(Editor’s note: The following interview contains spoilers.)
It’s 50 years later in “The Exorcist: Believer,” and director David Gordon Green has rebooted William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece of demonic possession without sacrificing the original’s naturalism, ambiguity, and religious faith. However, there’s a new demon, two possessed girls, and a multi-faith exorcism. That’s because, in 2023, it takes a village to battle more powerful evil.
But it was vital that SPFX makeup designer Chris Nelson (Oscar winner for “Suicide Squad”) got the demonic look right, given the importance and influence of Dick Smith’s iconic work in the OG. “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 reach for the quality of in-camera, practical, makeup effects as much as possible.
“It was two and half hours a day for actresses (Lidya Jewett as Angela and Olivia Marcum as Katherine) that also had to take time for schooling,” the director continued, “and had limited hours because of their age, so the logistics start to add up, but it was important for makeup quality to be a priority.”
For Nelson, it was important for practical and personal reasons to start with Smith as the foundation for the new prosthetic makeup designs. “Dick Smith’s work was a huge inspiration to me and has been throughout my entire career, including now, so to take on this challenge was daunting,” Nelson told IndieWire.
But the reboot provided the opportunity to create a more naturalistic and believable look of demonic possession through prosthetic makeup, thanks to the latest silicone materials and 3D printing. “I worked really closely with Vincent Van Dyke Effects (as my co-designer), and we really tried to approach this in a realistic, organic, plausible way,” Nelson added.
In “Believer,” Angela and her best friend Katherine become possessed by a demon after getting lost in the woods and the terrifying evil tears apart their families and community. 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 provides the key link to the OG.
However, the demon that possesses Angela and Katherine is not Pazuzu from “The Exorcist,” but Lamashtu (played by Lize Johnson of “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities”), a more powerful female demon, glimpsed in quick shots throughout who, according to mythology, is the enemy of Pazuzu. In fact, Lamashtu preys on newborns, which is only hinted at following a prologue in Haiti where Angela’s mother dies from an earthquake after childbirth. While Lamashtu is not directly referenced 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 and the wings and the hoofed feet, but David was very adamant about basing this on some sort of reality, and we wanted it to look much more humanoid and based it off 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 is covered in prosthetics and a suit and a harness underneath the suit that are attached to the wings, and she’s got dentures that expose her bone structure, and three eyes and horns. We wanted it to be fantastical, but at the same time based on reality.”
In terms of Angela and Katherine, their prosthetic designs have three stages of demonic possession (a fourth called “never again” was so horrific-looking that it was immediately dropped): Stage one (“naughty”) creates a sense that something is not right with the girls, including redness to the eyes, some scratches, a pale face, and a slight receding hairline.
Stage two (“nasty”) ups the violence, with the girls cutting and scratching themselves, picking at their hair, and sporting little infections.
Stage three (“gnarly”) represents the extreme manifestation of possession during the climactic exorcism, in which the girls are bound back-to-back in chairs and exhibit violent tantrums and superhuman strength. That’s when the makeup team went to full-on prosthetics and things get horrifically intense.
“The looks for each girl were based on something that I pulled out of some of the earlier scripts,” said Nelson, “where as the girls are descending into their demonology, they develop these tics. In order to keep it based on reality, I really picked up on those tics. Katherine pulls her hair out a lot and that’s why she has a kind of receded hairline, and her face is swelled, and she’s self-abusing with scratching and things like that. Angela bangs her head a lot and has convulsions.”
Interestingly, Nelson never considered there was a resemblance between Katherine and Regan until the makeup was fully applied. That’s when he realized that there was no getting around the similarity of pudgy cheeks and discolored eyes once you put the contact lenses in. The Smith DNA continues to pervade the world of the franchise.
“All of it’s on camera, all of it’s practical makeup,” Nelson said. “It starts off with just some discoloration and paleness and rings around the eyes. And then once we started getting to stage two, that’s when we get into prosthetics: a brow piece, fake eyebrows, dentures to create gaps in their teeth, bloodshot eyes with contact lenses.”
During the exorcism, Nelson and his team covered the two actress’ completely in prosthetics to show the abuse, swelling, cuts, and rashes. No two takes were the same and they were given the freedom to improvise.
“They’re wearing full foreheads, cheeks, chins, noses, necks, contact lenses, dentures, hand prosthetics, feet prosthetics,” 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, gross bubble, and that was all practical. We had a tube that ran up the side of her mouth, off camera, went into her mouth and pointed outward. I had a plastic bag that would fill with black goo. That was made of corn syrup and food coloring, and that would just grow as it’s coming out of her mouth and she spits it out.”
The result was a combination of old and new makeup effects that bring the horror franchise into the 21st century with greater authenticity. “We wanted to live up to the work that (Smith) did and the world that he created,” Nelson said. “We did our best. We wanted the makeup to be effective, realistic, subtle, and make sense.”
Additional reporting by Jim Hemphill.