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A year or two before makeup effects supervisor Erik Porn ever devised a way for a witch to crawl out of a woman’s limp, dead body like a second skin in IFC Midnight's The Wretched (more on that in a moment), he and his business partner, Chris Gallaher, met up with the film’s directors, Brett and Drew Pierce, for sushi in Burbank.
“A producer friend of mine named Chang Tseng, who produced the film, had contacted me and said that he had two directors who are from my home state of Michigan, and they were planning on doing this horror film,” Porn told SYFY WIRE ahead of The Wretched’s May 1 VOD premiere. “And he sort of gave me a little bit of a background on the Pierce brothers, about how their father worked on the original Evil Dead and things like that.
“I think we were there for like three hours,” Porn recalls. “I think we may have talked about the movie for about 10 minutes, and then ended up comparing Michigan stories for like two hours. It was like we instantly just kind of hit it off with these guys. We were like, ‘Wow, we kind of want these guys to be our new best friends.’”
Production “politics” got in the way, though, and Porn moved on, continuing work on other projects, including on the set of Fear the Walking Dead and picking up a gig as a makeup artist on the Oscar Award-winning Ford v Ferrari. Then, “out of the blue,” Porn got the call that The Wretched, originally called “The Hag,” was back on, and that he had two months to make practical effects magic happen.
While the name changed over time, the story stayed: Michigan teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard), juggling the emotional fallout of his parents’ impending divorce, dukes it out with a thousand-year-old witch who’s causing families to forget their children ever existed. In her natural form, the witch is a spider-fingered, demonic-looking wretch, more animal than human, and looking to kidnap children Hansel and Gretel-style for her own nefarious purposes. Without giving too much away: She possesses women, lives in their skin, and crawls around inside like a parasite.
Understandably, it takes some work to make something so horrifyingly fantastical look real. That’s where Porn and his team come in. SYFY WIRE spoke with Porn ahead of the VOD premiere of The Wretched to learn more about how this indie project came together and made the most horrifying scene a practical effects reality.
**SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for The Wretched.**
What was your initial take on The Wretched when it was pitched to you?
When [the Pierce brothers] were explaining it, [Chris and I] were like, "Well it sounds like it's kind of a Spielberg film mixed with a bit of horror element to it." And then when I saw it, I was like, "Yeah, it's kind of a Goonies update with a witch."
That's exactly what it is. That is a perfect description.
It's like The Goonies and The Witch got together and had a baby, and then we had The Wretched. And then also, it had the whole Rear Window thing going on with it, with him watching the neighbors.
What did you spend those two months building in your shop, before bringing everything over to the set?
We had to sort of co-design the hag. Well, she was called the hag at that point, the witch character. When the film was originally brought to us, it was called "Hag." We were designing the hag character, and Brett and Drew had an immense amount of input on that. They had brought in designs and drawings. They pretty much knew exactly what they wanted her to look like, so we spent a lot of time trying to finagle our sculpts into matching what they had in their 2D elements.
So we did her. She was the major thing that we had to do. We had a fake deer we had to make, which was interesting because with the amount of budget they had, we couldn't actually build an entire fake deer, so we had to get a taxidermy deer, an old taxidermy deer that was like 30-something years old.
And I'm sure that was just gnarly.
Yeah. One of my family members had it. And their dad was a hunter and had it and was selling it, so we took that and we had to cut it apart, and joint it, and make it posable so that we could use it for the shots with the deer in the back of the truck.
We also had 10 dead children bodies that you probably don't even see in the film whatsoever, but they're stashed in throughout the witch's cave.
I definitely didn’t catch that many kids.
Yeah, they're kind of embedded into the rocks, like the rocks have been growing into them and stuff like that. Mars [Feehery], the girl who was the production designer, she built this really amazing cave set that they had, and between her and I, we would kind of coordinate where they were going. And Annie Tagge, my assistant on this, did these really great intrinsic latex coloring on these dead kid bodies. They were just latex and polyfoam. But yeah, she knocked them out of the park. So that actually took a long time, doing the dead kid bodies.
There was a lot of stuff. Zarah Mahler, who plays the Wretched human form, we had a couple of things on her we had to do. We had rot that crawled up her back during a sex scene, and she had a little place where she kind of pulls her eye down, and you can kind of see that there's the witch's skin under the eye. And then she had like sloughing skin on her arm where the tattoo was.
And one of the other big things we got to do was Azie [Tesfai], who she ends up being the witch for the second interval with the witch, we did a head cast of her. We did a body cast of her.
So when the hag crawls out of her stomach, we built a fake floor, and we had basically the fake body on top of that, that would connect to the real Azie under her collar bone. And then, the witch would crawl out from under the set. It was really a fun thing to do. And then we built a fake head of hers too, that we could kind of run a hand up under the skin, so it looked like the witch was puppeteering her body under her skin. I felt like we had a lot of things to build on this one.
And of course, all the masks, like her skull mask was sculpted out of clay. And the brothers had all these designs, and they went exactly according to what the sketches were.
So it sounds like they had a very firm grasp on what it was that they were looking for, and y'all just made their dreams come true.
Pretty much. I believe Drew is a concept and storyboard artist. Yeah, I think it's Drew. Drew was the one who does that. So he had already come in with... They had storyboarded out most of the film, and they had brought to me these designs. And we tried to put a little bit of our stuff into them, but more or less, we were just trying to help the directors achieve what their vision was.
It was a little difficult trying to sculpt to match exactly and get with the feel of what the two-dimensional designs were because they don't always match up. So we did our best to emulate exactly what they had drawn out and make them happy with what they have. But they definitely had a firm idea in their head what they wanted to see.
With the timeframe we were given, I was glad that they knew exactly what they wanted because there wasn't time to do like 50 different concepts of it and then just keep going back and forth. They had already pretty much figured out exactly what the facial features were going to be.
At first, they had taken certain screenshots of other creatures in movies, and they had kind of circled different things they like about them. And then after that, we started sculpting, and then they had sent over a sketch and said, "Try to make it as close to this as you can, because this is what we like." So most of the sketch stuff that we saw was actually Drew's sketch stuff.
What were some of the creatures that they brought to you with the circled elements?
I remember them showing me some Walking Dead things, with the teeth kind of exposed, like the whole front rotted off and the teeth exposed. There was another creature that they sent to me. I can't even tell you what it came from. I hadn't seen it before, but I thought it was really cool-looking and it's kind of distorted in the face. They had also sent some things from, I believe, was the movie called Priest?
Yeah, I know the one.
Yeah, it was Priest. It wasn't really a big movie when it came out, but they had the vampires from that. So there was this mishmash of a bunch of different things, where, in some of them, I couldn't even tell what the creatures were. They had just highlighted certain areas of it, and they sent me a closeup. So those were the ones that I recognized. Definitely had some Walking Dead in there. I'd have to go back through the designs.
I got inspired by John Wrightson, who's a friend of mine and works [on Fear the Walking Dead], [I was inspired by] his paint jobs that he was doing, to paint this creature the same way. Because it just sort of made sense with her backstory, that she would work this way.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment in which the witch crawls out of the other character's skin. You said you guys created a fake floor below the faux body so that she could crawl out of it?
We had about two feet of space between us and the driveway. We were actually in the driveway outside of a barn in northern Michigan, and the sun was coming up, and we had been filming for like, I don't know, 17 hours, something crazy like that. And they were like, "Well we have to get this shot. We have to do this." So they had actually tented over the fake floor that was built, and they matched the lighting and set it up. We kind of went off on a tangent with some of the grips and stuff, and they started setting up the lights. And we started actually putting all the body parts and things together a couple of hours before we knew they were going to film it because they were running and gunning so fast.
And we were like, "Well, the best thing we can do is probably just have this thing all set up, so when they're done with their last couple shots with the actors, we can just come over here and just throw the girl into the rig and then get the girl in the hag makeup and have her pop out."
There was literally like two feet under there. I was underneath the stage, and Annie, who was helping me, she was like my key on the show, she was up top, kind of helping from up top and whatnot, and trying to make things look good and everything. So, it was fun.
It was probably about an hour or two. Probably 90 minutes to two hours I think. Because we had to get her in, we had to get it looking good. We had just got the set at that point. They were building it as we were filming. So we had just got the set, so we were sort of figuring out the logistics of getting her into it and how it was going to work with having Azie on her knees and leaning back with her head and neck and shoulders into this fake rig, and then having the girl in the hag stuff pop out of it. We had it so we had to attach the body to the floor, so that the body wouldn't just pop up off of her.
It was a logistical nightmare. We were figuring it out for like an hour or two. At one point, I remember we had to lift the whole thing, and we had to have the grips come in and screw a bunch of apple boxes into the bottom just to lift it up another six inches.
You’re just constantly problem-solving.
It was quite the thing. And then, when I saw the movie, I was... Hollywood Reporter said [it] was enhanced with CGI. I think there was only really one sequence that was enhanced, and it was her in the shower, and they made the stuff on her back kind of move and bubble a little bit. But all the stuff with the transformation, from what I saw, was exactly what we shot on set.
It was all practical?
Yeah. We had a fake arm of Azie's that the witch could actually slide her hand through the arm and out through the wrist like she was tearing through. Kind of that old Freddy Krueger gag.
I think people mix up the practical work that artists do versus the computer-generated things. And so, it's always really exciting to me to hear how much is actually practical effects.
Yeah. I mean, if they did do any CG augmentation, I didn't notice it, so kudos to the CG guys who worked on it.
The brothers wanted to do as much practical stuff as they could. They stressed that they didn't want to have to CG anything, really. So they were like, "We're going to do this all practical. We want to do it old school."
The Wretched is now available on Digital Platforms and VOD, as well as in select drive-in theaters.