Smoke And Mirrors: The Story Of Tom Savini – Review

Cult icon Tom Savini is a man who defies definition. He is a talented character actor, accomplished director and prolific stunt performer, but he would be known best for his make-up effects which most famously appeared in Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, among many others.

His work in the effects field made Savini a cult personality and a key person of the modern horror era of the seventies. Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, a documentary which chronicles his life and work directed by Jason Baker, shows us through old clips and interviews with collaborators, fans and even the man himself how he helped to shape this period in American horror.

A particularly effective demonstration seen in the film is a time-lapse seen in the film of him putting together a practical make-up for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, one that an actor can wear in the scene which also bleed profusely when stabbed. It’s a prime example of Savini’s resourcefulness and inventiveness that made him standout in the effects world.

That said, while Savini’s is a life worth documenting, Smoke and Mirrors feels more like a film school project than a full professional product. The audio levels are constantly changing, some visuals feel like Windows Movie Maker effects and some talking heads are in fact red carpet interviews.

What makes the documentary work though is Savini himself. Hearing him speak, he is clearly hugely passionate about his work and life, yet his is not arrogant when speaking about himself. He is congenial and honest assessing pivotal moments in his life, such as serving in Vietnam where, apart from one incident where he raised the alarm over a bird, left him shaken and distant. After coming home he sought solace in local theatre, where he performed and also learned the make-up effects that would make his name.

About half of Smoke and Mirrors is about Savini’s work, the rest given over to his personal life. He has plenty of mementos from over the years, photos and home movies which make for an extensive illustration of his life. While some of these stories are clearly important to the man himself and others amusing, such as reconnecting with his long-lost daughter who turned out to be a fan of his, they have less relevance to an audience as those about his professional life. The final part seems like an extended plug for Savini’s make-up and effects school.

It’s more interesting hearing from Savini about his frustrations and disappointment over how his version of Night of the Living Dead ended up not being the film he wanted to make. Or a demonstration of an impressive but little-seen disappearing effect from a stage version of Dracula. And some interviews with long-time collaborator George Romero (RIP), Alice Cooper and Robert Rodriguez, who talks of his surprise of receiving an audition tape from Savini for From Dusk Til Dawn, but cast him because of his performance and not out of reverence.

Smoke and Mirrors has some worthwhile moments, especially for those with little to no knowledge of Savini, it does well to show why he is so revered in the genre. However it could have been a more polished product, as well as being more concise and focused, rather than trying to cover too much of his life. As is it remains a good primer on the man, but it could have gone deeper.

Jack first started reviewing films when he was four years old and went on to his mum about how the ending of Snow White was shit. He is now very pleased to be able to share his knowledge of film and culture here at BRWC.


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