The Frankenstein Complex is a documentary about an era of special effects when we truly knew who was who. The late ‘70s through to the early ‘90s saw directors like Spielberg, Lucas, Carpenter, and Verhoeven creating fantasy masterworks in partnership with star effects men (and yes, they were all men, but we’ll get to that) for whom simple surnames sufficed. Muren, Tippett, Winston, Baker, and Bottin delivered immortal practical creature effects using wire frames, air sacs, latex rubber and a giant vat of steaming ingenuity. You couldn’t open the pages of STARBURST back then without one of these VFX rock stars of giving us an interview or tour of their fiendish lair. Top blokes? That’s about the size of it.
As with 2012’s Special Effects Titan, their definitive look at the work of the great Ray Harryhausen, directors Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet strike a pleasing balance between the personalities and processes involved. As well as chatting, often quite candidly, with these legendary names (all very chipper, if less hairy these days) the documentary puts them to work demonstrating the very tactile reality of how they moulded and puppeted drawing boards into existence.
As there’s a lot of fertile ground to cover, the film wisely eschews long clips because, let’s face it, we’ve all seen The Thing, American Werewolf in London, Robocop and their brethren many times over. Instead, with the briefest of necessary clips, Penso and Poncet concern themselves with what it takes to realise such well-known aliens and robots, not just in practical terms but psychologically. It’s a fascinating avenue; the process of creature creation is playfully likened here to a form of male ‘birth’. Look at some of these meanies’ resemblance to their makers and you’ll understand why.
The shadowy spectre of CGI eventually descends but the film does an even-handed job of explaining how and why a good balance of practical and digital can the best possible solution. But it’s the pre-CGI creatures that shine brightest here. They may have been the stuff of nightmares, but they were real. This is a timely reminder of how a band of brothers created genuine works of art for the masses.
CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: GILLES PENSO, ALEXANDRE PONCET / STARRING: RICK BAKER, JOE DANTE, JOHN LANDIS, GUILLERMO DEL TORO, MICK GARRIS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW