13 Days of Halloween Day 1: Smoke and Mirrors – The Story of Tom Savini (2015)

“You can’t say ‘horror movie’ without think about Tom Savini.” Alice Cooper

…and that sums it up for me.  Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tom Savini.  In Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini (2015), we not only get a look at Savini’s professional life, which we are all familiar with, but we also get a look at his personal life, past and present, with surprisingly candid reflections from Savini.

The documentary begins like a silent film warning about the gore we will see.  There is gore beyond belief gore! We get to see behind the scenes photographs and footage of Savini applying make-up and special effects throughout his career, scenes from the many films he has worked on, and even deleted scenes that censors and studios felt were way too realistic and bloody.  The most disturbing images, however, are the ones from real life from Savini’s time as a combat photographer in Vietnam.  Ever the student of life, Savini recorded the images in his mind to use later in films.

Savini explains early in the film that his father was an immigrant who had many different skills and that he had to be able to do different jobs to make himself marketable and desirable to employers.  Savini patterned his own career in the same way.  He is incredibly artistic as were his sister and one of his older brothers.  Savini started out in make-up and special effects until he was hired as an actor and then later a director.

I have seen Savini in many behind the scenes bonus features on DVDs and retrospective pieces around Halloween time.  It always struck me how down to earth he seemed even though his is master of anything he takes on.  In the documentary, he points out that he was a guest on Letterman several times to promote movies as a special effects person showing his craft, but his contemporaries like Rick Baker would never be on promoting films or special effects.  I think this is really a credit to the charisma and affability of Savini.  Not only does he delight in creating the illusions, but he is comfortable showing us the strings, lighting, and adhesive that we do not notice.  He also makes all of the sculpting and painting look easy and effortless.

Easy and effortless is a great way to describe this documentary.  It really feels like Savini is sitting down with you, showing you old photographs and videos while telling you stories of the past 45 years.  When he speaks, he does not seem like the man behind Jason’s distorted face in Friday the 13th (1980) or the deranged mind that created tons of zombies and ways to kill them in Dawn of the Dead (1978).  He seems like just a guy looking back at his life even though everything he dived into seemed to turn to gold.

Unlike many celebrities, he reflects upon his personal life openly and honestly.  With a few divorces under his belt and strained relationships with some of his children, he does not try to give excuses or play the blame game.  Several times in the documentary he says, “This is the first time I have told anyone this” and you believe it, not because he is an actor, but because it seems as though this is the first time he has thought about it.  He speaks with a clarity that only comes with age and hindsight.

Sid Haig, George A. Romero, Corey Feldman, and Danny Trejo are just a few of the many icons who add their memories, insights, and stories.  While these are the only moments that seem contrived and awkward, they are necessary, but they are not as memorable as the moments with Savini.  Director Jason Baker made an excellent choice in letting Savini just speak to the camera and audience instead of using the traditional voice over narrator to guide the documentary. 

My main complaint was that it seemed to end too soon!  It did not end abruptly or anything, but I enjoyed it so much the hour and a half runtime went by incredibly quickly.  This is a must see for any horror or film fan.

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