San Antonio native Joe Castro helps drive resurgence of old-school special effects in Hollywood

click to enlarge Special effects artist Joe Castro has made a name for himself working on low-budget horror movies. - Courtesy Photo / Joe Castro
Courtesy Photo / Joe Castro
Special effects artist Joe Castro has made a name for himself working on low-budget horror movies.
Joe Castro can point to the exact moment he fell in love with movies. It was the summer of 1977 when a 7-year-old Castro watched the Japanese kaiju film Godzilla vs. Hedorah for the first time at the behest of his father, who he was spending the weekend with on his goat farm in Helotes, Texas.

“My father sat me down in front of the TV and said, ‘Watch this son, you’re going to like it,’” Castro, 52, told the Current during a recent interview. “After the movie was over, I asked him about what I just saw, and he told me it was special effects. He lit a fire in me. From there, I knew I had one goal in life.”

Today, Castro, who’s openly gay, works as a special effects artist in Hollywood, where he moved a year after graduating from John Marshall High School in 1988. A couple of years prior, he won a national special effects makeup contest sponsored by Monsterland magazine and was flown to Los Angeles where he got a closer look at the industry that he wanted to be a part of.

“The first chance I got, I moved to L.A.,” Castro said. “I went there without having any connections whatsoever.”

Castro’s first job was at Universal Studios “picking up cigarette butts.” Within a year, he landed his first special effects gig on an animated horror-comedy called Evil Toons starring the late David Carradine (Kill Bill). Since then, Castro has been a prolific special effects artist who’s worked on more than 70 completed feature and short films, mostly in the B-horror-movie genre. More than a dozen more are in some phase of production.

Some of the colorful titles he’s worked on over the past 30 years include Attack of the Bat Monsters, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, Gorilla Warfare: Battle of the Apes, Sleepaway Camp 2: Steve and Michelle Go to Hell, RoboWoman, The Occultist 2: Bloody Guinea Pigs and Big Freaking Rat.

Most of the projects Castro works on call for him to create practical effects. Think of the werewolf transformation scene in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, not the computer-generated werewolf transformation in 2004’s Van Helsing.

“It seems like there’s been a big resurgence of practical effects in the filmmaking world,” Castro said. “It used to be all about computer-generated effects for a very long time, but people seem to have gotten tired of them. Now, they want to go back to handmade [effects].”

In 2011, Castro directed, wrote, starred in and served as special effects coordinator for the horror anthology The Summer of Massacre, which holds the Guiness record for the highest body count in a slasher film: 155.

“I went to school in 2010 to learn CGI because I knew I was going to need more than just practical effects to make [The Summer of Massacre] happen,” Castro said. “So, the film does have practical and digital blood. There’s a lot going on in that movie.”

Although he studied digital effects in college, Castro has adopted an old-school approach when it comes to his craft. He considers working in practical effects an “art form” and more of a “specialty item” in the business.

“Doing practical effects is kind of like being in the bad boys’ club,” he said. “Anyone can learn how to do a digital effect on a YouTube tutorial. It’s not so much an artistry as it is a technical skill.”

He does concede, however, that CGI effects are sometimes required to enhance a practical effect. In his opinion, the best special effects artists “do everything practical” then build on their work digitally, if necessary.

“That’s what digital effects were always supposed to be,” Castro said. “Somewhere along the way, someone decided to do an entire movie with digital effects, and it became something else. I remember seeing computer-generated effects for the first time when I was a kid, and they were very impressive. But now, you can do some of them with an Instagram filter.”

While Castro has so far made a name for himself via low-budget horror movies, he’s eager to transition his talent into other genres, including sci-fi and fantasy, comedies and even children’s films.

“If I never do another slasher movie again, I’d be happy, as long as I can continue working in my field,” he said. “I’ve done all the horror stuff, so I’d like to try something new.”

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