Thursday, April 30, 2020

They Stalk the Night

I'm a huge fan of M R James's "ghost stories" containing so much mood and weirdness. History, folklore, and the landscape are components that loom large out of his tales. I have adapted a poem by James a few years ago, but I also wanted to write and film my own take on his particular brand of folk horror. I should also say that James wasn't alone in this very unique genre. Some contemporaries such as the Benson brothers were also very apt storytellers within this narrow but effective vein of horror. The above film is the result of my own take on the subject.

The supernatural entities I chose to include in my own text are light tropes in these types of tales: Restless undead, a beheaded ghost, an imprisoned demon, a black dog, a drowned corpse returning, and a boundary specter. All these can be found in folktales as well as variations on themselves in the classic horror tales of the above-mentioned authors. I was happy to find among my collection of stock footage another classic folktale character (of sorts) -the raven. I used the raven as a connecting element between the various segments.

Most of the settings and backgrounds in the film were stock photos found over at I also found a bunch of useful stock video clips at, including the floating head ghost, which is an actor with bloodied mouth standing against a black backdrop with a spotlight on his face. This allowed me to insert him as a floating head by changing the transparency setting in his video layer. I also used the matte tool to isolate his mouth, so the blood could remain red while his face was changed into a ghostly blue.

Most scenes were combinations of stock photo backgrounds, with various Photoshop additions or removals and stop-motion animated puppets.

Sometimes live-action elements were added to scenes. In this shot, the girl's eye is a real eye opening, inserted into the still image of the sleeping girl, and trimmed appropriately using the matte pen tool.

The undead walking thing was an older puppet I built a few years ago for my Halloween video. I've pressed him into service before for a few shots here and there.

The (hopefully) sinister back dog is somebody's pet filmed in front of a green screen and shared on YouTube. Again changing the transparency setting in After Effects made the doggie look much darker, and I also added a single glowing eye (a detail sometimes mentioned in folktales) by manually tracking a digitally animated fireball a few frames at a time.

For the demon coming out of a tomb, I wanted something arachnid and uncomfortably familiar, yet alien in its own weird way. I settled on giving it a small head with horns and sharp teeth sticking out of it. The head was sculpted in medium grade Monster Clay.

The puppet had a very simple aluminum wire armature onto which thin strips of foam, yarn soaked in latex and a latex cast of the head sculpture were attached.

Patches of latex skin cast in a skin texture mold covered the whole puppet, and a blend of cotton and latex was used to detail the puppet. Red reflective beads became eyes. Although the puppet's body is quite small it still has quite a big spread, a little over a foot, because of its long legs.

I used a panoramic photo of a Scottish graveyard for a scene where the demon crawls out of a stone tomb.

In order for this shot to work properly, the demon puppet had to emerge from behind something and climb over it. I used a piece of board painted with green chroma key paint. The puppet footage was then aligned correctly in After Effects to sell the illusion of it emerging from a part of the scenery, as it were.

The returning dead sailor fungus man started off as one of my usual aluminum wire puppet skeletons. I used images of a human skeleton to get the proportions right. The thing had after all been human to begin with.

The trusty Monster Clay was again put into action to create a basic zombie/skeletal character.

A dental plaster mold was created over the sculpture, and tinted latex was applied over the inside of the mold using a q-tip.

A very simple latex skin was thus made. The inside of the head was reinforced with a latex/ cotton mix.

The armature was padded with wrappings of thin polyurethane foam. I didn't bother to create any specific muscle patterns since this creature is decomposing.

I wanted a weird organic texture all over the puppet, creating a look that would hopefully remind the audience of nasty stuff you can find growing in the water. To make this texture I resorted to using "chunks o´ flesh", an old makeup FX trick used to create bits of fleshy viscera. Here's how you make it: Tint your latex in any desired color and use a bit of polyurethane foam to sponge out the latex over a slick surface. I used a plastic tray. A hairdryer speeds up the drying process. When the latex is dry you dust it down with talcum powder or corn starch. Then you simply tear up sections of the latex using your fingernails. The latex will bunch up into web-like organic textures with elastic qualities. You can then drape the webbed latex over your puppet, using liquid latex as a bonding agent at points hear and there, to keep the texture hanging on, but at the same time allowing it to move and stretch when the puppet is animated.

 Finally, the puppet gets a rub-down with tinted latex. The puppet was colored a bright fleshy purple, though the creature will appear in the film sporting a greyish-green hue.

This color was chosen because I use a bright green background, and the puppet would not be as easily extracted in After Effects if some parts of it were tonally similar. The color change was easily made in After Effects when the puppet was added to the background settings.

Lastly, we get to the boundary ghost, a revenant that while he lived changed the boundaries of his neighbor's landmarks to gain land himself. His punishment is to spend his afterlife marking where the true, legal boundary lies. This is apparently is a very common ghost story in the West. Here in Sweden, this tale pops up everywhere.

The revenant puppet is an old one, built over ten years ago, but never used. His head was once adorned with a mane of grey hair, but the textile-eating moths infesting my home took care of that, the hair actually being crepé hair, which is sheep's wool.

So I had to replace his hair, and I figured I might as well go with something different. I used this stock footage clip of a spaghetti-like waving CGI texture, extracting it from the light background, turning the texture grey, and placing it behind the puppet. This hopefully created something looking like a cone of hair slowly waving in the wind, or maybe even underwater.

My UK buddy and frequent collaborator John Hutch donated his silvery tones to provide a moody voiceover. Music was again picked from Kevin MacLeod's extensive stock music library. And that's pretty much it for this film. I'm actually working on a comic book version of this material, which will contain more stories about other supernatural entities and situations.