via a letter.

“It was like throwing a bottle in the ocean,” Reardon said of the letter. But he received a response in the form of a 3-inch thick manilla envelope. It contained a response letter but also photographs of Smith’s work — such as sequential photos of Smith making up Hal Holbrook for Holbrook’s wonderful portrayal of Mark Twain.

The letter by Smith informed Reardon that he was willing to answer any questions. “I quote from him: I don’t keep secrets and I would be happy to correspond with you,” Reardon recalled. “He never copped an attitude about anything with anybody.”

Unfortunately, Rick Baker, another of Smith’s proteges who made a name for himself with the groundbreaking on-screen conversion of David Naughton’s character David Kessler into a werewolf in “An American Werewolf in London,” was unable to attend this panel.

Greg Cannom, a winner of three makeup Academy Awards for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” said he was first inspired by Smith when he saw a Life magazine cover photo of Dustin Hoffman’s “Little Big Man” character. Then, seeing “The Exorcist” sealed Cannom’s desire to work in movie makeup.

Smith invited Cannom to the set of “North and South,” where he had the opportunity to watch Smith apply the Abraham Lincoln makeup on Hal Holbrook.

In between the tributes, clips from movies featuring Smith’s work were shown — “Little Big Man,” “The Godfather” (including the Italian restaurant scene with Michael Corleone [Al Pacino] graphically shooting two men at close range, “The Exrocist,” “Altered States,” “The Hunger,” in which David Bowie was aged, and “Amadeus.”

Andy Clement, responsible for the work on Jackie Earle Haley’s transformation into Freddie Krueger in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” commented on “The Exorcist.”

“I don’t think ‘The Exorcist’ can be overstated in terms of how important it is to what we do (in makeup), just from the iconic design, how many iterations (Smith) went through, making it the best it could be.” He noted this was one of the first uses of a radio-controlled device, the full-body duplication of Regan on which the head did its full rotation.

Moderator Scott Essman reminded us that Smith did not win Oscars for his “Godfather” and “Exorcist” mastery because there was no makeup category back then. Essman also pointed out that in addition to the horrifying Regan transformation, Max Von Sydow, as Father Merrin, was made up to appear much older than he was at the time.

Linda Blair offered an actor’s perspective on working with Smith.

She recalled going to Smith’s home for a makeup test even before she was signed on to play Regan. She said Smith referred to the face-cast application as “pancake batter,” and that once it was applied, “you can’t breathe, but that’s OK. We’re here, just hold our hands.”

Blair said that initially, a face mask was going to be used, but director William Friedkin rejected that idea. Friedkin said, “I can’t see her face. I have to know it’s Linda, or everybody will think this is a joke.” Thus followed many makeup tests. Blair said the biggest challenge for Smith was taking such an innocent, healthy face of Regan and making it a monster. It required little-by-little adjusting of the facial features to get the desired effect.

Blair also talked about the sensitive and delicate procedure of doing a full-body cast for the radio-controlled Regan on which the head would spin. “He never made me uncomfortable, even though it was uncomfortable. He did everything he could to always make me feel like it was a safe place.”

“He was an extraordinary man who would tell me stories,” Blair remembered, “about the different movies and the characters, working with Dustin Hoffman on ‘Little Big Man,’ and he would smile as he would work.” She then mimicked him as he would insist to her, “You have to sit still, you gotta sit still.”

During the filming, the daily makeup process took two hours and Linda naturally would get restless, so Smith had a TV put behind Linda and used a mirror so the girl could watch TV while the makeup was applied.

The vomiting scene also required a lot of testing, as well as safety precautions, and Blair had to keep her mouth open during the tests and filming. She also noted that the “vomit” concoction tasted terrible.

Blair said that all over the world she has encountered  people who have told her of Smith’s generosity in talking to people and advising them on makeup procedures.

“Without Dick Smith we would not be where we are today,” Blair said, “with makeup for sure, but also with special effects.I didn’t know who he was at 13 years old. By 15 I was getting an idea and in my 20s I really learned. And later on in life I had the honor of giving him his Academy Award.”

“It was my honor to have worked with him,” she concluded. “Go back and learn who Dick Smith was because you will be truly touched and awed at this great master’s work.”

Kevin Haney, who worked with Smith and Baker on “Altered States,” mentioned a “trickle-down” effect, with young people learning from Smith and passing their knowledge on to the next generations. “It’s not just in the thousands,” Haney said of the number of people influenced by Smith, “it numbers in the millions now.”

Stephen Lack, who starred in “Scanners,” talked about his experience when Smith was called in after principal shooting on this 1981 David Cronenberg film was wrapped to help redo the final scene of the mind-duel between Lack’s Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok, played by Michael Ironside. The scene required plastic bladders to serve as bulging, about-to-burst blood veins on the faces of Vale and Revok. The bladders, however, were leaking and Smith was beginning to panic when Lack said that if you have a leak in a tire, you run air through it to locate the leak. Smith saw that as a brilliant idea, and afterward, Smith presented Lack with a sculpted prop of Lack’s Vale character.

Alec Gillis, director of the upcoming “Harbinger Down,” wanted to stress the importance of Smith’s animatronic work.

“When you combine the genius of design and execution that he had with the daring of animatronic design and pushing the envelope there, it started the tradition for us.”

Tom Woodruff Jr. worked with Smith on “Starman,” specifically the life-cast of Jeff Bridges’ alien who uses DNA from a hair of a deceased man to essentially become a clone of that man. Woodruff said  he marveled at the meticulous ways of Smith, even down to the specific temperature of the molding material.

The special effects in that movie were a collaboration of Smith, Baker and Stan Winston, and Woodruff recalled seeing these three icons of makeup and special effects standing together and chatting on the Warner Brothers set.

“It was a magic moment,” Woodruff said. “It was backlit and I think I heard choirs singing and unicorns crying.”

Todd Masters, who has done work on “True Blood,” said that Smith was like a father figure to all those who worked in makeup and special effects. “He was almost a model citizen of monster making. He was a bit of a super hero. He was for the good and the right.”

“It’s kinda weird talking about him in the past tense,” Masters noted. “It always feels like he’s here.We’re all still holding the torch. It’s all about taking what he started and still making it relevant today.”

Jill Rockow, who was inspired by Smith’s to become a makeup artist and was his best friend, especially later in his life, summed up his life, by saying she carries on his legacy by encouraging makeup and special effects to stay together and be a family.

“I am really mad he is not immortal,” she said.

“SEE NO EVIL 2” cashing in

“See No Evil 2,” the second movie about the bloody escapades of Jacob Goodnight, and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, did not have a theatrical release, but was screened at Screamfest in Los Angeles last fall (See review of screening in the October 2014 archives of this blog). It then was released on DVD and Blu-Ray and has enjoyed some success.

The Soskas attended Horrorhound Weekend March 20-22 in Cincinnati, along with Katharine Isabelle, who played Mary Mason in the Soskas’ “American Mary.”  The Soskas and Isabelle also appeared for a Q&A at the convention, and afterward I asked Jen and Sylvia about the sales of “See No Evil 2.” They reported sales had exceeded $1 million.

According to thenumbers.com, “See No Evil 2” sales of DVD and Blu-Ray stands at $1.4 million.

For a detailed recap of Jen and Sylvia Soskas’ panel at Texas Frightmare Weekend in 2014, check the May 2014 archives on this blog site.





‘The Lazarus Effect’ and the consequences of cheating death

One of the recurring themes of the horror movie genre is the exploration of attempts to cheat death. Zombies seem to have stumbled upon their own solution to this enduring issue,  although the side-effects are yucky. The “Final Destination” series of movies proved that when people try to alter their sealed fate, death just comes up with another creative way of carrying out its master plan.

Using the research lab to find ways of postponing a visit by the Grim Reaper is always a ripe theme for the “science gone bad” element of horror and science fiction films.

The latest movie to deal with laboratory experiments designed to reverse death is “The Lazarus Effect,” which starts out promising but eventually derails.

“Lazarus” has a similar set up as “Deep Blue Sea” in that a driven group of scientists and lab assistants are pushing the envelope on experimentation in hopes of discovering cures or ways to stall the devastating effects of diseases. Their efforts soon yield terrible results they are not expecting.

In “The Lazarus Effect,” Frank (Mark Duplass) and his co-researcher and fiancee Zoe (Olivia Wilde), financed by a grant and based at a university campus, have come up with a serum they hope can revive recently deceased people and provide a second chance at life.

Assisted by Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), with college student Eva (Sarah Bolger) serving as a videographer, Frank and Zoe take the next step — an unsanctioned test of injecting the serum into a dead dog.

Initially the experiment appears to be a failure, but suddenly the dog, named Rocky, jumps to life. Immediately, however, unforeseen things crop up. Poor Rocky seems to have developed a personality disorder, one minute docilely lying around, the next growling and in pre-attack mode, leading Zoe to make the most astute observation in the movie: Maybe Rocky was snatched from doggie heaven and is not happy about it.

A nonsensical side plot is that the university officials go after Frank upon learning about his experimenting on the dog, stating that was not approved when the grant was issued. Say what? How did these people think this serum would be effective if not tested on actual biological organisms? Because of this violation of the grant contract, all of the project data is seized.

This plot device is used as supposed  motivation for Frank and Zoe to continue the tests, as if seeing poor Rocky engaged in schizophrenic behavior, going from Benji to Cujo and back, is not enough to prompt more experiments.

Thus another dog is brought out for another test. But this time something goes wrong and Zoe is electrocuted. Well, shades of “Re-Animator,” as Frank, rendered crazed by Zoe’s death, decides to inject the serum onto her.

Zoe is revived, but like Rocky, her brain’s neural activity is in overdrive.

At this point, “The Lazarus Effect” takes a weird turn. The screenplay, by Luke Dawson (“Shutter”) and Jeremy Slater, goes with a premise that Zoe’s now super-powered brain can turn her into a person that is a mix of Carrie White (telekinesis), Freddie Krueger (dream invasions), mind readers and demonic possession.

While this ramps up the terror aspect of the movie, it does so at the expense of what could have been a chilling psychological thriller and a provocative look at the consequences of mankind trying to alter nature’s laws. Instead it turns into a puzzling potpourri of mayhem with an ending that is ominous but ultimately silly.

Character development is minimal. Only Zoe has a back story, haunted by nightmares that stemmed from a tragedy she endured as a child. Frank is seen as a man so driven in his research it isn’t until he almost loses Zoe that his passion for her surfaces. The other three characters are just typical potential victims once the violence starts.

While “The Lazarous Effect” uses all the tools to provide some scary moments, it soon spins out of control. The filmmakers might have had a better movie if they had just focused on the poor dog Rocky.