A stellar actor can elevate the worst tripe, while special effects tend to plasticize story, yet the right art direction will add to not only the world but the characters as well. Purely Production is a bi-weekly post where I explore the different elements that affect a finished media, for good or ill. We’ll forget about writing for a moment and delve into all the bedazzling doodads that dress a story.
Purely Production #1: let’s explore the campy and fun supernatural beings lurking around All Hallows’ Eve
Halloween is deliciously diverse. It’s really the best thing about the holiday – your own creativity is the limit. Super heroes, princesses, the super popular minions and even celebrities… really I’m not surprised to learn what kids are dressing up as these days. And kids aren’t the only ones, Halloween night is many the excuse for adults to take to the town in someone else’s skin.
I’m not a traditionalist in much of anything but when it comes to the best Halloween has to offer I have to go with the good old universally acknowledged monsters. The supernatural witches, demons, mummies, and undead are the most fun to me as they give rise to deep depths of creativity in order for you to make such archetypes your own.
Movies to me make the best references as they have legions of creative people to dress their characters and are gold mines for ideas. You can go crazy and fun, over the top and campy, or darkly realistic and serious, whatever suits your personality the best. Today I’ve picked the best witch, demon, mummy, and undead for the best Halloween monsters, movie style.
THE BEST WITCH: The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz has since made its studio back their production budget but in 1939 when it was released it was way before it’s time. The screenplay went through over a dozen hands so it’s amazing how well the story turned out except for the fact one of those pair of hands made sure the story returned to the source material. Frank Baum has many Oz stories in print still today because he knew how to put together a well written story. This was the best decision made by the screenwriters (except perhaps allowing Yip Harburg a shot at incorporating his songs himself – he’s the one who added about the heart, the brains and the nerve).
The aesthetic appearance of a Wicked Witch, from either the East or the West, is of the utmost importance. I loved how they portrayed her as a stooped, green-skinned crone of a woman in a long plain pitch black dress with a black pointed hat and straw broom. Even her cackle and the evil way she’d croon “Come here my little pretty” are so classic, so iconic but they all worked together so well. This has to do with her juxtaposition to Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Glinda is like a princess, so good and kind yet comforting in a way that you can’t help but go off alone on your journey even though that’s the last thing you want to do in the entire world! By contrasting evil to good and doing so in a balanced way it strengthened each individual character.
They did make changes in the witch’s arc between the book and the movie. They introduced her right away at her sister’s death in the Munchkin village. At first she claims to seek revenge for her sister’s death but this is quickly forgotten in the face of the ruby slippers. I love that they made the slippers ruby colored for the Technicolor they were using at the time. So much better than the silver shoes that Baum used in the books. The Wicked Witch of the East also is much more menacing than her book version. Dorothy’s reaction is stellar and actually contributes to the story as you honestly believe it’s taking her a lot of courage to face this green faced woman. You can’t forget the winged monkeys though! A witch can’t truly be evil until she has her minions. So many little details changed for the movie that made the story come alive.
The Wicked Witch of the East stands out in my mind, though, due to the music. I loved the “Miss Gulch’s / Witch’s theme” that was repeated every time one of the versions of the character appeared. This repeated seven-note motif is actually a “crippled” variation (inverted and compressed in range) of the musical figure for “We’re off to see the Wizard”. Can you hear it play in your memories from childhood? I sure can! This very much reminds me of what George Lucas did in Star Wars whenever Darth Vader came on the screen. You can’t separate the Halloween monster, the Wicked Witch of the East, from those seven notes.
THE BEST DEMON: Legend
Jack, an every-boy, falls for a spoiled but good princess who plunges the world into a premature ice age. He’s tasked with setting things right by rescuing her and a unicorn from the demon of darkness. As a reward he gets the girl who caused all the problems in the first place. Released in 1985, Legend is an original screenplay co-written with director Ridley Scott, based on an idea to film a fairy tale or mythological story as his next project.
Needless to say it won’t win any writing awards and as proof I submit that it wasn’t a commercial success. However it isn’t without its strengths and has built up a cult following over the years including many posthumous cinematography, makeup and costuming awards.
If ever I was going to make a live action fairy tale I’d choose Disney for the look of my film. There is a very good reason the animation from Disney is still popular even today: it’s timeless. Sure the story is flimsy and the motivations so flat the plot becomes almost confusing but you are captured and carried off to another world nevertheless. That’s because the beings peopling the world were so believable. The costuming, the makeup, the sets all worked together to create a world where a demon of darkness could pose a menacing threat.
I don’t always subscribe to the belief that because an actor is having fun with a role the audience will too. In the case of Legend though, it’s true. Tim Curry won over so many fans in the midst of such a campy and thin story because it was campy and… fun. He so delights in portraying a demon seeking to eradicate all light that we suspect we’d be happy too if he accomplished his aim. The 80’s was such a huge time of loving the villain, not the hero. And how can you not love a demon with such massive black horns? Surely his ego is as big to match and such a life loving creature of the night must surely do fairly well at his evil machinations! And Curry supports this well with his huge confidence and cunning aura. You believe him as he laughs with his imposing head thrown back…I’ll be back. His character’s design and makeup supported Tim Curry’s efforts to bring us a Halloween monster that lurks about our worst soul draining nightmares.
THE BEST MUMMY: The Mummy
In production for eight years, The Mummy was finally released in 1999. Stephen Sommers was a fan of the original 1932 Boris Karloff film and had the idea to recreate the elements he liked from it on a bigger scale. I loved the Romeo and Juliet aspect to High Priest Imhotep and Anck-su-namun’s love story. Talk about the most perfectly believable motivation to want to raise a desiccated corpse! And the idea that Pharaoh Seti’s priests would curse Imhotep with the torture of being eaten alive for 3,000 years by flesh-eating scarabs holds up really well as to why a mummy would be really, really pissed. That’s the best thing about this movie, they used a really good effects house, Industrial Light & Magic, to dress a really well written story.
They filmed in Marrakech, Morocco so the desert would be as Egypt like as possible without the crew putting their lives at risk. (And they still had to have kidnapping insurance!) They even built the Hamunaptra set in a dormant volcano nearby so the environment would support the very real walking and life sucking mummy.
What’s a High Priest though without his minions to run about and press his will on others. A mummified posse if you will, we are in Egypt after all! And the seven plagues, very real visual powers that we could see and experience that were all at Mummy Imhotep’s fingertips. All these story details came to life through sound production choices to make them as real as possible, strengthening our Halloween monster.
You can’t talk about The Mummy without mentioning South African actor Arnold Vosloo. You believed he was a High Priest and you believed he believed in himself enough to take a Pharaoh’s mistress. His chemistry with Patricia Velásquez was intense and as the bedrock of the motivation for the entire story was essential. As he transformed from a half eaten corpse back into a virile man he didn’t have too much to say. Nevertheless he radiated a powerful presence. He didn’t need to say much. What can I say, I never doubted what his presence was making me feel and because his aura was never in doubt I never doubted he loved and adored Anck-su-namun. I never doubted he’d willingly experience those torturous 3,000 years again for another reunion with his reanimated lover. That’s the power of well made production decisions working hand in hand with a well written story.
THE BEST UNDEAD: Sleepy Hollow
Are you as amazed as I was that The Mummy and Sleepy Hollow both came out in 1999? I know crazy, right? Really it was a grand year for movies. I love this take on Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and much of it has to do with the Hessian mercenary. A headless undead, he rides around the countryside on a massive black steed seemingly in search of, you guessed it, his missing head. In the end though, we learn, that like all undead, he was risen at the behest of a necromancing witch set on her own aims. The history of our undead Halloween monster adds such richness to the production details as you believe you know what’s going on when you couldn’t be more wrong.
Christopher Walken was the best choice for the Hessian. When the headless horseman did finally get his head back you weren’t disappointed to see Walken’s mug appear with the return of his flesh. And anyone else gnashing their teeth and snarling and you would laugh them off the screen. That’s the great thing about Walken, he can do some pretty ridiculous things and you totally believe it. He has such sincerity with his acting. And that’s why when you learn he didn’t really want to cut all those heads off you could believe and sympathize.
It’s the decisions made about the overall look of the movie though that made the headless Hessian horseman really work. The cinematography with the monochromatic colors and all the smoke and soft lighting. The set design, some scenes clearly on a sound stage and others just as obviously in a real town. The duality heightened the storybook feel as if some scenes should naturally play out on a larger scale and others on a smaller one.
The costuming though really makes the character. You can see how all these elements come together by comparing the Hessian’s coat in the movie to the real thing. There is an ethereal feel that all the characters in the movie have, not just the headless horseman, that comes together due to purely production choices.
Of all the different Halloween monsters in movies over the years what are your favorite? These happen to be mine. Through solid production choices these characters came to life and redefined the archetypes we know today. Their worlds informed who they were and better story made for better monsters.