Nightmare Factory (2011)

OCTOBER 20, 2012


There's a point in Nightmare Factory where the participants speak about the glory days of makeup FX guys like Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, etc, and how they were sort of the attraction for a lot of moviegoers, the way people will flock to a movie that has Will Smith or directed by Spielberg. And they're talking about the early 80s, but for me, I remember the first time I did that was for From Dusk Till Dawn, which is fitting since the doc is primarily about the KNB EFX group that supplied that film's creatures and gore.

Now, obviously I was interested because of Tarantino as well, but I remember poring over the pre-release "Fangoria" about the film, marveling at all the crazy designs that they were discussing (and showing!), thinking that this would be the Citizen Kane of horror movies. And while it didn't quite unseat Halloween or The Thing or whatever for me, I certainly wasn't disappointed, and to this day I have always taken slightly more interest in a horror flick that boasts their (now Oscar-winning) FX work.

Thus, I was excited about a feature documentary about the team, though it skews heavily toward Greg Nicotero (the "N" of KNB), with relatively minimal participation from Howard Berger and none at all from co-founder Robert Kurtzman, who left the group a while back. According to the movie, he just wanted to get out of the business and return home to Ohio, which is odd because he left and began directing his own movies and continues to do occasional makeup work. It's not a slight on the film - Nicotero seems to be the one who is most likely to go buy a ticket for the latest slasher sequel, and is the one who goes on set to work the FX while Berger is in the shop and thus seemingly has closer relationships with some of the filmmakers who appear in the doc (Frank Darabont, Tarantino, John Carpenter, etc), but it does add to one of the film's issues - it's all over the place.

Early on, we meet Nicotero's family; his son is into similar fare (but his favorite movie is Transformers 2!), he plays Frisbee with his daughter, etc. But after this early scene, which seems to suggest the doc will be a movie about how this man balances a normal family life with a career that mostly involves blowing fake heads apart, the family disappears until the end (Berger's family, seen in a giant portrait behind him, never appears at all). Similarly, the changing landscape of the business (digital, people not giving them enough time to create something worthy) is given lots of attention, but doesn't seem to be an actual problem - KNB is just as prolific now, and there's no one really above them, so there's a lack of drama to their job field too. And that's a common thing throughout the movie; Elijah Wood appears early on to discuss forming a company with Nicotero, but it's never mentioned again, despite being positioned in the sequencing as if it was something that would be a major story thread.

But what it lacks in focus and a strong through-line, it makes up for in a fairly jaw-dropping visual resume of just how much these guys have been responsible for over the years. Even if you discount pretty much every Darabont, Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Eli Roth film, you have their work on Tremors sequels, Evil Dead 2/3, Pumpkinhead 2, Jason Goes To Hell... not to mention non horror projects like Dances With Wolves and Narnia (and, not mentioned in the film, but Wahlberg's cock for Boogie Nights!). Even if you mute the film you can probably entertain yourself with the sheer number of creatures and puppets you see throughout its 90 minutes, plus a ton of terrific zombie bits (mostly from Walking Dead) and a few "normal" kills.

They also dive into how much effort they put into their creations. At one point, Tarantino was going to swallow his dislike of digital FX to do the big crash in Death Proof, because there was "no way" he'd be able to pull what he had in mind practically. Nicotero and his team worked tirelessly to figure it out, utilizing his own expertise in the field as well as his background in human biology (he was in med school for three years, took time off to work on Day of the Dead and never went back) to create that fantastic bit. There's also a hilarious little anecdote where he calls on his doctor father to explain how an eyeball would react when its owner's head was squished with a vice (in Casino), rather than just do whatever looked cool.

But the funniest bit comes from Carpenter, who explains that FX guys are the biggest divas in show business, and then we hear both sides of a story from Ghosts Of Mars where Carpenter put a camera down in a place where Nicotero thought that the "ghosts" wouldn't be seen too well and thus were dressed with masks and such just to fill out space (i.e. not meant for the closeup camera action that they were going to get). So he pointed it out to Carpenter, who was like "No one but you will notice!". It's a funny little bit where neither side is painted as being in the wrong (who can be mad at Carpenter?) capped off when the Master, true to form, takes another drag off his cigarette.

And that's the thing about the movie - any one scene is great and entertaining, even moving at times (Nicotero showing his son a little book of monsters that he drew as a child, for example), but it only touches on (or glosses over) many elements that deserve their own complete film. That, and the odd depiction of Kurtzman's post KNB career, gave me some reservations, though not enough to keep me from enjoying it. Maybe it will inspire someone to put the three of them (and their collaborators) together for an oral history book - with tons of photos it could be the best coffee table book ever for a horror fan.

What say you?


  1. Nicotero came to my college and spoke fall of 1994; this was right before "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" came out. He seemed like a really cool guy, and out of all the filmmakers, writers, and actors/actresses I've seen speak at various functions, he has always stood out as one of the better ones. He's not afraid to dish some dirt from what I recall.

  2. Was that Virginia Tech? I was a student when he came, I forget exactly when but it was probably around that time. The main thing I remember is he brought along pictures and models from In The Mouth of Madness which blew me away. Too bad the movie didn't show them off as well.


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