On October 7, 2008, Starz Originals will debut a new documentary as part of an ongoing STARZ INSIDE series hosted by film critic Richard Roeper. This entry, FANTASTIC FLESH – THE ART OF MAKE-UP EFX comes just in time for Halloween.
Focusing for just under an hour on the history of Make-up design, the film touches on forebears like Lon Chaney (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) and Jack Pierce (FRANKENSTEIN) before turning itself into something of a KNB EFX lovefest. Now, I dig on the KNB guys as much as the next horror junkie kid who grew up reading magazines that featured the latest and greatest splatter creations. The same kid who would grow up and get a subscription to Make-Up Artist Magazine and a considering abandoning a traditional college setting for the Industrial Design Technology program at The Art Institute. But, in an hour focused on the “Art of Make-Up” I would have like to see a bit more about the mechanics of the so-called “art”. Instead what we get is a lot of coverage of films that KNB worked on, along with a sprinkling of Rob Bottin’s THE THING, a touch of Rick Baker’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and a dash of Dick Smith’s THE EXORCIST. If you think this documentary is catered toward horror fans—I wouldn’t bet against you.
FANTASTIC FLESH does a bit of research on the importance of what Chaney, Pierce and Smith brought to the table with their work but mostly the film feels like a highlight reel for the “best of make-up” over the past 80-years. It can’t go that far into the field in only 54-minutes and since the film has no narration to drive the story (Roeper only appears at the beginning to deliver a stilted introduction). What we get is a series of talking heads discussing appliances and techniques that they love and the history of make-up only as it correlates to the specific person relating the tale.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the talking heads on display here are (almost) all top notch. We get insights from Joe Dante, John Landis, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Frank Darabont, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Frank Darabont, Mick Garris, George Romero and effects gurus including Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Rob Botton. But, it’s not the “who’s on screen” that amazes or the “who they talk about” that blows your mind. It’s who’s not there and who’s is not talked about that puzzles.
Where is Rick Baker? The man has 11 Oscar Nominations and 6 wins. He’s the most decorated make-up artist in history. We hear about Baker’s legendary transformation sequence in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and his work on Tim Burton’s PLANET OF THE APES (where the Make-up was the only part of the film that didn’t suck!) but we don’t hear anything about the true life designs that have garnered the man most of his accolades. The “real life” stuff that Baker has inarguably mastered—specifically old age applications—is hammered home during a segment on Dick Smith. And, with all the respect in the world, Dick Smith does it better than anyone—I’m sure Rick Baker would agree. So, why not interview the man and get his perspective on it. The other name that is conspicuously absent (although it is mentioned once) is Stan Winston. Winston—as I’m sure all of you know died earlier this year—also has 9 Oscar Nominations and 4 wins. Though Winston is considered more of a creature creator than a make-up artist, this documentary does not seem to make that distinction too prevalent, specifically with its focus on Rob Bottin’s work on THE THING. I don’t know when this feature was shot, but if it was before Winston died then I wonder if he was approached, and if not, why not. If the doc was shot after Winston died I can’t imagine that he was far from the other interviewee’s minds. Still, it’s more noticeable that Winston is not discussed in light of his recent passing.
Ultimately, no one can expect Starz to manufacture the be-all-end-all of special effects documentaries in an hour. But they do manage to cull a grandiose collection of names and faces to commemorate some of the exceptional work that has been pioneered in the field. I was specifically excited that—although the documentary touched on CGI—it mainly focused mainly on practical effects and in camera work—it’s too be expected given the hands-on approach and extensive careers of the principal cast.
So, given that we never asked for it, and Starz still delivered a documentary on The Art of Make-up EFX. It’s hard to complain too much about what’s missing or what’s glossed over. In the best moments, FANTASTIC FLESH offers a unique glimpse behind the lens into a magical place where hardcore film fans and (of course) kids who grew up on too many monster movies would love play.