Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much.
In the realm of special effects artists, a few names come to mind immediately in regard to horror. You’ve got the titans of the genre, like Rick Baker and his untouchable work in An American Werewolf In London (and not to mention his work on Spielberg’s original version of the film that would become E.T.). You’ve got Rob Bottin and his work on Carpenter’s The Thing, in which he brought to life a Protean creature capable of whatever nightmare form it imagined. And, perhaps reigning over not just horror but all genre films, you have the late Stan Winston, a man whose impact and contribution to the realm of visual effects cannot be overstated.
There is, however, a man whose work isn’t entirely ignored but isn’t really given the credit I think it should be. The artists I mentioned are undeniably talented, but none of them have the weird eccentric flair of Japanese special effects artist Joji Tani, better known by the professional title Screaming Mad George. George’s work has a distinct and chaotic touch to it, a rubbery and fleshy feel that somehow looks artificial and genuine at the same time. Too repulsive to be real but too realistic to be easily dismissed, George’s work is almost instantly recognizable.
George helped with the effects on the set of Predator (working with Stan Winston), Big Trouble In Little China, and The Abyss, but the first film stamped with his undeniable look was A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, in which he created the infamous cockroach nightmare. By this point in the franchise, Freddy Krueger had been largely reduced to a punchline-spewing goofball whose slapstick antics drifted further and further into the absurd. But the cockroach scene, in which one of his victims is transformed into a roach and crushed in a roach motel, stands out from the rest. Not only is it more intricate than the rest of Freddy’s schemes (albeit still just as dumb) the transformation looks legitimately agonizing and most importantly unsettling to the viewer. This scene set a standard for George’s style: grotesque scenarios in which the human body rebels against itself, becoming something wholly inhuman while remaining just recognizable enough to be even more unsettling.
In 1989, George worked on a film that would become something of a legend in the industry; a film containing a scene that I truly believe has to be seen to be believed. That film was Brian Yuzna’s Society, a film we’ve talked about on Horror Business. Society as a whole is about rich people being legitimate monsters who feed upon the lower classes. The film is arguably an 80-minute setup for one of the most surreal and shocking scenes in horror cinema: a Dali meets Cronenberg style orgy in which a party of wealthy socialites shed their clothes and meld with one another into a mass of writhing slimy tissue. All of this is achieved with in-camera effects; there is no Claymation, no CGI, nothing of the sort. Just pure old-fashioned latex and rubber to achieve the gorgeous nightmare vision of Yuzna and George. There’s nothing else out there in the horror genre that truly captures the horrid dissolution of the human form into utter inhumanity. And it just keeps going. I wrote last week about how Neil Marshall seemed to have absolute faith in the design and execution of his werewolves in Dog Soldiers and that his reveal of them at times seemed almost boastful and arrogant. The same goes for the climax of Society. But whereas Neil Marshall is inviting us to look upon his creations, Yuzna seems to force us to look at the chaos that George has created. Yuzna rightfully seems to have all the faith in the world at how amazing George’s work looks. The camera reveals to us what seems like an endless vista of pulsating flesh, limbs melding with other limbs and pseudo-sexual appendages that dare us to look at them long after our comfort zone has been done away with. The whole sequence is Yuzna guiding us along through a slimy hell ride of fleshy grossness that George had unleashed upon the world. There’s a delicious lack of restraint in the way the scene is shot, almost a sense of release at holding back throughout the rest of the movie, and it is one hundred percent because of George’s tireless effort and eye for what makes us squirm that it works. He brings to life flawlessly a timeless image of people forgoing their basic physical humanity and willfully (gleefully, even) devolving into elastic gooey nightmare creatures.
George would go on to work on the much-underrated cult classic Freaked, sculpting a monstrously deformed Alex Winters as the slime ball former child star turned corporate shill Ricky Coogan. It’s a movie that can best be summed up as “really, really fucking weird.” He did the creature design in Children Of The Corn III: Urban Harvest, creating the until-then0unseen pagan deity He Who Walks Behind The Rows as a tentacled plantlike monstrosity. He teamed up with Yuzna again for a pair of Lovecraft related movies, Bride Of Re-Animator and Necronomicon: Book Of The Dead, the latter film especially embodying the spirit of his work as he brought to life visions of Lovecraftian horror. His sole directing credit was the ill-received adaption of the classic manga The Guyver, a film made redeemable only through George’s effects; he expands upon his Nightmare 4 sequence when Mark Hamill is transformed into a hideous hybrid of man and bug. And his last (as of now) collaboration with Yuzna came in 2003 with Beyond Re-Animator.
I’m typically wary of anyone describing any sort of artistic visual style as “punk,” but it’s the perfect way to describe George’s work. Maybe it’s because he actually comes from a background in the Japanese punk scene (he played in the band The Mad). Maybe it’s the chaotic and frenetic nature of his work and the way it paradoxically blends the predictable and unpredictable into a mesmerizing mess. Perhaps it’s the fact that much of his work involves visuals of the human body rejecting the rules that are supposed to keep it the way it is and rebelling against its owner. But for whatever the reason, George’s work feels dangerous and rebellious. Transgressive even. These are attitudes that made punk revolutionary, and George’s style is just that. His monsters are more often than not human beings warped and distorted by some force that has made their body not entirely theirs anymore. Be it a former child star paying the price of his lack of humanity by being changed into something actually inhuman, or a group of wealthy Beverly Hills socialites becoming a sprawling pile of flesh, George knows how to bring to life concepts that sometimes we’d rather not see brought to life, but we’re helpless to look away from. And why would we want to? Where most special effects in films exist almost strictly on a functional level, George’s creations almost seem to want to be viewed as independent artistic works in and of themselves. His work appears just as striking removed from the horrific context of the films they’re in. That’s a rare phenomenon in horror, where makeup and effects are often just good enough to hide the zippers and seams. George, however, seeks to create things that we are to believe have no seams or zippers. He strives to literally bring to life monstrosities that have no right existing in any sane world, and more often than not, we believe him when he does so.