For the first 20 years of my life, I was haunted by the memory of seeing a man’s face melt off. Okay, I saw it happen in a movie, but I was only about four years old, and when you’re that little you don’t really understand what a special effect is. So for all I knew, I saw a man’s face melt off.
While that image lingered in my brain, the movie it came from faded into oblivion. I always assumed I’d seen that melting face in some obscure horror film. Then sometime around Y2K, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) was reissued on VHS. I was an admirer of Spielberg but I’d never really sat down and watched the original Indiana Jones film until the release of this remastered, widescreen edition. Like many a film nerd before me, “Raiders” would go on to earn a spot on my all-time favorites list.
Towards the end of the movie, there was a line of dialogue that ignited a memory. It’s when Indiana and his companion are tied to a post, at the mercy of the Nazis who are about to open the Ark of the Covenant. Indy yells, “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.” It was my first time watching the movie, but I knew I recognized that line…
All my life I’d remembered that melting face but forgotten everything else about the movie it came from. Everything except one line of dialogue: “Don’t look at it!” That man’s face had been melted by some ghastly magic that couldn’t hurt you as long as you didn’t look at it. That’s a kind of kid logic; that if you just shut your eyes you’ll be protected from all manner of evil forces. To a four-year-old, this scene works as proof of the eye-shutting theory.
So when I heard that line again, I realized what I was watching. This must be the face-melting movie from my childhood…
* * * * *
I was about four years old, innocently enjoying a sleepover at my grandparents’ house. They didn’t have much in the way of toys but I always found neat things when exploring far-flung corners and cabinets. And always, out of nowhere, my grandma would produce a plate of cinnamon toast as a late-night snack. Not the cereal of the same name but actual toast slathered in butter and coated with cinnamon – one of her specialties.
My grandpa was in charge of the TV, as usual. He never watched anything worth seeing, but mercifully it was too late for bowling or golf, so at least he’d put on a movie. Notably, he was playing it on what had appeared to be an iridescent record, although the machine he was using had no needle. He just slid the disc inside – completely baffling!
The movie wasn’t animated and didn’t feature any puppets, so I found it boring. After I finished my cinnamon toast, I returned to the Barbie I’d been playing with. My discovery of this item had been miraculous. After all, it was almost an action figure. She could easily be, say, Teela trapped on Earth and forced to work as a nurse to make ends meet while she searched for a portal back to Eternia.
I was deep into this storyline when the tension in the movie started to ratchet up. The heroes had been tied to a post and the leading man warned his girlfriend, “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.” Suddenly it had my attention. What was going to happen? What could be so terrible that this hero couldn’t even look at it? I needed to see it.
I held my breath, bracing myself for a scare. In the movie, one of the villains spoke an incantation over some kind of magic chest, and from its seemingly infinite depths flowed misty, glowing spirits. Not too scary. I relaxed, momentarily.
One of the spirits looked like the ghost of a young woman. She floated up to another bad guy, named Toht. He studied her for a moment from behind his glasses. Then: her pretty face transformed into a screaming skull, and the film’s score abruptly changed to a startling, clanging rhythm.
Before I could summon the wherewithal to shut my eyes, several things happened in a series of quick shots: the leader of the bad guys burst into flames, lightning shot from his body and electrocuted the evil army to death, one guy’s head shriveled gruesomely, and then, all of the flesh on Toht’s face melted. As his ears and nose liquified, his glasses slipped off his bloody skull.
That did it. My instinct for self-preservation overrode my terror and I regained motor control, shutting my eyes tight and covering them with my hands.
* * * * *
That image just parked itself in my brain for the next couple decades. It gave me a chill every time it resurfaced.
The magic of that face-melt is that it’s a single shot that lasts only four seconds. The special effects artists behind it painstakingly took a cast of the actor’s face and used it to create a realistic dummy, molded from a substance that they had carefully engineered to melt a certain way.
Untold hours of work for four seconds of film. Lesser filmmakers would have taken a shortcut, but Spielberg and the artists at ILM knew that with enough care and craft they could make four seconds of film last forever.
As long as you can stand to keep your eyes open.
Below: The original theatrical trailer for “Raiders,” the Ark scene in its entirety, and an analysis of the special effects used for the melting face.