Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Savini (Photo: Albert L. Ortega) and a pair of his terrifying picks

24 hours of horror with makeup legend Tom Savini

Savini (Photo: Albert L. Ortega) and a pair of his terrifying picks
Screenshot: Alien, An American Werewolf In London
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Name a significant event in horror history over the past half century, and odds are Tom Savini was there. From his childhood spent watching Saturday afternoon horror matinees, to his pioneering effects work with director George Romero, to his more recent transformation into an actor and director, Savini’s been involved in the genre in every capacity you can think of. Most recently, he’s been preparing a hybrid autobiography-coffee table book featuring his work simply called Savini: The Biography, as well as directing a segment for the season finale of Shudder’s Creepshow TV series.

It was clear he had just finished writing his memoirs when we asked Savini to select a lineup of films for a 24-hour Halloween horror marathon. Included in his list are the only two films he says ever scared him, along with nostalgic favorites from his childhood. Makeup-driven reboots of Universal’s classic monsters also feature heavily, and our conversation with Savini unsurprisingly included appreciations of each movie’s makeup and effects.

The soft-spoken Savini also modestly declined to include any of his own movies—clearly an afterthought, given his nonchalant response when we pointed out the omission. If he were to pick one of his movies to watch on Halloween, he’d pick the original 1982 Creepshow, about which he says, “I created Fluffy the creature, I created a corpse, I created all the cockroaches coming out of the guy’s mouth. It was me and a 17-year-old kid did all that stuff. Five movies in one movie. That’s my masterpiece.”

Some of the films discussed below have appeared in previous incarnations of this feature: Joe Dante also praised The Leopard Man and the original Frankenstein in 2012; Metalocalypse’s Brendon Small, Slayer’s Kerry King, and filmmaking team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead all picked The Exorcist for their lists; and The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers revealed his appreciation for Alien the last time we did this feature, in 2016. But Savini brought his own unique perspective to each of his picks—and he also threw us a real curveball by including The Passion Of The Christ. That’s certainly never happened before.

Noon: Alien (1979)

Tom Savini: I don’t have a chronological memory. I know I did stuff—even the films I’ve made, I know I’ve made them, but I have no recollection of when. In fact, when I wrote my book about my movies, Greg Nicotero had to put them in order for me because I had no chronological idea.

So I have no idea when I saw Alien, but it was probably in New York. It’s only one of two movies that have scared me in my life. I make a living scaring people, so it’s tough to catch me off guard, but Alien was a haunted house in space. One of the secrets that we learned—effects guys, moviemakers—from that movie is: You don’t show the whole creature. If you had seen that whole creature at the beginning of the film, you’d go, “Okay, I can deal with that,” and it’s not scary anymore. It stays scary by showing you bits and pieces. That’s what we did when we did Creepshow; for Fluffy under the stairs, we only showed an eyeball or some teeth. You didn’t see the whole thing until the end, and you were constantly afraid of him. So with brilliant editing—and it comes from Alien. What Ridley Scott did was brilliant. It’s one of only two movies that scared me; the other one was The Exorcist.

The A.V. Club: Do you think that technique is as effective now?

TS: Well, for some people it’s not effective, because they want to see everything. They want to see more. In fact, if you’re hired as a director for a network, part of the rules is that you show the monster in the first five minutes. And no night scenes! If there are night scenes, they have to be brightly lit. So perhaps today, people would be disappointed because they want to see more, faster. It’s the MTV mentality.

AVC: I can actually imagine people going on Twitter and saying, “What a rip-off! You didn’t even get to see the alien!”

2 p.m.: Psycho (1960)

AVC: A lot of people know about this one—what would you want people to look for when they’re watching it?

TS: Tony Perkins’ performance. He truly believed that his mother was another entity that he had to be embarrassed about, and he wanted to control or hide or make apologies for. You look at his performance—it’s only at the end when he’s sitting there in the straitjacket, and Hitchcock dissolves a skull over his face— he becomes the mother in the end. He speaks in her voice. It’s just a brilliant Hitchcock movie. After Janet Leigh is killed, you’ve been mishandled by the fact that most leading ladies are around longer in a film. If he does that, then what else is he going to do in the movie?

AVC: I feel like that’s a technique that can still be effective.

TS: Look at From Dusk Till Dawn, that took a huge turn. You thought you were watching a hijack-kidnapping movie, and all of a sudden Salma Hayek turns into a vampire. That jolted the hell out of people.

4 p.m: The Exorcist (1973)

AVC: The next film you have here is the only other film that scared you: The Exorcist. Tell me about that.

TS: I was Catholic, and that stuff just kind of brain-worms into your psyche. I have lots of friends who aren’t Catholics, but for me, it’s the whole idea of this innocent little girl speaking in this deep voice. You have to believe that she’s really possessed, because she’s saying things—how could she know that the beggar in the subway said what he said to Damien Karras? If you’re Catholic, that scares you on a much deeper level, and grabs that stuff that’s been brainwashed into you and uses it against you.

AVC: Oh wow, yeah.

TS: Another reason is: If you’re involved behind the scenes like me, you kind of destroy the magic that made you want to be involved in movies. When I was a kid, I saw Man Of A Thousand Faces and that propelled me into the world of makeup effects. But before that, I believed that monsters were real: Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mummy, the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Then [I realized] that somebody creates the monsters. Once you start getting behind the scenes and creating this stuff, you’ve destroyed that magic. I wish I could see a movie again through the eyes of myself at 9 years old.

That magic is replaced by the magic of creativity, of course, but you destroy that kind of magic forever when you get behind the scenes. So when you watch a movie, you look at the director’s choices: the lighting, the dialogue, where they put the camera, so you’re really involved as a movie maker in how the movie was made. With The Exorcist, you don’t have time to think about any of that. It just scares you to the core. Same thing with Alien. Not for one second was I thinking about camera angles, or dialogue, or lighting. I was totally caught up, and it scared me. Those are the only two movies that have done that to me.

6 p.m.: Frankenstein (1931)

AVC: It’s funny you mention the Universal monsters, because the next film on your list is Frankenstein. You saw this when you were 9 years old, you said?

TS: Oh yeah, probably younger than that. I’m 72, so I was 8 years old in 1954 when Creature From The Black Lagoon came out in the theater, and before that, Dracula and Frankenstein were released as a double bill. That’s the first time I saw Frankenstein. When you’re believing what you’re seeing—I mean, they’re cutting up dead bodies and they’re stitching them together! And it comes to life! The first time you see [the monster], he’s backing up in the doorway so all you see is him backing with the bolts in his neck. Then he turns around, and that makeup was just superb. That makeup was just a scary, criminal bunch of bodies sewn together, come to life again. That scared the hell out of me .

AVC: But now you can appreciate it as a makeup?

TS: Oh, now it’s one of the greatest makeups ever created, by Jack Pierce.

AVC: Why do you say that?

TS: Those were the days before latex. He built that makeup out of collodion and cotton. Collodion is 24% ether. He was sculpting the forehead out of plastic on Karloff’s face, and the top of his head was cotton and collodion. That makeup took seven, maybe nine hours. Karloff would go home with it on because he didn’t want to go through the ordeal the next day. He’d sleep with the makeup on and go to sleep, and he’d come in the next day and Jack would touch it up so that he would not have to go through that torture again. That was torture, that makeup. Painful.

AVC: You said collodion has ether in it. Does that mean it’ll make you pass out when you use it?

TS: Well, let me tell you a story. There’s two types of collodion: flexible and non-flexible. The non-flexible attaches itself to your skin and then contracts and forms scars. It’s seen on Tom Berenger in Platoon, or Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice. Those scars on his face were done by brushing on collodion. Now, the other type of collodion is flexible, which is clear and dries into a plastic. It doesn’t contract, and that’s what they used on Frankenstein. So anyway, I was using the non-flexible on a friend of mine, I’m painting this scar on his face, I’m holding the bottle in my left hand and painting him with my right. The bottle is under his nose, so all of a sudden he fell to the floor and started convulsing. I had anesthetized him with collodion because of the ether in it! This is back when we were kids experimenting with makeup.

7:30 p.m.: An American Werewolf In London (1981)

AVC: That’s incredible. Let’s move on to another famous makeup, which is An American Werewolf In London. Why did you pick this one? Was it for the effects?

TS: Oh, absolutely. If you watch the effects in my movies, and you watch An American Werewolf In London, that stuff is happening right in front of you, with no CGI. It’s completely makeup and animatronics. There’s a certain collective dislike of CGI [among makeup artists], because today, if it looks impossible, people think, “Well, it must be CGI.” And that’s not always the case! There have been some great makeups [in recent years]; Greg Nicotero did great makeup in Land Of The Dead with a baseball player with his jaw missing. None of that was CGI! It was makeup! It just looked impossible. And American Werewolf is an example of that, it’s a masterpiece of special makeup effects.

AVC: And it won an Oscar for Rick Baker!

TS: It changed the way they gave out Oscars for makeup.

AVC: How so?

TS: Well, there was a controversy about, “It was a mechanical thing. That’s not makeup.” And Rick Baker fought for it because—if I put a false nose on you, it’s a makeup. If I put a false nose on that wall over there, it’s still a makeup, it’s just on that wall. And if it’s on an animatronic, it’s still a makeup effect. So the ruling was changed in our favor because of Rick Baker and An American Werewolf In London.

9 p.m.: House Of Wax (1953)

AVC: I assume we mean the ’50s one with Vincent Price, and not the 2005 remake?

TS: Absolutely. In fact, the next thing I’m sculpting just for myself is Vincent Price in that burn makeup [from the movie]. I really loved that burn makeup. It was a complete shock to the audience—and to me, I was very young when I saw this—when she pounds his face, and the face collapses and reveals the burned villain that you saw earlier. That was brilliant. Plus, it was in 3D! What’s interesting about that movie is the director, Andre DeToth, only had one eye, and he couldn’t see 3D. It works, it’s great, it’s brilliant, but he never saw it!

AVC: He just had to trust that it worked, huh?

TS: Yup!

AVC: Do you do that a lot, sculpting for yourself?

TS: Yeah, and eventually somebody will see it, like Trick Or Treat Studios. I have a deal with them where I have stuff that I basically sculpted for myself, but they’re going to mass-produce them.

AVC: Oh, nice.

TS: Yeah. The different types of House Of Wax makeup are nowhere to be seen [in the collectors’ realm]. There’s not one mask anywhere of that thing!

10:30 p.m.: The Shining (1980)

AVC: I don’t really think of The Shining as an “effects movie.” I think of it more in terms of Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking. What about you?

TS: To me, the scariest thing in that movie was the room 237 scene. He goes in and this absolutely stunning woman gets out of the tub totally nude, walking toward him, and it’s a huge turn-on for the audience as well as for Jack Nicholson. He starts to make out with her and he looks in the mirror, and he’s actually holding this diseased, pustule-laden, creepy, toothless hag. That was very scary, and very well-done.

1 a.m.: The Leopard Man (1943)

AVC: This one’s an older movie as well.

TS: Oh, it’s very old. It’s a Val Lewton movie. I included that movie because there are things that have stuck with me, or in my memory as a kid [about it]. The scene I remember best is there’s a little girl, her mother sent her to the store and the girl is going home, and she’s being chased by a leopard. She gets to the door and starts pounding on the door, trying to get inside the house. The mother is screaming at her, “Did you get the flowers?”—or the bread or whatever the hell it was—and she says no. “You’re not coming in until you get the…” her mother says, and in the meantime, while you never leave the room, you hear the leopard attack the girl. You hear the body hit the door, and you hear the growling. You hear the girl screaming. The camera cuts to the bottom of the doorway, and blood trickles in under the door. So you have to imagine what happened.

That’s another lesson in filmmaking: The less you show, the more effective it is. You, the audience, sometimes creates [an effect] more viscerally [in your mind] than the makeup guy can create it, you know? Once the effect is done, that’s it. That’s the effect. It looks that way forever. But every time you see that movie, you create a different scenario in your head as to what happened outside that door. That’s why that movie has stuck with me. That blood coming under the door frame just scared the hell out of me.

AVC: It was kind of a necessity-being-the-mother-of-invention thing, too. You couldn’t show graphic violence under the production code.

TS: Val Lewton’s movies, like Cat People, were so moody, almost like H.P. Lovecraft, in the way they were put together and shot.

2 a.m.: The Wolfman (2010)

AVC: This is another makeup winner for Rick Baker.

TS: Exactly. The original The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney was a great makeup by Jack Pierce. You felt sorry for Larry Talbot—you really didn’t want this to be happening to him, but when he attacked people, he choked them. He’s a werewolf, and he’s choking people! In this version, Benicio del Toro was a wild animal. He took your head off and slashed you open, or ripped something off. It was strong and powerful, he had shoulder pads, and the makeup was awesome. I love the house that Anthony Hopkins lived in. I love the mood of this movie, it was so exciting.

I know Rick Baker had an elaborate transformation planned, I don’t know how much of that made it into the movie, but the transformation was great. It was done in close-ups: the eyeball, the hair, the teeth. I don’t know if we would have been treated to a better transformation if Rick had gotten away with what he wanted to do. Even though it has CGI, I still love that movie, again, because of the mood.

4 a.m: Horror Of Dracula (1958)

AVC: How about Horror Of Dracula, with Christopher Lee?

TS: This was in the late ’50s. Before that, Frankenstein was black and white, and it was scary, but this was the beginning of a whole new realm of bloody, viscerally entertaining color horror movies. I can’t tell you how many times I went to see The Horror Of Dracula as a kid. Again, it was a mood, you know?

I had not seen Curse Of Frankenstein yet. I saw Horror Of Dracula first, when it first came out. So I wasn’t yet aware of the dynamic between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but that was just priceless.

5:30 a.m.: The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)

AVC: Now that you’ve seen them both, how do they compare?

TS: There’s no comparison. They’re two entirely different movies. Horror Of Dracula is elegant and suave and scary and clever, and Curse Of Frankenstein is gross, bloody, acid—it’s a different film. But it still was the greatest thing to happen to us kids in the late ’50s.

AVC: Was it a Saturday-afternoon matinee double-feature kind of situation?

TS: Absolutely. I would walk up this hill to the end of my street, and down this very long hill to where the movie theater was, to see that. Of course, I was 12 years old and most of my friends were 9 years old, so I would gather them together and we’d all walk together to the movie theater to see Dracula or House On Haunted Hill.

7 a.m.: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

AVC: Why did you pick this one?

TS: Well, Greg Cannom’s makeups were astounding. The old-age vampire makeup on Gary Oldman, and the upside-down bat thing that turns into a statue of wax? I mean, it was just brilliant. And it was all done in the studio. Even the horse chases were created in the studio.

What also appeals to me [about the film] is the segues. You might be looking at a flower that has a circular pattern in it, and all of a sudden it’s a train tunnel. It’s a lesson in directing, watching that film.

AVC: The scene where he licks the razor blade is lodged in my mind forever—so creepy.

TS: It’s also got one of the greatest soundtracks ever. The music from that movie, I listen to it constantly.

AVC: Do you listen to a lot of soundtracks?

TS: Yeah, there are a lot of soundtracks [I like]: [Star Trek II]: The Wrath Of Khan, Coppola’s Dracula, Blade Runner—they’re all excellent from beginning to end.

9 a.m.: The Thing From Another World (1951)

AVC: When you think of effects, you think of The Thing and Rob Bottin, but you picked the original The Thing From Another World.

TS: Now that you mention it, they’re interchangeable. Rob Bottin’s The Thing is his masterpiece—well, I don’t want to speak for him, but for me, it’s a masterpiece of splatter. I’ve been called The King Of Splatter and The Wizard Of Gore, but The Thing is the ultimate splatter movie. The head growing spider legs, that was all so over-the-top. The stuff shooting out of the guy’s stomach and attaching itself to the ceiling. This is totally shocking. That was a game-changer for everybody.

As for the ’50s version, that was a scary movie because I was really believing all of that stuff. The alien is this big tall thing with spiked fingers, and it’s shot in in black and white with overlapping dialogue, which made it so much more realistic. The credit is given to Christian Nyby for directing, but for me, really, it’s a Howard Hawks film. And John Carpenter’s was a Rob Bottin film, as far as I’m concerned.

10:30 a.m.: The Passion Of The Christ (2004)

TS: People ask me, “What are your favorite horror movies?” and I always name The Passion Of The Christ because it’s a splatter film. It’s a horror film. And they agree with me!

AVC: It’s wild that people took bus trips from their churches to watch what— you are completely correct—is an insanely gory splatter film.

TS: Exactly, yeah. He wasn’t even human at the end of it, just a bloody blob, you know?

AVC: So what was your professional opinion on the effects?

TS: Extremely well-done. The lashed body, it was a completely manufactured silicone body. In fact, I [just filmed a TV role], and the makeup guys did The Passion Of The Christ, and told me all these stories.

AVC: Like what? Do you remember anything in particular?

TS: One of the things that you read about The Passion Of The Christ is that Jim Caviezel was struck by lightning on the set. He wasn’t; the lightning struck about four blocks away. But they’re the ones who told me about the silicone body towards the end. They had to make it up with the beard on, and the blood and stuff like that.

AVC: He is a total pulp by the end of it, it’s true.