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Putty In Their Hands: Ten Old Movie Makeup Jobs That Hold Up, Part I

We're getting into the Halloween spirit at IFC.com this week by taking a look back...

We’re getting into the Halloween spirit at IFC.com this week by taking a look back at some famous movie makeup jobs (that are, at minimum, 25 years old) that have maintained their power to scare the bejeezus out of viewers. These kids today with their computer generated imagery and their Blu-rays and their “Saw V”s! Back in our day, we didn’t have computers to do our imagination’s dirty work for us. Visionary artists had only prosthetics, wire, plaster, rubber and a whole lot of Karo syrup to bring their creations to life! Back in our day, these were the movies you rented on Halloween! At the video store! As far as we’re concerned, they still should be. And don’t you dare teepee our Web site or we’re calling the cops. [Part two of our list can be found here.]

10282008_themanwholaughs.jpg10. THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)
Directed by Paul Leni
Makeup by Jack Pierce

To get a sense of what it must be like to be Gwynplaine, the tortured protagonist of Paul Leni’s “The Man Who Laughs,” smile as wide as you possibly can. Then hold it for 10 seconds. Even that much forced merriment is exhausting; Gwynplaine, butchered as a child by gypsy surgeons who curled his lips into an unchanging smile, has endured a lifetime of it. And actor Conrad Veidt suffered too; enduring bruising appliqué designed by Jack Pierce, the Universal Studios makeup man who would go on to design the iconic makeup for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. Pierce’s device was painful, but it had its benefits — its hold on Veidt’s lips was so secure that we can watch the actor physically struggle against his own smile. A dozen years later, Veidt’s appearance served as visual inspiration for Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker. And while the Clown Prince of Crime remains the Dark Knight’s greatest opponent, he’ll never be as scary as Gwynplaine. The Joker embraced his deformity; Gwynplaine doesn’t find anything funny about his. Even when women desire him, his self-loathing is so deep he can’t bring himself to accept their love. We fear meeting The Joker, but we fear becoming Gwynplaine.

SIGNATURE MOMENT: Gwynplaine makes his living as a vaudeville performer, where his smile has made him a much beloved star. After another well-received performance, Gywnplaine and the rest of his troop head backstage, where a clown approaches him and starts to wipe his grease paint off his face. “What a lucky clown!” he tells Gwynplaine. “You don’t have to rub off your laugh” Gwynplaine smiles in response.

10282008_creaturefromtheblacklagoon.jpg9. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Make Up by Bud Westmore

If you don’t think a G-rated movie can give you bad dreams, you’ve never seen 1954′s “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” A convincing missing link between man and fish (an aquatic Bigfoot, or “Bigfin,” if you will), ol’ “Gill-Man” is minding his P’s and Q’s in the unspoiled beauty of the Amazon rainforest until a bunch of American scientists show up to un-unspoil things. The movie stands firmly in line with most cautionary sci-fi of the 1950s, with the Creature as the misunderstood innocent and man as the interloper and villain, but the makeup by Bud Westmore (with vital but completely uncredited help from designer Milicent Patrick and makeup artist Chris Mueller) is convincingly gruesome enough to muddy the moral waters for the audience. The Creature has physical attributes from a ton of different underwater animals — the craggy feet of a lizard, the finned spine of an eel, the bulbous neck of a bullfrog — and a palpable primordial quality. Actor Ben Chapman gave the Creature a great walk on land (Riccou Browning played the Creature while in the Black Lagoon): slow but determined, arms outstretched, mouth agape, the gills at the neck slowly fluttering. G-rated, my ass.

SIGNATURE MOMENT: Foxy scientist Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) goes for an idyllic swim in the waters of the Black Lagoon, not realizing the Creature, lurking below, has taken an interest. As she obliviously glides along the surface, the Creature paddles along just a few feet below, watching and waiting. Their synchronized swim through serene Florida waters is beautiful but charged with menace — in this movie, nature is a remarkable thing to behold, but behold it too long and it will kick the shit out of you.

10282008_beneaththeplanetoftheapes.jpg8. BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)
Directed by Ted Post
Creative Makeup Design by John Chambers

John Chambers’ groundbreaking makeup for the many denizens of “Planet of the Apes” is amongst the most celebrated of all time, but Zaius, Cornelius, Zira and the rest don’t belong on this list anyway; after all, they aren’t really meant to scare us. No, for a glimpse of the more twisted corners of Mr. Chambers’ mind, you need to go to “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the batshit crazy follow-up to the first film that begins with Charlton Heston disappearing into a magical rock and ends with him destroying the Earth by activating a doomsday bomb. Along the way, another astronaut named Brent (James Franciscus) wanders the planet in search of Heston’s Taylor (Hint: He’s inside the magic rock). Before he finds Taylor, Brent stumbles on a heretofore unknown race of humans who live beneath the Planet of the Apes called the mutants, who’ve been given the gift of telepathic communication and mind control, thanks to prolonged exposure to nuclear fallout. Despite a fashion sense bad enough to give Tim Gunn the dry heaves, the mutants appear ordinary enough at first. Only later, as the mutants prepare for the apes’ assault on their citadel, do they reveal their “inmost selves.” At a religious ceremony to their God (a.k.a. the bomb), they peel off their faces to reveal their true visages, which look like a cross between Darth Vader’s face without his mask and a scrotum. After a few minutes staring into the radioactive hideousness, you’ll be begging for the mutants to use their mind control powers on you and make you forget you ever saw it.

SIGNATURE MOMENT: The mutants don’t get nearly enough screen time in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” but they make the most of it. Their “critical mass” is one of the most unsettling scenes in any of the apocalyptic sci-fi movies of the 1970s. The mutants’ leaders stand before their congregation, leading them in songs celebrating nuclear annihilation and sermonizing them with lines like “May the blessing of the Bomb Almighty, and the fellowship of the Holy Fallout descend on us all. This day and forever more.” Then, as the whole room chants “Unto my GOOOOOOOOOOOD!” in unison, they reveal themselves in all their scrotal glory. Just try and keep your eyes on the screen as the service continues, sans faces, for another minute and a half. John Chambers, you maniac! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!

10282008_scanners.jpg7. SCANNERS (1981)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Special Makeup Effects by Dick Smith

Makeup artists are essentially problem solvers. The director wants to see something impossible on screen; the makeup artist makes it possible. Since restrictive laws prevent filmmakers from freely exploding their actors’ heads, they turn to men like Dick Smith to do it for them. David Cronenberg’s “Scanners” is a wicked little science fiction picture about a race of telepaths hiding in regular society. We’re introduced to the full scope of their power during a press conference where Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) blows up a man’s cranium by squinting at him. The effect, which looks sickeningly good onscreen, even in slow motion (there are several YouTube videos devoted to playing the shot back and forth at a variety of speeds) was accomplished with surprisingly simplicity: the effects team made a dummy head of the actor, stuck a “blood-filled pig’s bladder” inside, propped it up on a fake body, aimed a shotgun at it, and pulled the trigger. The final result is gruesome, sloppy and no doubt far more realistic than anything else done in movies to that time. And that’s just one; the whole movie is filled with these nutsos brain-zapping each other. On a related topic, where do you even get a pig bladder?

SIGNATURE MOMENT: In the finale, Revok faces off against his arch-nemesis Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). The two actors basically look at each other really hard in extended slo-mo and let Dick Smith and his effects team do the grunt work. We see veins on forearms protrude and leak, skin boil and drip off a torso, and faces bubble and pop. In other words, pass on the microwave popcorn when you rent the DVD. In the big finale, Vale’s eyes actually explode out of their sockets. I assume this was done with some kind of dummy, though come to think of it, when was the last time you saw Stephen Lack in anything?

10282008_theexorcist.jpg6. THE EXORCIST (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Makeup by Dick Smith

True story — when I worked at my college’s movies-on-campus program, we once showed “The Exorcist.” One patron began to feel ill during the movie, got up to use the restroom and promptly fainted. Paramedics had to come, an ambulance wound up involved. The student would ultimately blame a bit of food poisoning, probably being too embarrassed to admit the truth: this movie messed you up. Dick Smith, a legendary makeup artist who also designed the memorable effects used in films like “Altered States,” “Little Big Man,” and the aforementioned “Scanners,” transformed an innocent looking 14-year-old Linda Blair into an obscenity-and-pea-soup spewing demon. Smith initially attempted a more traditional witch makeup with an outsized nose and chin before he, along with director Friedkin, developed the idea of having Blair’s Regan cut her face during the scene while she’s stabbing herself in the crotch with a crucifix, and having the lesions slowly fester and turn gangrenous throughout the movie, creating a gradual physical disintegration that matches the girl’s mental one. Ghoulish as Blair looks, it wasn’t one of those scenes that made our customer faint; it was an earlier sequence where the troubled Regan is taken to a doctor for medical testing. They insert a needle and tube into her neck and pressure causes blood to spurt out as if from a Super Soaker. Forget Satan… deep down, we’re all really afraid of going to the doctor.

SIGNATURE MOMENT: When Father Karras (Jason Miller) confronts the possessed Regan for the first time, she mocks his recently deceased mother. Unfazed by the girl’s taunts, he defiantly asks the demon for his mother’s name. Instead, she spews a great geyser of green vomit all over his face. To create the effect, Smith developed a harness that Blair’s stunt double wore over her face but under her makeup that had a spout set well back in the mouth. The vomit, of course, was just hot pea soup. The man in charge of aiming the spray was only supposed to hit Miller in the chest, so his reaction when it hits him square in the face is altogether genuine.

[Photos: "The Man Who Laughs," Universal Pictures, 1928; "Creature from the Black Lagoon," Universal Pictures, 1954; "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1970; "Scanners," AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1981; "The Exorcist," Warner Bros. Pictures, 1973]

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