"Rubberhead: Volume 01: Sex, Drugs and Special FX – The Art & Unedited Antics of Steve Johnson" Book Review

Written by Robert Gold

Published by Dark Ink Publishing

Written by Steve Johnson
2020, 256 pages, Non-fiction
Released January 22nd, 2020

Review:

Casual moviegoers may not be familiar with the name Steve Johnson (Night of the Demons), but they have definitely seen his work in some of the most popular genre films of the past four decades, including Ghostbusters (1984), Fright Night (1985) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). As one of the top special make-up f/x artists in the industry, he has consistently delivered countless knockout creations that make audiences sit up and take notice. Johnson got his start in the early 1980s working with the best of the best; Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London, and Rob Bottin on The Howling (both 1981). He went on to open his own shop and quickly rose to fame with titles including Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), The Abyss (1989) and Species (1995). With the arrival of CGI in the mid-’90s, Johnson and his fellow artists were caught in a tough spot as many filmmakers were eager to pull off the f/x digitally. What happened next is scarier than anything in the movies.

Johnson has lived an interesting life filled with drugs, booze, money, fame, success and financial ruin. Now he sets pen to paper and gives readers a glimpse at the method to his madness. Rubberhead: Volume 1: Sex, Drugs and Special FX – The Art & Unedited Antics of Steve Johnson is the first in a proposed five-volume series of memoirs spanning his lengthy career. Rather than offering a step-by-step/how-to guide, the author instead takes us on a tour of his life via mental time travel adventure with his brain shifting from one era to the next and back again, sometimes within the same page. One minute he may be in eastern Europe on the set of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher (2003) trying to fix a failed effect when he blinks and instantly finds himself back in the shop sculpting Slimer for Ghostbusters on a cocaine binge.

The book opens with a humorous introduction by director John Landis (Monsters in the Movies), who tells of working with Johnson on Innocent Blood. This is immediately followed by an author’s note on the nature of memory, capped with the quote, “100% of what this asshole is about to tell you is 92% true. At least 61% of the time,” setting the tone for what we can expect in the coming pages. Johnson is known for his boundless energy and creativity and he employs both in telling his story – warts and all.

The first memories come from his work on the 1994 miniseries Stephen King’s The Stand, for which he won his first Emmy Award. He tells of being assigned King’s young son, Joe Hill, as an assistant for a few weeks and goes on to talk about meeting King himself. From there we jump ahead to an undisclosed time where Johnson has hit rock bottom, apparently having recently committed some sort of felony and is now a fugitive living in Costa Rica. Details from this insane story gradually reveal themselves throughout the book – but in a jerk move, he leaves you hanging for the conclusion until picking up the thread at the beginning of Volume 02. Grrr!

His device of mental time travel allows him the freedom to frequently jump from one story to the next without sticking around too long. This is at its most interesting in the moments when he visits himself from the future to give his younger self advice. Other highlights include getting into make-up as a teen and his first meeting with Rick Baker. He reveals that the inspiration for Slimer from Ghostbusters was to make him look like John Belushi. One of the more bizarre stories has to be the time he was hired by Michael Jackson to design various character make-ups the icon could wear in public anonymously.

At the center of the book we are treated to an extended photo gallery filled with rare behind-the-scenes images from a variety of projects, including Magnolia, Scooby Doo II, Lord of Illusions, Ghostbusters, Arachnid, Blade II, Dreamcatcher, Jarhead, The Stand and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Each photo is captioned with relevant information, some of it rather revealing. I was particularly taken by the images from Ghostbusters. A little later, we are treated to a second gallery titled “The Ones That Got Away”, offering a look at some truly inspired concept work on various projects that either didn’t come to fruition or the production went with another artist’s designs. Some of the titles included here are Ghost Rider, Predator, I am Legend, Hulk, Where the Wild Things Are and Spider-Man 3.

Rubberhead: Volume 01 offers an unvarnished and frequently humorous look back at a decades-long career filled with powerful highs and soul-crushing lows. Johnson is a perfectionist, constantly challenging himself and those who work for him to do the best work they can. He is a risk taker, a trait that sometimes pays off beyond expectations but also threatens to destroy everything he has accomplished. He is an excellent storyteller, but many details feel glossed over in an effort to keep things moving. I would have liked a bit more depth on each of the films covered, as there is clearly a lot more to these stories. Luckily, this is only the first in a series of memoirs and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say next!

Grades:

Overall: 4.5 Star Rating Cover
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Robert Gold
Staff Reviewer
Robert's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
Other articles by this writer

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