Wednesday, January 21, 2009

FANTASTIC FLESH (2008) d. Kevin Vanhook

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Since the advent of “fantastical films” in the earliest years of motion pictures, movies of the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres have been driven by a variety of creative forces. Inspired writing has been the fuel behind the evolution of gripping stories that delight viewers of all ages. Impassioned acting has been responsible for drawing the filmgoer into drama that unfolds before their eyes and recreates their sense of authenticity. A superb musical score plays the emotions of the movie-lover like a harp and manipulates the cinemaniac in the best sense of the word. However, even during the days of Lon Chaney and his incredible portrayal of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it is the makeup effects in a film that cause a viewer to feel like what they are seeing is real. The pioneers of makeup effects restructured what could be achieved on The Silver Screen, they motivated the next generation to expand the limits of accomplishment, and since those days each ensuing generation has built upon the works of their preceding colleagues and taken it in new directions. The “Starz Original” documentary FANTASTIC FLESH is a relatively comprehensive look at these makeup artist masterminds and the impact that they have had on films past and present.

FANTASTIC FLESH is a one hour documentary utilizing an incredible lineup of luminaries from the Film Industry in a short interview and movie clip format that spans the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres with a few mainstream films from the drama category thrown in for good measure, illuminating the diversity of these talented professionals. Broken into eleven chapters, FANTASTIC FLESH starts with a series of recent films like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, Michael Bay’s THE ISLAND and TRANSFORMERS and then THE MIST to whet the appetite of viewers and create a modern introduction setting the stage for a more explicit look the impressive successes of the past. There is a transitional chapter exploring the deep history of makeup effects created by legends like Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney and the impressions they left upon contemporary masters like Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, all of whose work is explored. Living legends like Dick Smith of THE EXORCIST fame are also lauded for the amazing artistry they have created. Finally, a run back up to the present examining the make up effects in the films of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are presented. All through these analyses, the reminiscences and anecdotes of directors like Joe Dante, John Landis, George Romero, John Carpenter and Wes Craven are juxtaposed with the observations of actors like Dee Wallace Stone and Jordan Ladd, among many others from both sides of the camera.

Having seen, reviewed and enjoyed FANTASTIC FLESH’s documentary cousin, BLOODSUCKING CINEMA, I found this installment to be superior despite an obvious weakness. I have always been a lover of the now mainstream subject of vampire lore and imagery, as are most horror film fans, and a topic as esoteric and specialized as makeup effects can sometimes be a bit of a tough sell for a viewer who may not be as captivated by something as technical and that regularly deals in a world dominated by minutiae. Despite this potential drawback, FANTASTIC FLESH is fascinating. After the initial introduction which explored one film about which I felt ambivalent (NARNIA), films by a director I tend to loathe (Michael Bay) and a flick I LOVED but that should have gotten a wider release and a lot more press (THE MIST), FANTASTIC FLESH settled into a steady pace of examining some excellent films of yesteryear (1930s up through the 1980s) and did so in a respectful and even reverent fashion. There might be some who will grouse about what almost amounts to a “mutual admiration society”-style documentary but let the guys pat each other on the back. The amount of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears, as well as skill, training and knowledge required to be at the top of this highly competitive game is staggering. Paying tribute to the accomplishments and enduring impressions that decades worth of talented artists have left is certainly worth an hour’s time. What makes FANTASTIC FLESH even better is the tone borders on scholarly.

The vast majority of the “talking heads” are intelligent, experienced and erudite folk who know a lot about movies, have put their time into the business and earned their stripes and reached their seat of exaltedness through a lot of tribulation and trial and error. The lone exception is Eli Roth of course, who stands out like a sore thumb among older, wiser and more seasoned veterans. His thoughts and ideas were not weak or lame and he came across as articulate and deferential, it just felt like his addition to the cast was a form of pandering to the younger set who may not remember who Joe Dante or John Landis are. A pleasant surprise was that even Quentin Tarantino’s ruminations came across effectively, for it is well known what an inconsistent interview subject he can be. Interspersed with the outstanding interview footage were film clips that did not overtake the visual side of this documentary. In fact, they were masterfully blended with behind the scenes clips and stills along with a small smattering of movie posters and promotional photos, creating a wonderfully eclectic montage of cinematic history that helped to assuage my fears that FANTASTIC FLESH would be overly “technical”. For Goodness Sakes, there was even a pair of stills from the makeup effects on the TV Series Lost in Space, which immediately warmed my aging heart. What the viewer is left with by the end is a thoughtful and sincere paean to people who have lifted motion pictures up to a level where fantasy and reality blur to such a degree that we cannot really tell the difference. This was made so brilliantly apparent in the examination of the “aging” makeup effects used on Max Von Sydow in THE EXORCIST, which on the surface seems so simplistic, but the achievement is one of the most stunning in all of motion picture history.

Since FANTASTIC FLESH was a “made for Cable TV” documentary and it is all about professional discussions and cinematic scrutiny, there is no appreciable extras menu to be had except four auto-play trailers that engage before the main menu, one for a game and three film trailers. While some might be put off by this apparent “lack”, they need to stop and consider for a moment that a documentary does what an extras menu is. I came away from this feature enlightened and entertained, which is damned rare today.

FANTASTIC FLESH is the kind of informational film that will delight aficionados and lay people alike. It is able to explore a topic in a fairly in-depth manner and do it in a timely fashion, without unnecessary digression, circumlocution or sycophancy. It was thoroughly enjoyable to spend some time with people I admire, people I don’t see nearly enough anymore or people who I genuinely like to listen to. Think of FANTASTIC FLESH as similar to sitting down over a beer with a sizable group of friends who also happen to be experts in their fields, all of whom want to talk about a pretty engaging theme. If these guys ever want to do something like this again and on a similar issue, I’ll provide the drinks and the chips. I can’t think of many other ways I’d want to spend a Friday night.

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