Wonder where the spooky stuff available for perusal at HorrorHound gets made?
Turn to companies like Distortions Unlimited, a horrific prop and mask company that has produced all manner of blood, goop and terror since 1978. Think stuff like severed arms, bloody hands, and vomiting pigs.
And the company has plenty of fans in Indianapolis who think that their latex rubber creations are more than serviceable substitutes for decaying flesh. Distortions also does a brisk business in faux electric chairs. (Dick Van Dyke is the proud owner of one.)
Their clients have also included haunted houses and rock stars. They designed FrankenAlice for Alice Cooper’s Brutal Planet Tour (FrankenAlice is a monster/stage prop modelled on Alice Cooper himself). They mass-produced the Alien Queen, after the monster that appeared in Aliens, the Alien sequel directed by James Cameron. Distortions Unlimited is also a regular at trade shows and, of course, at HorrorHound’s annual Mask-Fest.
Distortions was founded by Ed Edmunds, who worked throughout college on his company’s products. After college, he met Marsha Taub; they became partners, in both business and life, when they married in 1992.
If you are unable to get to HorrorHound’s Mask-Fest this year, your second-best option to learn about Distortions Unlimited is to watch the show Making Monsters, available via Travel Channel (The show, which ran for three seasons, was discontinued in 2012.) In these episodes, you can see the Distortions crew working frenetically on what first appear to be impossible orders — and dealing with difficult situations like when their clay sculpture of FrankenAlice developed an inch-wide crack — but usually, they’re able to get the job done. And throughout it all, the crew maintains their sense of humor without cracking under the pressure.
NUVO talked to founder Ed Edmunds by phone on Sept. 1.
Dan Grossman: What’s new this year [at Mask-Fest] that your fans haven’t seen before?
Ed Edmunds: We’ve got a mask that’s kind of cool that we’re bringing to the show. An old mask. There was a book being done on Distortions by Blacksparrow Books [Remember the Future, the Distortions Unlimited Story], and that didn’t get finished on time for Mask-Fest and Horrorhound. Part of the deal was that I was going to do a mask that mirrored some of the stuff I used to do in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. [Monster artist] James Nichols way back in the day drew a number of styles for us. Three, I believe. So the publisher of the book Blacksparrow and Lee Lambert, the author of the book, thought it would be a cool idea to offer a mask drawn by Nichols, a new one, and then sculpt it in the old style, and help promote the book. And if you buy the book with the mask, you get a discount on the mask. He gave them several designs and I came up with the idea of making all three designs and making it into one kind of bizarre mask. So that’s one of the things that we’ll be doing is this kind of weird triple concept mask.
And it just so happened that [special effects makeup creator] Tom Savini is going to be there and we actually had done a film in the ‘90s with Savini to promote the company. We had a best boy and a dolly and all the junk. [We] filmed it in 16-millimeter and made this film. I thought it would be fun one of these evenings to do a little thing with Savini and Marsha and a lot of people saw that in the day… You almost have to be a mask nerd to appreciate this film and what it represents to the history of mask-making. So we’re just going to talk about where we were at in that moment in time in the making of that film and so forth.
DAN: You are also known for your show Making Monsters on Travel Channel. You had Dick Van Dyke as a guest?
ED: We had already had him as a customer. He’s a guy who loves Halloween. He’s been doing Halloween displays and haunted house type stuff since the ‘60s. And so he had contacted us maybe six or seven years ago and wanted to buy a bunch of stuff. And I’m not talking about little props and stuff. I’m talking about an electric chair — those are like $7500 — and all sorts of big expensive props.
So when the show came along, I suggested that we do an episode with Dick Van Dyke because a lot of people don’t know that he loves monsters. So they went out and did a show with Dick Van Dyke and we went out there and installed a 13-foot character at his house.
DAN: In one of the Making Monsters episodes, there was a mothballed ship used as a haunted house that you and Marsha walked onto. And the thing that struck me, out of everything that was going on, it was the interaction between you two that was the most entertaining thing of all. How your creative process works and your teasing each other about taking credit and all that. I thought that was wonderful.
ED: Well, you know the show has a lot of fans that were very offended that it [only] ran three seasons... Travel allowed a lot of liberty... they didn’t fake it. It’s funny. If television says reality, they mean fake. Because almost all that stuff is faked and set up. So they let us be ourselves.
Now there were times that we’d have to reshoot or talk about things to clarify. But for the most part, they’d ask, “What are you doing today?” They’d decide what they were going to film; and they’d film massive amounts of footage hoping to catch those moments that were good just naturally without faking anything. To give you an idea, Lisa Tanzer was the showrunner [responsible for overall creative management of Making Monsters]. She said, “We shoot 10 hours for every minute.”
Think about that; if somebody followed you around and filmed you for ten hours, and edited down to ten minutes, you’d look like you had an amazing life. It was good because it caught real human interaction.
DAN: Tell me about the Alien Queen. [Distortions Unlimited mass-produced a prop version of Aliens’ Xenomorph Queen, available for purchase after the movie was released.]
ED: What we did was we mass produced her. Now the Queen Alien was the big one. We did the the small one. It was about seven and a half feet, the warrior. And we did the big queen which was about 16 feet standing.
DAN: In 1979 you had the first Alien film that did pretty good business and then the sequel came along [Aliens, in 1986] and it really took off after the sequel, right?
ED: Oh, mercy. Both those directors did a great job and [James] Cameron took it to the next level in a lot of ways [with Aliens]. Now, the first one was very artsy and very cool. It’s hard to compare the two.
The first alien that we did was from Alien and Giger sculpted it. Here’s a side-trail that I think you might enjoy. When we first came out with that it was the early ‘80s and we could not sell that mask …. We presented it to the world and they just thumbed their nose at it. They’re like, “Meh.” Nobody’s ever going to spend $170. When you mark it up 100 percent for retail, that’s what it came in at.
In fact, the few that did said, “Well, I’ll never sell a mask that costs $170. But I’m just going to buy it to put it in the front window because it’s a nice display. And so those people, the next year when I came back, I said, “Well, did you sell that mask?” And they go, “Oh, yeah, it sold right away.” I couldn’t believe it and I said, “Why don’t you buy another one?” And they said, “Oh, we’d never sell another one. It was just some nerd in town.”
Well, the last one that sold on eBay, one of the guys in the band Metallica bought it and it sold for over $10,000 and there’s people who have been offered tens of thousands of dollars and [the mask owners] will not sell this mask. It just goes to show you, the thing was not of its time. The mask world wasn’t ready for that mask, and now it is.
DAN: I deal with visual arts a lot. And one of the questions I have is how artists are reacting to, and incorporating, things like CGI and virtual reality. How does that fit in with what you do?
ED: Well, we don’t deal with it much. It is starting to encroach into our industry. I am not anti- CGI. I am anti-overuse CGI. To me, what George Lucas did to Star Wars episodes 1, 2 and 3 was really terrible.
DAN: Ditto! I know! I remember as a kid being in the theatre for the first Star Wars. And I didn’t care if some of the effects weren’t cutting-edge or whatever.
ED: It was a fantastic film. That’s where I’ll put my foot down and say that was wrong… The thing is, CGI is a wonderful tool. Right now, I think it’s still an enhancement tool, in my opinion. Now I just saw [War for the] Planet of the Apes, some of the greatest CGI ever…. I still wish those were make-ups. I just don’t think that we’re quite ready, because I never in my mind quite see those as a real thing. It’s always like a very elaborate cartoon. But that said, it’s getting there. There will come a day when movies won’t even be made with actors.They will be able to remake Frankenstein; they’ll be able to take the imagery that we have and do a new Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and you won’t be able to tell the difference. But we’re not quite there yet.
Now, where it’s overlapping with the mask industry. There’s a guy, probably the first one that I know of — maybe somebody’s done it before — Landon Meier, here in Colorado. He’s been taking images of Donald Trump and he’s done all sorts of different celebrities. He did several recently where he actually he was sculpting them, and then he got a 3D printer. Then he’d use some kind of computer tool, and 3D them on computer and then instead of printing a positive he’d print the mold. And those are striking. And they’re so good that it looks like the person.
… It’s coming to our industry; I’m still a sucker for latex rubber and sculpting with your hands. But there may be a day when that’s very rare.
DAN: Is giving a personality to the monsters part of the fun?
ED: Yes. It’s a little bit of a Frankenstein/God thing. You come up with something in your head, with your hands, and then with sculpting and molding and painting you bring it to life.
DAN: Anything that you want to add about Mask-Fest?
ED: We’ve done a lot of trade shows and people are just walking around like zombies — figuratively speaking. At Mask-Fest and HorrorHound, people are really excited… You get all these people together who are like family, maybe a little dysfunctional, but they’re family. It’s just a really a fun experience. So, it takes what is, for us, basically manufacturing products that people want; we get to be with those people for the weekend and it’s really a unique experience. N