From humble childhood beginnings fashioning homemade monsters out of melted-down green army men to becoming the head special effects artist on TRAPPED ALIVE while still in his Senior Year of High School, Hank Carlson became a definitive voice in the world of special and make-up effects in a Golden Era for horror.
Here we interview the man himself on everything from his inspirations, his proudest career moments, his opinions on how the industry’s changed, and his advice for anyone wanting to follow in similar footsteps...
A: How did you first fall in love with horror and the world of movie monster effects?
HC: My career was started by chance and persistence.
I am from a very small tourist town in northern Wisconsin named Eagle River. The population is only 1,498. As I grew up, I was drawn to anything dealing with dinosaurs or monsters. My only outlet to find movies containing these subjects was going to Saturday matinees at our local theater OR on late at night television on one of the only 3 television channels we received. It was the early 1970’s and during that time those movies consisted mostly of the classics from Universal Studios, “VERY” edited Hammer films and those from the great Ray Harryhausen. But my favorites were any that had giant monsters fighting other monsters like those from Toho Studios such as the GODZILLA series. Those movies kickstarted my imagination and creativity.
I remember during this time in my early youth hearing on the news about the Guerrilla warfare in Warsaw, and there was a small town just over an hour away from my home named Wausau. Because of my age and the movies, I loved I thought that real “damned dirty apes” were fighting in the town I bought my school clothes and toys from. One day on one of those said shopping trips to Wausau, my mom took a shortcut and that was when I saw a giant spider sitting off in a field off the side of the road. Years later I would come to realize it was from GIANT SPIDER INVASION by Bill Rebane, whom I met would collaborate with later in my career.
I had great parents who supported my love of monsters from the beginning and would let me purchase anything that would help to inspire my creativity and imagination. This included letting me read magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, horror comics from Marvel and DC. My parents also helped in creating toys of the monsters from movies to play with since at that time nothing like that existed. It wasn’t till Kenner Toy Company released the “6 Million Dollar Man” dolls and shortly after the iconic “Star Wars” action figures. No longer were we forced into melting green army men down to make monsters from movies like THE BLOB.
Also, back then I couldn’t just play with imagination using a stick as a sword. I actually had to build the sword and the castle and the villain I needed to slay because in my mind’s eye I saw everything play out like a movie. Then one day at school I ordered a book called MOVIE MONSTERS by make-up effects artist Alan Ormsby. In its pages it showed how to make masks and costumes of monsters using household items. That one book changed my life, because I realized that I could have a career as a movie monster maker.
A: How did you get your career started?
HC: When I started to prep for college or a trade, the guidance counselors had no idea how to direct me. It was easy for them to say how to get into a college or to become a plumber but not how to become the next Tom Savini. Then in 1987 I found out an actual movie studio was being built about 15 minutes from my house in the middle of nowhere: Windsor Lake Studios. The owners of the studio were from the UK and were the producers of HELLRAISER and HEATHERS.
So, I put together a resume that said I had never done any effects professionally and was still a student in high school but if given the chance I could show them I could make monsters and the effects needed. Since the studio was on private property and the owners didn’t take kindly to visitors, I started the persistent battle of getting my resume into the right hands. This was not an easy task. Finally, after many attempts they finally hired me. I think it was just to get me off their backs and shut me up. And so began the start of my 31 years in the motion picture industry.