The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #10

Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters  

Pam Keesey

Perry Shields as Jack Pierce in the play Jack Pierce: the Man Behind the MonstersFor fans of the classic Universal monster movies, the name Jack Pierce is held in reverence. A makeup man par excellence, Jack Pierce created the image of the monsters we know and love: Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. He even had a hand in refining the image of Dracula, even though Bela Lugosi had been playing the Count on stage—and doing his own makeup—for years before the film was made.

In 1998, Scott Essman, a lifelong monster movie fan, decided he wanted to produce a project that would pay homage to the man who gave a face to the monsters we know and love. With the films still under copyright, using clips would have been prohibitive. Essman chose to produce a play. Two years in the making, the play “Jack Pierce: the Man Behind the Monsters” was performed only once. The performance, however, was recorded and is now available in DVD format.

While the story is driven by Jack Pierce’s story, and told from Pierce’s point of view, the play is far from a one-man show. The original list of 100+ characters, including Jack Pierce at various stages throughout his life, classic monsters, and character actors such as Maria Ouspenskaya, was pared down to under twenty.

Matt Thompson as the Monster in FrankensteinJack Pierce is brought to life through Perry Shields performance, the details of his life told as thought over the kitchen table. In reminiscing about the films and the makeup that marked milestones in Pierce’s career, the stage is set for vignettes from various films. The makeup is in shades of gray to mimic the black and white of the original films, and actors portray the monsters and the supporting characters in many of the most memorable scenes from the films on which Pierce worked.

The play is as much a tribute to Pierce’s work as it is to his life. The evidence is in the amount of work that was done to recreate the characters through makeup and costumes (under the auspices of Robert Burman and Jennifer McManus of Sticks and Stones Studio). The costumes are exceptional and the makeup surprisingly good. The challenge they faced was to create not only the makeup, but to also recreate the actors who played the characters who wore the makeup. It must have been an incredible challenge, not only for the makeup artists, but also the actors. It’s hard to imagine anyone other the Una O’Connor as Minnie. To get into the mindset where someone other than Una O’Connor, through makeup and costume, becomes not only Una O’Connor, but Una O’Connor as Minnie, takes some suspension of disbelief. But the effort is excellent, and the tribute so sincere, that the result is heartwarming.

Denise Moses as Una O'Connor as Minnie in the movie Bride of FrankensteinPierce was eventually let go by the studios, his methods of painstaking building up makeup directly on the actor falling out of style in the age of foam rubber. He was replaced by Bud Westmore, and went on to finish his career working on “Mr. Ed.” He died in 1968, before a real resurgence in his popularity—and an appreciation for his creations—would come to pass.

In addition to the play, the DVD of “Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters” features several extras, including a “making of” that details the process of recreating the characters of the Universal classics through the application of makeup, a wonderful addition for anyone interested in movie makeup. The memorabilia section includes a clip of Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce on “This is Your Life,” a radio interview with Pierce, and many other hard to find Pierce tidbits.

“Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters” is available on DVD through the Jack Pierce web site.

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Pam Keesey is well known for her writing on women in horror, including her books Daughters of Darkness, Dark Angels, Women Who Run with the Werewolves, and Vamps: An Illustrated History of the Femme Fatale. She is the editor and publisher of MonsterZine, an online horror movie magazine that, in the words of Dr. Frank C. Baxter of The Mole People (1956), explores the meaning and significance of horror movies in the 21st century. In addition to editing horror fiction and non-fiction about horror, Pam has also worked as a technical editor, a news editor, and as an editor of occult books in Spanish.

Copyright © 2003 by the author. All rights reserved.