Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures Book Review
Written by ZigZag
Published by BearManor Media
Written by Heather A. Wixson
2017, 430 pages, Reference
Book released on November 11th, 2017
When I was a kid I, fell in love with movies and knew early on that I needed to work in this field in some capacity. My early calling was towards special make-up effects as I became obsessed with monsters. Growing up in the 1980s, there was a plethora of creature features and slasher films to capture my attention. I pored through the pages of genre magazines like Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland for clues as to how these things were brought to life. It was here that I discovered information on legendary artists Dick Smith (The Exorcist), Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London), Stan Winston (Aliens) and Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead). I stumbled across Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook and began practicing his lessons at every opportunity. Even as my pursuits shifted over the years, I maintain a love for the make-up industry and follow the work of many artists to this day. When I heard about Heather Wixson’s Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema’s Most Memorable Creatures, I was intrigued.
What would be the format of this book? Would there be anecdotes from the set or details as to how specific effects were accomplished? Most surprising is the roster of interview subjects, twenty in all. Many of the names I had heard of, but nearly half I had not. I knew going in that some of these people could fill the pages of an entire book on their own so, again, I was curious as to what the author’s approach would be. Wixson tackles the material head on by simply allowing the participants to tell their stories in their own words. Many start with memories of childhood interests in magic while others reflect on early filmmaking experiments with Super8 cameras. Everyone appears to have caught the bug at an early age, spending hundreds of hours practicing their craft before making the move to Los Angeles to pursue their Hollywood dreams.
Each interview is presented as its own chapter and is given plenty of space to provide the necessary information. Some spread only ten pages whereas others stretch to fifty(!). Standouts include notable practitioners like Steve Johnson (Night of the Demons), Alec Gillis (Alien 3), Tom Woodruff Jr. (Pumpkinhead), Bob Keen (Hellraiser), Phil Tippett (Star Wars) and Tony Gardner (The Return of the Living Dead), all sharing fantastic stories of how they got into the industry and their early days working as interns for legendary artists. Each has grown to become a legend in his own right and now they run their own shop producing special effects for many of the genre’s most memorable films. I enjoyed reading about several people whose names I was previously unfamiliar with, including Michèle Burke (Quest for Fire), Bart J. Mixon (Stephen King’s It, 1990) and David Marti (Pan’s Labyrinth), all of whom are accomplished artists.
Monster Squad begins with a basic Table of Contents and then jumps right to the interviews. Wixson doesn’t impose herself or her thoughts on the topic, instead she focuses all the attention to her subjects. Her questions are not included, so the interviews read as conversations, giving the work a more personal and intimate feel. If I have one complaint about this book it is that many of the black-and-white photographs are too small to study and the collection would benefit from a few larger color image inserts. With that one caveat it is quite easy to recommend this title to anyone with an interest in special effects or to anyone who simply enjoys spending time with creative people. Readers won’t find any trade secrets or specifics on how particular gags were created, but the interviews are strong enough on their own to be worth the read.