Exclusive Interview: Oscar-Winning FX Artist Dave Elsey on Classic British Horror and the Amicus Revival

Stephanie Beacham

He’s a makeup whiz, animatronics expert, writer, and director. His work on The Wolfman won him a long-deserved Academy Award for Best Makeup. His artistic contributions to Hellraiser, The Witches, and Candyman both dazzled and terrified viewers. He’s lent his talents to the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, X-Men, Alien, and Mission: Impossible franchises. And who could forget Farscape, Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, and the numerous other projects he’s been part of? Dave Elsey needs no introduction as his list of accomplishments speaks for itself.

Long before he mastered the art of visual FX, Elsey consumed a steady diet of Amicus, Hammer, and Universal horror films. Enamoured by the thrills and chills of those macabre treats, he knew that he had to work in the art of motion pictures and the rest is history. However, while he’s worked on some of the biggest franchises in entertainment, Elsey’s love of horror has been a constant throughout his career. 

Classic British horror continues to inform Elsey’s work, whether he’s designing creature effects or helming his own films. In this interview, he talks about his love of the genre, influences, the beauty of practical effects,  the challenges he often faces as a filmmaker, his upcoming projects, and owning the false teeth of a figure Amicus fans will be very familiar with.

How did your fascination with Amicus and Hammer Productions begin and how has it influenced your career in visual effects and filmmaking?

You know, my fascination with Amicus and Hammer Productions goes way back to my childhood in the 1970s. Just like many other kids from my generation, I got my dose of these films on late-night television. It feels like I’ve been a fan forever. Can I take you back to around 1975 when this all began?

I remember those nights vividly. I’d be in bed, waiting for my parents to call it a night. As soon as I was sure they were settled in, I’d embark on a covert mission to sneak downstairs in complete darkness. Why, you ask? Well, it was simple – there was a double bill of horror movies scheduled on BBC2, and I couldn’t resist. You see, if American cinema art is defined by the Western film, then British cinema art, for me, is all about the Gothic horror genre.

Now, the reason I didn’t just watch these films in my bedroom was that, as far as I knew, nobody had a TV in their bedroom back then, certainly not me or any of my friends. So, to catch these films as they aired, I had to employ a mix of stealth and careful planning.

Let me clarify something: my parents weren’t worried that I’d be corrupted by monster movies; they were actually pretty laid-back ‘70s parents. Their only concern was that I’d miss out on valuable sleep. You know, bedtime was bedtime, and once you were tucked in for the night, you were expected to stay there.

But I was a young horror enthusiast with a strong desire not to be the odd one out at school. I wanted to join in on those animated discussions about the spine-tingling delights that were being beamed into our family’s trusty cathode-ray tube that night. So, rules had to be bent a little.

Once I’d successfully sneaked downstairs, I’d settle in to watch those films in a state of mild rebellion. Of course, this rebellion came with the TV volume turned down to a mere whisper, just in case I got caught and was sent back to bed without seeing the thrilling conclusions of both movies.

The mix of adrenaline, rule-breaking, and sheer love for scary movies was intoxicating. Yes, the movies scared me, but not nearly as much as the fear of getting caught watching them when I was supposed to be tucked in bed. I was addicted to the exhilarating rush of making a secret appointment with fear every Saturday night.

Those double bills were the highlight of my week. They typically featured a classic black and white horror film, often a Universal classic, followed by a more modern technicolor horror, usually from Hammer Films or Amicus. There was something enchanting about watching those films in the dark; the colours seemed to come alive.

I adored the elegant characters, the gothic settings, and the rich period atmosphere of the Hammer films. But I was equally drawn to the gritty, down-to-earth feel of the Amicus films and their multi-story format. Short horror stories have always been a favorite of mine, and it struck me that Amicus films, with their portmanteau-style anthologies, were a fantastic way to encapsulate these stories efficiently while retaining their impact. Ghost stories, especially, shine in shorter narratives, a fact that Hollywood has proven time and again.

This love for classic horror and the influence of Amicus and Hammer on my childhood has left an indelible mark on my career in visual effects and filmmaking. When my collaborator, Lou, and I decided to create our first short film, Keep the Gaslight Burning, we intentionally aimed to capture the essence of an Amicus anthology segment. The appreciation for classic storytelling and atmosphere I gained from those films has guided my approach to visual effects and filmmaking. I’ve come to understand that it’s not just about the special effects; it’s the narrative and atmosphere that truly captivate and terrify audiences.

Moreover, both Hammer and Amicus were known for valuing storytelling and atmosphere over extravagant makeup and monster effects. This approach has informed my own work, emphasizing the importance of crafting a compelling narrative and immersive environment to deliver those spine-tingling moments. But, of course, I’ve also taken inspiration from the memorable characters and makeup effects in these films, paying homage to them in my work for larger movies.

My childhood fascination with Amicus and Hammer Productions, and those thrilling late-night escapades, have had a profound impact on my career in makeup effects and filmmaking. These experiences shaped my love for horror, instilled an appreciation for classic storytelling and atmosphere, and continue to influence my creative endeavors, making me a dedicated contributor to the world of horror cinema. I’ll let readers watch the films I’ve worked on to work out where exactly these influences are. Consider them easter eggs.

Can you share a favorite film or scene from Amicus or Hammer that has particularly inspired or influenced your work?

There are almost too many moments that I enjoy. It might be easier to say which bits I don’t enjoy, which is quite a short list. If I’m honest, Dracula AD 1972 is an absolute guilty pleasure for me, and here’s why: it’s set right in Chelsea, where my wife is from, and we lived there for a while too. Watching that movie was an absolute blast because we recognised all these locations from our daily walks.

We’d casually spot places like Van Helsing’s beautiful home and the Cavern Club, and it was like a little game of, “Hey, that’s where Jessica Van Helsing and her gang used to hang out with Johnny Alucard, and discuss summoning up the big daddy with the horns and the tail or even demonstrated how not to use a blood capsule! It added a fun, spooky twist to our walks, that’s for sure.

Oh, also Christopher Lee’s place and Bram Stoker’s house were both just a stroll away from where we lived. Can you believe it? So yeah, Dracula AD 1972 holds a special place in our hearts – it’s like our own little Chelsea adventure on screen.

I also have a very soft spot for the Frankenstein series, especially The Curse of Frankenstein. That moment when Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein unveils his reanimated creation is a pivotal moment in the film and the Frankenstein mythos. That camera move and the amazing reveal always give me a thrill! And the final one, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, is wonderful. I was friends with Shane Bryant, and worked with him on Farscape. We had lots of fun chats about these films as he was made up each day. Have you ever watched that episode? You should!

Dave Elsey

When it comes to Amicus, there are just so many bits and pieces that I adore. What I really appreciate is how their stories are mostly set in a sort of warped present day. It’s like a kitchen sink version of horror, slightly grubby, and there’s always a little side street with a weird shop or a train carriage or even a simple lift to send you off into multiple stories. That sense of a hidden world of horror operating in plain sight is fascinating to me.

As for the segments, there are quite a few that stand out for me. In Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, I love “Disembodied Hand.” The tale of a jealous artist whose severed hand takes on a life of its own is wonderfully eerie. In Tales from the Crypt, “…And All Through the House” is a classic for me. A woman must contend with an escaped homicidal maniac dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve – you can’t get more chilling than that, and I usually watch it on Christmas Eve too. “Reflection of Death” is another favorite, especially the terrific use of Ian Hendry’s point of view after his not so near-death experience.

But “Poetic Justice” from the same anthology is the standout. Peter Cushing’s performance is fantastic, and it manages to both scare me and make me cry, which may be unique. The makeup for Grimsdyke is a work of art. I own Grimsdyke’s false teeth by the way!

“Blind Alleys” is wonderful too but mostly for Patrick McGee’s — um — slightly large performance.

In Asylum, “The Weird Tailor” is a standout for me. The story of a tailor hired to make a suit from a mysterious, unusual fabric is incredibly captivating. Vault of Horror is fantastic, especially “Midnight Mess” where a man tracks his missing sister, and ends up in a sinister restaurant inhabited by vampires. That ending is brutal, and it features that characteristic Amicus twilight world where the supernatural seems to operate just slightly out of sight of the real world. Nice To see Mike Pratt too, though briefly.

For me From Beyond the Grave Is the masterpiece. I could honestly go on and on about these films and segments, but I’ll stop here… for now.

What aspects of classic British horror cinema, particularly from Amicus and Hammer, do you find most compelling or unique?

One of the standout elements for me, as I said before, is the unique atmosphere these films create. There’s this unmistakable blend of Gothic and eerie settings that transport you to a different world. Whether it’s the foggy moors, the candlelit castles, or the cobweb-covered crypts, the attention to atmospheric detail is remarkable. It’s like stepping into a dark, foreboding dreamscape where anything can happen.

The Hammer films, in particular, excel at this. Their use of vibrant color in contrast to the dark and macabre subject matter is striking. It creates this visually captivating and, at times, unsettling experience that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Then there’s the unforgettable casts. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, for instance, brought such gravitas to their roles. They became iconic figures in the genre, and their performances elevated these films to a whole new level. The chemistry between them, especially in their numerous collaborations, is palpable. That’s the key, chose actors who commit to the material.

And let’s not forget the storytelling. Amicus, with its anthology format, brought a fresh and intriguing approach to horror narratives. It’s like diving into a treasure trove of interconnected tales, each with its own twist and turn. It keeps you engaged and guessing right until the end. Amicus films often transport you to a distinct and somewhat surreal version of the present day. It’s like a dark, alternate reality where the ordinary and the supernatural coexist, and it’s utterly enthralling.

It’s a world that’s slightly askew from our own, where the streets are a bit grubby, the buildings have an eerie presence, and the everyday locations hold secrets waiting to be unearthed. As I said before, it’s akin to a “kitchen sink” version of horror, as if the supernatural lurks just around the corner from the utterly mundane reality of real life. There’s a deliberate blurring of the lines between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and that’s where the magic happens.

Yeah, it’s this seamless integration of the uncanny into everyday life that I find utterly compelling. This juxtaposition of the familiar and the bizarre creates a tension and a sense of unease that’s uniquely Amicus.

In essence, Amicus excels at crafting a world where the paranormal is woven into the fabric of reality, and it’s this blending of the mundane and the macabre that makes their films so mesmerizing and enduring.

What’s also fascinating is how both Amicus and Hammer explored timeless themes of fear, morality, and the supernatural within a very British context. They managed to infuse their films with a distinct British sensibility, which added an extra layer of colloquial intrigue for me.

It’s a cinematic experience like no other, and that’s why I keep coming back to it time and time again.

How have Amicus and Hammer productions influenced the aesthetic and storytelling of your own short films?

You know, the short films Lou and I directed and wrote really delve into some of the same themes that you find in those classic Amicus films. We aimed to tap into that same rich tapestry they’re known for — this world where the paranormal seamlessly weaves itself into the very fabric of reality. It’s all about that delicate balance between the everyday and the eerie that makes their movies so captivating and timeless.

In our work, we tried to echo that same vibe, where the mundane and the macabre coexist in this strangely hypnotic dance. It’s almost like a tribute to their storytelling genius and their knack for pushing you to question what’s real and what’s lurking just beyond our understanding.

Our film Keep the Gaslight Burning actually drew inspiration from an R. Chetwynd-Hayes story, just like Amicus did with From Beyond the Grave and, well, sort of The Monster Club which strictly speaking isn’t quite Amicus. It’s a period piece too, and we deliberately infused some of that lush Hammer Films look into it. We played with colors and atmosphere to capture that vintage charm. It’s amazing to mention that I’m fortunate enough to know Kevin Connor, who directed From Beyond the Grave, and he was incredibly complimentary about our film.

Then there’s Stay Alert, which is almost like a lost anthology segment waiting to be discovered. In it, we explore the idea that strange and uncanny things can lurk in plain sight, just like those hidden horrors in Amicus films. It’s all about making you question the reality you think you know.

So, in a way, our films are our way of paying homage to that legacy of storytelling, atmosphere, and the art of blurring the lines between the known and the unknown that Amicus mastered so brilliantly.

Dave Elsey

Could you discuss the process of integrating elements from classic horror into your own work, while still making it appealing for modern audiences?

Sure, well, it’s not all about looking back. We’re in the present, and there are fears and concerns today that are ripe for exploration. We have tried to bring those into the mix too, especially with our short Stay Alert, which was not only made during the big COVID lockdown, but also references it too.

Of course, we never forget the core elements — tension, suspense, and that sense of looming dread. Those are the things that have always made horror tick, and they’re just as effective today.

The horror genre is always evolving, so we try to keep up with what’s new while still giving a respectful nod to what’s come before. It’s really about finding that sweet spot between tradition and innovation. We don’t want to just mimic classic horror; we want to build on it and create something that’s both timeless and relevant.

Can you share any challenges you’ve faced in capturing the essence of classic British horror cinema in your own films, and how you’ve overcome them?

Oh, absolutely! When it comes to making our films, we’ve faced the same challenges that have haunted horror flicks for ages – money and time. Let me tell you a bit about how we tackled those hurdles.

For Keep the Gaslight Burning, we managed to raise funds and co-finance it with the help of some dear friends, Don Bies and Anna Bies. We’ve known them since the days of Revenge of the Sith in Star Wars, so they’re like family to us. And Stay Alert? Well, that one was 100 percent financed by us and brilliantly produced by our good buddy, George Arton. But here’s the kicker, both of these films had one big thing in common – teeny-tiny budgets and crazy tight shooting schedules. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’ve got fantastic collaborators and friends who believe in your vision.

Now, we’ve been around the block in the film industry for over three decades. We’ve had the privilege of standing on sets and watching some of the best filmmakers and technicians work their magic. So, the process of filmmaking isn’t exactly new to us. What’s different is trying to pull it off at a certain standard with almost no money. But you know what? Nobody really cares about how much you spent. They just watch the film and either like it or they don’t. Money and time aren’t excuses for making something that looks unprofessional or screams “threadbare budget.” You just have to get creative and outthink these obstacles.

Above all else, it always comes down to the writing and the talent. The actors, in particular, play a massive role in making everything come together. That’s why we’ve always strived to get the best people we could. Take Keep the Gaslight Burning, for instance. We were lucky to have our dearly missed friend Markie Post and her talented daughter Kate Armstrong Ross on board to deliver top-notch performances. And then there’s the legendary Rick Baker as the ghost – I mean, who could possibly play a ghost better than Rick?

Behind the scenes, we had some incredible folks lending their expertise. Our good friend Phil Tippet, known for his work on Jurassic Park, was a huge help. And when it comes to Stay Alert, we were fortunate to have actors like Nicholas Rowe from Young Sherlock Holmes and Harsha Patel from Eastenders join the team. Here’s the kicker, we shot that one right in the middle of the COVID pandemic during lockdown, which added a whole new set of challenges to overcome.

“Our brilliant makeup FX by Stuart Bray were taken up a notch thanks to Steve Begg’s Visual effect enhancements, who usually does all the Bond movies. Although, on Stay Alert, he didn’t even have the kind of budget Bond films use for office supplies! I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention so many fantastic people who contributed their talents, but the main takeaway here is that money and time are challenges that every film faces, big or small. It’s all about how you solve those problems that truly matters in the end.”

How do you approach the visual effects in your films to honor the legacy of practical effects used in classic horror, while potentially integrating modern VFX technology?

You know, visual FX and makeup FX are really our bread and butter. We’ve been in that game for quite some time, so it doesn’t exactly keep us up at night. We’ve had our fair share of experience with both big-budget blockbusters and those tiny indie films, and we’ve learned the ropes on how to make cool stuff happen without breaking the bank, all while making it look like we spent a fortune.

It all starts with the script, really. We’ve got this complete knowledge of how everything’s going to come together even before we roll the cameras. We’re big proponents of the pre-production phase. Why? Well, it’s much better to tackle a problem head-on and figure things out in advance rather than scrambling to fix it later when the money’s all gone.

So, yeah, when it comes to visual FX and makeup FX, we’re not sweating the small stuff. We’ve got a plan, and we know how to execute it to get the best bang for our buck, and that’s what ultimately makes the magic happen on screen. When you have very little money, the best results are often to see if you can get it in camera. If you then enhance it with visual FX, all good. But at least you have something on film to begin with.

You know, practical effects in films are like a hidden treasure that should always have its moment in the spotlight, even in this age of dazzling CGI. Don’t get me wrong, computer-generated imagery has its own charm and can do some incredible things in modern cinema. But there’s something truly special about practical effects, those real, tangible creations that come to life right before our eyes. They deserve our admiration and love for their unique ability to engage all our senses.

First and foremost, practical effects are a tribute to the artistry and craftsmanship of filmmakers and artisans. It’s all about that meticulous attention to detail, the sweat and hard work poured into every piece, and those late nights spent perfecting every tiny nuance. Imagine a symphony of hands-on work, with artists, sculptors, model-makers, and technicians all working together in perfect harmony to create something you can touch and feel.

Think back to those mind-blowing practical effects in classics like Alien or The Thing. The pulsating Xenomorph, those grotesque transformations, the visceral gore — there’s an undeniable authenticity to these moments. The actors are reacting to real things, not just imagining green screens or waving at tennis balls on sticks. When an actor recoils in terror from a practical creature, their fear is palpable, their reactions genuine, and their performances unforgettable.

Practical effects also anchor us in reality, forging a visceral connection that CGI often struggles to achieve. Our brains instinctively recognise the physical presence of practical effects. We see the light bouncing off the creature’s skin, hear the creaking of animatronic joints, and feel the weight of an actor holding a tangible prop. It’s an immersive experience that pulls us into the film’s world effortlessly, inviting us to believe in the magic unfolding on screen.

What’s more, practical effects can deliver visuals that truly leave us in awe. The sheer scale of miniatures, the explosive brilliance of pyrotechnics, and the intricate workings of animatronics bring a kind of tactile enchantment to the screen. These effects don’t just mimic reality; they create it in ways that captivate and astonish us. The towering AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back or the explosive destruction of the White House in Independence Day are etched in our memories because they were brought to life through real, practical means.

But it’s not all about the looks; practical effects often offer a cost-effective alternative to the extravagance of CGI. While CGI budgets can skyrocket as digital artists strive for photorealism, practical effects often require a one-time investment in materials and labor. Plus, using practical effects can streamline production, saving time and money. Filmmakers don’t have to wait for complex post-production processes, and this efficiency can result in lower overall costs and shorter shooting schedules.

In the end, practical effects are a testament to the enduring charm of cinematic tradition. They celebrate the hands-on creativity that has driven filmmaking for well over a century, and they provide a tangible, visceral link between filmmakers and audiences. Practical effects aren’t just tools; they’re an art form in their own right, one that deserves a place of honor alongside the marvels of CGI.

In an industry that’s constantly evolving and embracing new technologies, let’s not forget the enchantment of practical effects. They remind us of the tactile, the tangible, and the timeless craftsmanship that makes cinema such a lasting and enriching experience. So, let’s continue to celebrate practical effects as an essential part of cinematic storytelling — a treasure that adds depth, authenticity, and a touch of real-world magic to the silver screen.

What techniques or methods from classic British horror have you found most enjoyable or effective to recreate or adapt in your own work?

There’s a valuable lesson modern filmmakers can learn from classic British horror, and it’s all about making the most out of having very little. Those old-school horror flicks were often made on shoestring budgets, and yet they managed to create some truly iconic and chilling moments.

One key takeaway is the power of suggestion. Classic British horror often couldn’t afford elaborate special effects, so they had to get creative with what they had. Instead of showing everything, they’d hint at the horrors lurking in the shadows, letting our imaginations fill in the blanks. That sense of mystery and the unknown can be incredibly effective in modern filmmaking too. Sometimes, what you don’t see can be far scarier than what you do.

Then there’s the art of atmosphere. Classic British horror was all about creating a creepy and foreboding ambiance, even with limited resources. Whether it was through clever lighting, eerie sound design, or choosing just the right locations, they managed to craft an atmosphere that sent shivers down your spine. Today, with advancements in technology, we can take those lessons and elevate them even further, but the core idea remains the same – atmosphere matters.

Lastly, it’s all about storytelling. Classic British horror knew how to tell a compelling and character-driven story that drew you in, regardless of budget constraints. They relied on strong scripts and talented actors to carry the weight of the narrative. This is a lesson that modern filmmakers should hold dear. A well-crafted story and compelling characters can make up for a lot, even if you’re working with limited resources.

So, when it comes to classic British horror, the lesson for modern filmmakers is clear — embrace constraints, harness the power of suggestion, craft an immersive atmosphere, and never underestimate the importance of a good story. It’s proof that sometimes, less really can be more when it comes to creating spine-tingling cinema.

Do you have any upcoming projects that continue to explore or pay tribute to the legacy of Amicus and Hammer Productions?

You know, Lou and I have some exciting stuff in the works that your readers would absolutely love, but I can’t spill the beans just yet. We’re currently knee-deep in developing a feature project that’s going to be a real treat, but it’s top secret for now.

On top of that, we’re diving headfirst into a bunch of TV and film projects with the incredibly talented Dan Berlinka. One project we’ve just wrapped up is an anthology horror script – any takers out there looking for some spine-tingling tales?

And when it comes to our FX work, we’ve been keeping busy on a bunch of films and TV projects. You might want to keep an eye out for the new season of True Detective with the legendary Jodie Foster – we had the pleasure of working on that one.

But here’s a little holiday teaser for you: we’ve got something special in the pipeline for Christmas, and it involves our good friend Mark Gatiss. So, stay tuned for some festive surprises coming your way!

In your opinion, what can contemporary filmmakers learn from the works of Amicus and Hammer, and the classic British horror cinema era?

In a nutshell, contemporary filmmakers can learn resourcefulness, the art of crafting atmosphere, the importance of storytelling, the power of suggestion, and the value of collaboration from the classic British horror cinema era. It’s a treasure trove of wisdom that continues to inspire and chill audiences to this day.

And, what are your thoughts on the new Amcius Revival led by Lawrie Brewster, could you ever see yourself directing an Amicus Productions movie?

I’m absolutely thrilled that Lawrie is working to revive Amicus Horror as a brand. Honestly, I can’t think of anyone who truly grasps the significance of that legacy quite like he does. I’m rooting for him all the way and wish him the very best in this endeavor.

British horror has a unique flavour in the horror genre, and it’s something that sets it apart. We have our own distinct voice, and Lawrie seems to get that. He knows this voice has a special place, and he’s got a keen understanding of how it can coexist in the modern movie market without losing its essence.

As for directing an Amicus Productions movie? Heck, yeah! It would be an absolute dream come true. The thought of diving into that rich tradition and adding my own twist to it is incredibly exciting.