With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China doesn’t fit squarely into the horror box, but it is a genre mashup that Carpenter has described as “action/adventure/comedy/kung fu/ghost story/monster movie.” He reteams with perennial favorite Kurt Russell once again, but this time Russell is the comedic relief as truck driver Jack Burton, a guy with a lot of bravado who isn’t as competent as he thinks. It’s his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who’s the true hero of this story. As for plot, it’s an epic journey that sees the pair working together with allies to reclaim Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin, from the evil clutches of ancient sorcerer and his supernatural henchmen beneath Chinatown.
At this point in his career, his 11th feature, Carpenter was well versed in working with special effects-heavy films. With films like The Thing, Christine, and Starman under his belt, he had a strong grasp of how effects worked (or sometimes didn’t), which made him an appealing director to work with for visual effects master Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist) and his effects company Boss Films (Ghostbusters, Fright Night). The special effects team was stacked with Boss Films alumni like Screaming Mad George, Steve Johnson, and many more. It’s a good thing the talent was stacked, as the budget was fairly low for a such an effect driven film, and Carpenter bumped up the production timeline once he learned The Golden Child, a film with similar themes, had been scheduled to release the same time as Big Trouble in Little China. He knew Eddie Murphy was a huge box office draw and wanted to get ahead of the competition.
The mystical voyage to save Miao Yin saw Wang, Jack, ally Egg Shen (Victor Wong) encountering mighty warriors The Three Storms – Rain, Thunder, and Lightning, who all came with their own special effect requirements thanks to their unique weather manipulating abilities and a literal explosion from anger. But it was David Lo Pan (James Hong) himself and his watchful floating eyes, the Chinese Wildman, and a barely seen Sewer Monster that required a large special makeup effects and creature effects crew.
For a large part of the film, Lo Pan appears as a withered, decrepit old man. The look was designed, created, and applied by Steve Johnson, and required 10 overlapping facial appliances, a shoulder hump, and thin hand-punched hair to make Hong look so ancient. His transition into the more spry, mystical sorcerer was unique – it wasn’t the typical monster transition but one of light that burned from the inside out. It meant the team had to create a molded dummy head of Lo Pan lit with a 1000-watt bulb to emit the bright light. It also meant that they had to shoot it quickly, as the bulb was so hot it’d start to burn the dummy head, causing smoke.
The Chinese Wildman is a sort of equivalent to the sasquatch, and Carpenter envisioned the creature to look like a cross between a wolf and Nosferatu. Visual effects art director George Jenson went through at least a dozen drawings trying to achieve the look Carpenter wanted, and eventually nailed it thanks to a photo of a mummy he found in a National Geographic magazine. From there, the drawing was passed to Steve Johnson to create a sculpture. Kevin Brennan and Theresa Burkett built a suite based on that. The strange look of the creature combined with his loose-cannon persona makes him one of the more interesting movie monsters. He’s supposed to be Lo Pan’s henchmen, but true to his name he tends to behave on impulse.
The most extensive creature, in terms of time, required manpower, and budget, is surprisingly the floating watchful eye that the good guys encounter in the caverns below Lo Pan’s lair. It required animatronics, numerous puppeteers and operators working in tandem, bladders, and a ton of varying eyeballs. And still, the movie’s most intriguing creature is the one that’s barely shown at all; the Sewer Monster.
Appearing out of nowhere, from the bowels of the sewer system, the monster pops out nowhere and snatches up on of lesser heroes heading to battle Lo Pan. Inspired by anglerfish, Screaming Mad George sculpted the creature and oversaw its creation and operation. It was a massive creature on a track with steel understructure and an actor inside that meant the victim had to stand at a safe distance so the creature didn’t actually hit him; it would’ve been like getting plowed by a hefty piece of machinery. Screaming Mad George added mechanized human legs that attached to the creature actor’s head, so when the actor shook his head the legs would emulate the swallowed victim kicking around. It was a creature that was meant to be featured more in the film, but its size and difficult maneuverability likely contributed to its trimmed appearance.
Perhaps due to the major hype surrounding Aliens, which was released only 16 days after, Big Trouble in China didn’t fare as well at the box office despite massively positive test screenings. It’s a shame, considering what a wild ride it is, and how well it holds up. Naturally, it’s since developed a massive following that’s resulted in board games, comic books, and merchandise in recent years and solidified a place in pop culture iconography.
Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earthquakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”