It was sad news to read on Monday about the passing of John Carl Buechler, and even sadder to see that it was not being covered very well by the major presses. Buechler’s career has been one that has flown under the radar, even for some diehard horror fans, but let us not forget that Buechler was a modern horror mastermind.
Buechler is remembered first and foremost as a director, being behind the camera for films like Troll and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. As a big fan of the Friday franchise, Part VII is one of the better entries, and the work that Buechler did on the film, both as director and in the makeup department, helps Part VII stand out. It also doesn’t hurt that this is the film where the definitive Jason, played by Kane Hodder, was born. The makeup effects on Jason in this film are a further testament of how well regarded this film is by fans of the long-running franchise.
But the largest part of Buechler’s career was in the special effects and makeup departments. From the late 1970s to the early 2010s, Buechler’s creations are marked by some, including myself, as a high point in horror makeup and effects.
Some of his works, but not all, include Re-Animator, multiple entries in the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween franchises, Dolls, Ghost World, Carnosaur, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It goes without saying, not every film he worked on is a masterpiece, but part of the craftsmanship of filmmaking is a step often overlooked.
A prime example of how Buechler’s work overcame obstacles is in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. In the film, there is a dream sequence where the main heroine, Alice, is sitting in the diner she works at, and is visited by Freddy, who has a meatball pizza with him. As the meatballs on the pizza start to make noise, we see that the faces of Freddy’s victims are on the meatballs. Despite this being a dream sequence, it’s almost too far out there to work.
If you’re someone who’s unfamiliar with the franchise, you’re probably asking, “Why even bring that up if you’re praising him?” Well, because that scene is actually one of the most memorable in that film, and by extension, the franchise. Yes, on paper (or text online), the setup for the scene is ridiculous, but seeing the effect on screen and watching it play out (Freddy stabs one of the meatballs then consumes it) makes it work. If the effects were total cornball and weren’t pulled off well, it would be a forgettable, poorly remembered sequence. However, when you have someone as committed and ‘effects-smart’ as Buechler behind it, the impossible becomes the believable.
Even seeing Buechler recall the scene years later in the wonderful, and at times heart-tugging documentary Never Sleep Again, you can see the sparkle in his eye as he recalls how he and his team were able to pull off the scene. This is why the practical effects of movies of old still stand out as some of the best: there’s a human component to it that CGI-effects, for all their technical advances and glory, cannot replicate. No programmer or animator is as fascinated and determined about their work as Buechler and the other effects workers were, because for them it wasn’t sitting behind a desk working with a computer; it was real-life, in/on camera effects that took a lot of creativity.
I can only hope that someday or in some form these types of artists can work again on mainstream films that gain as much notoriety and attention as the big slasher franchises of the 1980s, where Buechler and his compatriots made their names. Buechler’s life after the heyday of the Fridays and the Freddys continued to show advancement, including more work on writing and producing films, and also acting in films like Hatchet.
John Carl Buechler passed away due to complications from prostate cancer, and was 66 years old. He is survived by his wife Lynn and 3 children. While I never had the chance to meet Buechler, or anybody attached to his works, from seeing him in interviews about his films, I get a sense of warmth and camaraderie coming from any set he was on. Seeing actors like Hodder and Tony Todd show up in multiple films he was involved with is a testimony to that, and while seemingly his heart was very large on set, the amount of heart he put into his work comes through on screen. And many fans, including myself, salute him for helping create some of the greatest horror images of the modern age.
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