Phil Leakey, the makeup artist who helped put Hammer Films on the macabre movie map by creating monsters for several of the company’s seminal horror films, is not your ordinary, everyday, celebrity interviewee. No, sir, Phil Leakey is full of surprises.
For example, before Leakey gets into any discussion regarding his work in motion pictures, he says up front, “I don’t particularly care for Hammer’s horror films.” (Never mind the fact that he helped establish the company’s reputation for viciousness right from the beginning!) “They leave me absolutely cold. I wouldn’t walk across the street to see one!” He harrumphs loudly in conclusion.
After this renunciation of Hammer, the question naturally arises of how he got started with Hammer in the first place Leakey responds by launching into a detailed and unusual account of his film business beginnings.
“It was strange how I got involved with them or anyone in motion pictures at all,” he comments. “I was working as a clerk in a brokerage office in London, and I was on a two-week holiday when I overheard my father talking about going to a film studio to supervise a boxing match. [Leakey’s father, a doctor, oversaw a number of televised matches.] I wanted to go along too, but he said I’d better check with Joe Grossman first, who was the studio manager. So that afternoon I drove out to the studio and asked the man at the gate, if I could have a word with Mr. Grossman. The gateman thought this was rather amusing; but to his surprise, and mine, Grossman told him to send me on up to his office.
“When I arrived, a vicious looking secretary stopped me and said, ‘What do you want? What’s your name?’ I told her who I was and she promptly disappeared. A few moments later, Joe’s head popped around the corner of his office door and he said, ‘Hello. Start Monday.’ His head started to disappear back around the corner but I managed to blurt out, ‘Wait a minute! I only wanted to ask” But he cut me off. ‘Haven’t got time to chat,’ he said. ‘I’m very busy. Start Monday. 8:30 a.m.’ I was then ejected from the studio. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I wonder what’s going to happen on Monday?’
“So the next Monday I reported directly to Grossman who said, “What do you want at this time of the day? And how did you get in?’ When I then told him what had transpired just a few days earlier, he looked rather bemused and, after a moment’s thought, said, ‘Right, follow me.’ I did, and soon arrived at the studio’s sound department. Joe said to the head of the sound department, “this is Philip Leakey and he’s starting work with you as of now.’ Joe then disappeared, and a sort of resigned look came over the soundman’s face. I started work, and started from scratch because I knew absolutely nothing about sound or anything else connected with filmmaking!”
An entertaining story to be sure, but there’s just one hitch: Leakey is not known as a soundman he’s a makeup specialist! When reminded of this, he smiles, nods, and happily recites the rest of his tale.
“I did my best in the sound department and slowly I began to learn a few things. In fact, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself when one day the whole lot went up in smoke including the central sound recording room. As a result of that fire, most of us got the sack and certainly a beginner like myself would be the first to go. I picked up my belongings and went to say goodbye to Joe Grossman and he said, ‘Okay, start Monday, 8:30 a.m.” And off I went, wondering what on earth was going to happen next!
“To cut a long story short,” Leakey finally says, “this time I landed in the makeup department.” But Leakey was to discover that, despite Grossman’s good intentions, going to work in the makeup department required more than just an ability to learn new things from scratch.
“It was very obvious the makeup department didn’t want me,” he relates. “I was told to just sit in the corner and watch. So I watched and watched and I got bored out of my mind! Finally a team of American filmmakers arrived, and they brought their own makeup artist who, as it happened, needed an assistant. This perked up the studio makeup people who thought, “Hey this will be a good way to get rid of Leakey!’ And so I was donated to the poor man!
“I can’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was very angry indeed when he found out that I knew next to nothing about the job. Fortunately, after he got over his initial anger, he sort of took me under his wing. By the time he left that studio there were some things I could do better than many of the others.”
Despite strained relationships with some of his co-workers, Leakey remained where he was for another year, until at last he was offered a job at Shepperton Studios, where he distinguished himself doing his first character makeups.
One of the earliest productions to carry the Hammer brand name was The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown. It was the first picture which allowed Leakey to explore a wholly new makeup terrain. Its unusual story, about an astronaut who returns from space possessed by alien spores which turn him into a kind of life-absorbing sponge, allowed for some truly creative moments for the first time in Leakey’s career. Hammer cast British character actor Richard Wordsworth in the pivotal role of the astronaut.
“I had some discussions with the producer and director Val, Guest, and we concluded that Richard should not look ugly at least, not to start out with! Instead, he should look sad, ill, and perhaps rather pitiful. After we all agreed on that, the rest was left up to me. The script really wasn’t very specific about how he was to look anyway.
Leakey placed a light above the actor in the makeup chair and then worked on accentuating the shadows cast by his eyebrows, nose, chin and cheekbones. The makeup was a liquid rubber solution mixed with glycerin to give the impression of sweat. Leakey’s job was made easier by Wordsworth’s natural high cheekbones and hollow temples and he also worked closely with cinematographer Walter J. Harvey to ensure the lighting in each shot emphasized Wordsworth’s features. When in the movie Wordsworth smashes a cactus plant with his fist, we later discover that his flesh has absorbed a part of the cactus. Leakey mentions that this, and much of the rest of the makeup, “was invented using simple items corn flakes, rice, cotton wool, rubber and latex. We had no laboratory in the studio at that time, so I had to make everything at my home! The cactus arm was a wraparound piece made from rubber, cast from a plaster mold, which was attached to a lady’s stocking so Richard could slip it on and off easily. Likewise, the hand piece was built onto a cotton glove.” The shriveled corpses of Carroon’s victims, glimpsed from time to time in the film, were also made by Leakey.
“Richard remained in the hands of the makeup department for as long as he maintained humanoid form.” says Leakey, pointing out that once Wordsworth’s character became too inhuman; it was time for the special effects team to take over.
“Hammer had no laboratories or ovens or anything to cook rubber prosthetics with. I had to take them home and do it. I used to ring up my wife and say: don’t cook anything tonight dear, I’ll need the oven to bake a rubber head.”
For X the Unknown (1956), Hammer’s next venture into the realm of sci-fi/horror. Leakey was called upon to create a hand which caved in on itself as “X”, the title monster, sucked out the body’s life force. “For that effect I built a sponge rubber hand, and into the hand was set thin plastic tubes with perforations along their length,” explains Leakey. “These tubes entered the forearm through the wrist to each finger, and all the ends were attached to a specially adapted pump, at the director’s signal, a special chemical mixture was pumped into the flaccid hand piece, which immediately began to swell up and discolor. It was quite a good effect.” Hammer then took the effects footage and reversed it to achieve a deflating effect on screen.
Philip Leakey created an interesting Special Effects Make-up as the radiation giving off by the creatures in the mud affects a person. We see their thumb swell up and then their flesh starts to melt off.
Leakey registers a little surprise when asked about Hammer’s follow up to The Quatermass Experiment, known in the U.S. as Enemy from Space (1957) but entitled simply Quatermass II in its homeland. It takes some prodding, and mention of Quatermass II’s story line involving extraterrestrial creatures growing in huge domes at an oil refinery, before he allows, “That’s right; I did apply a substance to Tom Chatto, to make him appear burned in his death scene. He came out of one of the domes. As I recall, that was filmed at the Shell Refining Plant. I used a mixture of industrial soap and oil for “The food that burns.”
Hammer hit upon the idea of making an entirely new version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The company envisioned a fairly elaborate production that would be the first color Frankenstein film. Leakey recalls the time period:
“I do hate horror films, especially of the type that Hammer and other people like them made. And to make matters worse, Hammer suddenly decided they wanted to go into production on this picture in a matter of weeks but nobody had any good ideas yet about what to do with it in terms of story, character and makeup! I even asked around the studio myself to see if anyone had any good ideas and no one did. Not a single person! What would the Creature look like? Obviously, that’s a major concern whenever you’re making a Frankenstein film and yet, all anyone at Hammer really knew was that there was a strict order not to copy the Hollywood version, because lack Pierce’s makeup had been copyrighted!
Restricted by the legal necessity to construct a Monster totally unlike Boris Karloff’s 1931 copyrighted incarnation, Hammer, turned to make-up designer Phil Leakey. Very much a pioneer in his field, Leakey created the make-up department at Bray Studios and was the first person to receive an on-screen credit for special make-up effects. He opted for a more biological, organic approach to the assignment. Early tests – of which there are many – included an animalistic design, akin to the beasts from H.G. Wells the Island of Doctor Moreau. Eventually, after several rejected notions, Leakey was forced to improvise the makeup at the eleventh hour, the very evening before Lee was first needed on set. “They tried me out in a variety of unbelievable and, in some cases, totally irrelevant make-ups and tests,” Christopher Lee recently recalled. “One made me look a bit like the Elephant Man – very unpleasant to look at and very unconvincing. The other was more like some sort of werewolf with the nose tilted up at the end to make you look slightly pig-like.”
“Finally, largely due to Christopher’s input, we decided that, as the Creature was being constructed from bits and pieces of other humans, which was how his face should look: made up of bits and pieces, all stitched together.
Working straight on the actor’s face, Leakey built up a collage using wax, rubber and cotton wool, once memorably described as looking “like a road accident.” The make-up itself took two-and-a-half to three hours to apply. The pressure of time meant that Leakey was never able to make prosthetic mask-pieces of the face, as he recently recounted: “I think it was Christopher Lee who said ‘Let’s do a mock-up in clay to see what it looks like.’ I used mortician’s wax and started shoving it all over his face, adding a patchwork of various stitch-marks. It was really a trial to see if I could make it out of plastic and put it on fairly quickly.” Much to Lee’s chagrin, the Creature’s face remained every bit as uncomfortable to remove as it was to put on in the first place.
“In the final analysis I don’t think my work on The Curse of Frankenstein suffered from the restrictions imposed upon it by the copyright considerations as much as it did from our lack of experimental time.”We really needed months or at least weeks to experiment with different materials and try different approaches,” Leakey feels. “But we just didn’t have that amount of time, and as a result I was not very happy with the end product. I would have liked a much neater stitching job, made from a mold. However, it just wasn’t to be; we were stuck with rubber and wax, which I thought looked crude, though other people have told me that’s what such an operation might have looked like.
Those who have seen it consistently agree that Hammer’s film production of The Abominable Snowman (1957) is far and away the best film of its type. Although he has never seen the finished picture, Leakey admits that there was more than the usual amount of thought put into the creation of the picture, especially during pre-production phases.
“When the time came for us to make it,” recalls Leakey, “I had another get together with Val Guest, Tony Hinds, art director Ted Marshall, and myself. It was generally agreed that the Yeti should be of a more sympathetic nature than the people who were hunting it, with the exception of Peter Cushing, who was playing a far more sympathetic part than his companions.
“Ted Marshall and I made a few drawings, and one day Tony Hinds, while looking at them, remarked, ‘You know, that looks a little bit tike Peter!’ Everyone had a look at it and they all agreed that the creature’s face did have an inkling of Peter in it, and everyone thought it was a good idea to carry the resemblance over, as a sort of sympathetic link in the film. To tell you the truth, I never could see this ‘resemblance’ which everyone else seemed to see!” Leakey chuckles. “But since they did, that was the way we went ahead and made it.”
Though never as budget-conscious as American International had been during the 1950’s, it is true that the British company cut corners whenever they thought it was within the realm of possibility. And so on The Abominable Snowman, they refused to hire anyone to help Leakey with the makeup chores.
“Hammer was rather reluctant in letting me have an assistant to help out on that picture,” he remembers. “As a matter of fact, I had to enlist the aid of the wardrobe department to get the snow creature completed on time! It was the wardrobe department that ended up supplying the creature’s outfit. They took a lot of furs and sewed them together to fit the actor and that was our Yeti!”
Probably the best known motion picture on which Phil Leakey worked, and also Hammer’s most famous film, is Horror of Dracula (1958). “Compared to Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula was far easier to work on,” Leakey remarks. “Christopher Lee’s height, face, and hair were half the battle! By the time the wardrobe department had fitted him with the right clothes, plus a little fiddling with his hair and a set of appropriate choppers, we had ourselves a vampire!
The filming of Dracula’s destruction included a shot in which Dracula appears to peel away his decaying skin. This was accomplished by putting a layer of red makeup on Lee’s face, and then covering his entire face with a thin coating of mortician’s wax, which was then made up to conform to his normal skin tone. When he raked his fingers across the wax, it revealed the “raw” marks underneath.
“I do believe, although I can’t be certain, that I was the first to use the bloodshot eyes. It was my brother who, like my father, was a doctor, who put me in touch with an optician who specialized in doing false eye jobs. He fitted Christopher with these contact pieces of my design. Christopher hated them. He would not keep them in for a second longer than the shot made necessary. If he had left them in, the discomfort would have been much less as opposed to continually taking them out and putting them in again.”
Leakey left the Hammer fold shortly after the Dracula film was completed to accept offers from other production companies whose films were more to his liking. He had become frustrated with the direction in which Hammer was heading as the new specialists in horror and violence.
“I wanted to leave Hammer to get on with other kinds of pictures,” he says. “Although I liked all the producers at Hammer, and the crew and casts who played a part in the making of those films they were some of the best people I ever knew in the industry still, 1 just really hated those kinds of films! And frankly, I doubt if Anthony Hinds [a main Hammer producer and screen author] liked them much either!
“I enjoyed working on pictures like Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), Only Two Can Play (1962) with Peter Sellers, The Belstone Fox (1973). Like everyone else in this business. I’ve worked in more average good, average bad, bloody bad and indifferent films than I have worthwhile films! But that’s the public for you. Shooting, stabbing, punching, sex and violence of all kinds, laced with screeching automobile crashes it’s what makes all the money! “That’s why I got out; I retired. Occasionally I’ll make up some of the neighborhood kids for one of their parties. But I gave away all of my makeup equipment to the daughter of an old wartime friend, and it’s all in Australia somewhere right now. I never thought any of these things would be of interest to anyone for more than a few months anyway that’s why I threw away all my notes, sketches, and stills years ago.
Phil Leakey Filmography
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Horror of Dracula (1958)
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Enemy from Space (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
X the Unknown (1956)
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
Fangoria Issue 50 1986 Randy Palmer
Hammer Horror Issue 1 March 1995