[Editor’s note: The following interview contains spoilers.]
Fifty years later, director David Gordon Green has reimagined William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece of demonic possession without sacrificing the naturalism, ambiguity and religious faith of the original in The Exorcist: Believer. However, there is a new demon, two possessed girls and a multi-religious exorcism. Because in 2023 it takes a village to fight against the more powerful evil.
However, given the importance and influence of Dick Smith’s iconic work in the original, it was crucial that SPFX makeup designer Chris Nelson (Oscar winner for Suicide Squad) got the demonic look right. “Chris Nelson and our makeup team began their approach to ‘Believer’ by studying the work of Dick Smith,” Green told IndieWire. “It was groundbreaking in 1973 and we wanted to match as much of the quality of the in-camera practical makeup effects as possible.
“For actresses it was two and a half hours a day [Lidya Jewett as Angela and Olivia Marcum as Katherine] “This also had to take time away from school classes,” the director continued, “and due to her age, the hours were limited, so the logistics started to add up, but it was important that the makeup quality was a priority had.”
It was important for Nelson to start with Smith as the basis for the new prosthetic makeup designs for practical and personal reasons. “Dick Smith’s work has been a huge inspiration to me and has been throughout my career, including now, so taking on this challenge was a monumental challenge,” Nelson told IndieWire.
But the reboot presented the opportunity to create a more natural and believable appearance of demonic possession through prosthetic makeup, thanks to advanced silicone materials and 3D printing. “I worked very closely with Vincent Van Dyke Effects [as my co-designer]and we really tried to approach this in a realistic, organic and plausible way,” Nelson added.
In “Believer,” Angela and her best friend Katherine become possessed by a demon after they get lost in the woods and the terrible evil tears their families and community apart. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) from The Exorcist, is brought in as a consultant on demonic possession and exorcism and makes the crucial connection to the OG.
However, the demon that possesses Angela and Katherine is not Pazuzu from The Exorcist, but Lamashtu (played by Lize Johnson from Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities), a more powerful female demon who is repeatedly seen in brief shots According to mythology, he is the enemy of Pazuzu. In fact, Lamashtu hunts newborns, which is only hinted at following a prologue in Haiti, where Angela’s mother dies in an earthquake after giving birth to a child. While Lamashtu is not directly mentioned in the film, Nelson studied many illustrations of the fictional demon.
“There are so many incarnations of Lamashtu,” Nelson said. “At first we started with a much more literal design with the jackal head, wings and hoof feet, but David was very insistent on basing this on some sort of reality and we wanted it to look much more humanoid and went with that.” a very old woman. And that’s what we see [which took six months to design, life-cast, and sculpt Lamashtu].
“And we did a full body transformation on Lize,” he continued. “She wears prosthetics and a suit, as well as a harness underneath the suit that attaches to her wings, and she has dentures that expose her bone structure, as well as three eyes and horns. We wanted it to be fantastical but based in reality at the same time.”
As for Angela and Katherine, their prosthetic designs feature three levels of demonic possession (a fourth, titled “Never Again,” looked so terrible that it was immediately dropped): Level one (“naughty”) creates the feeling that something not true Just right for the girls, including red eyes, some scratches, a pale face and a slight receding hairline.
Level two (“evil”) escalates the violence, with the girls cutting and scratching themselves, picking at their hair, and having minor infections.
Stage three (“creaky”) represents the extreme manifestation of possession during the climax of the exorcism, in which the girls are tied back to back in chairs and exhibit violent temper tantrums and superhuman strength. Then the makeup team went into full prosthetics and it got terribly intense.
“The look of each girl was based on something I picked up from some previous scripts,” Nelson said, “where as the girls sink into their demonology, they develop these tics.” To keep it realistic, I really have these tics picked up. Katherine often pulls out her hair, so she has a kind of receding hairline, her face is swollen and she abuses herself with scratching and the like. Angela often hits her head and has convulsions.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the makeup was fully applied that Nelson came up with the idea that there was a resemblance between Katherine and Regan. That’s when he realized that there was no getting around the similarity of chubby cheeks and discolored eyes after putting in contact lenses. The Smith DNA continues to permeate the world of the franchise.
“It’s all on camera, it’s all practical makeup,” Nelson said. “It starts with slight discoloration and pallor, as well as circles around the eyes. And then when we got to the second stage, we got to prosthetics: an eyebrow piece, artificial eyebrows, dentures to create gaps between teeth, bloodshot eyes with contact lenses.”
During the exorcism, Nelson and his team completely covered the two actresses with prosthetics to reveal the abuse, swelling, cuts and rashes. No two takes were the same and they were given freedom to improvise.
“They wear full foreheads, cheeks, chins, noses, necks, contact lenses, prosthetic teeth, prosthetic hands, prosthetic feet,” Nelson added. “We put food coloring in their mouths to make the inside look black and full of bile. There was a sequence where Katherine coughs up a big, disgusting blister, and it was all practical. We had a tube that ran down the side of her mouth off camera, going into her mouth and pointing outward. I had a plastic bag that could be filled with black goo. It was made of corn syrup and food coloring and just grew as it came out of her mouth and she spit it out.”
The result was a combination of old and new makeup effects that bring the horror franchise more authentically into the 21st century. “We wanted to do the work justice [Smith] “That’s what he did and the world he created,” Nelson said. “We did our best. We wanted the makeup to be effective, realistic, subtle and meaningful.”
Additional reporting by Jim Hemphill.