Monster Kid Online Magazine #4

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Jack Pierce - The Man Behind the Monsters
Visionary Cinema

To classic horror fans, certain names will be forever linked with Universal Pictures' horror films of the 30's and '40s. Actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr., will forever be remembered for roles like Frankenstein's Monster, Imhotep, Dracula, Ygor, The Wolf Man and Kharis. Many artists and technicians behind the camera, including directors, writers, composers, photographers, etc., like James Whale, Curt Siodmak, Hans J. Salter, John P. Fulton, and others all made their marks on the Universal horror films as well. But perhaps no one person can be said to have made a more indelible impact on so many of Universal's horror creations than Jack P. Pierce. As head of Universal's make-up department beginning in the late 1920s, Pierce was involved in virtually every picture the studio produced during its golden age of horror. His greatest and most lasting achievement was transforming the actors we now love into the monsters that first made us love them, creating some of the greatest icons of screen history.

On June 17, 2000 on a stage in Pasadena, California a production entitled Jack Pierce - The Man Behind the Monsters paid tribute to the man largely forgotten by Hollywood in his later years, but so revered among classic horror film fans today. Make-up artists, costumers, actors, and other film and stage professionals joined forces to bring Jack Pierce and his creations back to life for this unusual theatrical production. For those of us who could not be in the audience for the once-in-a-lifetime presentation, a video version is now available on DVD.

The multimedia event, produced, written and directed by Scott Essman, tells Pierce's story through a combination of monologues, photographs, audio clips and staged vignettes from Universal films featuring recreations of Pierce's famous horror make-ups. With the exception of Daniel Roebuck who plays Lugosi as Ygor, the cast is made up on unknowns who have their work cut out for them trying to fill the shoes of the famous actors they are portraying. But carrying the show is Perry Shields who is very good as the elderly Jack Pierce reminiscing about the disappointments and achievements of his life, although the heavy amount of lines forces him to perform most of his scenes holding a large "scrapbook" which he reads from liberally. The make-up for the Jack Pierce character is as impressive as any of the monster make-ups and assists greatly in the feeling that the great make-up artist is there telling his story personally. Pierce orally recounting the important events of his life on a mostly bare stage gets a bit tedious at times, but the occasional photo montages that illustrate the subjects Pierce discusses help add visual interest to the narrative.

The many make-ups for the scene recreations include not only the famous Universal horror characters like Frankenstein's Monster, the Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and Ygor, but likenesses of actors like Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Una O'Connor, Basil Rathbone and Maria Ouspenskaya as well. Replicating the actors' real faces doesn't really add anything to the legacy of Jack Pierce, but it does nicely display the work of some present-day make-up artists. Since the play is in part a celebration of movie make-up and make-up artists, making the stage actors resemble their screen counterparts becomes a nice extra touch rather than a distraction.

The make-up (supervised by Rob Burman) and costumes for the film scenes were all done in gray tones to simulate black and white film. Since none of Pierce's monsters except the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA were ever photographed in color, this seems fitting both for artistic and historical purposes. (Although there is color home movie footage from the set of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN it's generally believed that the greenish color of the Monster's make-up was chosen solely for the way it would photograph in black and white.)

The staged movie scenes vary in successfulness and none go beyond simply reenacting the actual scenes with few attempts to stage them in ways that would enhance them for live theater or spotlight the make-up more effectively. The Monster's entrance in the FRANKENSTEIN segment is rather anticlimactic. Despite the presence of a large video screen on stage for the benefit of the theater audience, the Monster simply shuffles quickly into the room in darkness with no slow turn and special lighting to play upon his features. Even though the make-up is so familiar today, pausing for the dramatic revelation of Pierce's finest creation would seem in order. Likewise, THE MUMMY segment would have been vastly more effective with a close-up camera focusing on Imhotep as he came to life, especially since the Mummy make-up itself is one of the best in the production.

Although some of the monster scenes fall a little flat due to the limitations of a live performance, that's really beside the point. This DVD isn't so much great entertainment as it is a record of a unique event in honor of one of the largely unsung geniuses of horror film history. What it lacks in polish, it makes up for with respect and admiration for its subject. There's no way this show would ever play Broadway (or even downtown Hoboken) but the fact that this ambitious production was staged at all, solely as a love letter to Pierce and his art, is pretty amazing.

There are some excellent extras on the disc including Jack Pierce's appearance on the Boris Karloff THIS IS YOUR LIFE episode and the audio of Pierce's appearance on a local Los Angeles TV show in 1962 (probably Pierce's only recorded interview saved for the ages by a forward-thinking Bob Burns). There is also a brief Jack Pierce photo and art gallery, a behind the scenes look at the make-up for the production, a radio interview with Scott Essman and Ron Chaney about the event and more. The packaging is nicely done too, featuring excellent artwork by Ray Santoleri.

Although it would be great to someday have an in-depth documentary examining Jack Pierce's life and art made up of photos, film clips and interviews, this very unusual event and affectionate tribute to Pierce is well worth having for any fan of Pierce and the monsters he brought to life.

You can order Jack Pierce -The Man Behind The Monsters from


Count Gamula




The Immortal Count
The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi

by Arthur Lennig
University Press of Kentucky

"He'll be back."

No, no one really said that at Bela Lugosi's funeral in 1956, but those apocryphal words have turned out to be truer than even the most dedicated Lugosiphile could have imagined. Even as technologies and tastes change, the awkward Hungarian seems downright eternal, relentlessly celebrated almost 50 years later in documentaries, magazines, soundtracks, DVDs, books and CD-ROMs. Bela, it seems, never left the building at all.

Some of the work has been groundbreaking: Gary Don Rhodes, David Skal, Frank Dello Stritto, Gregory Mank, Tom Weaver and many others have all  interviewed co-stars and stagehands, uncovered lost contracts, visited catacombs in Transylvania or pored over newspaper clippings in Prague. Rhodes, in particular, has been the Woodward and Bernstein of Lugosi research.

Now one of the original Lugosi scholars, Arthur Lennig, has revisited the entire Lugosi mythos with what must stand, for now, as the definitive biography, THE IMMORTAL COUNT: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Originally published in 1974, this revised version is twice the length and takes Lennig back through everything -- including his own research -- to trace once again the Lugosi legend, from aspiring actor and almost-idol in Europe to exile and rebirth in America as an icon of the undead.

From forgotten newspaper notices of Bela's earliest years in Hungary to his politics, his wives, his attempts to escape his monstrous image and onward through his vague years in the early 50s, Lennig portrays an actor who came to America not as a teenager but as a working adult, a Balkan stranger in a strange land who was more level-headed about his profession and his aspirations than is widely believed. New details about Lugosi's earliest years at Universal confirm growing evidence that it was James Whale, and not Lugosi's pride, that kept him from playing the Frankenstein monster. Lennig posits that despite Lugosi's objections, he would have been perfectly willing to play the monster. As Lugosi said to one of his interviewers, "I make a living."

Lennig cites a legion of fans and researchers to uncover lost years and debunk what many thought was central to the Lugosi mythos up to now: Yes, Lugosi was frustrated, but the life portrayed here is far rosier than a vampire might deserve. Lugosi's financial difficulties were deep but infrequent. Sinatra did try to help Bela in his later years, but Lugosi worked more than many suppose and lived quite well. The estrangement between Bela and his son was deeper than has been revealed, and court documents open a raw look at family distrust and struggles over legacies and fame.

The work is compelling because of the journalistic style. Page by page, year by year, footnote by footnote, you feel you're getting the real deal. In fact, the book is so thoroughly researched that on those few rare occasions where Lennig steps into horror fan advocacy, the shift is downright jarring. Lennig unaccountably fills in the blanks at times, putting motives or beliefs into Lugosi's head, based apparently on the weight of Lennig's lifetime acquaintance with the subject. If there are two sides to a dispute, he usually picks Bela's version. He minimizes Lugosi's drug use on movie sets, which has raised some eyebrows among witnesses. And he so passionately defends some of Bela's films or roles that he gets testy with writers who hold different views. It all feels out of place in a book where facts, not opinions, are carrying the day.

Those looking for something truly eye-opening will be riveted by the final chapters, where there is a gripping series of encounters with Bela's last wife, Hope (who also can be seen in Rhodes' DVD documentary), and a fierce take on Bela Lugosi Jr., who is portrayed as only interested in his late dad as product. I don't doubt Lennig's characterizations -- young Bela does NOT come across well -- but I ached to hear Lugosi Jr.'s version of it all. Yes, the son of Dracula declined to participate, and Lennig does rely upon public records. But even a friend of Lugosi Jr.'s point of view might have been a nice bit of balance.

Still, these are quibbles because the work itself is a monumental and lifelong job of research and investigation. Even with his occasional knocks at other writers, he generously and repeatedly credits their work, and the footnotes are voluminous and impressive. And while it threw me a bit, in truth who more deserves to have an opinion about Lugosi than Lennig, who met Lugosi as a child and never lost his fascination?

The book is somewhat pricey -- $35 -- but it is a cornerstone of any horror collection, let alone a Lugosi library. The book is available from the University Press of Kentucky or and Lugosiphiles should not let another walpurgis come and go without it.

Or, as a very old man said a long time ago, "Excellent, Mr. Renfield. Excellent."


David Colton

David can be reached at




The Ghoul (1933)
MGM Home Entertainment

FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and THE MUMMY made Universal Studios a bundle of money, which they didn't wish to share with star Boris Karloff. So the horror star walked, and went to England to film THE GHOUL. The knock against this rare film, which was available only in a worn and edited print from a Czech vault, was that it was nothing more than a limp rip-off of THE MUMMY, with few chills. Even when Sinister Cinema came up with a better print, the film didn't garner much of a reputation.

This summer, MGM unceremoniously released a "70th Anniversary" DVD of THE GHOUL. From the generic looking cover (which doesn't even show or mention Karloff on the front) and the complete lack of extras on the disc you get the impression that MGM didn't care a lot about this movie or have much faith in it to succeed commercially on it's own merits. However, the film itself is uncut, restored, and remastered so it now looks and sounds great. In fact it's one of the best looking vintage films ever on DVD. The clarity of the picture might astound some viewers who think old movies never looked this good. MGM was able to access a 35mm fine grain nitrate print of the film held by the British Film Institute. They then had some digital repairs and a general cleanup done and the results are nothing less than stunning.

So we finally get to see THE GHOUL at its best and guess what? It is a film that, if not "great", is at least pretty darn good, and one that should join the list of horror classics of the 1930s.

A dying Egyptologist (Karloff) purchases a valuable stolen gem, "The Eternal Light", that he believes will grant him passage into the afterlife. He warns his servant, Ernest Thesiger, that if the jewel is stolen from him when he dies, he'll return from the grave to get it back. He dies, the gem is stolen, and before you know it, well, Karloff's back.

In addition to a healthy dose of THE MUMMY, the production seems to have been inspired by THE OLD DARK HOUSE. There's a colorful cast of Karloff's various relatives attending at his deathbed to claim their inheritance. Thesiger (who speaks with a brogue) is fond of making Christian references while routinely breaking five or six of the ten commandments. Kathleen Harrison is a very funny lady who has the hots for the Egyptian "sheik" that's come to reclaim the Eternal Light. Cedric Harwicke and Ralph Richardson are among the story's other suspicious characters.

The film is divided into three acts; the dying Karloff is act one; the second act, focusing on the various family members and hangers-on, is a bit slow going, as Boris is nowhere to be seen. If you enjoy the theatrics of Thesiger, however, and the other family members, you won't mind waiting for the finale, in which Karloff (wearing a very scary makeup with giant eyebrows) comes lurching around to get his jewel back.

Overall, THE GHOUL is a very good film. Despite its low budget, it has a very effective set design, the music score is good and adds quite a bit of punch to some scenes, and even Karloff's makeup is not far behind what Jack Pierce was doing over at Universal. It would be great if Karloff's other obscure British films would resurface, especially in the kind of shape this film has. THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN (also known as THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND) made in England in 1936 is an excellent thriller and contains one of Karloff's best performances. But for now, the unexpected treat of having a beautiful copy of THE GHOUL, and at a bargain price, will do nicely. I recommend this DVD highly.

Laughing Gravy



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