Friday, June 13, 2008

Appreciating Tom Burman

As special effects moved to the forefront of the sci-fi and horror films of the '70s and early '80s, many FX artists were catapulted to a new-found level of cult fame usually reserved for actors. Tom Savini reigned as the King of Splatter, FX-wiz Rob Bottin became an instant legend thanks to his work on films like The Howling (1980) and The Thing (1982), and still-active icons like Dick Smith and Rick Baker were held in high esteem as the elder statesmen of their field. But the craftsman responsible for this writer's most fondly recalled brushes with astonishing FX was the low-profile genius Tom Burman.

Burman (who entered the makeup union in 1966 and began his movie career under the mentorship of innovative makeup designer John Chambers, working as an apprentice on the original Planet of the Apes) never rose to the same level of name recognition and superstardom that many of his peers did. Maybe this was simply due to the fact that the films he was attached to underperformed in comparison to the likes of Friday the 13th and none of them proved to be as seminal in their influence as films like The Thing.

If anything, Burman (who first opened his own studio in 1971) usually had the bad luck to be associated with films that were met with complete derision, such as 1976's goofy eco-terror tale Food of the Gods. When I saw FOTG at age seven, it was the first horror film that I ever saw in the theater and I can tell you that it never occurred to me at the time that the movie unfolding before me was ridiculous (no, not even when a giant rooster dwarfed a farmhouse). Instead of feeling totally had by an inferior movie, I walked out of that theater completely traumatized (the sight of oversized maggots has never entirely left me). I took 1977's equally asinine Empire of the Ants pretty hard too, yet another film that Burman contributed to - he worked on the giant ants that menaced the likes of Joan Collins.

As the '70s went on, Burman's work found its way into films of a higher caliber, like 1978's well-regarded remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The sight of the cast's alien duplicates hatching from pods is still shiver-inducing and Donald Sutherland's graphic splitting of his own double's half-formed face with a rake remains one of the most revolting shots I've ever witnessed. And I've never forgotten the surreal image of the creature that - thanks to a vicious kick to a still-gestating pod by Donald Sutherland's character - emerged as a dog with its owner's face. The appearance of that creature was a moment that went by so quickly - and it was so hard to absorb the strangeness of what you were looking at before it was over - that it almost rates as an Exorcist-esque subliminal shot.

Burman Studios' contributions to William Girlder's final film The Manitou (1978) helped that film to emerge as one of the most delirious genre offerings of the '70s, thanks to the unforgettable sight of a Native American dwarf (!) emerging from a tumorous growth on the back of heroine Susan Strasberg's neck (Tony Curtis' awesome late '70s perm didn't hurt the movie, either). Burman also worked on John Frankenheimer's 1979 trash classic Prophecy. The famous 'inside-out' mother bear that stars as the movie's monster is an impressive man-in-a-suit effect but the sight that's hardest to shake is the sight of the little mewling mutant cubs caught in a fishing net. These malformed creatures are at once sympathetic and appalling.

In the early '80s, Burman Studios kept busy with credits on the underappreciated vigliante pic The Exterminator (1980), Oliver Stone's The Hand (1981) and a pair of well-remembered Canadian-lensed slasher films, both from 1981 - My Bloody Valentine (thanks to MPAA cuts, much of Burman's work on this slasher fave remains unseen), and Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me was sold as featuring "ten of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see" and while that boast may have been a case of hyperbole, the film's famous death by shish-ka-bob may be the most recognizable early '80s horror movie kill thanks to being immortalized right on the film's poster.

With 1982's erotically angled Cat People remake, writer/director Paul Schrader followed his instincts to scale back his film's FX and in step with that didn't include as much of Burman's work as was shot. But what remains is still outstanding. For example, there's an autopsy scene - in which a human arm is discovered inside a dead panther - that compares well to the similarly grotesque autopsy scenes in The Thing. But the unchallenged highlight of the film is the horrific mutilation of Ed Begley Jr.'s character. When Begley as a jocular zoo attendant carelessly lets a caged panther get a hold of his arm, the following loss of limb was the most shocking act of physical trauma that I'd seen in any film up to that point - looking vividly real in a way that I've never forgotten.

But when you're talking about the mark that Burman left on '80s horror, it always has to come back to 1982's The Beast Within. With The Beast Within, Burman went head to expanding head with the other transformation scenes of its day and if he didn't trump them all, it wasn't for lack of trying. Unlike Paul Schrader, Beast director Phillippe Mora had no intention of leaving any of Burman's work on the cutting room floor. The film's centerpiece transformation, which depicts the final, freakish metamorphosis of a tormented teen (actor Paul Clemens) who sheds his skin to become a rampaging, insect-like creature, is - even by '80s standards - an unhinged, go-for-broke, special effects riot.

One could say that Mora's choice to linger on Clemens' transformation for as long as he does represents a case of misjudgement and that Mora should've trimmed the most exaggerated shots. On grounds of belivability, Burman himself questioned Mora's decision to include footage of one of the prop heads with the air bladders inflated to their limit (shots that were the result of some playfulness on the FX crew's part) - but Mora's instincts proved right; those shots always get the strongest reaction. This movie catered directly to the FX-crazed kids of the early '80s who didn't want movies to hold back and that's why The Beast Within remains so beloved among that set - because Mora knew the fans wouldn't think that anything was too over the top.

After The Beast Within, Burman went on to contribute classic moments to 1983's Halloween III: Season of the Witch (has any kid in a movie ever died a more spectacular death than little Buddy?), some old-style ghouls to the minor but fun One Dark Night (by future Jason Lives director Tom McLoughlin - who previously had been a professional mime and was one of several mimes who wore the bear costume in Prophecy), and Brian De Palma's voyeuristic thriller Body Double (1984). Since then, most of his studio's work has been largely outside the genre - generally working on lighter fare such as The Goonies, Howard the Duck, Scrooged and Wayne's World (with a brief return to pod-territory with 1993's Body Snatchers). His most recent credits are for the TV dramas Grey's Anatomy and Nip/Tuck.

Burman's ongoing success is a professional legacy that speaks for itself but among the short list of those who impacted the genre in the '70s and '80s, Burman's name remains surprisingly undercelebrated. Even if the films he worked on were often uneven efforts, Burman's contributions were always outstanding and many of his notable early accomplishments went uncredited (those would include a partial involvement with William Findlay's make-up in Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, the melting effects from the climax to The Devil's Rain, and the creepy multi-eyed sheep seen in Ken Russell's Altered States). During an extremely competitive era for FX artists, Burman's work was second to none and the array of unforgettable images that he helped put on film are indelibly associated with the movie magic that transfixed me in my youth.

Thanks to my pal Unkle Lancifer of Kindertrauma who invited me to participate in this mutual admiration of Tom Burman. Please click over to Kindertrauma to read Unkle L's own thoughts on Mr. Burman's work complete with a full slate of Burmalicious pics!

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