Robert Kurtzman brings creature-making craft to Mansfield Reformatory

Erica Thompson

Many Hollywood horror films or dark thrillers have been plagued with eerie events during production, such as the mysterious fire on "The Exorcist" set or Brandon Lee's accidental death filming "The Crow." But during his approximately 30-year career, Ohio-based effects creator, director and producer Robert Kurtzman can't recall any similarly weird occurrences. Of course he knew better than to put himself in precarious situations.

"I shot three movies out in New Mexico and our production office was in the old state reformatory, and it was haunted," Kurtzman said, referencing the infamous 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico where 33 inmates were killed in 36 hours. "I would be storyboarding and I just decided to take all my stuff home [at night] and do all the work at the apartment they had for me because I didn't want to sit in there by myself."

Kurtzman recently brought his monster-making talent to another historic prison - the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield - to oversee a new haunt, "Paranormal Penitentiary: Monster Lockdown," which runs Thursday through Sunday through October 30.

"The idea is that it's a penitentiary where they've contained all these monsters they've captured from all over the world … and they got loose in the facility," said Kurtzman, who designed a variety of creatures with his team at Creature Corps - his studio in Crestline, Ohio - which is now open for public tours. (Alive spoke with Kurtzman during a late-September tour of his studio.)

"That's really cool because prior to that we've never had something come in here and have a story," said Ohio State Reformatory Director of Marketing Dan Smith. "I think it'll make it more interesting."

Previously, the reformatory was contracted with another company, which put on haunts at the prison. This was the first year that other groups were able to bid on the space, and the offer from Kurtzman's crew was accepted.

"We're really actor-driven [with] makeup and masks," said Victor Amesquita, director of creative marketing at Creative Corps, which also supplied the haunt's actors. "Not animatronics and big things, but mostly set dressing and the people. So it's gonna be fun and … way different than what you've seen over there before."

Kurtzman's masks, which feature everything from bloody, eyeless sockets and decaying teeth to skin marred with holes or lacerations, are remarkably realistic and detailed.

"You're gonna be able to tell the quality of this by what they have in here," Smith said. "It will be Hollywood-level."

Of course Hollywood has come calling at the reformatory before; the critically acclaimed 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption" was shot at the facility - a fact that draws visitors from all over the world each year. A multitude of other productions, from rapper Lil Wayne's 2004 "Go DJ" video to the 2006 horror film "Fallen Angels" were also shot there.

But the reformatory doesn't need a film crew or Kurtzman's creepy characters to be scary. The sprawling, castle-like building, which housed more than 155,000 prisoners between 1896 and 1990, is menacing even in the daytime. Although money has been spent on renovations, there is still peeling paint, rusted cell bars and plenty of dimly lit corners. And the prison's reputation for being haunted has brought in reality TV shows and average Joe ghost hunters alike.

"I haven't seen anything but I've heard things," Smith said. "Doors have slammed … on their own at night when there's nobody around."

In other words, the prison is the perfect setting for Kurtzman's brand of horror, which he began cultivating as a kid in Crestline. Inspired by his mother, who was a watercolor painter, Kurtzman started sketching art from comic books and monster magazines. He enjoyed watching "Godzilla," "King Kong" and "One Million Years B.C.," which featured the work of visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen. As a teenager, he was interested in the British "Hammer Horror" films.

"Those were the ones I really gravitated toward because it was a little harder-edged," Kurtzman said. "A little more sex, a little more violence."

Kurtzman took art classes and learned to sculpt in high school, and then enrolled at CCAD. However, he dropped out when he discovered he wouldn't be able to create monsters.

"They really didn't have that kind of training for mask-making or prosthetics or anything," he said.

He moved to Los Angeles and completed the 12-week program at the Joe Blasco Makeup Artist Training Center. Afterward, he worked in special effects and makeup artist John Carl Buechler's shop. "It was a learning ground for us," Kurtzman said. "There [were] just so many movies a year that we could work on … and we all fed off each other."

Pretty soon, Kurtzman landed a gig as a lab assistant on "The Color Purple." He also worked on "Aliens," a remake of "Invaders from Mars" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3," and did special makeup effects on "Night of the Creeps."

But he was especially excited when he and colleagues Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger got the opportunity to work on "Evil Dead II" and "Phantasm II." "Those early classic sequels to the movies we grew up on as kids," he said.

By 1988, Kurtzman, Nicotero and Berger had founded their own makeup effects studio, KNB EFX Group.

"We all had a house together and our garage was set up for us to work at night on our own stuff," Kurtzman said. "We went out to dinner [one day] and said, 'Hey, let's maybe open our own company and pull our talents together.'"

KNB EFX Group went on to work on a lengthy list of big-name projects, including films like "Misery," "Scream" and "Boogie Nights."

"One of the ones I'm most proud of is 'Dances with Wolves' just because it was a big Oscar-winner and it wasn't a monster movie," Kurtzman said. "It was something different for us, to do animal effects."

Kurtzman also co-produced and supervised makeup effects for "From Dusk till Dawn." After coming up with the concept for the film, he hired Quentin Tarantino to write the screenplay in place of John Esposito, who had another commitment.

"We thought we were just gonna find some kid to knock out the first draft, then John would come back and clean it up," Kurtzman said. "A friend of a friend sent samples of Quentin's scripts to us and it was like 'Natural Born Killers,' 'True Romance' and 'Reservoir Dogs' and we flipped out."

Before "Dusk" went into production, Kurtzman worked on Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." "We did the exploding head in the car," said Kurtzman, who was also involved in the scene where Uma Thurman's character is revived from a drug overdose by having a shot of adrenalie plunged into her chest. Additionally, he created "gore gags" with Bruce Willis' character and the katana sword. "They got trimmed out for ratings-board reasons," Kurtzman said.

In the early 2000s, Kurtzman left KNB EFX and moved back to Crestline. "At that point I started directing more and I kinda wanted to do my own thing," he said. "Also, I was tired of L.A. … [and] we wanted the kids to grow up back here."

He founded Creature Corps, a full-service special makeup, creature, character and visual effects company in 2003. He and his team have created effects for numerous films, including "The Devil's Rejects" and "Buried Alive," which Kurtzman also directed.

On a tour of the facility, one can see film posters, framed sketches, a large screening room and, of course, monsters - masks, bloody creature parts in jars and the "Goalie Golem" and walrus suits from Kevin Smith's "Yoga Hosers" and "Tusk" movies.

In addition to creating for films, Creature Corps also sells products to other haunted houses. And prior to the prison gig, Kurtzman and his team hosted a haunted house, the "Mad FX Lab," for three seasons in what is now a storage facility behind Creature Corps.

"It's bittersweet because we had so much fun doing it and the crew here was real tight, but we couldn't turn down the Mansfield Reformatory," Amesquita said.

"Hopefully we've done something a little different this year and it'll only get better each year," Kurtzman said.

With an upcoming project with Stephen King in the works, Kurtzman shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to gain inspiration from movies, other talented artists and a fear of ghosts, like those in the Penitentiary of New Mexico.

"Thank God I'm scared of that stuff," he said.

Paranormal Penitentiary: Monster Lockdown

6 p.m. Thursday – Sunday through Oct. 30

The Ohio State Reformatory

100 Reformatory Rd., Mansfield


Robert Kurtzman's Creature Corps

707 South Thoman St., Crestline

Tours by appointment year-round