Burning Rubber

The year was 1990. The channel was KCAL 9. The time was 11:00pm. As the sizzle reel unspooled in front of my 12 year old eyes, I watched as what appeared to be the Gory Oscars began to take shape in front of me. What the fuck was The Horror Hall of Fame? And…is that Shadoe Stevens? Hosted by Robert Englu….

 

After I regained consciousness, which I would later attribute to my dad always smoking weed in the bed just above what I referred to as my TV Floor, I took in this amazing,funny, yet chintzy display of horror icons getting some serious due. First film inducted? The Exorcist. So far so good. This would become my tradition every Halloween for the next few years and these broadcasts would live in infamy on my VHS tapes. Most oft watched segments? The tour of Forrest Ackerman’s house and the Monster Makeups & Scare Tactics with Steve Johnson and Linnea Quigley (whom I was proud to reveal to my friends at school was the large titted soul trying to escape Freddy’s chest.)

I reveled at the hilarity and cheap slapstick of the whole thing. But the serious side of my brain was absorbing the techniques like a thirsty makeup sponge. Before my very eyes this young buck who looked like a roadie for Guns N’ Roses created a wolfish grin on Linnea’s face in under 3 minutes using a mallet and a small selection of “chewy fruit candy” (read: Starburst). I was amazed at how fast and effective the result came together. The yellow color was the perfect hue for well used fangs and the cherry candy made for a very spooky and primal gum-line. There would be other makeups and techniques involving safety pins, gelatin, a machete from a skeptical locksmith, and one where it appeared Steve wrapped a bucket of pie dough around his spouse’s head before inexplicably beating the fuck out of her skull.

But I’ll never forget that first Dick Smith inspired clip involving the candy and the vicious teeth.

Flash forward 28 years later. I’ve devoured countless hours of books, magazines, and DVD extras in the still of the night. Fangoria was scripture in my late teens and Horror remains my favorite genre. Steve Johnson has gone from milquetoast clip show host to an absolute titan in the industry who has forged the most memorable creatures and characters in film history. Poltergeist II’s insidious vomit creature? Steve Johnson. Thunder’s exploding noggin in Big Trouble in Little China? Steveage. The most iconic green ghost of all time, Slimer from Ghostbusters? Coked up Steve-a-rama! There was such a delicious ironic edge when I found out that such a sweet little butterball of a family friendly spirit was the end result of hours of looming deadlines and 2 ounces of Sumarian Swami nose powder. Where can you find these amazing stories and more?

Rubberhead: Sex, Drugs and FX is a special effect unto itself. This is not your average “How Did They Do It?” concept and art book you’d find sitting on the NOW ON SCREEN shelf at Barnes & Noble. This is a fucking beast of a book! A beautifully disjointed chronicle of the furious days inside the practical special effects industry. You won’t find a nerdy Dennis Muren discussing the gee-shucks-darn days of how George Lucas transformed a small warehouse in Van Nuys into a fledgling Industrial Light and Magic. Nay. This is where Steve Johnson battles an internal demon by shedding his own flesh and revealing a skeleton of twisting, squirming insects holding him up by sheer alien will. That’s not a metaphor.

This is about being visited by the ghost of John Belushi one minute and telling James Cameron to shut the fuck up about the half formed aliens of The Abyss the next. Johnson’s has dipped his pen into the inkwell of Sin City style noir and channeled pure Hunter Thompson  to craft an engrossing personal fever dream rendered in foam latex.

 

What began as a straight ahead memoir has delightfully morphed into a fucked up stone soup of brilliant prose, scintillating tell-all, and self imposed exorcism all in one. This book was not simply typed out. You can tell that this book, Volume one in a series of five was birthed. The screaming details of blustering directors and filmmakers. The ease and excess of money in the 1980’s. The repeated rise and fall motif. Time travel, substance abuse, foreign hookers, frivolous spending,the dreaded rearing of the CGI movement, the films that Steve worked on diligently and was unceremoniously fired from and a gruesome double-cross. It is all here and laid out like a truck loaded with acid crashed into an archive.

This introductory entry is a titillating window into the mind of one of the forsaken mavericks of the visual arts and his Machiavellian desire for redemption and maybe even a little revenge. There is so much to learn and love about this story. The hook for the average reader would be the dozens of never before seen photographs. Detailing decades of creative output. Including a clueless Jean Claude Van Damme stumbling around in the first design of the Predator creature. Staggering physical transformations that were in store for The Incredible Hulk.  Ominous concepts for Venom in Spider Man III that were eschewed for…whatever the fuck ended up in Raimi’s superhero “Cleopatra”.

But know this. For me, the pictures got in the way. I couldn’t wait to be done with them so I could get back to the writing. Nowadays there is a strong rumbling among fans that genre films shun the magic-less world of CG and return to fully articulated puppets, animatronics, and good old foam latex make-up. What most fail to grasp is the “business” part of show business doesn’t allow for that. Jobs are gained and lost on a decision that dictates the nature of the effects. So many fans rely on “They should just…” when imagineering their perfect creature feature. Rubberhead shows how goddamn ugly it is when dreams die to save a buck. Think of the prequel/reboot of Carpenter’s The Thing and try to sell me on CG…after you take a good fuck to yourself.

 

I can smell every cigarette smoked over the typewriter. I can see through Steve’s nightmare-scape and recognize my own youthful ambition before life spun us all into the goddamn upside down. Through the miasma of self realization, movie makeup moments, and line after line of blow, there is a work of staggering honesty here. Its a roller coaster that regularly goes off the rails and bloodies you up a bit when you land. It’s scary, hilarious, and achingly open. It is also a work of uncompromising originality. Steve Johnson reveals what publishers asked of him to get this published. They wanted a safe Hollywood tell-all that went in chronological order and maybe would teach it’s readers how to do their own spooky makeup tricks. Right at home! Pass the Starburst! Steve told them where to go with that. Now through the will of Kickstarter fueled fandom, This tenacious tome peels back the layers and reveals the arterial sludge that pumps through the veins of an enduring movie magician. This book has a beating heart. There is LITERALLY blood on the pages.

 

The stories are so cinematic. His world building so vivid. Flower Street. The Treehouse. The Bottin Garage with it’s dusty driveway. The Bathroom Mirror/Time Portal. The cold stone streets of Prague. And always the mean storied streets of Los Angeles and the endless scraping for fame and fortune. I hate to say it Steve….

There’s a movie in here somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

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