HERALD ONLINE EXTRA: His effects are special: Joel Harlow creates the unimaginable (April 14, 1991)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Joel Harlow won an Oscar for Best Makeup Sunday night. This is a 1991 Herald article about Harlow.
During the fall of 1985, he was a Grand Forks high school senior using Mom's oven to create severed heads and stomach cavities.
"This," Joel Harlow said then," is what I want to do for a living."
Harlow was working with another senior on a class project -- a 15-minute horror film about a "closet klepto."
Fast-forward 5 1/2 years. Harlow, 23, is living in the Los Angeles area, building a reputation and portfolio in an industry that, among other things, creates life forms and kills people.
"And I don't get in trouble for it." he added.
Harlow is a special effects makeup artist for films and television. He helps create artificial horrors and unusual characters out of molds, foams, glass fibers, paints and artificial blood.
His portfolio album includes bizarre, two-headed mutant pigs; a woman torn almost in half; a murderous, defeathered Thanksgiving turkey, creature masks; and devils crawling out of human torsos.
Sometimes, he picks up a few hundred dollars extra by taking on free-lance projects -- perhaps a pair of gruesome hands, for instance.
About the only thing that makes this 1986 Red River High School graduate's stomach turn, he says, is Yugoslavian food; Harlow spent six weeks in Eastern Europe last year filming "Bloodrush," tentatively set for a video release this summer.
He has worked on 17 films so far, through "most of them have not been released," he said. Some have had limited theatrical releases, been sold on video or shown on late-night television. They include:
"Killing Spree," Harlow's first post-high school film, about a jealous husband who finds his wife's romance story outlines, mistakes them for affairs and goes on a murderous rampade. "They come back from the dead to take revenge," Harlow said.
"Toxic Avenger" and sequels, about a weakling who falls into toxic waste and turns into a supermutant who fights evil.
"Basketcase II," about mutants who take refuge together, including a "freak" who carries his tiny, separated fraternal twin in a basket.
"I don't write these things," Harlow said, smiling.
Harlow's special makeup effects work in the past year include a Foster's beer commercial, featuring futuristic-looking "rock people" that "break the mold" and become humans dressed for a night on the town; "Dead Space," a film about a murderous alien by B-picture king Roger Corman; and "Basketcase II," and its successor, with "kind of a 'freaks' rights' theme, " that's currently in pre-production.
"Since I've been in California the past year and a half. I haven't been out of work for more than two weeks." he said.
Design for Hulk
One of Harlow's efforts soon will be the center of attention in "Suburban Commando," a major motion picture tentatively set for release sometime in the next few months.
The film stars professional wrestler Hulk Hogan as an intergalactic bounty hunter whose suit gives him special powers needed to hunt a dangerous alien. But the suit accidentally falls in the hands -- and on the body -- of a human, played by Christopher Lloyd.
The bounty hunter's suit was created by Harlow and Bob Morino. "It's all foam," Harlow said. "It's really light, actually. It's painted to look metallic.
"There were actually four different suits ... One of the suits actually had to light up, because Hogan switches it on and it gives him these superpowers."
One suit was made specifically for Lloyd's physique. The suit is supposed to look bulky on Lloyd, even though the arms contain padding, Harlow said.
The career of a special makeup effects artist "is pretty mcuh what I expected," said Harlow, who attended a New York visual arts school for a short time before entering his current career.
"Actually, the very first time I started, I didn't expect to work for people, which is kind of stupid. I just didn't know how it all worked. I fugured I would work in conjuction with a production company or something -- which I actually do indirectly."
For example, Harlow worked on the "Surburban Commando" suits for special effects wizard Steve Johnson, who worked on the science fiction underwater film "The Abyss."
Paying his dues
Eventually, though, Harlow wants to "call the shots." "It's all a matter of marketing yourself. So far. I haven't had time," Harlow said. "I've been working pretty much for other people ... It's all part of paying your dues. I guess. But I don't mind working for other people. They've given me fun things to do."
He occasionally appears in the films he works on -- as an extra, a bloody body or moving creature, "I enjoy that," he said. "There's nothing like getting in front of the camera."
Sometimes, successful special-effects artists end up directing their own films. "If it doesn't happen, I'm not going to be disappointed," Harlow said. "I'm perfectly content with what I'm doing now."
About one-third of the financing has been raised for a $1.5 million horror-suspense film, for which Harlow wrote the screenplay and hopes to handle the special effects. "Fleshold," the film's tentative title, is about a college photography major who witnesses an apparent murder -- but didn't. According to Harlow, he actually saw addicts on an unusual drug; they "achieve this ultimate sadomasochistic high by carving themselves up. When the drug wears off, though, they appear normal again. When they're on the drug, they're not able to be killed."
In his spare time, Harlow also is writing a story about pig creatures that take revenge on slaughterhouse workers.
His parents, Steve and Irene Harlow of Grand Forks, have never been anything but "supportive 100 percent." Joel said "I went through a lot of weird things, and they were always right behind me."
For example, when Joel Harlow returned from Yugoslavia last year, he met his father in New York City, and together they saw "Basketcase II" "in a little dirtball theater in Time Square."
Steve Harlow prefers suspense films, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Joel added.
Some films that, in Harlow's opinion, have included exceptional special mekeup effects in years past include "Videodrome," "Gremlins II," 1982's remake of "The Thing," "Aliens" and, in terms of old-age character makeup, "Amadeus."
As the audience becomes more sophisticated, he added, "you try to stay one step ahead of them -- to keep them on their toes." That calls for increased efforts to make things look realistic.
"It does concern me that what we put on the screen might disturb some people," Harlow said. "But that's why they came up with ratings designed to keep younger people out. The general public is more intelligent than they're given credit for.
"You don't really chainsaw anybody's head off .... I think if somebody takes it seriously, that it's OK to chainsaw somebody's head, they've got problems before they even entered the theater. I don't think it's really fair to blame movies like this."
He then laughed. "Of course," Harlow said. "I'm prejudiced."
There's no effect Harlow wouldn't create "if the money's right," he said, adding with a grin, "I might not use my name, but I'll do it."
But Harlow prefers "the character things more than the gore and the violent stuff," he said. "There is more to it. I feel proud about showing pieces like this, rather than a hacked-up body. Not that I don't feel proud about showing a good hacked-up body."
Suddenly he's smiling again, adding a bit of exaggerated evil in his voice. For special effect, of course.
"There's nothing," he says, grinning playfully, "that beats a good hacked-up body."
Copyright (c) 1991 Grand Forks Herald
Brue is now online editor of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1267; (800) 477-6572, ext. 267; or firstname.lastname@example.org.