San Antonio horror makeup artist Sergio Guerra rates The Exorcist: Believer's special effects

The Exorcist: Believer is currently playing at local theaters.

click to enlarge Olivia O'Neill and Lidya Jewett star in The Exorcist: Believer. - Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Olivia O'Neill and Lidya Jewett star in The Exorcist: Believer.

San Antonio-based special effects artist Sergio Guerra knows a thing or two about turning people into monsters. In 2011, he was a contestant on the first season of the SyFy reality show Face Off, which runs a group of prosthetic artists from across the country through a series of competitive makeup challenges. He also owns his own company, The Darkness FX, which creates creepy props for horror movies, haunted houses and theme parks.

Earlier this month, Guerra and I attended an advance screening of The Exorcist: Believer, a sequel to the 1973 horror classic. After, we talked about how well he thought the makeup department did in transforming actresses Olivia O'Neill and Lidya Jewett into demon-possessed children. The Exorcist: Believer is currently playing at local theaters.

What did you think about the practical effects in the movie?

I liked them. They were mostly subtle. You could still see the girls there. For me, the whole point is that you know the demon is trying to corrupt something pure. You have to make them look scary because it's a horror movie, but you have to keep some of that humanity.

How long would a makeup job on a movie like The Exorcist: Believer take to complete?

Smaller faces are quicker to do, so I think a makeup artist could have applied everything in about an hour and a half. They get a lot of close ups and used a lot of silicone. If you work on the molds and get the pieces out right, then the edges almost disappear on their own. That makes it easier on applications.

Is there anything specific that impressed you with the makeup in this movie?

I really liked what they did with the lips. They made them dry and cracked. In the original movie, [makeup artist icon] Dick Smith did that with makeup, but here, they were able to do it with 3D prosthetics. When you get the closeups, you get that depth. That was really good.

What did you think about some of the computer-generated (CG) effects they included along with the practical effects?

Ultimately, I think the final look was good. I'm not sure if it was CG at the end [of the exorcism scene]. It looked like areas of their foreheads were growing as they were metamorphosing, but it might've been my eyes playing tricks on me. They cut away from it quickly. Do you remember the transformation scene in The Howling? They were puffing up his face for an hour!

Do you find that younger fans watching horror movies from the 1980s find practical effects hokey?

I guess young people might. They might say, "Oh, that looks fucking hokey," but it'll still fuck them up. They know it's fake because you can tell it's fake. But a lot of them have to look away because it scares them. Sometimes, CG work looks more realistic, but it doesn't really have the same effect. [Viewers] will be like, "Oh, that's gross," and then that's it. If you know it's CG, your brain rests, and then the shock passes.

So, do you think the head-turning scene in the original Exorcist still works today?

I've worked at theme parks and haunted houses, so I know all about scaring people. I don't know why some things work, but I know what works. It's the stuff that gives you a guttural reaction. I think it's the physical aspect of it. When people know it's real, even if it looks hokey, it just grabs you more.

Have you ever worked on a movie about possession before?

I've done it a couple of times. But I've done tons of those kinds of makeups. I'm doing another one at an event for the 50th anniversary of the original Exorcist on Oct. 20 in Austin. But again, I'm going to try to keep the person's face there. I don't want her to look like an actual demon.

In a movie, you could lose the emotional connection with an audience if you did that, right?

Yeah. I mean, I've only done a few movies, but I like to get an idea of what [the director] is trying to get from the audience, so I can work within those boundaries. I have to figure out a way to get their vision on screen but still create something shocking. In one of the first features I did, the main actress was this beautiful girl who gets kidnapped by this psycho killer. Her husband finds her but she's already dead, and she's been rotting for a while. But I wanted people to be heartbroken. I didn't want to make her half a skeleton and gross, which would've been cool. I needed it to look like her. So, I tried to do that. I still tore out her eyeballs though.

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