Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini

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Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini

Before the rise of computer-generated imagery, the lords and masters of cinematic special effects were the make-up maestros who toiled with latex and glue, wire, wax and paint in poorly ventilated workshops to produce the brutes and beasts that haunt our collective unconscious. Down through the decades several achieved iconic status: Universal Studios monster maker Jack Pierce, ‘60’s splatter guru H.G. Lewis; The Exorcist’s Dick Smith and American Werewolf in London’s Rick Baker; Rob Bottin of The Howling and The Thing notoriety; Greg Nicotero of KNB FX. None, however, have reached the stratospheric, rock star heights of Pittsburgh native Tom Savini, a man whose contributions to the silver screen have inspired more fevered nightmares than any other in recent memory.

To the true horror fiend Savini needs no introduction; indeed, to many a fan his name and trademarked, seemingly immortal image stand tall among pillars of the industry, on par with Carpenter, Craven, and frequent celluloid partner-in-crime, the late, great George A. Romero. His crafty on-screen carnage in Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Maniac, The Burning, The Prowler, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Day of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 dominated late ‘70’s, early-‘80’s terror fare before he turned his attention towards creature features beginning with 1982’s impressive Creepshow. Given the auteur’s chair for the ill-fated but well-respected 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, Savini has showcased a multitude of multi-faceted skills in his five decades in film. 

Now, thanks to director Jason Baker and Wildeye Releasing, those curious to peek behind the curtain at what inspired ‘The Wizard of Gore’ have their chance with the crowd-pleasing documentary, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini. Less a nuts-and-bolts technical treatise on the near-magician’s secrets that made his classic horror effects so mesmerizing, the focus is instead on the man himself in his various incarnations, first as a youth fascinated with the legerdemain of Hollywood make-up after viewing James Cagney’s portrayal of Lon Chaney in 1957’s The Man of a Thousand Faces, then as an accomplished hard-working stage actor who stormed into film prosthetics with the low-budget ‘70’s efforts Deathdream and Deranged. Particularly highlighted are his formative years and the influence his father, mother and older siblings had on his burgeoning creative mind. If, as the saying goes, the child is the father of the man, Savini is truly the Boy Who Never Grew Up, and in-person Savini’s lively, energetic and entertaining personality comes to the fore as he recounts in revealing detail his stint as a combat photographer in Vietnam, his sometimes-troubled marriages and the early slasher opuses that earned him an oftentimes unwarranted and unwanted reputation as a deranged despoiler of young minds.  

A program like Smoke and Mirrors will be rapt viewing for any genre aficionado, and a vigorous and impressive cross-section of the personalities who have partnered with Savini over the years plays as a virtual Who’s-Who of horror: in addition to footage of Romero, Alice Cooper, Danny McBride, Danny Trejo and Robert Rodriguez (the latter two of which Savini worked with as an actor in the vampire-crime opus From Dusk Till Dawn and the modern-day grindhouse features Planet Terror and Machete Kills, respectively), make welcomed, warm appearances. Such engrossing enthusiasm by all participants is sure to fulfill the ever-reverent geek quotient of long-standing devotees, but reveals the flimsiest of flaws in its idol-worship. There’s not a single anecdote in the entirety of Smoke and Mirrors that a hardcore genre junkie hasn’t already uncovered, either in Savini’s own autobiography, Grand Illusions, or in the innumerous articles run by Fangoria magazine throughout the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and though the documentary rolls at a brisk pace, there’s the feeling that it could be safely inserted in the special features section of a DVD or Blu-Ray release instead of as a stand-alone feature. In that respect Smoke and Mirrors is almost insular in its outlook, but for once mass appeal isn’t the ultimate goal; it’s a vision unabashed and unapologetic in its admiration, made by fans, for fans and appropriately respectful to both the macabre artistry and the legendary filmic innovations Savini has brought to frightful life.

To that end, I give Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini a 4 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. Add a fang for a flawless 5 if you have an obsessive, ardent interest in old-school, practical special effects or are a card-carrying Savini cultist.  

4.0 / 5.0