Special Effects Makeup Artist
Basket Case 2 & 3, Leprechaun, Cremaster Cycle, Skinned Deep
Creature creator and makeup artist Gabe Bartalos is a dimension hopper. Famous for the Leprechaun films and his collaborations with exploitation hero Frank Henenlotter, he goes back and forth between horror and fine art. He invited me to his workshop, where these worlds collide—a place where Belial from Basket Case has been tossed in a closet next to prosthetic legs used in Drawing Restraint. In other words, a paradise.
So if you’re stuck in a loop weighing the artistic merits of a horror movie like Leprechaun or Brain Damage and high art, you’ll find, as Gabe Bartolas has, that it’s the grey area between the two worlds that holds the most significance.
VICE: Have you always been into art?
Gabe Bartalos: Oh yes, since I was child I was drawing and painting, but my first love was always the cinema.
When you were 14 years old you made a Super 8 movie called The Bored Boy, where you sat at a table and carved yourself up. Was that your first film?
How on earth did you find out about that? I grew up in Westchester, New York with a pretty normal suburban upbringing, so I don’t have a good explanation for why I was into gouging out my own eyeballs, slashing up my body, and pulling out my innards and eating them. I made that with a single cartridge of Super 8 film. Most likely that was my first film but there were many more.
How many more were there? You are one of those people blessed with a clear vision of what you wanted to do with your life from a very young age.
Around 20 or 30 films. I had all the local kids involved, no one could escape being in them. There were aliens, people drilling into heads, you name it. I saw someone from my old neighborhood recently and he said, “Remember that time you decapitated me?”
How did you finance your Super 8 films?
I sold metal social security cards. I’d go around the neighborhood and collect orders for these silly cards. Buying the film wasn’t expensive, it was developing it. Most of them were edited in camera, it wasn’t until much later that I got proper editing equipment.
Were your parents supportive?
They say they had discussions, but ultimately they were happy that I was doing something I loved. The funny thing is both my parents are doctors, so I could easily blame them for leaving anatomy books around the house. Promotional pharmaceutical items were always being mailed to the house, too, like a model of a skinned knee or the lung ashtray that I still have.
So would your parents ever hook you up with cool props from the hospital?
Every now and then if my dad saw things being thrown away he’d bring it home to me. Some of the surgical tools were good for sculpting or using to poke out a neighbor’s eye.
Did you go to film school?
I went to Syracuse for a semester, but I was working as an intern at Arnold Gargiulo and he offered me a job. Because of him, I was able to be on real film sets at the age of 17.
How did you get hooked up with him?
I met him at a horror convention. A film called The Deadly Spawn was about to come out and he was there promoting it, so I came up and showed him my portfolio. I started out cleaning buckets at his studio. Then he took me under his wing and brought me to sets.
How did you start working with Frank Henenlotter?
One day there was a note on my door to call Frank Henenlotter back. I said, “What?”I couldn’t believe it.I was already a huge fan of the insanity that is Basket Case. I called Frank back and he offered me work on his next film, Brian Damage. Ever since, I have been involved with every film Frank has done, including a new one that’s in the works. He is a nut and all of his films are psychotically wonderful.
You guys seems like you are perfectly matched.
With most of my repeat collaborators there is a kinship in our sensibilities—Frank loves horror, but not the kind that is mean-spirited. It’s the same on my turf. Although I love grossing people out and shock value, I’m not interested in unnecessary brutality, which is something you see a lot of in today’s horror. I’m more interested in making things surreal.
Things get surreal for sure in Basket Case 2.
I was such a huge fan of the original Basket Case. I loved everything about that film. It was shot in 16mm, has stop-motion, and is the ultimate declaration of independence. It was fun to take things further in the sequel and entertain a lot of crazy ideas.
For sure! I think if anyone wants a creature with stretched flesh from another dimension, they pick up the phone and call you. How did you get to be a successful working weirdo?
The industry demands certain things. There was a period in the early 80s where there was a lot of graphic horror, yet my personal taste was to stretch and distort things. I did a lot of that kind of work after hours, which is what lead me to work with Henenlotter and years later with Matthew Barney. In the 90s, realism in makeup jumped to a whole other level. To get things looking real for the cameras was a lot of fun. Effects became the thing to do. Lots of new tools and materials like silicon were coming into play. But still in the after hours at home or between movies I was always doing the weirder stuff.
Like stretching flesh and making mutants!
Yes! It kept me balanced.
It comes to no surprise that you would wind up working with Matthew Barney.
Most people don’t know this but Matthew Barney has a great sense of humor. We got along immediately. The first film we did together was Drawing Restraint 7 with the satyrs. It was so impactful. His projects were pretty modest at that time, so it was fun to grow with him and watch his star rise. He kept inviting me back to work on projects and then he started the Cremaster Cycle.
What did you find interesting about jumping from Hollywood into the high art world?
When an art film is shown, it’s a totally different scene than when a horror movie like Leprechaun is shown. The work is primarily looked at intellectually. Working with Matthew Barney, it was groundbreaking to be a part of a major artwork that used Hollywood prosthetics. For the first four or five years I was working with him, no one in Hollywood knew who he was. I would show producers and colleagues pictures of what I was working on and they would have no idea who he was, but would be amazed. I’m just happy that I can bounce back and forth.
Did you bring anything from the art world back to Hollywood?
Working in the art world just reinforced what I already thought, which is that if you see a bloody head flying through the air, someone probably worked on it a long time and sculpted the neck really accurately. So if a film is repulsive but comes from the right place, it’s an artwork. It’s all art, it just depends on how you perceive it.