Review: Makeup, Monsters & Superheroes at Hollywood Museum

Hollywood Museum Batman '66
20th Century Superhero Legends

The Hollywood Museum is currently curating two exhibitions of intense interest to fans of horror movies and fantasy films:

  • 30 Years of Make-Up, Monsters, and Magic focuses on the work of the Hollywood effects company Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.
  • 20th Century Superhero Legends offers nostalgic memorabilia from movies and TV of the 1960s and 1970s.

The A-side of this hit single is definitely the Amalgamated Dynamics display, but the Legendary Superheroes provide a solid flip-side. Together, they form a perfect sort of Yin and Yang, the darkly sinister horrors of the former balanced by the colorfully reassuring wonderment of the latter. In addition, the Hollywood Museum's perennial Dungeon of Doom offers a value-added bonus for horror fans, with its collection of sets, props, costumes, and posters from frightful films and television shows.

Pictured at top: Tom Woodruff,  Jr., Donelle Dadigan, Alec Gillis

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The Hollywood Museum: Overview

In case you're not familiar with The Hollywood Museum, it is located in the former Max Factor building on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, which also houses Mel's Drive in (conveniently joined by a short corridor, so you can grab a burger after viewing the exhibits).

Hollywood Museum exterior
Hollywood Museum in the old Max Factor building on Highland Avenue

Befitting the building's legacy, the museum's ground floor emphasizes Hollywood glamour (makeup and wardrobe), but there is also room for science-fiction and fantasy material - everything from Harry Potter to Vampira. Currently, among the pink Christmas trees dotting the lobby, there is a display case housing the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. Downstairs is the Dungeon. Upstairs are the special exhibits.

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The Hollywood Museum: 30 Years of Makeup, Monsters & Magic

30 Years of Make-Up, Monsters, and Magic occupies the entire second floor gallery, which is filled with Aliens, Predators, Pennywise the Clown from IT, Annabelle the Doll from The Conjuring films, a mutant from X-Men: First Class, and Jakoby the Orc from the Netflix film Bright. And since movie monsters should never be without a soundtrack to underline their ominous qualities, throbbing music pulses through the air, lending an aura of tension - you may feel as if you really have wandered into a dangerous den of monsters.

Most of the truly eye-catching pieces are encased in a glass display marked "Camera Ready," indicating that these are finished works, good enough to withstand closeup scrutiny from the motion picture camera - or the human eye. This should not be underestimated: special effects are often built to survive the shoot and not much more; materials such as foam rubber are not very durable. Having these otherworldly creations in a form worthy of a gallery showing is remarkable, presenting them not as mere technical achievements or movie props but rather as artworks in their own right.

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The Alien and Predator figures are probably the most iconic ones on view, but for us the most impressive was the giant "bug" from Starship Toopers, looming large as life and separated from the public only by a velvet rope, like a movie star waiting for fans to come and take a selfie. Starship Troopers was an early example of using computer-generated imagery to depict large swarms of creatures, but this full-size creature reminds us that physical effects have a tactile verisimilitude difficult to duplicate in the virtual realm.

30 Years of Makeup, Monsters, and Magic
Susan Olson poses with insect from Starship Troopers

Other displays are less about aesthetic appreciation than education. Video clips illustrate work in progress and finished effects. Succinct descriptions explain the techniques used to create lifelike appearances from inanimate materials: painting glass eyes, punching hair in masks, painting foam rubber "skin" to simulate the translucent appearance of real flesh. Even knowledgeable laymen may learn a thing a two, such as that the process of make a life-cast (a mold duplicating an actor's features) no longer relies on old-fashioned alginate but on more modern substances that dry faster, so that the subject no longer has to sit so long waiting for the muck encasing his face to dry and be cut off.

Hollywood Museum30 Years of Makeup Monsters and Magic
Life casts

Make-Up, Monsters, and Magic celebrates the 30th anniversary of Amalgamated Dynamics, founded by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., whose credits stretch back to Tremors and include such titles as The Santa Claus, Spider-Man, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Logan. The shared an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Death Becomes Her. They executed the effects for Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and the two Alien Vs. Predator films (a title card in the display case credits their work on the "Alien franchise," coyly eliding the fact that they did not work on the first film, whose Alien was designed and created by the late Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger). They famously saw most of their work on the 2011 remake-prequel of The Thing replaced by CGI work, then turned lemons into lemonade by creating their own film, Harbinger Down (2013) to showcase the kind of physical effects that had been abandoned in the previous film. Their most recent release is The Predator, and the are currently working on several projects, including the upcoming Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

With a filmography this long, it is impossible for 30 Years of Make-Up, Monsters, and Magic to squeeze in everything; nevertheless, the exhibit does a fine job of hitting the highlights, featuring some of the company's most spectacular and famous creations. As if all this were not enough, the exhibit includes examples of effects and makeup that inspired Amalgamated Dynamics, such as one of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion models from the classic fantasy film 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It's a perfect opportunity to see classic and contemporary creatures rubbing shoulders. The exhibit will continue through December 15.

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Photos from the opening night reception courtesy of the Hollywood Museum

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The Hollywood Museum: 20th Century Superhero Legends

The third floor gallery houses several perennial exhibits (Harry Potter, etc), along with the new 20th Century Superhero Legends: Dedicated to Fight Evil, which opened on November 14. This is an expanded version of the Batman '66 exhibit, which launched in January, featuring props, costumes, and figures from the campy 1960s television show. 20th Century Superhero Legends adds Wonder Woman and Superman to the mix, in the form of life-size figures of Linda Carter from the 1970s television show and of Christopher Reeve from the 1978 film Superman: The Movie, along with display cases of merchandise.

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The Batman '66 exhibits are more elaborately detailed, offering the Batmobile and the Batcycle in a recreation of the Batcave and the "Bat Poles" that Dick and Bruce used to descend from the study in Wayne Manor to the Caped Crusader's lair. There are costumed likenesses of Batman, Robin, Batgirl, along with a rogue's gallery of their most famous adversaries: Catwoman, the Riddler, the Penguin, the Joker, and King Tut.

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20th Century Superhero Legends is a fun trip down memory lane, to a bygone era when costumed crime-fighters were simple and even goofy - basically, naive comic characters brought to life in live-action with little concern for realism or troubling psychological overtones. Definitely a nice place to visit, even if only to provide a contrast with the current slate of hyper-charged big-screen superheroes. The exhibit runs through December 30.

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The Hollywood Museum: The Dungeon
Hollywood Museum Monsters Mummies and Mayhem
Descend to the Dungeon

No trip to the Hollywood Museum would be complete without descending into the Dungeon of Doom. Housed in the basement, this year-round exhibition features the prison set from Silence of the Lambs, including Hannibal Lecter's cell, plus a collection of horror movie memorabilia titled "Monsters, Mummies & Mayhem," which includes miniature models of the original King Kong and life-sized figures Frankenstein, Vampira, Jason Voorhees, along with costumes, props, posters, and photographs.

There have been several additions and alterations since our last visit in 2014. You can no longer enter the padded cell down the hall from Lecter's room. There are now costumes from The Walking DeadVan Helsing, and Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A poster and props from The Scorpion King have been added to the Mummy display. A coffin from True Blood is on view. A guillotine from Quills (not really a horror film) holds a severed head. More withered bodies are stuffed in the small back room (where heard an audio track discussing the work of producer-director William Castle, known for his gimmicky horror films in the 1950s and 1960s).

One odd change was on the wall of photos depicting dozens of actors who played the roll of Dracula onscreen. Four years ago, we spotted a shot of Christopher Lee in Dracula, Prince of Darkness misidentified as Frank Langella in Dracula. Checking to see whether the mistake had been corrected, we saw the shot of Lee had been replaced - with a shot of him in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, still identified as Frank Langella in Dracula! At the front desk we were told that a correct photo was at the printer, soon to be delivered and put up on the wall.

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Photo mishap aside, the Dungeon offers a shadowy gallery of horrors in a setting perfectly suited to house them. The atmosphere is definitely that of haunted house attraction; though there are neither actors nor jump-scares, you may suffer a shiver or two while perusing the cadaverous figures lurking in the darkness. The recent additions keep the exhibit up to date with current trends while not eclipsing the classic horror icons. The result is a bit like a miniature history of horror, with monsters from different decades comfortably rubbing shoulders, The Scorpion King side by side with Blood From the Mummy's Tomb. It may be a nightmare for some but definitely a dream come true for others.

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The Hollywood Museum: Conclusion
Hollywood Museum Phantom of the Opera
Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera

All three of the above exhibits are available for a single price of admission during regular business hours. 30 Years of Make-Up, Monsters, and Magic is definitely the star attraction, but 20th Century Superhero Legends: Fight Against Evil has its own campy charm. The Dungeon - with its Monsters, Mummies, and Mayhem - is worth a visit entirely on its own. When there are two great exhibits upstairs, there is no justification for a self-respecting horror fan not to attend.

Afterward, take advantage of the convenient corridor linking the Hollywood Museum to Mel's Drive In. Along the way, you will pass a figure of Lon Chaney in his guise as the title character in the 1925 silent black-and-white version of The Phantom of the Opera. In one of those interesting juxtapositions that characterizes the Hollywood Museum's display, Chaney's Phantom is standing over a poster for the 1943 color remake starring Claude Rains, reminding us that the horror genre eternally renews itself, resurrecting old characters in new forms for successive generations. The presence of up-to-date work by Amalgamated Dynamics, while horror from decades past lurks in the Dungeon, is the Museum's most recent manifestation of this lesson.

Hollywood Museum Exhibition Ratings
  • 30 Years of Makeup, Monsters, and Magic
  • 20th Century Superhero Legengs: Fight Against Evil
  • Dungeon of Doom
4.2

Bottom Line

With two fine limited-run exhibitions currently on view, this is definitely the time for horror and fantasy fans to visit the Hollywood Museum. And the Dungeon of Doom is always worth visiting, but it gets a half-point off for misidentifying actor Christopher Lee as Frank Langella.

The Hollywood Museum is located at 1660 N. Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Hours are 10am-5pm, Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $5 for children, $12 for students and seniors, $15 for adults. For more information, call (323) 464-7776, or visit the website: thehollywoodmuseum.com.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.