Books · Longreads

Finding Christopher Tucker: The Man Who Made the Ramsay Horror Masks

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Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay run one of their monsters through the grunts and groans in Dahshat (1981).
In the 1970s and ’80s – a period of churn in Hindi films, when commercial cinema was at its Amitabh Bachchan-fuelled peak and art-house movies were truly pushing the envelope – the Ramsay brothers burst on to the scene with their horror film-making spree. They were subaltern films (of a sort), yes. Disruptive too. The industry refused to acknowledge them and indeed hardly knew what to make of the movies, but the audience took to them with gusto.
All these decades later, the family name remains synonymous with horror movies in India – even among those who have never watched a Ramsay flick. But who were these film-makers really? Where did they come from? What impelled them? How did they pull it off? A fascinating new book, ‘Don’t Disturb The Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers’ by Shamya Dasgupta takes us behind the scenes. Here’s an edited excerpt:

Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, while injected with elements of horror, was more about villainy and revenge than the sort of creature horror that the Ramsays became synonymous with in the years to come. By Darwaza, however, we start getting a feel of the Ramsay monster, face often in the shadows, rags on the body, claws instead of hands, slow of gait – shuffling, not walking – and the faces, when they are visible, horrible.

Lamington Road, once upon a time, had a full-fledged exhibition of these faces, the masks hanging on the walls. Some of them have since been destroyed, some mislaid, some stashed away here and there. But the films exist, and in them we see the faces that so scared filmgoers in the 1980s. While Ajay Agarwal claims he needed only a bit of make-up to look as scary as he did, there were worse horrors in the Ramsay arsenal, and one man behind it all: Christopher Tucker.

Tucker is a British make-up artist for theatre and film, specializing in prosthetics, with a history of doing high-quality work in the arts. He has worked on the make-up for Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1978), The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980 – his best known work, arguably), Quest for Fire (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981), The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1978), The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984) and, notably, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (1986). His website – http://www.christophertuckermakeup.com – informs us that ‘these films all included special make-up effects, which at the time had never been done before. The Elephant Man make-up gained an entry into the Guinness Book of Film Records as the most complex prosthetic make-up on a single actor.’ To date, Tucker has worked in thirty-one films, having started with Stuart Burge’s Julius Caesar (1970) starring Charlton Heston and John Gielgud. His last film, according to the listings, was Black, the 2005 Sanjay Leela Bhansali film with Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan.

It’s just a little upsetting that none of the Ramsay films are listed there, but the reason is that he never really worked in any of them; he didn’t do the make-up. What happened, instead, is that the Ramsays told him what they wanted (masks and limbs, usually), placed orders so to say, and he delivered.

He isn’t easy to get through to, as he lives in a secluded place in a not-easy-to-access part of the United Kingdom. And his first email to me said, among other things, ‘Unfortunately, our telephone has been out of order just after Christmas, and we only got it back last week. We are not able to use mobiles, too many trees surrounding us.’ (This was about two months after Christmas.) But when we did end up talking, he was relaxed and expansive, and shared very fun gossip about some Indian cine stars that I’ll leave for another time.

Tucker doesn’t recall the names of any of the Ramsay films he helped out with, but remembers the family fondly. ‘I was already doing work in prosthetics and I don’t quite remember how they found me. They never came to me. They wanted me to make horror masks for some films they were making. They wanted specific masks or arms or whatever. So I made a lot of bits and bobs. I can’t quite remember all the details, and we did speak a few times, but they had an agent in London, and he came and collected things from me and, I suppose, he shipped things back to India.’

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‘Let’s use it in the next episode of Zee Horror Show‘ — Shyam and Arjun Ramsay with one of their Christopher Tucker masks. 

He’s remembering as we speak. ‘I never actually saw any of their films. In those days, Indian films didn’t really come to our part of the world much. I’ve been told that the movies were small-budget films. I suppose I never had the time or knowledge to actually see anything like that. And, to be honest, I don’t even know which of their films I have worked on. They would give me a lot of details in terms of what they wanted. They would tell me very specifically that they wanted a mask like someone wore in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or in a particular Dracula movie. It would always be along the lines of something in a Hollywood film. They gave me specific instructions and I was then left to my own devices. They called me up pretty frequently, if I remember right.’

They did. Arjun was the one who interacted with Tucker the most, discussing the exact plan with his brothers and then explaining it all to Tucker.

‘It started with the father Ramsay, I suppose,’ Tucker says when we ask for his version – and he remembers the father Ramsay without any prompting. ‘I can’t be too sure, but it must have been him because later on the son, or sons, would call up saying “I am the son of Mr Ramsay”. So it must have started with the original Mr Ramsay, I think. So, well, whether it was the father or the son, I kept to “Mr Ramsay”.

‘It’s very interesting that all those years ago, instead of finding someone closer home, they found me sitting thousands of miles away. Can you imagine! I must have had some reputation then. There’s no other explanation. For low-budget films at that – it’s extraordinary really. They (the masks) were not expensive by English standards, but by Indian standards they were not cheap at all.’

But, as Tulsi explains, the masks made the monster. Like in the case of the music, where having one or two good songs in the film, by a reputed composer ideally, raised the profile of the film, so did good masks. ‘The monsters were our stars,’ Tulsi says, not for the first time. And they spared no expense for them.

According to Arjun, Tucker had various masks ready, and would tweak them a bit to make them fit the Ramsays’ requirements. That’s not what Tucker says. ‘When “Mr Ramsay” asked me for something, I started from scratch. Each time. I certainly didn’t have finished masks lying around in my studio. They are all the same. You put in the same amount of work in finishing them and then, years later, when you see them, you say, “Oh I wish I had done this; it would have been better if I’d done that.” In a way, nothing of what I have done was ever quite finished. But they are finished, of course.’

The good stuff, however, was usually restricted to the masks. The rest was usually patchwork, Tiffin Box-style. As the masks became a regular feature, the camera would linger on the faces of the monsters. As they became more and more visible, so did the rest of their bodies. Matted long hair, fangs, deranged eyes, a lot of fuzz on the face, and the hands – always the hands. Tulsi smiles enigmatically when I bring them up. My conclusion was that sacks had been cut and muddied to look dark and stick to the hands to give them an unworldly appearance, complete with long misshapen nails. But, in journalism-speak, the Ramsays refused to confirm or deny this. And, so, we leave it as a trade secret.


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Excerpted with permission. Don’t Disturb The Dead: The Story of The Ramsay Brothers is available here: http://amzn.to/2psl9ax

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