Hank Carlson: Green Bay's Master of Horror

Josh Hadley

josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | nov. 2018

This being the Halloween season, I thought it might be time to look at a local Green Bay resident who crafted quite a few of his own cinematic horrors over the years.

You may not know the name Hank Carlson as you might that of Stan Winston or Greg Nicotero, but make no mistake that Carlson is a horror film makeup expert on the same level. Having worked on huge films such as “Super Mario Brothers" and “Army Of Darkness" to low-budget fare the likes of “Psycho Holocaust" he has made a name for himself as a craftsman who always delivers above what he promises.

Starting his career out of Eagle River's Windsor Lake studios, Carlson soon moved to Los Angeles to join up with KNB FX, the go-to FX studio that films work with to produce practical special effects.

Living in Green Bay, Hank Carlson still works on things now and then through his Autumn Night Studios. I sat down with him to talk about some aspects of his career.

Why horror? What made you want to create the things you have over the years?

Great question. It seems like a very easy question to answer till I started to think about it.

After some deep thought I found it was all due to my love of dinosaurs. I was fascinated with the real monsters that school science and history taught us about. This drew me to want to grow up to become an archeologist. As an archeologist I could actually study the monsters that during a period walked on earth. At this point as a child, I didn't know that a career of a special effects/makeup artist was a profession that would … let ME create the dinosaurs and use my imagination to create my own.

I grew up in a small town and had only three TV stations. My "horror" exposure was very limited to the movie of the week; documentary style shows about cryptozoological creatures, ghosts and local horror host shows that provided my weekly fix of horror films late on Friday nights.

In the '70s there wasn't the type of movies that we have now. They were much more tame than the slashers that would come in the '80s. So what I saw on the big screen were the classic monsters from Universal and Hammer films, Roger Corman's low-budget films, the stop-motion classics from Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen to the Kaiju from Toho studios. Anything horror related stimulated my mind and helped my imagination to grow.

Why are you attracted to horror as a genre?

This question can be looked at and answered in two separate ways.

Personally, as a genre, it's very fascinating to me what scares a person because what frightens one might not another. Snakes, spiders, ghosts, clowns, isolation to claustrophobia, dogs, cats ... mass hysteria. It's entertaining to sit in a theater with a group of strangers and jump and scream together. Ever notice that when people leave a theater after being scared for 90 minutes how most are smiling or laughing? A horror film is the only type that can bring out a euphoria. Horror just lets you face a fear with no harm.

Professionally, as a special effects/makeup artist, horror movie projects are more abundant than other genre styles like comedy, love stories or dramas. Sure the other types of films may need effects too but just not on the scale horror/science fiction does. There is no better feeling than watching a film you did the effects for cause people around you to react positively or physically too. Also as a professional, I will watch horror films just to see what my colleagues can do and to deconstruct how the effect or monster suit was created. In a way, being a professional has ruined the fun of watching a movie because I know how the scare will play out.

How did you get into makeup effects?

Again, I grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin. Unlike today where anyone can look up a "How To" video on YouTube, this was the 1970s and little to nothing could be found that talked about movie makeup. One couldn't just go and find supplies at your local five-and-dime. I had to be creative using latex caulking, pottery clay and styrofoam wig forms. Also, it wasn't like you could walk into your school's guidance counselor office and they could direct you how to learn film makeup.

There was a magazine at the time called “Famous Monsters of Film Land." When I could find an issue, my mother would always purchase it for me. The magazine would sometimes show makeup artists applying prosthetics to an actor's face but it told you how those prosthetics were made. The magazine had great reference photos of monsters that could be used as a reference to design your own creations.

In 1975, I purchased a book from the Scholastic Book Club from school called "Movie Monsters" by Alan Ormsby. This small book gave very simple step-by-step instructions on how to achieve different monster makeups. I still own my copy that is falling apart from all the use it has seen since the day I bought it.

The closest thing I had to an actual kit was the 1978 Remco KISS Your Face Makeup Kit (that I wish I still had). I would experiment putting on makeup on my family, friends and neighbors. Basically, anyone that would allow me to come up to them with a makeup pencil. Then in January 1979 at the Woolworths store I found the first issue of a magazine that would change my life. It was “Fangoria." I would study every issue over and over again. It also gave places that one could order real supplies. My parents would sacrifice to allow me to grow the beast inside. “Fangoria" magazine also would publish a sister magazine called "Gorezone" in 1988 that provided a step-by-step makeup guide in each issue.

The irony of these two magazines was, that in the future, they both would feature my work not only on the pages inside but also gracing a few covers. I also learned that the best way to understand and apply makeup was the way that girls did, you apply it on yourself.

Let's talk about Wisconsin's (now defunct) Windsor Lake Studios.

One day in 1987 I found out that a movie studio was being built about 20 minutes from my house. The owners of the studio where the producers of Hellraiser 1 and 2 and the movie “Heathers." Knowing this would be my break, I wrote a resume on an old Commodore 64 computer and printed it on a dot matrix printer and got it to anyone at the studio I could. That resume basically said I was not a professional but if I could be given a chance, I could prove that I knew what it took to become one.

I was a very persistent teen and would proceed to deliver my resume to whomever I could by any means possible. This meant trespassing, getting led off the property by the groundskeepers and even having the police remove me from the property. But remaining persistent, I would continue to try and deliver my resume. I even got shot at once. Now I do not condone the ways I did what I did but I will support persistence because it does pay off.

Once the owners had my resume it didn't take long before I got hired as one of only a handful of people on the studio's staff. I would like to think it was my stellar resume that finally got me hired but I am 99 percent sure it was that the owners were just exhausted from chasing me away.

So began my employment at the movie studio. I was able to assist with every aspect from office work, construction, props, wardrobe, and then to be the studio's exclusive effects makeup assistant once principal photography began. But I had one big problem: high school. In order to work full-time, I couldn't go to school too. I was actually going to drop out because I knew this was my opportunity of a lifetime and they don't come around too often. So again, due to having great parents and a relentless mother who somehow got Governor Tommy Thompson to grant me the state's first leave of absence, this allowed me to work full-time at the movie studio and have any homework and studies sent to me and I would only have to show up to take a test now and then at the actual school. And for those who wonder: yes, I graduated with honors.

Windsor Lake Studios made a total of three films one after another. By the third, I had positioned myself into becoming the supervisor of special effects. Then Windsor Lake ran into problems with their next two films. The first of these had major delays and had to be made elsewhere in Wisconsin due to problems with the monsters – which had to be made in LA due to time requirements.The next film ran into production problems and it was the adaptation of the comic book "Evil Ernie." At the last moment the film's financial backing was lost.

How did this lead to KNB?

So not knowing what was going on with the local studio, I began to apply to different colleges to study film. Again, with help from my mother, I got accepted into Colombia. I was ready to leave for orientation when I found out that Windsor Lake Studios signed a three-picture contract to make the first horror films for “Fangoria" magazine and that a major effects company was doing all three films. So I didn't go to college, this made my parents upset and I started work back at the studio.

So the effects company chosen was KNB Efx Group. This was Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. I had read about each of them since the beginning issues of “Fangoria." They had just made “Misery" and “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie." These were my idols.

So when the first film started Howard Berger came to supervise. At first he didn't think a person from such a small town could know effects and be able to do makeup. I soon proved I could and do it well. Also, Howard was impressed by how well I could help other departments if needed and how [I knew] not to interfere with the filming. After about two weeks Howard offered me a position at KNB. Howard took me in, this prodigy, and allowed me to live with his family and continue teaching me makeup effects.

I worked on many films with KNB before moving on to another effects shop and eventually forming my own studio.

What effect are you most proud of?

That would have to be the scene in “Army of Darkness" where Ash just took the book of the dead and the skeletons are coming to life. I was given the task of designing the effect of one the skeleton arms going into and down Ash's throat. No one could figure this out but I did. I worked with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell on how to film this scene.

I am also partial to a beheading of a man while driving a four runner in the film “Billy Club" and I made a cable and radio-controlled giant Tequila worms for the movie “Rotgut."

Hank and I could go on and on but let's just say that Hank Carlson is a master at his craft and you haveseen his work in many, many films. This is a local boy here so let's give props. Look for his upcoming film “House Of Purgatory" and TV series “Shangri-LA."

A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.

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