Entries tagged with “Horror Films”.

Special Effects Coordinator John Milinac's face may not be familiar, but if you are a moviegoer, you've seen and enjoyed his work many times.

Special Effects Coordinator John Milinac's face may not be familiar, but if you are a moviegoer, you've seen and enjoyed his work many times. (Photo by Michele Wiesler.)

When I began my research for Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition and was looking for local industry people to interview, one of my biggest priorities was to find a special effects person to speak with. Lucky for me, I was able to find one of the best in the business, John Milinac.

Born and raised in rural McHenry county in Northeastern Illinois, John was always interested in making home movies and “little story lines” with the neighborhood kids using his parent’s 8mm camera. He got super 8 sound camera when he graduated from High School in 1978 and “it ratcheted up a little more.” All the while, he was trying to figure out an entree to the real film industry.

He and his brother tracked down the production crew of the Blues Brothers (1980), which was filming a stunt scene in Wauconda, and visited the set. “We managed to infiltrate the set close enough to start talking to people and figure out how to approach getting into the film industry, and it seemed like a pretty big task at the time.” Milinac never gave up on his dream, however, and the itch to make movies just grew too intense. This led to him moving out to Los Angeles several years later, “I knew there was a ‘Stunts Unlimited’ company and just guessing I thought there’d be a ‘Special Effects Unlimited’ Company and there was. That turned out to be owned by legendary Hollywood effects man Joe Lombardi (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather).

“I started making a contact with that company and talking to their general manager and over the next few years just became one of their nuisance phone calls.” They finally relented and hired John as an entry level employee and he moved out to Los Angeles in 1985. He worked for Special Effects Unlimited until his son was born in 1989. John and his wife decided that LA wouldn’t be the best place to raise a family, so they moved back to Northern Illinois and bought a home. Illinois was still an infrequent site for movie making, however, and John had resigned himself to the fact that his career in film production might be coming to an end.

That all changed when Ron Howard’s multi-million dollar special effects laden production, Backdraft (1991), started filming in several locations around Chicago. Milinac knew the special effects crew, and was hired immediately. Backdraft was the first of a new wave of films to be shot in Chicago, and John soon realized he might be able to return home to his rural roots, yet still work in the movie business. “I just had to approach the industry a little bit differently than if we’d stayed in Los Angeles.”

The experience that he gained working out west proved invaluable to Milinac as he was able to work his way into the local film unions and become a mainstay of the Chicago/Midwest crew scene. He’s now a top tier special effects coordinator, having worked in various capacities on over 50 films in the last 25 plus years; including Next Of Kin (1989), Dennis The Menace (1993), The Relic (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Negotiator (1998), A Simple Plan (1998), Stir Of Echoes (1999), Road To Perdition (2002), 8 Mile (2002), The Last Samurai (2003), The Weather Man (2005), The Break Up (2006), The Lake House (2006), The Express (2008), Wanted (2008), and The Unborn (2009). He also worked on several television shows, including Prison Break (1994) and The Beast (2009).

The fluttering feathers at the end of Stir of Echoes, the frosty with the spoon on Nicholas Cage’s jacket in The Weatherman, the intense battle scenes in The Last Samurai (he assisted on that film), the driving rainstorm during the climactic shootout in Road To Perdition, the big cemetery shootout in Next Of Kin, and untold scenes of terror and mayhem in a slew of horror pictures; John’s work (both big and subtle effects) has been an integral part of many of the coolest films of the last three decades.

He graciously has given several hours of his time to discuss his work and career with me over the last year, but you’ll have to get a copy of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition to find out more! We’re only here to talk about his most recent work, particularly on The Unborn. [Yeah, I know I’m a tease. But I’ve got to move some units and I can’t be giving it all away.]

Much of the work of a mechanical special effects coordinator is preparation for contingencies that never occur; certain effects may be called for in the script that turn out to be too expensive for the budget, or the script changes and the effect is eliminated, or the effect itself is changed. On the other hand, John always has to be prepared to efficiently, safely, and inexpensively create effects on the fly which were never discussed. Perhaps the location where the scene occurs changes and they have to scramble to replicate the original effect under totally new conditions, or a new scene is written that calls for something completely different, or one of the other departments needs a rig made for one of their effects (John’s department also functions as the on set mechanics for anything that breaks down and “R and D” for any new devices or rigging needed by the lighting, electrical or any other crew on set). It is a constant process of improvisation and creative problem solving.

For The Unborn there was much preparation for more slime effects in an attempt to create an otherworldly feeling,  “We had spent a lot of our earliest pre-production time coming up with a lot of interesting slime effects- oozing from the floor, coming up from the toilet, or cracks in the walls– there were several pages in the script where it was a torrent of this stuff coming down stairwells, going backwards up walls-things of that nature. We did a lot of test shooting, some of it worked well, some of it didn’t.” Unfortunately, all of the nightmarish scenes featuring Odette Yustman (who played the protagonist of the film) wandering endless hallways oozing with slime “like the bowels of hell” had to be cut for budgetary reasons and the slime was really only brought out in one scene.

It boiled down to where the most economical place to use the “ectoplasmic” effects was in the scene in the nightclub bathroom. That’s where a full onslaught of slime and bugs and creatures coming through the walls occurred. John and cohorts designed and created a special set which contained breakaway walls and hidden slime faucets and drains. “That was a pretty interactive set for a couple days; with sliming, and oozing, and mopping it up, and resetting it, recovering it. It [the slime] was basically just water and Methocel (a food additive used in shakes and a disturbing array of other food products) and caramel color, just trying to go for a putrid look, but something we could create a lot of. We probably had about 50 or 60 gallons and we just pumped it wherever we needed it.”

Some Other Effects On The Unborn:

Upside-Down-Headed Crab Crawling Guy– John and the mechanical effects department were able to sit this one out. They had made tentative preparations for a trolley rig in case the person hired for the effect needed the support, but he was a professional contortionist and proved to be so talented that nothing was needed. Just a mask made to give the upside down head illusion and him crab crawling in various ways- reversed and speed altered. Turned out to be a very creepy effect for little money. “The less you see it the more upsetting it is, because you don’t really know what is up with that guy.”

Demon Possessed Kid Gets Thwunked By Car: Was staged in reverse order, “with the car and the kid right next to each other” and then the film was run backwards with an immediate cut to a stunt player (with a very slight build) bouncing off the breakaway glass windshield. Ended up looking very realistic and really gave a nice quick scare.

Demon Boy In The Medicine Cabinet Effect– It’s a staple of horror films, but is always effective if done properly (as it was here). A special medicine cabinet was made and fitted with the twisted writhing limbs and other creepy stuff, along with a small place for the kid who plays the demon boy to put his face, “kind of like those placards where you stick your face through the cardboard and have your picture taken.” Odette opens the cabinet, and PRESTO!!! Mutilated demon boy! Now where did those Band Aids get to?

Bug In The Egg Effect: This was perhaps my favorite effect in the film (it made me jump out of my skin) although it was very quick and kind of low key for a horror film. Odette is cooking breakfast and cracks an egg into a skillet when a large and creepy bug emerges from the burbling egg and races away. “I had a lot of fun with that trick,” recalls Milinac. Basically, he took an egg, drilled a hole in it and blew it out so it was hollow, “like you did in grade school,” then carefully cracked it open, inserted the bug with a bit of egg white, and sealed it up with a temporary patch and a little bit of wax. The actress was then instructed how to hold and crack the egg into the pan for maximum effect.

For the “cooking” part, he got a skillet and modified it by drilling tiny invisible holes in it, then ran air through those holes to give the illusion of cooking when the egg hits it. They did several takes with the egg being cracked into the pan and the bug scurrying around. Then the insect wrangler would grab the bug and clean it off (with the ever-present Humane Society observer to make sure the bug wasn’t mistreated) and they would start again with a new egg.

The bug itself was called a Potato Bug. “It didn’t bite, but was very obnoxious, thorny and prickly and difficult to handle, kind of like an aggressive grasshopper.” There is an entire industry of people who provide various critters for movie scenes. Since bugs can’t really be trained, the wrangler will have an entire array of various insects for each task required “this one’s a good runner, this one likes to stay still, this one crawls real slow” and use them accordingly.

All-in-all the effects went extremely well on The Unborn and the movie was well received by audiences. There has been no official talk of a sequel to the film, but as John mentions “it does have the classic ending that could move into a sequel.” If the amount of searches I see on my web stats for this site that ask “will there be an Unborn 2?” (not to mention all the searches for “Odette Yustman in her underwear”) are any indication, we should definitely be seeing a sequel in the near future.

While I had John on the line, I questioned him about a few other things; the first one being his thoughts on the remake of Nightmare On Elm Street which had recently wrapped shooting. There wasn’t a lot he could say about it, there being a rather strict understanding of confidentiality about unreleased films in the FX code of ethics (often enforced by legal documents signed by the crew beforehand); but he did volunteer that, from his perspective, this re-imagining of the Freddy Krueger mythos will be much more dark and serious than the original franchise, without the tongue-in-cheek campyness that Robert Englund brought to the role. This darker version has apparently gone over quite well in some early tests and the filmmakers are “very excited” about its prospects.

I also asked John about any memories or impressions of the recently and untimely departed John Hughes, since Milinac had worked on several films that Hughes had produced and/or written (Baby’s Day Out, Dennis The Menace, Miracle On 34th Street, Home Alone 3). While Milinac had very little personal interaction with Hughes, the impression that he got from the reclusive producer was that his favorite thing in the world was to be on a movie set (which makes his retreat from directing even more curious).

John and I discussed a few other items, but this post just passed 2000 words and needs to be brought to a merciful end. Look for other posts about him in the future, as he is very forthcoming about his craft and is generous with his time (when he has any, that is).

Learn more about John Milinac (and several other Chicago film production luminaries) in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, which is now available for preorder on Amazon.com and is slated for a November release (just in time for Holiday giving!).

Those among you who have followed the site from the beginning (both of you) may remember that I promised to get veteran special effects coordinator John Milinac to dish on how he and his crew achieved some of the creepy effects in The Unborn, as well as imparting his knowledge on some other matters.

Well, I was finally able to connect with the (incredibly busy) man and will be transcribing our talk and putting together a post in a few weeks. So this is your last chance to run down a copy of the film and give it a look see before I spoil everything by revealing “the tricks behind the tricks.”

This poster used for the international theatrical release of The Unborn demonstrates how integral to the plot it was to have Odette Yustman be in her underwear.

This poster, used for the international theatrical release of The Unborn, illustrates how integral to the plot it was for Odette Yustman to be in her underwear.

Some salient info that I didn’t want to bury at the end of the previous manifesto (things got very bloggy there, please pardon me):

Veteran Chicago Special Effects Coordinator John Milinac, who I interviewed and featured in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, encouraged me to catch The Unborn when it was in theaters last Winter. John was the SE Coordinator on the film, and he discussed how intense and freaky some of the effects were, and that it really should be seen on the big screen. Unfortunately, I was too busy finishing the manuscript to spare the time.

After catching it on DVD last week, I contacted John to discuss how he and his crew pulled off some of the effects, but he was too busy to chat, as he is finishing up work on the remake of Nightmare On Elm Street (which wraps next week). So we made arrangements to talk about The Unborn (and the various tricks and illusions he employed) once he has a bit of time. [I’ll also see what he can tell us about Nightmare On Elm Street.]

So here is what I propose, Gentle Reader: If you wish, you can rent The Unborn and view it sometime in the next week or so; then come back here and discover how the major mechanical effects were actualized by John and his crew.

Keep in mind that the Special Effects Coordinator is in charge of the physical effects that happen in front of the camera, so he won’t have much insight into any CGI or other visual effects done in post-production. He’s also responsible for general physical effects like running water, fireplaces, appliances and the like; so on the off chance you have any questions about how he made the shower run or anything exciting like that…feel free to leave your query in the comments section. [Oh the wonders of Internet 2.0!!!].

BTW- The Unborn was shot mostly in Lake Forest and the northern ‘burbs; although there is one brief exterior scene Downtown on Wacker Drive (across from the Christian Science Temple), another interior scene in what looks to be the Aon Tower, and the Harlo Grill in Melrose Park also has a brief cameo (looking absolutely gorgeous). And (of course) the mandatory awe inspiring overhead shots of the lakefront and the Chicago river.

I ended up watching both the theatrical version and the “unrated” version, and the only “extra” footage seemed to be about 2.5 seconds of relatively chaste (albeit well executed) simulated sex betwixt the protaganist and her hunky beau. Apparently by “unrated” they mean “not quite PG-13 anymore.” So don’t be expecting some bonus Veerhoevenesqe (Veerhoevian? Veerhoevarian?) orgy of demonic lust and violence.


I kind of stopped watching horror pictures at some point in the mid-1980’s, mostly because they became so different from the horror movies I loved as a kid.

Having cut my teeth on the Hammer Studio films of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Era and the Shock Theater oeuvre of 50’s and 60’s chillers, I spent many a late night cringing in terror at those gruesome Gothic-tinged offerings in front of a old black and white set in my room.

Sure, they were cheesy, and most of them don’t hold up today. But they were perfect for the sensibilities of a kid; with their overblown acting, simply drawn characters and ponderous plot machinations. The low budgets, stodgy public mores and the primitive state of special effects at the time kept them from being too graphic or showing a lot of the various monsters, so the filmmakers learned to do without all the intense visuals contemporary horror films rely on. It was all about what you didn’t see with those movies that made them so chilling, the idea of the monster. This was also perfect for the fertile mind and ability to suspend disbelief of a child. The details you filled in with your imagination were scarier that any amount of fake blood or monster costume could possibly be.

The more existentialist horror films of the late 60’s and early 70’s also understood the “less is more” concept. Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Burnt Offerings (1976) spared the gore and effects, but laid on the atmosphere and the feeling of imminent doom. Even The Exorcist (1973), lauded (and condemned) at the time for its intense and graphic special effects, was mostly about the build-up.

But the success of Friday The 13th (1980) (and the boatloads of cash the sequels pulled in) resulted in a new formula and paradigm in horror films:  A bunch of obnoxious stupid people (often teens) are rapidly killed off in gruesome and graphic fashion by a vicious and sadistic (yet often oddly charismatic) character who has supernatural powers and/or inhuman strength and abilities. The “Slasher Film” became the norm, and this paradigm shift caused me to bail out of the horror genre. I didn’t stop watching horror films altogether, but I definitely backed off and let the genre “see other people.”

Now, I’m a huge fan of clueless people being killed (I’d like the idea to become public policy, in fact), but when everyone in the entire film is annoying and stupid it really destroys the drama. You can’t buy into the movie if you don’t really care if anybody lives. I’m also not afraid of a little gore, but once the buckets of blood start flowing there’s really nowhere else to go and the movie can’t build any suspense. And since you know the least abrasive and dim witted people are going to be the last ones killed or will vanquish the homicidal slasherbeing (at least until they churn out the next one)– Why bother to stick around?

It isn’t like the earlier movies didn’t follow formulas or have repugnant characters or let the blood flow on occasion; but they didn’t always use the same formula or make everyone odious, and they at least attempted to build some sort of suspense before hauling out the red corn syrup.

This brings me to The Unborn, which was just released on DVD. [Good Lord. Over 500 words before I even mention the movie at hand! I’m already turning into Jonathan Rosenbaum. Somebody stab me with a giant knife or something!]

The Unborn definitely isn’t bereft of formula or cliche (especially the “preternaturally hot female protagonist who spends inordinate amounts of time in her underwear”), it has its moments of semi-graphic violence (especially towards the end), and it certainly throws down a fancy visual effect or two; but I found myself buying into the movie in a way that I haven’t since I was a little sprout all huddled in front of the TV in my room.

The main thing that made The Unborn remind me of those bygone days was that it attempted to create a little drama before trotting out the sound and fury. Although it turns on the trippy suspense at the get go with a creepy dream sequence, it gives the audience time to get acquainted with the characters and generates some dread and anticipation before totally going for the throat.

What’s more, the aforementioned characters aren’t completely shallow, brain dead idiots. Not that they’re little Mother Theresas or extremely deep, but they seem to possess a thought or two, and (most important) you aren’t rooting for them to all die 10 minutes into the film.

The film was written and directed by David S. Goyer, who is most known for writing the scripts for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as the three Blade films. Jane Alderman [featured in Hollywood On Lake Michigan], who helped cast the film, told me that Goyer did not like to even use the term “horror movie.”

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, so I’ll merely say that it involves a young woman (actress/model Odette Yustman) who battles against an evil spirit who wishes to possess her. A few of the plot elements are lifted from other horror films, but they’re reassembled very well, and the acting is as good as you’ll find in this genre; especially the cameos from James Remar (as the girl’s father), Idris Elba (who played Stringer Bell on the unfreakingbelievably excellent HBO Series, The Wire), and Gary Oldman (yes, the Gary Oldman) as a helpful Rabbi.

Which leads me to another aspect I enjoyed about The Unborn; the fact that the main character and her family are Jewish (albeit non-practicing) and the central “myth” (for want of a better word) of the film is based around the Kaballa and Hebrew mysticism. That’s right, a Jewish exorcism movie. Now this hardly constitutes some sort of B’nai B’rith cultural watershed moment, but it was a nice change of pace not to have to hear all the shopworn Book of Revelations-type cliches for once. Plus, why should us goyim always have all the fun battling insensate supernatural evil? There’s an interesting moment where Yustman’s character mentions that she doesn’t want “a Christian exorcism,” only to be reminded that “this sort of being predates Christianity or Judaism, perhaps even humanity.”

Of course, all of the things that I liked about the film (its leisurely pacing, the relative lack of graphic violence and tons of over the top special effects) are anathema to youngsters who cut their teeth on post-Friday The 13th fare. Therefore, although The Unborn did pretty well at the box office, if you go to any of the online reviewing sites (such as Rotten Tomatoes or the IMDB) you’ll find post after post about how completely awful this film is (many “real” critics dumped on it as well).

And I will grant you, this isn’t a piece of great cinema; but if you’re yearning for something slightly reminiscent of the kind of horror film they made back before the dawn of the Slasher Era, something that will give you some plot development along with your minimum RDA of gore and mayhem, then definitely rent The Unborn.