Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Tom Savini is More Than Smoke and Mirrors

Fans of horror movies, more so than almost any other genre, are interested in what goes on behind the scenes of their favorite films. Often the special effect and makeup artists are as famous if not more famous than the directors and actors they work with. Given the fandom’s passion for the process of filmmaking, it’s no wonder that a true horror renaissance man like Tom Savini is one of horror’s most celebrated icons. It’s this passion that’s carried over into the documentary about him, Smoke and Mirrors: The Tom Savini Story. For those who don’t know, Tom Savini is an actor, director, and makeup artist most famous for his special effects work on the Friday the 13th film series and George Romero’s early films. Smoke and Mirrors makes an effort to cover all aspects of Savini’s career.

Though most of the run time is dedicated to gushing about his effects, his time as an actor and director prove just as engaging. A lot of that comes down to Savini himself. The man’s enthusiasm oozes off the screen and it proves infectious. Whether he’s talking about a last-minute special effect for Dawn of the Dead or his role as Sex Machine in From Dusk till Dawn, Savini conveys a fan-like sense of wonder about being part of it all. Adding to Savini’s energy are interviews with those he’s worked with. People like the late George Romero, Alice Cooper, and Robert Rodriguez all show reverence for Savini’s creativity. These interviews offer us a good view of Savini’s professional life and how much of a treat he is to work with.

These interviews are compelling, but they do highlight a flaw with the documentary. While Smoke and Mirrors offers a wide variety of perspectives on Savini’s career, the same can’t be said for his personal life. Beyond Savini himself, the only real hints of his life outside of film come from his daughter and even then, she can only speak about her time with him. This leaves us with Tom Savini himself as the only source for most of what happened to him in his life.

Most of the stories he tells are compelling. The standout to me was his time serving in Vietnam. Savini gives Smoke and Mirrors some good material during this segment, but I wanted the documentary to go farther with it. Savini talks about his disillusion upon returning from the war with distance which is understandable. However, It’s impossible to tell whether this is a conscious effort by the filmmakers to keep things light, or whether this distance is how Savini copes with some of the more difficult moments in his life. Either way, an interview with a family member or friend about what he was like during this time would help the audience know how to feel about these difficult times.

Perhaps it is for the best that traumatic events like the war and his divorces are brushed past though because Smoke and Mirrors is not trying to paint a complex picture of Savini. If you are looking for a documentary that shows an honest picture of a person’s good and bad sides, then Smoke and Mirrors isn’t for you. The result is something closer to a fan-film. Fan film describes a good deal of the filmmaking on display too.

My biggest problem with Smoke and Mirrors beyond anything mentioned above is the audio. The music tracks chosen are uniformly terrible. All of it is this guitar-heavy rock that distracts from the interviews. Worse than the music though is some of the audio for Savini’s interviews. Whenever he isn’t talking, the audio cuts out which makes it easy to tell where the audio clips have been edited or cut. The intertitles are a problem. Between some interview segments are little pieces of written exposition to set up the next section. They’re presented in black and white,with fake film grain and the words shaking to make it all appear like something coming out of an old film projector. The slight shake added to the words can sometimes make them difficult to read and the style is incongruous with Savini’s work. If the documentary were about a horror icon of early cinema, such as Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney, then this style would make sense, but attaching it to Savini, whose work started in the seventies, feels like it clashes with Savini’s work.

By the end though, none of these problems were so glaring that I couldn’t give this documentary a recommendation. Like much of Savini’s work, Smoke and Mirrors isn’t particularly deep or poignant, but it doesn’t need to be. If you can ignore some minor problems, then you’ll find a film that’s so passionate about its subject, that you can’t help but love it. If this film’s goal was to convince me that Savini is a brilliant man then I can’t help but say it succeeded

Smoke and Mirrors was recently acquired by Shudder and is now streaming as part of the service.