Since Universal Horror ruled the marquee, movie monsters have entertained us with their madcap, bloodthirsty antics. But these villains are not created equal. A skilled makeup artist understands that each design hinges on how the monster will elicit fear. Zombies, for example, are scary precisely because they’re made in our image, albeit a ravenous, reanimated version. Conversely, the xenomorphs in Alien and Aliens look, move, and act like extraterrestrials in every way, a startling distinction that defines the series.
While computer generated imagery has its place, good old fashioned practical effects will always reign supreme. That’s why I’m allocating two lists to it. This week will focus on the “subtler” monsters: the ones that used primarily makeup to create beasts that were scary yet human-like. Next week will be devoted to the creatures so distantly resembling people that puppets or full-body suits were required to cast the terrifying illusion. One is not better than the other. The two styles are simply distinct enough that each deserves its own spotlight.
So here—in chronological order—are ten of the best works of makeup in horror film history. And remember that if your favorite is omitted below, it may be in the Dreaditorials queue for Part II.
Count Orlok in Nosferatu
At the dawn of celluloid, a non-sparkling vampire sailed into Germany and almost single-handedly established horror cinema. Count Orlok was modeled after the rodents that carried Spanish Influenza, a disease that killed millions around the world just a few years earlier.
An aura of fear was cast over the production and promotion with some believing that an actual vampire played the Count. To stoke these rumors, director F. W. Murnau segregated actor Max Schreck from the rest of the cast, forbidding him from mingling except in costume and full makeup. This makes determining who crafted the freakishly effective makeup close to impossible. Since actors in early cinema often designed and applied their own makeup, Schreck is often credited along with art director Albin Grau for combining a bald cap with white makeup and pointy ears to establish the original cinematic bloodsucker. But Murnau probably also deserves his share of the credit since some say he cast Schreck specifically because the actor already resembled a rat.
Blair Witch notwithstanding, the advent of widespread technology negates the possibility of such mysteries today. Now, we could look up Max Schreck on five different types of social media or view paparazzi images of the makeup process on the set. Although our connected world offers its share of advantages, we’ve lost a bit of macabre magic in the process.
Frankenstein’s Monster & The Bride of Frankenstein
Although most horror fans know the names Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man, few of us recognize Jack Pierce, the man behind the makeup. A matchless artist, he worked at Universal for decades and designed makeup effects for well over a hundred films and television shows.
Picking just one of his masterpieces for this list wasn’t easy, so I went for a couple. The ultimate Universal couple in fact. In 1931 and 1935, Pierce worked on Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein respectively. Befriending the sometimes capricious Pierce, Boris Karloff collaborated during the makeup process by taking out his dental piece, which added a terrifyingly sallow look to the mad scientist’s creation. And though we think of Frankenstein’s monster as being green, Pierce selected the makeup color to add an eerie glow to Karloff’s skin on the black and white film stock.
As the bride with the coldest feet in Silver Screen history, Elsa Lanchester presented him with a different challenge altogether. Pierce successfully blended the glamorous with the grotesque, combining a pale pallor and seemingly slipshod stitching at the jaw line with Hedy Lamarr-worthy black eyeliner and dark lipstick. The result remains one of the most beautiful monsters ever committed to celluloid. Many imitate, but none can truly compare.
In the late 1940s, Universal dismissed Pierce when they cleaned house during the post-war years, and these days, the effects genius has been relegated to a mere trivia question in most circles. What a sad and unjust end to a career that impacted American culture and left us with an indelible legacy.
Regan in The Exorcist
When crafting editorials lists, I give extra credence to those trailblazing films that went into horror territory never before tread. Sure, technology and simple trial and error give successors some serious advantages that might improve production value, but without the original inspiration, the derivatives would never exist.
In the case of Regan, someone was going to take demonic possession to the kiddie pool eventually. But William Friedkin’s 1973 parable of religion-gone-wild arrived first. And what a spectacle the possession classic is, carried on the back of Linda Blair and her hideous transformation from girl-next-door to Satan incarnate. With effects by Dick Smith, the granddaddy of great makeup designs, Regan haunts the nightmares of countless viewers, her yellowed eyes, torn-up skin, and billboard tummy challenging cinema’s preconceived notions of how far horror could go. All the while, Rick Baker worked on the sidelines as Smith’s assistant, carving his own way to an eventually illustrious career in the industry.
With time, many trailblazers do ultimately look dated, but even today, Regan’s crucifix-abusing, split-pea-spewing antics hold up so well it’s scary.
Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series
For nearly thirty-five years, horror audiences have watched as Jason Voorhees grew up. When we met him in the 1980 series debut, he was just a little tyke, eager to pull his mom’s killer to a watery grave. Though he failed on his first attempt, the man behind the mask ultimately succeeded in his revenge and proceeded to tally up dozens, if not hundreds, of horny yet helpless victims. Most kids have a growth chart on the wall. Jason uses a body count to track his development.
The Friday the 13th effects team has been a revolving door of sorts with Tom Savini adding his signature work to the first film and returning a few years later for the misnomer Final Chapter. In between and subsequently, the franchise rotated through a vast crew of artists, including an uncredited Stan Winston. Though Jason hides beneath his love for Wayne Gretzky, the audience’s occasional glimpse of his grotesque face manages to be all the more effective due to its rareness. In New Blood in particular, his unmasking proves both startling yet spectacular, a feat in makeup design made all the more impressive since we all suspected the moment was coming since the opening credits.
Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street series
The striped sweater! The fedora! The razor glove! A monster design is more than just Ben Nye foundation and smelly latex. A full costume that extends the character past obvious monster markers is needed to create a truly unforgettable antagonist. And Mr. Krueger has it all. Across eight movies, Robert Englund never fails to entertain as a trickster who’s scarier than the equally-flamboyant Loki could ever hope to be. With his perpetually charred visage, the look isn’t necessarily all realism; instead, the Springwood native’s burned and contorted skin seems like it’s straight out of a bad dream of his own creation.
The Freddy makeup design has taken almost as many twists and turns as the franchise itself. Like Jason, the lead makeup artist shifts between films, permitting some room for each designer to leave his own mark—with varying success. But when it comes to the genesis of genius, David Miller is the one to thank. As the makeup artist on the original 1984 film, he guided Wes Craven away from a more decayed design that might have required a puppet instead of an actor and eventually crafted a monstrous mug that not even a mother would be likely to love.
Bub from Day of the Dead
So many zombies, so little list space. Romero’s Dead series alone spawned well over a dozen memorable creations, and cinema has seen many other great zombies over the years. However, when given the choice of only one, Bub will forever be on the top of that corpse heap.
The undead had chomped brains before, but they’d never successfully elicited compassion from the audience. Consequently, effects maestro Tom Savini couldn’t rely on blood and gore or a novelty angle to design Bub. The lab rat zombie united the scary with the sympathetic, and thus, the makeup design needed to convey the look of a corpse while still permitting actor Howard Sherman to emote underneath all that latex. The end result might not impress gorehounds or CGI fans, but for those of us who love our horror with a little social commentary, nothing can beat the zombie who outfoxes his human compatriots yet seems the most charming and caring of the whole bunch.
Pinhead from the Hellraiser series
Monster makeup is, to say the least, a collaborative process. The effects artists and their team create and apply the design, but ultimately, the actors execute it. Because without someone behind the masquerade who knows how to employ body language, timing, and facial expression, even a brilliant work of art falls apart.
Dating back to 1922 with Murnau and Nosferatu, horror directors—the true purveyors of an overall cinematic vision—also offer input on what the final product should look like. Some have just a general idea about what they imagine, and some know down to the most finite detail what they want for the final makeup. Clive Barker belongs to the latter group. After a series of evolving designs, Pinhead in his almost final form emerged in one of the director’s sketches. Although designer Bob Keen and actor Doug Bradley brought that hellish vision to S & M life, Barker’s role was without a doubt critical. And his iconoclastic style proved itself again just three years later.
Shuna Sassi in Nightbreed
For Clive Barker’s tale of outcasts-to-the extreme, the director adapted his own 1988 story, Cabal, into a film version. And while any of his Nightbreed creatures could have made this list, Shuna Sassi with her porcupine-like quills and almost alien facial features entered the genre consciousness as a bastion of sensual horror. Like the Bride before her, she made monstrous look good.
On Nightbreed, Barker re-teamed with Bob Keen for the makeup effects, which earned a nomination at the Saturn Awards but sadly lost out to Dick Tracy. Similar to Hellraiser, Barker, a prolific visual artist, created sketches of the various creatures in the film. But unlike Pinhead, who emerged almost fully formed in Barker’s drawings, Shuna Sassi owes a greater debt directly to Keen and his effects crew since the original sketches bear only a broad resemblance to the end design.
While, much to Barker’s chagrin, Fox Studios bastardized the final cut of the film, the art direction and makeup for Nightbreed remain stunning accomplishments. Despite a near quarter-century of cinema since, no other monster movie has been able to match its elegance or breadth. The world in the film seems so complete that it’s hard to imagine that anything will ever come close.
Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Though a number of lackluster performances irrevocably mar the finished film (and don’t just blame Keanu), Bram Stoker’s Dracula boasts some of the best production design in cinema history, for horror or any genre. And the Academy Award-winning makeup helps to cement the eerie Old World ambiance.
While Gary Oldman appears in various incarnations of Dracula throughout the film, perhaps the most masterful design is his “Early Bird Special” Count. Old age makeup is notoriously difficult to perfect, often punishing an actor with comical amounts of cumbersome latex and greasepaint shadowing. But the team of Michele Burke, Matthew W. Mungle, and Greg Cannom opted for a subtler realism, crafting a second skin that exuded an ancient and weathered air while disorienting the audience with the sense that something just isn’t right about this member of nobility.
Of course, the hair’s ridiculous and eschews practicality in favor of a parody-worthy style, as one of the all-time best Treehouse of Horror segments demonstrated. But if nothing else, the overall look effectively distanced itself from the versions made famous by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Gary Oldman’s not your mother’s Dracula, and he’s got the outrageous coif and convincing wrinkles to prove it.
Thus ends Part I, but fear not if your favorite is not featured above! Many greats, including The Fly, An American Werewolf in London, and The Thing are still to come!