With Halloween right around the corner, what better time to celebrate the fantastical, the frightening, and the downright impressive that horror movie makeup history has to offer?
- The Exorcist (1973): This film is a staple of many a horror-movie list, and its makeup effects are certainly worthy of making an appearance on this one. For the time they were certainly unprecedented. From the pea soup vomit to the overall transformation that makeup artist Dick Smith put Linda Blair through physically— who could forget those contact lenses that seem to peer through the screen and right into your soul, or the chapped lips and rotting teeth that smiled at us crudely— everything in this movie was simply executed but deeply effective. And it’d be hard to argue, even in our era of CGI and more advanced makeup effects, that Smith’s makeup doesn’t hold up. It is a raw and unruly makeup whose terrible textures are still felt today.
- An American Werewolf in London (1981; Specific Moment– The Transformation): The transformation scene in John Landis’ silly, scary creature feature will forever go down as a revolutionary and iconic moment in horror movie makeup, brilliantly constructed by Rick Baker, who learned under Dick Smith. This film is a campy joyride for the most part, but even today, the transformation scene specifically will make your jaw drop. It’s truly a moment of “how did they do that?!” which means— it’s a really stellar makeup that truly transcends the boundaries of makeup effects even today. We know it’s not real, but it really trumps CGI in upholding the illusion of reality. And, it’s just by far my favorite werewolf makeup of all time.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984; Specific Character– Freddy Krueger): Classic horror has given us some really great makeup effects, as you can probably see, and this list isn’t even skimming the surface. But, Freddy Krueger is an obvious choice and deserves a spot on this list quite a bit more than any of his fellow slashers. Robert Englund’s scarred face is a standard, iconic horror image, and again, those palpable textures of it, every ridge and wrinkle, are important and ultimately effective in scarring viewers as they watch.
- From Dusk Till Dawn (1996; Specific Makeup– The Vampires): Maybe it’s weird to have a favorite makeup artist when you’re not an aspiring makeup artist yourself (heck, I’m not even an expert– just an enthusiast). But Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero are my favorites, and they’re both contemporary legends in the world of makeup effects. Tom Savini taught Nicotero on the set of various films (including George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead in 1985) in the same way Smith taught Baker on the set of The Exorcist. From Dusk Till Dawn features some of the craziest, creepiest, most outrageous vampires of any film. They’re totally unique and absolutely awesome. And as a sidenote—Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini appear in the film, cameos that are fittingly hilarious and over the top, but no more over the top than the creative vamps they’re forced to battle.
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2006; Specific Characters– The Faun and The Pale Man): This film is a beautiful and haunting fantasy whose makeup (with the aid of animatronics and limited CGI) induces fear, awe, wonderment and terror all at once. The Faun, with his intricately detailed face and large horns, and the pale man with his eerily blank face, sagging skin and slender hands with eyes in the palms, are two of my favorite movie creatures of all time. Products of del Toro’s immensely imaginative mind, these characters are simultaneously fantastical and oddly real feeling, and they help sell the historical fairy tale to us even more, grounding it in a sense of actuality that only makeup could create.
- Hostel (2004; Specific Effect– The Eye): Now onto a more strictly horror selection, Hostel’s character Kana is a disturbing sight but also an example of undeniably great makeup. Where torture porn usually relies on gallons of fake blood, dreary set pieces, barbaric props and body double dummies that can be easily maimed to the director’s liking, Hostel’s most terrifying moment can only be achieved by makeup: Kana and her drooping, then missing, eye. When our protagonist Paxton finds her in the middle of being tortured, her eye has already been pulled out of its socket, and Paxton must cut it off completely. The pus effect is stomach-churning, and seeing her escape sans one eye is probably the most simple but grotesque image from any torture porn I’ve seen. The fact that she herself cannot bear the sight of it requires it to be a gross makeup effect, and it really is.
- Dead Snow (2009; Specific Makeup– The Nazi Zombies): There were many zombie movies I could have chosen from, but my issue in choosing was that many zombie movies adhere to a standard palate and pattern. The Walking Dead has, in my opinion, the most diverse and exciting approach to “walkers;” the cameras focus on certain ones with defining features and those are the ones who remain in our memories, from bicycle girl to the well walker. But as far as movies go, I had to go with the Norwegian flick, Dead Snow. Its frozen Nazi zombies were a tall order for the makeup effects and wardrobe departments, I’m sure, because they had to have numerous, seemingly disparate, terrifying qualities. Their bluish-gray hues give them the aura of being cold on the outside, and their Nazi uniforms give them the obvious aura of being cold on the inside, too. The makeup effects on their faces alone though are awesomely horrifying—the blackened, snarled mouths and teeth that resemble a charred skeleton who guzzled blood eons ago are enough to make this quirky horror film a masterpiece in my mind.