There is something about movie makeup transformations that still captures my imagination.
A lot of incredible things can be done with motion-capture and other special effect technology but it is when a media snippet about Ron Perlman needing 5 hours in the chair everyday to shoot Hellboy it still stands out to me.
I think one part of it is the idea of what the actor has to go through to deliver their performance. Their ‘suffering for their art’. But another part of it is that it is a type of creativity that is much easier to wrap my mind around. CGI is just an abstract technology in my head, but sticking prosthetics on a person’s head and painting over them… that I understand.
And that’s why I love the stories about old school movie monster. Back in the days when the people making movies were really just making it up as they went along.
Below are the short stories behind sic of the most iconic movie monsters of all time.
Along with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, no movie monster creation has had a bigger impact on the public perception of a character than Boris Karloff as Frankenstein.
He is a creature born to maximise the texture and feel of black and white cinematography. The waxy white skin and flat sloping angles created a sharp unnatural contrast. In particular the massive brow which hollowed out his eyes in shadow whether lit from above or below, creating that iconic gaunt, skull-like imagery.
But at the same time, the four hours of make-up didn’t do anything to restrict Karloff from using his full range of emotions. Not that the Frankenstein monster was particularly expressive, but part of what made the film so impactful was Karloff’s subtly sad and longing performance.
The most significant part of the creation was the distinctive headpiece which was made of cotton, gum, collodion and DIY prosthetics. Karloff was then painted with green grease paint to produce the monster’s corpse-like skin. It was Karloff himself who suggested the hooded eyes making the monster appear both sad and subdued, and then in a final subtle touch he removed his dental bridge, collapsing his cheek on one side for an asymmetric and incomplete look that is felt more than it is noticed.
Even today, when the ‘Frankenstein’ look has been parodied as much as just about any single character in cinema history, the original images of Karloff’s monster are still as striking as they were in 1931.
The visual effect of how King Kong was created still stands up today to a certain extent, however it is hard to emphasise the impact images like these would have had in 1933. While today creatures like the collosal Kong can be recreated with greater ‘technical’ perfection with CGI, the effects of early cinema were so spell-binding to audiences of the time because the form was so unknown and the creators were constantly coming up with new techniques, pushing boundaries to create magic on screen.
King Kong was so significant in cinematic history because it was the culmination of so many movie effect techniques, all used together in a way that had never been done before to put a 50 foot ape in the same world as his human co-stars.
Kong himself was created through a combination of 4 stop-motion models, a huge mechanical head and shoulders and a Kong sized arm for the famous hotel room scene where he kidnaps Faye Wray. But to put Kong into the world of the film director, Merian C. Cooper, used a stop-motion, double exposure, glass painting, mirrors and rear projection backgrounds and foregrounds all in the same frame to create stunning visuals that stand up to this day.
Another iconic Karloff/Pierce partnership but a look that is in many ways the opposite of the Frankenstein look.
In the he dry, raw look made Karloff look like a figure who really had been laying dormant for 2000 plus years.
Perhaps made even more significant by the fact that the iconic picture of Karloff’s Mummy is really only seen on screen for the first few scenes of the movie, and for most of that time he is completely still.
The only signs of life we see from Imhotep is a sharp glint of light as his eyes crack open, a slow lowering of his arms, the slamming down of his palm on an ancient script and then then his stray wraps tailing behind him as he leaves the room.
Later in the film, Karloff Imhotep still wears makeup for a dry ‘ancient-skin’ look but it is much less extreme and would have lead to a good long stretch less in the makeup chair everyday.
It wouldn’t feel quite right to have a movie monster list which was vampire-less. However the classic old-school Hollywood vampire, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula doesn’t have much of a tale to tell in regards to the creation of its visual look.
Despite having Frank Pierce on hand, Lugosi insisted on doing his own make-up in the same style as he had when playing the same character on the Fulton Theatre boards on Broadway. The look is still iconic today, but the story isn’t much.
So let’s turn instead to the earlier, unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, the German film Nosferatu starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok.
Defined by his rat-like features, hunched shoulders and long spindly fingers, the look of Count Orlok became the model for a type of vampire that was demonic and evil, a counterpoint to Lugosi’s romantic and dangerously charming Dracula.
The reason the interpretations are so different lies in the style of the filmmaker. Nosferatu’s director, F. W. Murnau, was a German Expressionist, which was a style of filmmaking that rejected the creation of objective reality and focussed on the unrealistic, exaggerated and distorted to convey the inner and subjective.
Count Orlok is a result of this. His look is a stylistic representation of everything a vampire truly is: a parasitic bloodsucker.
The Wolf Man
One more Frank Pierce creation and the third of the four Universal Monsters on this list.
Like Pierce’s other creations, his transformation of Lou Chaney into the Wolf Man created a monster while still leaving enough of the actor underneath for an impactful performance. This is of particular note in The Wolf Man because he was a movie monster that we see in both the actor’s normal human form and in all his monster make-up glory.
Lou Chaney Jr. had to endure 9 hours in the makeup chair. Six hours to put on and three hours to take off. The process involved rubber prosthetics that shaped his nose and pulled his mouth into a permanent animal sneer. Then there was the application of wigs and thousands of yak hairs plastered all over Chaney’s body and then singed.
The marathon transformation is not the longest on the list (that honour goes to Karloff’s Imhotep which saw him in the chair for 10 hours with Pierce) but in terms of cumulative hours it almost certainly takes the mantle with seven appearances for Universal as the monster.
The relationship between Pierce and Chaney Jr. was famously rumoured to not be very good. Chaney Jr. had an allergic reaction to the yak hair and was badly burnt at times on occasions and Pierce had a reputation of being bad-tempered and abrasive. However it is also said that the deepness of their dislike has been exaggerated over time, with both men on record praising the other’s work.
Whatever the story is there, and whatever the pain and suffering Chaney Jr. had to endure to become the ‘Wolfman’, the end result was another one of the
The Creature From the Black Lagoon is another Universal monster that came some time after many of the other monsters on this list, and it marks one of the first major significant appearances of a different type of movie monster.
The film of a genre that came to be known as a ‘creature feature’. Where monsters like Frankenstein, Imhotep and to a certain degree even King Kong have a journey that the viewer follows and empathises with the ‘creature’ in a ‘creature feature’ serves less as a character in their own right and more as a consequence for the humans in the story who meddled where they weren’t wanted..
The physical performances of both actors that played Gil Man are widely praised, particularly the underwater sequence performed by Ricou Browning, but the intricate suit that both men wear covers them completely meaning they are little more than a stalking danger to the other characters on screen.
The type of monster is one of the jumping off points for ‘creatures that would appear through the rest of cinema history from science fiction films like The Predator, slasher horror villains like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees and even the essential archetype for one of the genres most enduring creatures – the zombie.