Judge Paul Corupe reviews a unique look at a horror movie makeup legend.
"It's alive…it's alive!"
Even a passing mention of Mary Shelley's most endurable creation, the Frankenstein Monster, immediately brings to mind Boris Karloff's memorably monstrous visage from the 1931 film. This is just one of the indelible images created by Universal make-up artist Jack Pierce, a true innovator who also shaped the look of the frightful creatures in The Mummy, The Wolfman, and The Bride of Frankenstein. Although Pierce passed away in 1968, his influence on film is still felt today in films like Van Helsing, and he is now hailed as one of the immortal make-up designers of all time.
Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters is a unique tribute to Pierce. It's not a documentary, but a filmed version of a one-time-only play that was written, directed, and produced by Visionary Cinema head Scott Essman. In June of 2000, Essman brought together a group of talented make-up artists and performers to put a spotlight on Pierce and his monstrous creations.
The play mostly consists of Jack Pierce (Perry Shields) on stage by himself, sitting in an old make-up chair and reading from a scrapbook. As he reminisces and provides all the in-depth biographical information you could ever want to know, stills and images are projected on a screen to help provide some real-life context. While these monologues are generally interesting, the highlight of this production is the recreation of several key moments from classic Universal horror films. Using Pierce's original make-up designs, scenes from Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman are all brought back to life by skilled actors, providing a nice counterpoint to Shields's tracing of Pierce's 35-year career.
A great deal of time, effort, and craft was poured into this play, and you have to respect Essman, who also crafted an homage to make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist), for putting together a thorough, informative tribute. This is a labor of love for him, and Pierce would no doubt have been proud to be honored this way. Die-hard fans of Pierce will no doubt eat up this play; however, the barrage of facts and utter seriousness of the production may be a little overwhelming for the newcomer. Trivia tidbits, such as Pierce's coaching of a Universal Studios basketball team may be fascinating for Pierce's devotees, but they don't add much to the story for a novice who just wants to know why the great man was such a pivotal figure in his field. Also, the play exhibits a few minor technical difficulties, but these issues are understandable since the show was only performed once.
Shot on video, the full frame transfer looks pretty good considering its source. The cameras remain tight to the actors, and the presentation doesn't feel as stagy as it could be. The stereo soundtrack is also quite clear, although there is a noticeable difference between the actor's lines and the booming off-stage voices. The play also incorporates audio clips from some of the Universal monster films, which tend to be a little murky, but there's really nothing to complain about here.
Jack Pierce admirers are going to absolutely love this package, which backs the production up with a healthy dose of special features. As far as the play is concerned, there is a trailer and a brief "Making Of" documentary that focuses almost exclusively on the re-creation of Pierce's movie monsters. Also here are a few still galleries—a slideshow of images originally projected during the play, and "before and after" shots of the actors in their make-up. Another extras section titled "Memorabilia" is devoted entirely to Pierce's work. The best of these features is a brief reuniting of Pierce and Boris Karloff on This Is Your Life, although most of what Pierce says has already been covered by the play. Two audio clips, one of a TV interview with Pierce, and one of a radio webcast interview with Essman are worth a listen as well. Besides a text based timeline, there are several still galleries on this portion of the disc too, ranging from Pierce's star on the Walk of Fame to recent Universal monster collectibles based on his skills as a make-up artist.
This DVD would make a nice companion piece to Universal's recent "Legacy" collections of the monster classics of the 1930s and '40s, and it is definitely something that Jack Pierce fans will want to clear a space for in their collection. Overall, an impressive effort.
[Editor's Note: The DVD is available for purchase only from the Official Site, linked in the Accomplices.]
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Visionary Cinema
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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