Saturday, June 18, 2011

Part 30: Making a HOUSE call

While the Golden Mall operation closed down and moved to James Cummin's back yard, I was, thankfully, going to set with a few of the effects.  I had missed out on puppeteering Jim Belohovek's winged skull creature.  I recall that Jim and Barney Burman went to set with that along with a couple of other folks. (Sorry, it's a bit fuzzy).  I was also absent from witnessing Peter Pitofsky's performance as the witch on set.  I was lucky enough to be there when she got her head decapitated by the hedge trimmers though.
Gotta make sure that glove isnt' going to fall off...Why do I think that Barney Burman is in the suit?
Jim Belohovek shows off his jaw mechanism he would install in the Winged Demon.
Here's a shot of Jim's assembled mechanical puppet waiting for fabricated wings and a cool paint job.
I was walking around set, turned a corner and ran right into the finished puppet!  I think Howie Weed sculpted this.

Larry Odien had created a electronic remote control dismembered witch and with moving fingers that had been shot on an exterior location.  It was even fit with a "bite plate" for William Katt's mouth so that it could appear to be holding onto Roger Cobb's face.

HOUSE was written by Ethan Wiley from a story by Fred Dekker.  I remember meeting Ethan at the studio (sorry, Fred - don't remember if you ever stopped by) and was struck by his enthusiasm for what James and his crew were accomplishing. Director, Steve Miner, who was a long-time collaborator with producer Sean Cunningham, found himself a long way from Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Vorhees.  HOUSE was a horror-comedy much more in the vein of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF or the later EVIL DEAD 2.  Walking the line between scares and laughs would be a challenging undertaking, but he was surrounded by actors who were no strangers to comedy, Richard Moll (Big Ben), and George Wendt (Harold Gorton).

I couldn't guarantee it, but I recall that the interior of the House was built at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood and it was my first time on a real, honest-to-goodness studio set.  I had been on locations before and had been for years.  My father took my siblings and I to Hannibal, Missouri to visit the set of TOM SAWYER in the '70's and not only did we meet Johnny Whitaker (SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS), and Jeff East (SUPERMAN and PUMPKINHEAD), but we also met Jodie Foster, Warren Oats and PLANET OF THE APES producer, Arthur P. Jacobs!  I should have posted about that experience....darn! However, I digressed...

Tracy and I on set.
The bathroom set complete with medicine cabinet - the gateway to an alternate universe!
Look how HUGE this set was.  Here is the main foyer.
The War Demon Room.  Note the Richard Hescox painting of the Marlin speared through a man's chest.
Mold maker extrodinaire, Brent Baker on the set!
  For the better part of a week, we were on set working on effects that happened in specific locations of the House.  It's funny because as strong as my recollections are of helping get the Demonic Child puppet up stairs, and wrangling all of the cable controls into the room where it would be peering from, I don't think I was around when the little people were suited up for their roles wearing our masks (I know Howie Weed sculpted the big kid mask, I honestly don't recall who sculpted the little me out in the comment section, somebody).

Who is that holding the Demonic Kid puppet????
It's Howie Weed!
 We crowded behind the medicine cabinet, all wearing our monster gloves to attack William Katt.  For expedience sake, the tentacle was just latex and polyfoam and shot in reverse so that it appeared to strike out and wrap around Roger Cobb's arm.

For the scene where Roger dumps the dismembered witch's hand into the toilet and flushes it down, I was wearing the witch glove.  Physical Effects man, Taslsio Bauer, taped plastic bag material in a loose cone around my shoulder.  On action, I spun around (on a saw horse!) and with water dumping down the toilet, pulled my hand down the pipe. Voila!  My on-screen debut!

To shoot the scenes where Roger falls through the darkness and lands in a nondescript body of water, we shot in a pool (at a High School?  YMCA? - it was on location for sure).  The grips draped large sheets of black duvetine (which is heavy black fabric used to block light) into the pool until it became a giant watery void.  James puppeteered Richard Snell's spitting puppet to rise up with Katt, and I fired a Hudson Sprayer to spit in William Katt's face.  James said that swimming in the blackened pool was a very weird, disorienting experience.

Big Ben was a big responsibility and presence on set.  Curt Wilmont, who played the skeletal character would require being suited up in a specially constructed pair of pants that were a combination of foam latex rotted legs, concealed within tattered army fatigue pants.  He would then pull the rib cage, that was constructed of latex reinforced with cheesecloth and nylon tubing over his head.  A pair of foam latex gloves were pulled on, and a foam latex neck would be pulled over his head and tucked in around his collarbone.   When they were ready for Ben to make his appearance on set, a milky contact lens made by Richard Snell would be inserted into Curt's right eye, and then the mask would be put on and blended around that eye (since the other eye was sculpted to be dead and staring - Curt could only see out of his right eye).

James supervises as I do a quick touch up on Big Ben.
 Generally, when you are shooting a low budget movie, the schedule is crucial (time = money, right?) so the company was shooting and moving as quickly as humanly possible.  Not to use ANOTHER cliche so soon, but haste makes waste.  For the scene where Big Ben shoots through a door and then punches a hole in it to grab for Roger, the door was outfitted with explosive squibs to simulate the bullet hits.  The film crew was on one side of the door with William Katt waiting for the bullets and the punch.  On the other side of the door was the FX team and Curt, dressed as Big Ben waiting for his cue to punch through it. Gordon Boos, the first assistant director, counted down, "3...2...1...GO!" BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!  Not a single bullet hole appeared in the wood.  The door had been squibbed on the wrong side!

The War Demon was an ambitious animal for any motion picture.  It required just about every one of us on the crew to bring it to set and operate it.  Members of the crew who had not been on set, worked an all-nighter to complete the creature, so that by the time it was unloaded from the truck, and put into position, Bill Sturgeon was thrashed.  The War Demon's frame was connected to a dolly that rode on tracks and required a few people to push it forward so it could emerge from the closet.  The arms were puppeteered separately by crew members either holding the physical arm to strike out, or operating the cable controls for the fingers.  And, of course, the head features were, also cable controlled.

Brent Baker (left) and Bill Sturgeon prepare the War Demon puppet on set.
 The timing was imperative, so as the cameras would roll, we had worked it out so that as Gordon would count down, we would push on a specific number so that when William Katt opened the door, the war demon would already be in motion.  We spent the better part of two days shooting the two different scenes where the monster made his appearance.

William Katt faces off with the War Demon! (thanks for the photo Brent!)
Monster Stew coming at YOU!
 The last shots we had to shoot were with Big Ben - One was the shot where Roger shoves a live grenade into Ben's ribs and explodes.  For this a dummy was built using a rigid body foam of Curt Wimot that was cut and positioned to match the pose that Curt was in prior to his demolition.  Latex casts of the gloves, legs, ribs, and head were made and glued onto the form and painted.

Barney Burman assembles the exploding Big Ben puppet...or else he's performing a pelvic exam.
 For the explosion, pyrotechnical expert, Joe Viskocil (of STAR WARS!) was on set to rig the body to explode on cue.  Hollowed sections of the body were filled with black fuller's earth and cork to simulate dry rotted flesh and bones blowing apart.  I'll admit that being in the presence of a geek god was too much.  I never got the nerve to approach Joe and tell him what a huge fan I was (am).

The very last shot involved another legendary effects company, Dreamquest.  It was for the shot looking up at Roger hanging on the edge of the house as Big Ben was stepping on his hands to push him into the alternate reality.  Accomplishing this one shot took all day to rig and shoot.  An elevated section of the exterior of the house was constructed in front of a blue screen (that took most of the day to light in those days).  Proper reference photos and careful recording of lens, exposure and camera angles all were taken prior to rolling cameras.  Curt was still in his Ben suit, but William Katt was not wearing the harness and rig to support him from the edge of the house; a stuntman wearing a wig and matching costume stepped in for this.

A conventional matte painting would be done to render the rest of the house.

Yes, nerd that I am, I still own my prop copies of Roger Cobb's books!
 Three quarters into the building and shooting of HOUSE, Tracy and I moved into our first apartment in Eagle Rock, California.  When the show wrapped, all of us went our different directions.  James and Rick wanted to take some time off for a while and I think Mark Shostrom was working on A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 and was already crewed up.  Tracy, keeping consistent with her lack of interest in pursuing a career in Motion Pictures, got a job at Carl Fischer music store in Glendale.  As for me, I had to find another job in Make Up Effects.  Somewhere.



  1. This was a fascinating read! Thank you for posting this! I watched House when I was about 8 and it scared the hell out of me and put me off horror films well into adulthood 😯. There was one scare where the pretty girl transforms into a witch, I was laid on the sofa and it made jump and tense up so much I nearly broke the arm off! But this, along with many other 80's horror and scifi makes me appreciate practical effects, I wish studios would occasionally forego cgi and do a proper practical effect horror. Thanks for putting me off horror for years you did a good job!

  2. I loved House as a very young kid in the 90s lol and I will always love it. That set was so beautiful!

  3. Автор книги можно узнать хочу прочесть?