Director: Jason Baker
Writer: Jason Baker
Producer: Jason Baker, Andy Westfall
Stars: Tom Savini, Howard Berger, Alice Cooper, Corey Feldman, Sid Haig, Danny McBride, Greg Nicotero, Robert Rodriguez, George Romero, Danny Trejo, Tony Todd, Bill Moseley
From Pittsburgh to Hollywood, clips and interviews tell the tale of Tom Savini¡¯s rise as an icon in genre entertainment.
Is there any fright film fan or even casual horror buff who doesn¡¯t want to know as much as possible about Tom Savini? Jason Baker¡¯s affectionate documentary ¡°Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini¡± provides precisely what its subtitle promises. The clip-laden tribute covers Savini¡¯s personal history and prolific career, offering peeks inside the life of the father, friend, and filmmaker behind all of the creepy creature work that made him a genre icon.
Being a biography as much as a retrospective, ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± of course starts with a look at Savini¡¯s early years. We see seeds of his varied interests in education, art, and athleticism sown early, with each of Tom¡¯s five siblings unknowingly molding his path through one of their personal disciplines. The Lon Chaney biopic ¡°Man of a Thousand Faces¡± ultimately cemented Savini¡¯s fascination with behind-the-scenes magic and Tom was off to the races after that.
Anyone antsy to get into the nitty-gritty of Savini¡¯s FX work will have to hold his/her breath for 30 minutes as the film¡¯s first third focuses exclusively on everything before that. Luckily, the stories defining the makeup maestro¡¯s pre-moviemaking days are enjoyably engaging. An anecdote about a duck serendipitously saving Savini¡¯s life during Vietnam has to be heard to be believed, and even then it sounds too weird to be true. It¡¯s almost as wild as learning Tom¡¯s first daughter was given up for adoption, coincidentally became a fan, and found out as an adult that Savini was her father.
When ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± gets to the gore, it goes all in. Although they aren¡¯t always taken from the highest quality sources, a lengthy collage of clips highlights Savini¡¯s finest moments from ¡°Friday the 13th¡± (review here) to ¡°Dawn of the Dead¡± to ¡°Creepshow¡± (review here) and beyond. The nostalgia tsunami is certain to inspire immediate adjustments to streaming queues and viewing choices for weeks to come as viewers race to relive fond memories and create new ones by consuming titles with Tom¡¯s name attached.
While we¡¯re mentioning questionable quality though, time has to be taken to talk about the documentary¡¯s technical shortfalls. To put it as gently as possible, let¡¯s just say ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± is rough around the edges. Like, so rough it could slice skin if you touched it.
¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± bears a 2019 copyright date even though IMDb reports it played Sitges in 2015. The bulk of the footage appears to have been shot in 2011 or 2012 though, as Tom mentions recently consulting on ¡°Redd Inc.¡± (review here) and turning 65, both of which took place around that time. A 2013 Kickstarter drummed up finishing funds to the tune of $1,638, so we¡¯re talking about a self-funded project that seems to have been pieced together over seven years or so.
You can see that span in interview inconsistencies. For instance, Savini¡¯s daughter Lia sports two completely different haircuts in her talking head pieces, probably because they were recorded weeks, months, maybe years apart. Yet the movie will cut between both interviews in the same segment, initially giving an impression of two separate women.
If you¡¯ve ever seen the special features on any Tom Savini-related DVD or Blu-ray, you know the man took countless pictures and shot endless hours of home movies. ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± features tons of his personal material, including rare footage of Tom¡¯s theater performances, childhood photos, and so much more. Images are constantly changing, packing in as much visual content as anyone¡¯s eyes can keep up with.
They come with the caveat of audio issues underneath. Presumably because he recorded his contributions at different times and places, Savini¡¯s sound levels are all over the place. With separate bites cut into the same clip, his voiceover may go from sounding slightly muffled by a lapel microphone underneath his mouth to suddenly six feet away echoing off a wall.
Jarring editing further cheapens the look. Transitions from one still photo to the next do this weird thing where a fade abruptly cuts before it finishes, resulting in a bright flash of color. Reasonable forgiveness applies since ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± is a homegrown passion project meant as a love letter to one of horror¡¯s biggest heroes. But generic public domain music composing the soundtrack hammers home that this isn¡¯t the most polished production.
Certain interviews are awkwardly odd. Danny Trejo and Danny McBride have brief accolades to offer Savini, but they do so at a red carpet step-and-repeat junket. George Romero seems to have been stopped in a hallway and agreed to do five minutes on camera, as his interview takes place standing up with a noisy convention going on behind him. Tom Atkins appears for four seconds to merely mention Pittsburgh¡¯s ¡°Chilly Billy¡± show while Alice Cooper actually does a sitdown segment. I¡¯m not sure if portions were repurposed from other projects or if director Jason Baker simply took whatever he could get and went with it.
Don¡¯t expect in-depth information on Tom Savini¡¯s family either. The film is understandably vague on the circumstances leading to Savini gaining full custody of his daughter Lia after an undisclosed event involving his second wife. No need to hang private laundry on a public clothesline. But I don¡¯t think Tom¡¯s third wife is ever named even though she¡¯s seen, while the opposite occurs for another daughter who¡¯s only mentioned in passing. Incidentally, Google searches and public pages don¡¯t fill in these gaps, leading to a conclusion that everyone prefers to keep personal privacy intact.
Tabloid tea isn¡¯t what anyone comes to a movie like ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± for anyway. Fans want to see Savini celebrated and that¡¯s exactly what the film does. Notable names largely fawn over Tom through G-rated recollections, giving the documentary a folksy appeal that still scrapes far enough under the surface to be substantially informative and entertaining, even if it isn¡¯t a high-level effort.
¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± depicts Savini as the resourceful, fun-loving magician he¡¯ll always be to those who know him in person and those who know him through film. Savini remembers the ¡°Night of the Living Dead¡± remake as professionally and personally frustrating for reasons the documentary explains. But it¡¯s inspiring to see Tom¡¯s visible enthusiasm when he talks about what might have been with that movie. Over 20 years later, any other artist might wave a cursory hand and move on to another topic. Instead, Savini¡¯s eyes excitedly light up and his body language becomes animated as he describes designs he imagined but never shot like 1990 was yesterday. Tom Savini¡¯s fire appears impossible to extinguish, and ¡°Smoke and Mirrors¡± makes sure everyone can see how brightly that blaze burns.
Review Score: 75