By Steve Newton
During my 13-year sojourn as Fangoria magazine’s Vancouver correspondent I would often cover films that the producers didn’t want classified as “horror”; they were much more comfortable with the term “suspense thriller” or “psychological thriller”.
One such film was called Exquisite Tenderness–at least until its marketing team decided to skip the charade and just go with the more straightforward, horror-like title The Surgeon.
It didn’t really matter what they called it, because I’m pretty sure it never made it into theatres. At least not the ones in Vancouver.
Here’s a shortened version of the set-visit piece I wrote, which wound up in Fangoria‘s July 1994 15th anniversary issue–the one with Jack Nicholson’s bloody werewolf face on the cover!
The makers of Exquisite Tenderness were more than thrilled when they were given the go-ahead to use a closed-down wing of Vancouver’s Riverview Hospital to film their $10-million movie about a deranged doctor of death. For the price of $1 Canadian, Lollipop Productions obtained use of the facility’s vast Crease Unit, which has been synonymous with mental illness in British Columbia for decades before being shuttered in 1982.
But the filmmakers’ joy at securing the location was tarnished somewhat when the Vancouver Sun ran a feature article that had one ex-Riverview patient–a critic of the mental health care system–saying that they only shoot horror movies there because “it’s such a creepy place.”
When your trusty Fango correpondent visits the set and pulls out a copy of the story with the headline, “Horror Movie Being Filmed at Riverview”, publicist Hilma Rusu grimaces and asks that it be kept out of sight.
A similarly cold response is forthcoming from director Carl Schenkel when he’s asked what new twists the film will bring to the medical terror subgenre. “It’s not a hospital horror movie,” Schenkel says in a frustrated tone. “It’s not a horror movie to begin with. It started out as one of those, but then we turned it into a thriller. It’s a pure suspense thriller, and some of it takes place in at hospital, that’s all.”
This despite the fact that the film is being touted in its prerelease advertising with the tagline, “First Jason. Then Freddy. Finally, A Professional.”
But judging by Exquisite Tenderness‘s impressive cast–which includes Isabelle (Forever Young) Glasser, James (Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) Remar, Charles (Alien 3) Dance, Peter (Young Frankenstein) Boyle, and Malcolm (A Clockwork Orange) McDowell–this won’t be Visiting Hours 2.
Glasser stars as Dr. Theresa McCann, an assistant head of surgery at a big-city hospital, who is skeptical about a new abdominal implant touted by colleague Dr. Roger Stein (McDowell) as the latest medical miracle. When she is blamed for the death of one of Stein’s patients–who was actually murdered by an injection of acidic fluid into her IV–McCann enlists the help of Dr. Benjamin Hendricks (Remar), and together they launch their own investigation into the death.
Despite all the medical nastiness that goes on in Exquisite Tenderness, Schenkel downplays the movie’s gore quotient. “We’re trying not to show too much blood,” says the Swiss-born director, “because everybody’s seen that. There are some of those elements in there, of course–that’s why we have [FX ace] Steve Johnson and his guys here–but it’s not foreground stuff. We play more on the audience’s imagination than show them the actual graphic stuff, ’cause that’s been done too many times.”
Unlike Schenkel, James Remar has no problems embracing the horror genre in all its gruesome glory. Although he plays a good guy this time around, Remar has made a name (and a face) for himself by portraying some pretty twisted dudes over the years. In 1979 he almost stole the show from hero Michael Beck as a macho, scrap-happy gang member in Walter Hill’s The Warriors, and three years later his intense performance as a psychotic prison escapee in Hill’s 48 HRS won him further acclaim. More recently, Remar has taken the horror route in the Tales from the Darkside movie and Tobe Hooper’s “Dead Wait” episode of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt.
“I was brought up on monster movies,” says Remar, lounging in the producer’s office at the Riverview set. “They were actually an early inspiration for me to get involved in show business. I did theatrical makeup because I liked acting out the part of the monster, since they were often really the protagonists in films where they seemed to be the antagonists. They were always the ones worthy of sympathy–misunderstood creatures in a hostile society–and I related strongly to that.”
While Remar is called away to shoot a scene, Fango gets the scoop from producer Chris Chesser. Getting down to brass tacks, just what are the makes of Exquisite Tenderness intending to display effects-wise? They didn’t hire acclaimed makeup FX artist Johnson to stand around and paint toenails, did they?
“Well,” says Chesser, “it’s sort of our strategy on this film that, when we do these special effects, we make sure that it won’t be necessary to go back on some insert stage trying to fill in holes. It’s hard to know exactly to what degree we’ll show this stuff in the finished film, but we’ll at least know we’ll have the ability to make the sort of choices which we otherwise wouldn’t have.
“When you look at pictures like Alien,” he continues, “there’s some horrific stuff in it, but there’s not a lot of it. The stuff that people talk about is just those few scenes, and our impression is that this might end up being the same–it’s not going to be so much a lot of exposed veins on the screeen. There’s the potential for us to do that, but there’s a certain point where less is more.”
Chesser’s cautious attitude is hardly in evidence when Fango finally sits down in Johnson’s makeup room. Amid a tangle of frightful body props, fake limbs, and blood-red towels, the busy artist reveals some more details of Exquisite Tenderness‘ FX.
“The most interesting aspects of this project are the actual recreations of operations,” Johnson says. “We’re doing a liver biopsy, an intestinal implant, a spinal tap–that’s a good one–and an open-heart surgery. For that scene we got some actual footage, and duplicated it as naturally and realistically as possible. You’ve got the pumping heart, the rib-spreader, the bone saw–it’s really nice.”
Okay, sure, but Fangorians can watch that kind of stuff in public television documentaries. The real question is, what kind of nasty, improper bloodletting are we in store for?
“The murders? Let’s see… the murders are pretty interesting,” Johnson says. “The sequence we’re shooting today is one of the most involved, where this character Loreen is hooked up to a dialysis machine and the killer comes in and injects a poison into the liquid that’s cleansing her blood. It starts to do very strange things to her. The first thing we see is the actual IV, where it enters her skin, and we see a rash spread out around that. And then we’ve got another really nice effect, which is actually a vacuum pumping device–its an arm where you see all the veins suddenly appear. And then the pressure builds up in her so much that the veins actually pop and start to fizz out of her body, so we’ve got stuff oozing out which also carries through to her face and eventually just burns her over most of her body.
“And what else have we got…we have all kinds of cool stuff,” he continues. “We’re making three dummy heads. One is an aftereffect of a chemical the killer injects into people, which makes their muscles have such tight, powerful contractions that it actually breaks their bones. And we’ve got the occasional stabbing, burning slicing, shooting–there’s a bunch of incidental things like that. Oh, we did a botched tracheotomy! That was the other operation we did in the beginning.
With all this mayhem going on, Exquisite Tenderness is sounding more and more like Fango material all the time.
“I don’t think they’d like to hear you say that,” Johnson says. “When they called me about it, it was definitely described as a psychological thriller–not horror. From everything I’ve heard, they did not want this to be a Fango movie. I’m surprised they actually let you guys on the set!”
WIth five projects going at once, Johnson hasn’t been on the Exquisite Tenderness set a great deal himself. His crew–Chris Nelson, Joel Harlow, Leon Laderach, Lenny MacDonald, and David Dupuis–have been doing all the hands-on stuff, while Johnson travels between Montreal, Rome, L.A. and New York, overseeing projects such as Brainscan, Fatal Frames (a low-budget Italian slasher flick), and Trimark’s science-fiction shocker Evolver.
Before that, Johnson’s XFX team was preoccupied with The Stand, the long-awaited miniseries based on Stephen King’s masterpiece. But for all the FX work that Johnson’s crew did on The Stand–including animatronics and the creation of 80 dead bodies–his most cherished moment came after the telefilm wrapped.
“Stephen King signed my personal copy of The Stand,” says Johnson with a mile-wide grin. “And he wrote, ‘To the best makeup FX guy in the universe.’ ”