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The Sci Fi Boys

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Paul Davids’ new documentary The Sci-Fi Boys pays homage to the film pioneers of the past, showing how—through Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine—these pioneers influenced subsequent generations of filmmakers. Among them: directors Peter Jackson and John Landis, ILM VFX supervisor Dennis Muren, and horror makeup master/ape-suit god Rick Baker.Ackerman, known as Forry to his fans and friends, is the ultimate horror/sci-fi guru, and the greatest sci-fi fan of the last 100 years—he in fact coined the term sci-fi. As editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland between 1958 and 1983, he did more than simply print articles about old and new horror movies. A true showman, there was rarely an issue that didn’t feature Forry himself being strangled by somebody in a monster mask, and when he printed a rare archival still he usually punctuated the caption with at least 10 exclamation points. His house in the LA district of Los Feliz, the “Ackermansion,” was open to the public and housed his collection of 300,000 horror and sci-fi movie memorabilia pieces, many of which he obtained through his close association with Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios during its classic horror era. (It closed in 2002, but one can now visit his Ackermini-mansion online by logging on to http://4forry.best.vwh.net.) He made horror and sci-fi seem essential to human development, and in his magazine he put emphasis on the artists and technicians who made the movies, not just the stars. As Davids points out in The Sci-Fi Boys, Forry had an enthusiasm for the genre that was so intense as to make lifelong fans of thousands of kids who read his magazine and fell under his spell.Davids, a filmmaker himself (he co-wrote and executive produced Roswell, and was production coordinator on the Transformers cartoon series,) spent three years making The Sci-Fi Boys, which grew out of his own lifelong interest in imaginative cinema. “I was one of the winners of the first amateur movie contest that Famous Monsters ever held,” Davids says. “That was back in the mid ’60s. Forry had written two screenplays for contestants to consider filming, one was called Twin of Frankenstein, which accented makeup effects, and then there was Siegfried Saves Metropolis, based on two Fritz Lange films, which was intended to use stop motion.”Using an 8mm camera and homemade stop-motion figures, Davids and a couple of his friends shot their prize-winning version of the Siegfried story. This led to his meeting Ackerman, through whom Davids met a number of other sci-fi pioneers. But the magazine also had a section for fan mail called Graveyard Examiner, through which the fans themselves got to know each other. “Through Forry’s magazine I discovered there were a lot of other kids across America who were doing exactly the same thing,” he says. “One of the kids that I got in touch with was Dennis Muren, and he was making his own little space movies in 8mm with plastic spaceships and clay dinosaurs. He has now won eight Academy Awards, and heads effects at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.” Other kids Davids knew were Leonard Maltin, who became a noted scholar and critic; Donald F. Glut, who wrote the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back; William Malone, who grew up to direct the remake of House on Haunted Hill and FeardotCom; and Steve Johnson, creator of the Bicentennial Man and the aliens for the movie Roswell, and who runs a company called Edge Effects.By reading Famous Monsters, all these kids became fascinated with the film artist/technicians such as Willis O’Brien (animator/effects supervisor of the 1933 King Kong), Ray Harryhausen (stop-motion master of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and many others), makeup artist Jack Pierce (creator of the Karloff Frankenstein monster makeup and the Lon Chaney Jr. wolfman), and producers such as George Pal (the original War of The Worlds and Time Machine), Roger Corman (the classic Vincent Price/Edgar Allen Poe films such as The Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum), and William Castle (The Tingler; House on Haunted Hill.)“Those were my heroes, and they were the heroes of all the young filmmakers of my generation, and the same is true for Peter Jackson’s generation. He started out reading Famous Monsters, made his own King Kong in 8mm, and his own Cyclops like Harryhausen’s Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which he built at age 15. All of us had the same background. Knowing that two generations of young filmmakers had started under the thrall of these men, I wanted to not only make a tribute to the older pioneers, but show how they influenced these next generations who went on to totally revolutionize the way imaginative movies are done. These next generations in a way replaced and surpassed their mentors, but kept their heartfelt connections to these men who were really their father figures.”The Sci-Fi Boys features interviews with all these younger filmmakers and many of their mentors. Peter Jackson discusses the lengths he went to get issues of Famous Monsters, and his long train rides through New Zealand to see new film releases by Pal. Landis gives his amusing views on the career growth of contemporary sci-fi and horror filmmakers. Scenes from O’Brien’s early silent film The Dinosaur and the Missing Link and clips from Harryhausen’s early amateur films culminate in interview footage of Steven Spielberg discussing how he replaced Phil Tippett’s go-motion dinosaurs with Muren’s CGI dinosaurs for Jurassic Park—the event that rang the death knell for stop-motion animation.In the DVD’s bonus material are extended interviews with Muren on the switch from stop motion to CGI, and Baker on the evolution of monster makeup, as well as Tom Hanks hosting the presentation to Harryhausen of his Lifetime Achievement Oscar and calling Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts the greatest film ever made. There are also several of the early amateur films made by Muren and others.But perhaps the best moments are those with Ackerman himself, who at age 89 is still as enthusiastic as ever about sci-fi, and even strikes a terrified pose beside the poster of Jackson’s King Kong remake at the LA premiere.“All of us in this business still look at these men as our uncles, our fathers,” Davids says. “We respect them, we love them, and I wanted to make The Sci-Fi Boys when they were still with us, and show how these Sci-Fi boys became Sci-Fi men, and became the filmmakers of all these movies that you love today. And that’s exactly what I did, and here we are three years later with Universal Home Entertainment releasing it.”

Written by Henry Turner

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