I bought (or maybe received as a present; I can’t recall) Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up book when I was a wee lad (probably the third edition; the one with the full color photos of the two kids on the cover), and it was amazing. Let’s never mind that Smith was one of the most innovative and important figures in movie makeup. His book was eye-opening in the level of detail put into each makeup, even the simple ones (and this, for a monster kid who ate up anything to do with special effects, was like crack). I once used this manual to do a split-skull-face makeup on one of my siblings years later (and I have to pat myself on the back a bit here, because it turned out pretty damned well).
Less well known, but just as transformative for me, was 1976’s Make-Up Monsters by Marcia Lynn Cox, a book I believe I ordered through my grade school’s book program (you know, the ones where you’d get a flyer, want every book in it, be able to afford maybe one [and always be astounded at how the inevitable Garfield book listed was the most expensive thing there], and then wait what felt like an eternity just to see if it was worth the money; probably from the good folks at Troll). While not as technically advanced as the Smith tome, Cox’s book was just as valuable for what it showed you could accomplish on a meager budget. It told you how to do a mummy makeup with paper towels and corn syrup (a far cry from Jack Pierce’s groundbreaking work on The Mummy but still effective enough), a werewolf makeup with lamb’s wool and eyeliner (again, not Pierce level), and even a “dripping face” (much more relevant to this week’s film) with dried beans (or popcorn) and cotton balls. Even though I don’t think I attempted a single makeup in it (supplies cost money), I must have gone through that book a thousand times, studying the process and creativity at work. Along with magazines like Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland, books like this one fueled my desire to be a special effects makeup artist (a fire that was extinguished quickly after leaving high school, but that’s another story). It makes me wonder if Joe Tornatore had the same book as a kid, because the transformational makeup in his Grotesque (created by John Naulin) has the same sort of uninspired-by-the-real-world, homemade quality that made Cox’s book so special to me. Sadly, it doesn’t help Tornatore’s film any that the makeup here is weak, in my opinion, from a design standpoint if not from an execution one.
Kathy (Donna Wilkes, the original Angel) and Lisa (Linda Blair) head on up to Lisa’s family’s house out in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile, a maniacal gang of punks, led by Scratch (Brad Wilson), are also headed that way because they heard that Lisa’s dad, Orville Kruger (Guy Stockwell), a special effects artist, has a secret stash of either money or dope up there (hint: it’s neither). Tab Hunter shows up later as Lisa’s Uncle Rod.
The one thing that Grotesque deals with more than anything else is the idea of monsters. Orville is an effects man who creates monsters on celluloid for a living. At home, he dabbles in creating more of them. He gets a kick out of scaring people with his creations (and, I’m sure, he equally loves being scared by them) to the extent that he shoots home movies of himself “attacking” his wife while in costume (she swings a knife at him in horror; jocularity!). Orville’s producers love his work so much that they offer him a bonus for his accomplishments (going out on a limb here, I don’t think any movie producer would ever do this, like, ever). Similarly, the character of Patrick (Robert Apisa) appears physically as a monster, though his disposition is, we’re told, mild-mannered. It’s implied that Orville draws inspiration for his work from Patrick, and in this way, Orville is forming mainstream acceptance for a person who would never be accepted in regular society (“Society won’t accept ugliness,” we’re told later in the film). Contradictorily, Patrick is kept in a secret room in Orville’s house, hiding his monstrosity like something to be ashamed of, but this is more to play to genre tropes than anything else.
Naturally, the true monsters of the film are not the ones who look like monsters. The punks are evil through and through. They slaughtered the last family they tried to rob, and they have no problem doing the same to the Krugers, if need be (indeed, they really want to). But while the punks look more “human” than Patrick, they attempt to make monsters of themselves physically by dressing in a way anathema to popular culture (and it was always the punk ethos to be set apart as “other” from the rest of the world; the perfect visual shorthand for filmic villainy), their hair spiked, their clothes stylishly tattered and/or greasy, their faces caked in garish makeup. They are, in essence, attempting to be what Patrick was born as, although with the punks, it’s more to match their outsides with their insides.
The film also concerns itself with the creation of reality in artifice. As the film opens, we see an old, dark house in a thunderstorm. An old woman monologues about something for a while and is then bitten by a large monster in a hooded robe. It’s all just the latest horror film on which Orville worked, but we’re led to believe that we’re kicking off the story proper. From the outset, the reality we’re presented with onscreen is debunked as false. Later, Orville will opine to Kathy, “What’s reality, and what is illusion?” He follows this by singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat (“Life is but a dream”). To Orville, film and fantasy are means to create reality, to channel a new one into existence. Likewise, Uncle Rod is a plastic surgeon, a person who molds the perception of reality for a living (in effect, a makeup effects artist working in flesh rather than latex, a point which will be brought up much later in the film). Even the punks get caught up in this existential crisis to some degree (“Everyone else is phony, but we are real”). All of this culminates in a tribute ending that is equal parts touching, silly, and incongruous yet sums up precisely where Tornatore and company are coming from (complete with a freeze frame and the celluloid burning out).
Despite the love clearly coming from the filmmakers, Grotesque simply doesn’t work, and that’s a bit of a shame because I admire the risks it takes with its storytelling. It isn’t afraid to get rid of characters we don’t expect to die, it isn’t afraid to introduce major characters midway through its runtime, and it isn’t afraid to allow the story to branch off in a completely unexpected direction in its second half. These subversions would normally be valued by a jaded audience (red: me). Unfortunately, the film doesn’t truly commit to either its Horror or Revenge aspects as anything other than cool window dressing on a film that doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the window. So, I respect the film. I just didn’t particularly enjoy it.
MVT: I love the meta facets of the film, but then, I always love the meta facets in films.
Make or Break: I was astounded when the film did a U-turn at the halfway mark, and not astounded in a necessarily good way (though, as stated, I did find it intriguing).