Unmasking the many faces of Harry Knuckles’ creature creator
Sharks in the shower-stall, slaughter at McDonald’s in the kitchen, and out in the blood-red hallway Elvis, the Incredible Hulk, Ken and Barbie and a cast of thousands of toys and action figures duke it out for space.
“They’re glued down, otherwise the dogs eat them,” chuckles Ottawa actor-comic-musician and goremeister Josh Grace as a pale but real wolf-like creature named Rudy sidles up to his master.
Below ground in the choked, cobweb-laced basement of his Centretown flat is where the strapping, six-foot-plus Grace works his special effects movie-magic at Goo Goo Muck Creature Shop, using everything from furniture foam to discarded vacuum cleaner hoses.
“I’m a real pack-rat. I can never walk past a garbage pile without bringing something home with me. Everything has its purpose in the world, you just have to find it,” he said reflectively.
THE MASKED MAN
From the Aztec mummy Motecazama, to ghoulish vampire surgeon Dr. Pretorious, to his latest incarnation-a nine-foot hairball known as the Bionic Bigfoot-Grace is the friendly guy behind the monstrous creatures, crazy characters and special effects for Ottawa cult-comedy director Lee Demarbre’s award-grabbing Harry Knuckles films and Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.
Grace has also applied his talent to other local indie productions and created a string of unusual characters for his solo comedy acts around town, from cybernetic entertainer Al Go Riddemz to The Unknown Wrestler, a masked jokester who rings a bell between one-liners.
Hands down, his biggest challenge so far has been Bigfoot. The nine-foot hinterland horror terrorizes the Gatineau Hills in the new Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace, opening at the ByTowne Cinema October 29 and continuing to November 4.
“Just the weight of the costume alone, I’d lose about seven pounds in an hour and a half,” groans Grace, recalling the fall 2002 shoot that had him crashing through the woods on three-foot painter-stilts-now illegal in Ontario-dragging seven-foot wooden arms. Bigfoot’s costume required hockey pads, stilts, crutches and upholstery foam covered with scraggly sasquatch hair, a facial beard and a latex mask.
Grace’s eyes are the only part of him visible as Bigfoot, yet in the tradition of the cinema’s great horror actors he imbues the hairy beast with a touch of pathos. “I wanted the audience to like him,” he says, hiking up a pant leg to reveal a fist-sized tattoo of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein.
In the latest Knuckles caper, which has Harry meeting up with his nemesis, a twin-brother named Fuzzy, Grace also plays a busty bride-wrestler and a pirate purse-snatcher who makes up one-half of The Motley Crew with Blake Jacobs.
“Most of the time in my movies we end up masking Josh and it’s too bad,” admits Demarbre, “because he has such a charismatic face. It’s kind of like having a rock star on our movie set.”
In fact, the guy was performing his cabaret act as cheesy French-Canadian rock star Remi Royale with his band Les Tonnes du Fromage, stripping down by night’s end to a fur jockstrap when Demarbre first heard about him from Knuckles star Phil Caracas.
“It was my grandfather’s,” he says when asked about the jockstrap. “My mom gave it to him as a Christmas present, just as a joke, and I don’t know why, but whenever anybody passes away in my family, I end up with their clothes.”
Born in Lunenburg, N.S., Grace grew up in Sept Isles, Quebec, as part of a large boisterous English-French-Canadian clan (his cousin is former Montreal Canadiens’ team captain Guy Carbonneau), moving with his family to Ottawa at age 12. He describes a great, outdoorsy childhood, playing in the woods and along the shores of the St. Lawrence. Yet even as a kid he was dabbling in gory effects and shock comedy.
“I’d take my toys and do weird things to them, such as put a razor blade through Miss Piggy’s head and spray her with blood. I was just always into making gory things. I consider myself a pretty normal guy, but sometimes I kind of think I should be screwed up.”
Horror movies like Friday the 13th were his favourite and he still ranks John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, The Thing, about a shape-changing alien, as his favourite effects movie of all time because it “took gore to a new level.”
High school meant a chance to try his hand at improv, but he took the beaten path to Carleton University to study science on a sports scholarship. A couple of years later, he was to tell Bob Barker and the folks down in L.A. at The Price Is Right, that he was studying “bioscatology” at Carleton. “That’s the study of shit,” he asserts, swigging peach juice from a Mason jar and laughing at the memory.
Oh, and anyone who knows Grace will tell you he had a premonition and told everyone he was going to win the infamous TV game show’s “showcase showdown.” Two months later that’s exactly what he did, blowing his windfall in a couple of weeks on guitars and parties for his friends.
By then, he’d quit Carleton and was touring as a roadie with the Ottawa Celtic punk-band Jimmy George: “Nine people in a mini-bus with a lot of partying going on. It got pretty smelly in there.”
Over the years, the big man’s wielded his axe for a number of local bands-King Kung, Roctagon, Pawchinko, Saw Dogs-but it was meeting up with the team from Odessa Filmworks (Demarbre, Caracas and scriptwriter Ian Driscoll) that gave him the chance to combine his talents with his lifelong love of special effects.
“There was just a bit of blood in the first one (the 1998 trailer Harry Knuckles) then we really got into the horror aspect with Harry Knuckles and the Treasure of the Aztec Mummy.”
Even by Grace’s standard, ghoulish effects reached a gut-churning new level in Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter where, as Dr. Pretorious, he had to pull pig organs out of the vampire cadavers and tie them to his fist like boxing gloves. “So take after take, I’m punching Phil (who plays Jesus) with pig kidneys tied to my fist, there’s blood and pig urine everywhere. The ammonia smell … it was awful.”
FOR THE ART
Grace says he doesn’t make (nor expect) any money from his movie work. Money from Knuckles‘ films goes to pay off debts and the remainder is plowed into the next project. He pays the bills by bartending and the occasional painting contract, and admits he has occasionally thought about a move to greener movie pastures.
“But in the end, it’s all about the people you’re working with. Staying here, making these movies, getting them out and having them win awards is a lot better than fetching coffee on a movie set in Toronto.”
As Demarbre tells it, the best thing about working with Grace is taking him to film festivals such as Cannes and Park City, Utah for Slamdance, the renegade festival held at the same time as Sundance, where Aztec Mummy scooped the festival’s top prize Spirit Award in 2000.
“You really get noticed with a guy like Josh on your team, because he’s a real party animal and he’s great to have around for publicity stunts. He’ll parade up and down the street in costume and wrestle as the Toxic Avenger. The plan is to bring the Bigfoot costume to Park City in January for Slamdance and have Josh do it on main street.”
HARRY’S HOME FOR HALLOWEEN
After a summer on the film fest circuit, Ottawa director Lee Demarbre’s comedy caper Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace finally comes home for its premiere Ottawa engagement at the ByTowne Cinema.
A Halloween night benefit screening with admission donated to community radio station CKCU-FM promises to be a blast with the audience encouraged to come dressed as one of the kooky film characters. Choose from a galaxy of goons and goofballs that includes Johnny Vegas, the Bionic Bigfoot, Leopard Lady, the Erotic Nuns, Cannibal Girl, the Scottish Piper or the martial arts tag team of Yin and Yang.
The costume-challenged might simply want to put a paper bag on their head and come as the Unknown, while babes with a killer bod can slip into a black bikini and dominatrix boots as Agent Ito. For a gallery of costume ideas check out www.odessafilmworks.com.