June 8, 2023

The Art and Craft of Horror: Monsterpalooza 2023

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Monsterpalooza is the monster mother of all West Coast horror conventions, attracting thousands of fans each spring with innumerable exhibits, dealers, make-up demonstrations, panels and celebrities ready for autograph signing and/or photo ops. (A smaller version, Son of Monsterpalooza, takes place in the fall.)

Eliot Brodsky, a native New Yorker, brought the show to Burbank, CA in 2009, where it became an instant hit. Brodsky, a makeup and special effects aficionado, wanted to highlight the amazing work of FX artists in Hollywood’s backyard, where so much movie magic takes place:

“I just felt the only way it could be successful is if it was dropped right into California, in the backyards of all the major FX shops. I’d give the FX shops some time to shine in the light a bit and show what they do, what goes behind creating these monsters. You have obviously the main FX shops, then you have the group of artists who go from shop to shop based on productions. I wanted those guys to be in the spotlight as much as the FX shops. We gained support from the artists because they’ve never been allowed to show off what they can do. And there was no way they could come to the East Coast. So, I just bit the bullet and pulled it together from across the country.” [Ryan Turek, “Meet Monsterpalooza’s Eliot Brodsky,” ComingSoon.net, March 10, 2010]

In 2016 the event moved to the Pasadena Convention Center, where it’s been held ever since. Monsterpalooza has been on my bucket list for a long time. Right before the pandemic in 2019 I had the good fortune to attend the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA, highlighted by the participation of Hammer stars Veronica Carlson (now unfortunately deceased), Martine Beswick and Christopher Neame (see my write-up of the convention here).

Whereas Monster Bash is smaller, more intimate and focuses on the classic monsters, Monsterpalooza is big, brash and in-your-face, teeming with hordes of fans mixing it up with make-up and FX artists, modelers, crafts people, vendors, actors, writers, podcasters and various industry insiders. While the emphasis is more on horror from the ‘80s on, there are still a good many hold outs (like myself) that show up wearing classic monster t-shirts.

This year’s Monsterpalooza was held on June 2 - 4. I was greatly impressed by the age range of the attendees -- from infants in strollers to old codgers like me and everything in between. If just half the kids I saw there grow up to be die hard horror fans, the genre has a long life ahead of it. 

Monsterpalooza 2023 - Werewolf costume
An escapee from the exhibit halls at Monsterpalooza.

Panels and presentations

Given Monsterpalooza’s emphasis on FX, naturally many of the presentations featured well-known artists.

Mike Elizalde grew up watching the Universal monsters on TV, which propelled him into a life-long fascination with monster-making. After a stint in the Navy, he began submitting his portfolio to various studios. But it was a chance encounter that resulted in his first job; he was working as an air conditioning repairman, driving around looking for an address, when he happened to notice life-sized creature molds and appliances in an alleyway from an nearby FX shop. He submitted pictures of his designs to the shop and was hired the next day.

From that point on he worked in almost every facet of FX, from sculpting and mold making to animatronics, and learned under some of the greats like Stan Winston and Rick Baker. Along with his wife, he opened up his own shop, Spectral Motion, in 2002, which has become not only an acknowledged leader in practical effects, but has developed sophisticated animatronics for events and theme parks all over the world.

In recent years Mike has been a frequent collaborator with Guillermo del Toro, whom he met on the set of Blade II. Elizalde went on to do make-up and effects for del Toro’s Hellboy movies, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and the Cabinet of Curiosities series.

Elizalde also talked about creating the robot for the recent Lost in Space streaming series, and the challenge of honoring the original beloved TV character while updating it and giving it a personality of its own. 

Author's photo - Mike Elizalde being honored at Monsterpalooza 2023
FX artist Mike Elizalde (right) being honored at Monsterpalooza; the presenter is actor Doug Jones.

Justin Raleigh is an award-winning makeup and effects artist who recently won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for his makeup work on The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021). Like Mike Elizalde, Justin was fascinated with creatures and makeup from an early age, and collected as many Halloween makeup books as he could get his hands on.

His first professional experience was doing beauty makeup for his girlfriend’s mom, who was a fashion photographer. This was invaluable in terms of learning the chemistry and materials, as well as working with living, breathing subjects other than himself.

Justin echoed Elizalde in saying that the best effects school is diving in and doing the work, and learning everything you can from experienced pros; their paths were very similar, working for many of the same shops and people in the early going.

Raleigh started Fractured FX, Inc. in 2010, and has gone on to do makeup effects for the Insidious film series, The Conjuring, American Horror Story, Aquaman, and the recent Westworld series, as well as mainstream dramas like Tammy Faye.

Justin addressed the differences between doing creature makeups straight out of the imagination, vs. likeness or aging makeup, where the end product needs to be a completely believable human being. He said that audiences will immediately sense when a likeness or aging makeup is somewhat off, so it’s all the more challenging to come up with something that viewers don’t give a second thought to.

Although practical effects are in more demand than ever, artists like Raleigh use the latest digital technologies such as 3D printing to scale up to the demands of films and TV series.

Interestingly, during their talks, both Raleigh and Elizalde brought up the huge elephant that is starting to appear in a lot of people’s rooms -- namely AI. It seems like overnight, we’re being told that AI either will come for everybody’s jobs and make humanity obsolete, or it will generate a new productive renaissance that will immeasurably improve the quality of life.

Both expressed some skepticism that AI will become a big factor for them at least in the short term, but it says something that they are thinking about its eventual effect on their highly specialized, highly creative profession.

Author's photo - Interview with makeup artist Justin Raleigh at Monsterpalooza 2023
Interview with Oscar winning makeup artist Justin Raleigh (right).

The Halloween Society was started by a group of super-fans who were interested in the art of mask making and were inspired by the Don Post Studios, which produced, among other things, the meticulously-crafted over-the-head masks of the Universal monsters that were advertised in the back pages of magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Writer Ron Magid was joined by actor Paul Clemens and director/producer Rich Correll in reminiscing about the heyday of the Society, from its humble origins putting out a xeroxed fanzine for fellow mask enthusiasts, to the group deciding to make masks themselves, to becoming an international phenomenon.

Ron told a great story about the aftermath of a Halloween party, when he left a mangled corpse prop that had been used in The Beast Within (1982) in the backseat of his car outside of his residence. A passing jogger saw the very realistic and very gory prop and called the cops. Ron avoided a ticket by letting the responding officer put the prop in the backseat of his police cruiser for a “photo op.”

Ron mentioned a forthcoming book delving into the history of the club, The Halloween Society Unmasked, which will be out later this year.

Author photo - Halloween Society masks on display
Halloween Society masks on display: Peter Lorre, Mad Love; Bela Lugosi, Dracula; Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Lon Chaney, London After Midnight

Speaking of new books, last year writer/director/photographer Julian David Stone came out with It’s Alive!, a fictionalized account of the making of Universal’s original Frankenstein. He gave a very interesting talk about the origins of the studio, including Carl Laemmle Sr.’s meteoric rise from owning a Nickelodeon theater in the Midwest to founding a major Hollywood studio.

Laemmle made his son the head of Universal’s film production when Carl Jr. was only in his early 20s. Junior bucked the conventional wisdom that Depression-era America would only go for light comedies and musicals, scoring a hit with Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931.

Frankenstein with Boris Karloff would become an even greater hit, but there were hurdles along the way. Most horror fans know that Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi were set to direct and star in Frankenstein respectively, but were eventually replaced when Laemmle Sr. offered James Whale any Universal project for his next directing job, and Whale chose Frankenstein. To this day, stories differ as to whether Lugosi was canned due to poor screen tests or he rejected the part because it had no speaking lines. Whale spotted struggling actor Boris on the lot, sized him up as an intriguing prospective monster, and the rest is history.

Wanting a name actor to ensure box office success, the Laemmles tried to hire Leslie Howard (of later Gone With the Wind fame) to be Dr. Frankenstein, but the actor had other commitments. When Whale suggested his friend Colin Clive, the last important casting piece fell into place.

What many don’t realize is that, as the date for initial shooting neared, Laemmle Sr. started to get cold feet over two relatively unknown actors heading the picture. As late as two weeks before filming, the Laemmles were still undecided over whether to bring back Lugosi or forge ahead with Karloff.

This last-minute uncertainty was a major inspiration for Stone to write about the making of a film that immortalized Mary Shelley's creature and made the horror genre what it is today.

Author photo - life-sized Frankenstein monster display in the Monsterpalooza museum
It's alive and lurking in the Monsterpalooza Museum!

More Monsterpalooza Museum exhibits:

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum exhibit, Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum exhibit, Creepshow (1982)
Creepshow (1982)

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum, Invaders from Mars (1953)
Invaders from Mars (1953)

Author photo - Monsterpalooza Museum exhibit, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)


  1. Wow, sounds like it was a fun convention! I like that the panelists covered a breadth of makeup art, from horror to straight dramas to fan mask-making, giving an idea of what's involved in cinematic makeup and creation. Must give some great insights into your next film viewing of classic movie monsters!

    1. Yes, it was a blast! On the last day I stumbled upon Julian Stone's booth, got an autographed copy of his book and chatted with him for a few minutes. Plus I was a able to meet a movie critic/podcaster whom I've been listening to for the past year or so. Now the only problem is that I want to attend more of these things!

  2. This must have been a blast to attend! I've been to a few horror-related conventions, but this one seems especially skewed towards the films I know and love. I left L.A. in 2002, just before Monsterpalooza started, but I still come back to visit friends now and then. I know what I'm doing next time! Thanks so much for sharing your experience. :)

    1. Believe it or not, this was just the second horrorcon I've been to (although I have attended a couple of Star Trek conventions). It was an amazing "kid in a candy store" experience, with impressive masks, statuary, art, models, makeup demonstrations, and assorted horror-related items everywhere you turned. When I saw that Peter Lorre mask from Mad Love, I thought, "Barry would kill to have that in his collection!" 😃

    2. Could we get a photo?

  3. Brian, I'm glad you got the chance to attend this convention, as it sounds like it was great fun. I actually went to the Monster Bash this month, my first vacation in four years. I had been to the Bash previously in 2005 and 2006, and decided to give it another go. I may do a blog post about it, if my writer's block ever goes away!!

    1. Thanks Mike, it was a lot of fun! The only other horrorcon that I've managed to attend was the Monster Bash in 2019, and I had a great time at that one too. No pressure or anything, but you should write that post - I'd love to see what you thought of this year's Bash.