"Rubberhead: Volume 02: Sex, Drugs, and Special FX" Book Review
Written by Robert Gold
Published by Dark Ink Publishing
Written by Steve Johnson
2021, 256 pages, Reference
Released on August 6th, 2021
For more than three decades, Steve Johnson (Night of the Demons) has been one of the film industry’s go-to guys for making the unreal real. In the 1980s, special make-up effects artists were treated like rock stars by the horror community and Johnson was one of the biggest personalities. He worked alongside fellow heavy-hitters Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London and also Rob Bottin on The Howling (both 1981). He created Slimer for Ghostbusters (1984) and the evil spirits in Poltergeist II: The Other Side,as well as the fantastic creatures in Big Trouble in Little China (both 1986). Later, he worked on The Abyss (1989) and designed the mesmerizing alien Sil in Species (1995) and Species II (1998). These are just a few of his more than two hundred credits spanning both film and television.
In 2017, Johnson penned the first of a proposed five-volume collection of books filled with production stories and rare behind-the-scenes photographs from his personal collection spanning his entire career titled Rubberhead: Volume 01: Sex, Drugs and Special FX. Now, he’s back with the eagerly awaited Volume 02 in the series and this one does not disappoint. He opens with a pair of harrowing tales from the set of the classic film Fright Night (1985). In the first, he is experimenting with a new design involving contact lenses that will reflect light, using a material called Scotchlite that is used for Stop signs. The effect has been moved forward for an earlier shoot time and there is a chance the sealant hasn’t properly dried, which could result in blindness. He tests the lenses on himself and luckily everything works out, but the inherent danger of the test is all too real. Johnson also tells the story of preparing a gag that will require an actor to sit in the make-up chair for eighteen hours before being brought to set for a day’s filming. The process is threatened when one of his key artists doesn’t show up and the rest of the team is forced to work even harder. When Johnson later confronts his missing friend/artist, the reprimand leads to an unseen tragedy that haunts him for years.
Johnson is a handsome man who is quick to admit his vanity and desire to look youthful. He candidly discusses his history with cosmetic surgery and even provides a painful-looking post-op photo of an eye job. He openly talks about his cocaine usage in the ‘80s and his wild party days, but insists he never brought that bad behavior on set. Johnson acknowledges his ego and points out his insecurities and his insane craving for validation of his work, no matter how successful he becomes. He is a perfectionist who constantly pushes himself and those who work for him to do the best work they can.
The centerpiece of this tome is a collection of behind-the-scenes photographs of some of his greatest achievements in various stages of development. Highlights include designs for Fright Night, Big Trouble in Little China, Predator, The Cat in the Hat, The Village and Monkeybone. He includes comments for each still and provides insight and context to the works in progress. We get an idea of what it was like working alongside the famed artist H.R. Giger on Poltergeist II, Species and Species II and hear horror stories from the set of Bicentennial Man.
One of the more interesting chapters in this book reveals “the ones that got away”, projects he was involved with that never came to fruition or that he was released from for creative differences. He presents images of his designs for The Lost Boys, Tim Burton’s ill-fated Superman Lives! and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds as well as remakes of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Planet of the Apes. In a later chapter he goes into detail about the grueling experience he had on the classic Predator, which led to his early removal. Another nice addition to this book is a chapter that presents additional short anecdotes in the format of a graphic novel.
Rubberhead: Volume 02: Sex, Drugs, and Special FX is a welcome look back at a colorful career full of highly entertaining adventures and Johnson is one hell of a storyteller. He excels at delivering an unvarnished account of his experiences in the industry both good and bad. I was happy to learn this is only one part in a longer series, as each film covered contains enough material for its own book. The biggest drawback is that one gets the feeling the author is only scratching the surface of the wealth of stories available. I look forward to future installments and hope that a lengthy documentary counterpart will someday be in the works.
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