Damien Leone loves horror. You can hear it in his voice. He gets enthusiastic about his craft and appreciates all the movies that led up to his own movies. He’d have to. Leone is matching up two horror icons who have never been mashed before: Frankenstein and The Mummy.
In his upcoming film, Frankenstein vs. The Mummy, the Brooklyn-born, Staten Island-raised special effects specialist looked to an ’80s Marvel comic and a shadowy Egyptian usurper to spin his take on the classics.
DoG: Frankenstein and the Mummy are two iconic characters, how do you put your own stamp on that while still being faithful to the classics? You didn’t use any nobs on the neck.
Damien Leone: No nobs on the neck, very funny because it’s very scary. It’s exciting, but especially now loyal horror fans and how vicious they can be, you know immediately that you’re not going to please everybody. You’re not going to please half of them because your treading on sacred grounds with these characters. That’s the challenge. I try to put a modern twist on it, what I’d like to see. That’s all I can really do.
I looked at a lot of different versions of Frankenstein over the years. I looked at all the Hammer versions. I didn’t want to recreate the Boris Karloff look. It’s actually copyrighted. There’s a lot of details about that makeup that you can’t recreate or you can get in trouble from Universal. Which is fine because I wanted to put my spin on it.
I found myself really attracted to the Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein comic book. That was a cool Frankenstein that I’d never seen before. I wanted to try to make a living version of that. I took basically the physique: I really wanted him to be tall and masculine. I thought that was a cool take on Frankenstein. I also took the long hair. He’s described as having flowing, black hair in the book. I get a lot of flak for giving him long hair, but in the original novel, he actually has long hair.
I was very happy with the way he came out. I gave him the yellow eyes. I thought he was scary. I wanted to make him look like the male version of Regan from The Exorcist almost. That was actually my direction to the actor, Constantin Tripes who played the part, I told him I wanted him to play the male version of The Exorcist. He played it really well, really creepy.
How big a fan of classic universal horror are you?
Big fan. I grew up watching those, actually. I think my favorites, I gravitate more to the 70s and 80s horror movies. The ones I watched the most from the classic Universal lot were Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon and the silent Phantom of the Opera. Those were the big three that I watched when I was very young. I always loved Frankenstein. I was most inspired by Frankenstein to make this movie because I always wanted to make a Frankenstein movie.
The first thing I did when I was given this movie was read the novel, because I’d never read the novel before. I just wanted to start with a Frankenstein story. Once I had that, I could take as much from the novel, then I started incorporating the Mummy story into it.
Boris Karloff played both Frankenstein the Mummy, which part was scarier?
I’d have to go with Frankenstein. When I did the film, I tried to imagine what people saw when they first saw that. That makeup, it works and will always work. It stood the test of time. I studied it and it’s one of those, it’s like lightning in a bottle, that makeup is so iconic. I actually tried that famous shot, where you first see him in the original Frankenstein when he walks into the room. He turns around and those three jump cuts shoot him. There’s no music or anything. I tried to do a little bit of that when you first see my Frankenstein. Boom. We just cut to him and there’s no music and he’s just standing there. I would have to say Frankenstein. He’s going to be remembered for all time.
How is a director like a Dr. Frankenstein?
Even more so than a director, being a makeup artist is as close to a Dr. Frankenstein as you can get. One of my heroes, Dick Smith, he actually called making up an actor, he was getting a Frankenstein syndrome. You get to a point, when you’re putting on all these prosthetics. In the beginning stages it’s just rubber on the actor’s face. Once you start putting the paint on and you know it’s coming to life, you get the Frankenstein syndrome. You say to yourself “it’s alive, I’ve created a living, breathing creature that wasn’t here before. You actually do feel that way.
As a director, you’re creating characters. You’re creating a world that does not exist. Especially as the writer, I created the characters so, I’m their puppet master. I’m in charge of how they live, if they kill somebody, if they die. It’s really fascinating.
You do special effects, I’ve worked with special effects people and I know they love talking shop – so how much anatomy have you studied?
When I have to create something, there are a lot of things you take artistic license with but sometimes, if you’re going to cut into a body or something, you gotta pull up those nasty reference pictures and really study human anatomy to see what it really looks like. That was Tom Savini, another hero, that’s what he’s known for, that anatomically correct gore. He was always adamant about that, studying the real thing. He was in combat in Vietnam so he saw the real, real stuff. It’s so important. If you can make it look as real as possible, people know. There’s a real visceral thing that happens and they know that’s what it must really look like.
I definitely try and oddly enough, people get so surprised when I tell them I am so squeamish when it comes to real violence and real pictures. I actually don’t like looking at any of that stuff. It really turns me off. I’m not into it, but if it’s fake I could watch and create the goriest things imaginable. That’s what it’s all about, living vicariously.
I worked with a special effects guy who was obsessed with seeing an autopsy.
Oh really? I’d been given the opportunity to work at one point as a mortician. I’m just not into that whatsoever. I delivered flowers and would have to see the bodies all the time, bringing flowers into the back of funeral homes. It’s just not my thing.
When you were writing Frankenstein Vs. The Mummy, did you read The Egyptian Book of the Dead?
I did not. The only thing I did was, I bought a book on Egyptian history. The character Amenmesse is actually a real person. There’s only one sentence in the entire book. It’s vague. He was this usurper who lived from here to here and they really don’t know anything about him. So I thought that was a cool starting point. I could actually incorporate a real character and make my own backstory. But I don’t know much about the Book of the Dead.
Why was Ashton Leigh wearing panties in the sex scene?
[Laughs] I tried. I tried. But, nah. That was her first sex scene. That was mine too, actually, the first one I ever had to shoot. Everybody was a little anxious about that. She was nervous about that. She was drinking some tequila. She was always hesitant about that, but I told her from the start it’s almost a boring scene, because it’s not in any way, shape or form a gratuitous sex scene. I wanted it to be classy and kind of romantic. My template for that, what I wanted it to look like, was the Terminator sex scene with Kyle Reeves and Sarah Connor. That’s what I was going for.
I told her, I would love for it to look like you’re having sex. I think it’s ridiculous in movies where they’re having sex and a woman’s wearing purple panties, I think it’s absurd. But I told her, I’m not trying to get full on nudity, if we could just show a classy shot from the side. Eventually she was cool with that. I thought it came out really nice.
What was the hardest effect to pull off?
It went kind of smooth. The hardest thing was probably creating the Mummy because there are some interesting things going on with his face. I created these dentures that snap into the actor’s mouth, onto his teeth, and come out of his mouth and over his lips. He can actually open and close his mouth and you see the teeth and you don’t see any lips. It creates a really cool illusion. But trying to figure out how to get his teeth to lock into mouth and come out over his face, I made molds of that, sculpted on it. That process, before we even started shooting, was really difficult.
My actor, Brandon DeSpain, who played the Mummy, is the most dedicated, disciplined actor I’ve ever worked with. Once those teeth were in, they were locked into the makeup, they snapped in and then I glued the mask onto his face and onto his teeth. So he couldn’t just pop them out. He couldn’t eat for eighteen hours. He could go to the bathroom. He was totally locked into that suit and the bandages had an emergency slit in case he had to go to the bathroom. He never would because he wasn’t eating and he was sweating so he actually didn’t have to go to the bathroom. But that is torture. Dedication. Nobody would do that. He acted like a really close friend, you don’t want him to suffer. So I’m really grateful for that.
What scares you more, reanimated corpses or killer clowns?
I would say, honestly, reanimated corpses. As a kid, I always found zombies to be terrifying. Especially Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. There’s something about the impending doom of zombies and just being stuck, being boarded up in a farmhouse, or wherever you are. You just keep looking out the window and there’s more and more coming. It’s just a matter of time before you hear them at the door. Something about that is very terrifying to me.
Stephen King kind of ruined the Mummy for me with his “the Mummy’s coming, walk faster.”
Walk faster. The Mummy’s one guy, so I get that, but I will always contend that the slow-moving zombies are scarier than the fast-moving zombies because they always wind up getting you in the end with their numbers.
Any other classic monsters you want to take on?
Yes. Not necessarily the Wolfman, but I have a script in the works for a werewolf movie. And my dream on that would be not to have to do the special effects and hire Rick Baker and have him go to town with not one stitch of CGI. Just have him do another full-blown werewolf transformation. That would be my dream.
Directors come into the field from different arts, Kubrick was a photographer, Scorsese was in seminary school, you came up through FX, how does that color your filmmaking?
Those are two of my favorite directors. Everything I write I wind up putting something twisted or violent into it because of the special effects. I gravitate more toward horror, but even if I branched out from horror, I’d make some crime movies, like Scorsese, that are very violent. Or sci fi movies with some kind of creature. It’s not so much the blood, it’s the special effects in general are just a wonder. It’s the fascinating part of movies that gets me going. I feel that whatever I make is going to have elements of that in there. I don’t think I’ll ever be making a straight drama or romantic movies, things like that. It’s always going to be something with some kind of fantasy element to it. Some kind of illusions, some kind of trickery. That what it does for me.
Frankenstein vs. The Mummy comes out on VOD and DVD on Feb 10, 2015.