THE GRAVEYARD OF WHAT MIGHT BE
|Waaaaaitahonkinminute. Is Charlie T. Manx the good guy?
When I was a kid, my friends and I all agreed that The Punisher was the coolest superhero in the Marvel Universe, after Wolverine. Who didn’t love The Punisher, the man in black, who knew who the bad guys were, slaughtered them indiscriminately, and rescued their victims? (And who also might fire a few thousand bullets every issue and never once accidentally clip an innocent bystander… no unlucky ricochets for The Punisher!) I think between The Punisher, Batman, and Rambo, we’ve learned to celebrate the man of moral certainty who remorselessly obliterates the wicked, without any self-doubt or second guessing. Their willingness to act decisively to save the helpless—children, for example—is what makes them heroes. Right?
In a lot of my favorite stories, the villains operate according to personal moral conviction; they perform sickening acts, not out of hate, but out of love. Think of Walter White in Breaking Bad, for the finest portrait of villainy in the history of television. Mr. White wants with all his heart to look after his family—to provide for his loved ones when he’s gone—and to prove to them he was good at something, not a failure, a nobody. He wants to perform some final magnificent gesture, both to earn their affection and prove himself worthy of it. His yearning to do something great, and his desire to protect his wife and son, become twin pistons in an engine of destruction that will shred a staggering number of lives.
So for me, the emotional anchor of episode two is when Charlie escorts gullible Bing Partridge to the Graveyard of What Might Be. In this cold and desolate place, one may glimpse the possible tragic futures of a thousand children, kids who reside in the care of parents who neglect and abuse them… kids who will be utterly destroyed if someone doesn’t step in on their behalf. Charlie Manx has already rescued hundreds of them, taken them away from their monstrous parents, and brought them to a place where the childrenthemselves are the monsters: where the children are strong and free and happy and where no one can ever hurt them again. To me, he kinda sounds like The Punisher.
Just remember: it isn’t the Graveyard of What WILL Be. It’s the Graveyard of What Might Be. And as we saw in the first episode, Charlie has a pretty loose definition of “abuse.” Ultimately, perhaps, every mother is an unfit mother in Charlie’s view. In Charlie’s eyes, even participating in the act that is known to make babies is a mark of moral failure. When The Punisher begins shooting people for jaywalking or speeding, we start to see him in a different light, nuh?
I wanna note one other scene that (at least for this viewer) really popped, and that’s Vic and Maggie together in the library. I love the tentative connection between Ashleigh and Jahkara in this scene— there are flickers hinting that, under the right circumstances, these two could be each other’s Butch and Sundance, Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise. Can anyone be shocked that Vic gets skittish and flakes out on the promise of Maggie’s friendship? Maggie is herself a bridge to some new life, a world where the impossible has been known to happen on occasion. And that’s a bridge Vic isn’t ready to cross, not yet.
Also, more simply: Ashleigh and Jahkara are the rock and the roll of NOS4A2, and every minute they’re together delivers a tremendous crackle of fun.
Now I don’t want you to think this newsletter is all fluff, so I’m going to register a serious criticism of episode 2 here. Early in last night’s episode, we caught a glimpse of Vic McQueen’s comic collection and NOT ONE OF THEM WAS AN ISSUE OF LOCKE & KEY. I think we can all agree it was a glaring oversight not to include a sweet (possibly slow motion) shot of the comic I wrote for seven years, illustrated by my soul brother Gabriel Rodriguez. It’s obvious to me that Vic is a classy, smart, discerning reader who would naturally seek out the absolute best in modern graphic novels. It just makes sense for her to have the complete Locke & Key library, prominently displayed on her bookshelves—it would’ve been completely in character.
(P.S. AMC, if you need copies for future episodes, calllllll me, I’ll hook you up.)
Joel Harlow, NOS4A2 makeup and
|Joel Harlow is the real deal, one of the finest special makeup FX in the industry today, with the Oscar to prove it (for his work on Star Trek in 2010, where he gave Zachary Quinto the full-Vulcan). He spread the plague in The Stand, unleashed any number of tentacled freaks in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, and inspired countless fever dreams with his work on the Burton Alice in Wonderland films. His sculpts and sketches are legend and must be seen to be believed. We were lucky to get him for NOS4A2, where he aged Zach through a hundred gruesome years, and deformed a variety of sweet-tempered children into grinning soulless freaks. Weirdly, Joel and I also have history. More about that in a moment.
Joe Hill: Hey, Joel! Thanks for participating in this week’s ASK4U2 feature.
So Charlie Manx has been cruising America’s back roads for a century, snatching children, and draining something crucial out of them—their souls, perhaps—to stay alive. In the process of slurping up their humanity, he himself pulls a Benjamin Button, aging backwards from creepy old coot with a mouthful of fangs to a svelte and charming young dude. Over the course of a remarkable and varied career, you’ve crafted your share of monsters. Is it more challenging when the monster at the center of the movie is identifiably human?
Joel Harlow: Absolutely! Visually it is far more difficult to create a character that resembles people one would see on a daily basis, such as an old man. It’s much different than designing a universe of aliens for example, because you don’t see those kind of characters in your daily routine, unless you have a very unusual daily routine.
Over the course of the season We take Zach from age 40 to 135 with five separate prosthetic makeup designs, and though you have a bit of creative latitude with the last (135) stage, you really don’t with the others.
When designing and executing makeups such as these, subtlety and realism are the objective. Even though Manx IS a monster, visually I wanted him to appear as a normal man of the age he is playing. The menace comes when Zach infuses his performance into what we do externally.
Hill: Right: that brings me naturally to my next question. How does the special makeup sell a performance … and, maybe more importantly, how does a great performance sell the makeup?
Harlow: Firstly, we are very lucky to have Zach as our Charlie Manx. He is a fantastic actor who appreciates and embraces the need for physical transformation to effectively sell a character. When we designed this character, it was important to achieve prosthetic makeups that allowed Zach’s performance to translate through. It would have been very easy to simply create old age characters ON him without taking into consideration his underlying anatomy. We tried to keep these prosthetics as thin as possible so the subtleties of his performance would translate.
Ultimately, when everything is applied, it should feel like a tool for him to use in his characterization rather than a crutch. The flip side of this is, of course, no matter how effective the look of a character is, it doesn’t live until Zach brings it to life. It was very impressive to see the nuances he brought distinctly to each age of Manx.
For me, that’s the Dr. Frankenstein moment … you spend months designing and creating a character, wondering what it will look like when it comes to life, then on that first day, you see it all come together… that’s a great feeling.
Hill: When Charlie is done draining the souls out of “his children” they’re monsters: there’s nothing left of them except happiness and teeth. As a horror fan I love monster children… the only thing creepier than a nasty creature with a maw full of razor blade teeth is if that creature has a child’s face. What was the process of developing their particular look?
Harlow: The children are tough to do. Firstly, there is the very real obstacle of child labor laws. Obviously, these exist to protect children but it is something to really consider when looking at makeup application and removal and what can effectively be created without using up an entire shooting day. I could design the most elaborate character I’ve ever done but if the application takes so much time, we can’t film it, what’s the point.
You defined the most important aspect of these little monsters with the teeth, and fortunately that is a quick and very effective change. They remind me of a Night Gallery episode called “The Doll.” As a kid, it scared the Hell out of me!
Hill: Pff. Child labor laws: so lame!
What’s the best gross-out moment in the history of horror?
Harlow: Oh boy! There are so many. There have been a lot of unsettling blood/guts sequences that are disturbing. I think for me however, it’s the one sequence in They’re Creeping Up On You from Creepshow … not the explosion of roaches from E. G. Marshall but rather the moment when they spill out of his cereal box. For me, that did for eating cereal what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
I used to live in NYC when I was attending SVA. Our dorm consisted of three floors of a YMCA. I was basically roommates with cockroaches … I hate them.
Hill: What was the first horror film you remember seeing, and how did you react?
Harlow: I don’t know if it is classified as “horror” but I’m sure I’m not alone in saying Jaws. I saw the film as a child with my parents at a drive-in. There was something about, not just the impact of what the film was presenting, but the environment of watching it from inside a car that really frightened me. The isolation of being in a car in this vast lot with the unknown of what was just below the windows (as opposed to a theater where you can see your surroundings and feel more like you are all in this together with your fellow movie goers) really worked me into a place of absolute terror … so much so that, when Ben Gardner’s head appeared, I threw up.
Hill: Wow. My favorite film. I watch it every summer. What about you: favorite horror film? Favorite scary show?
Harlow: Certainly The Exorcist hits highs on that list but there are moments in a lot of films that I find genuinely frightening.
I think, for the moment though, the film that holds that spot for me is Hereditary. I watched that film in pieces while on set, probably the worst environment to watch a film in, and it still rocked me!
Hill: Yeah, Hereditary completely knocked my head off.
Is there a monster you’d particularly like to re-invent, some beastie you’d like to try “your way”?
Harlow: You know I’m a huge Lovecraft fan. I’d think any of his creations would be great. The problem, however, is that they are so amorphous that locking them down to a single design is difficult. The more humanoid, hybrid characters are easier to translate. I’ve done several versions of residents of Innsmouth as well as my versions of Wilbur Whateley’s twin and Cthulhu.
In addition, if there was an opportunity to take a swing at a Cenobite, that’d be cool … or, Judge Death from the Judge Dredd comics in 2000AD.
Hill: To me, the “fast zombies” vs “slow zombies” debate is kinda dumb. The zombies in 28 Days Later aren’t really zombies… they’re ordinary humans infected with a weaponized variant of rabies, right? So of course they can run. Instead of “fast zombies” vs “slow zombies” what do you think about “slow zombies” vs “Christmasland Kids”? Who’d win that fight?
Harlow: The Christmasland kids obviously.
Firstly, they have all their faculties intact, with a heightened sense of calculated predatory instinct. They can appear innocent, catching you (or the zombies) off guard…. I guess the zombies wouldn’t care…
If one of the kids were bit, what’d we get? Zombie Christmasland Kids?
Hill: I feel like the Christmasland kids are probably immune to the zombie virus. Their blood is ice cold and doesn’t really circulate, so how could the infection travel?
Weird trivia: I was a production assistant on the TV movie of The Stand, adapted from my Dad’s book, back in the 1990s… and you were a junior makeup FX guy working for Steven Johnson. It seems to me we bonded over a fondness for the same metal and the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. What were your first jobs like? What was the first special makeup FX work you did that made you particularly proud?
Harlow: When I first started, I was in NYC. One of my first jobs was working for Troma on The Toxic Avenger 2/3. It was awful. By the end of it I was thinking, “if this is what the movie business is like, I don’t want to be a part of it.” It had nothing to do with the conditions or hours involved.
Fortunately, I met Gabe Bartalos shortly after and worked on Basket Case 2. That experience was great and we were working even more hours. The motivating factors that divide jobs have always been the work. If the work is rewarding and creative, I’ll wade through Hell with a smile to do it, if not, it’s difficult to find the inspiration to keep going.
I always go back to Bootstrap Bill from Pirates 2/3 as one of my very favorites. Granted it wasn’t one of the first that made me proud but it set a new bar for me creatively.
Hill: For those who don’t have an unhealthy interest in gross-out makeup FX, Tom Savini is known as the grandfather of gore, the wizard who made zombies walk in Dawn of the Dead, and took off heads in the first Friday the 13th. Recently he celebrated his 70th birthday with a topless photo. Did you see that? That guy is f’n ripped and looks younger than me. What are the chances he’s an actual vampire? Who would win a fight, “fast zombies” or “Tom Savini”?
Harlow: Because everything makes more sense when you inject it with a little Lovecraftian analogy. Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Rob Bottin … as a kid, those guys were like the Outer Gods.
It doesn’t surprise me he is ripped because those Gods don’t age … and nothing can beat them.
Thanks for talking with me, man… and for your unbelievable work on NOS4A2.