Every ghost story has rules: What can the spirits do physically? How do they manifest themselves? Can they communicate?
Ultimately, all those things factor into whatever menace the ghosts possess.
In the indie haunted house story We Are Still Here, which debuts on Blu-ray and DVD today, director and co-writer Ted Geoghegan presents horror fans with the Dagmar family – three smoldering specters whose burned visages mark how they met their gruesome ends.
When a husband and wife (Upstream Color’s Andrew Sensenig and Re-Animator’s Barbara Crampton) move into the long-abandoned property, they have no idea that the house wakes up every three decades in need of a sacrifice. “This house needs a family,” one (seemingly) friendly local tells them.
Geoghegan explains why he came up with the look, what that has to say about their power, and how he made his ghost actors appear as the smoldering phantoms we see above.
The Dagmars were pioneers in the mid-1800s who were burned to death as a sacrifice to an ancient evil unearthed on their land. They have remained in the cursed house, lashing out at trespassers – innocent and not-so-innocent alike – in bloody revenge whenever possible.
“The Dagmar family is named after an actress who was in Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery named Dagmar Lassander,” Geoghegan says. “They are very heavily inspired by Captain Drake and his undead pirates from John Carpenter’s The Fog. That’s about a sleepy town overcome by a group of bloodthirsty ghosts, but they aren’t intangible. You don’t see through them. They don’t float.”
But the Dagmars are also not the walking undead.
“They’re not zombies, even though they look like that,” he says. “They’re physical beings. They come and go as they please, but if they grab you they’re going to do something pretty awful. They met an unpleasant end and are now the charred-husk remains of what they once were.”
First, hire some flesh-and-blood actors. If you want real-looking ghosts, you need real people to play them, not a computer simulation.
“The head of the family, Lassander, was played by model and Civil War re-enactor Guy William Gane III,” Geoghegan says. (That’s Gane pictured above.) “His wife, Eloise, was portrayed by actress Elissa Dowling (Cheap Thrills, Black Dahlia). Their daughter, Fiona, was played by 11-year-old Zorah Burress.”
Tampa-based Oddtopsy FX, supervised by Marcus Koch, was responsible for the make-up effects, which took about two hours to apply and one hour to remove.
The process begins with a black grease paint base, which covered the natural skin tones around his eyes, nose, mouth, and hairline, as well as matted down his beard, Geoghegan explains.
The goal was not to recreate the appearance of an actual burn victim, but to make it a little more abstract. “The decision was made early on to leave the charred family’s hair in place, giving a fantastical element to their burst visages that a more authentic burn victim would not possess,” the director says.
The make-up prosthetics were molded from a mixture of latex and gelatin and applied fresh each day before being painted. What looks crisp is actually very soft.
This image shows Gane with the first layer of prosthetics in place. “Large amounts of painted gelatin were placed in his hair and beard and then styled into specific shapes that resembled scars and burns,” Geoghegan says.
Here we see the detail work. This is how the ghost of Lassander Dagmar appeared on set. “The finalized Dagmar makeup added his cracked skin, additional scars, and fine line work which blended and refined colors,” Geoghegan says.
Still, a few elements are missing. Those would be finished in post-production with the help of digital visual effects. “I like to say there’s virtually no CGI in the film, but that’s doing a disservice to our amazing CGI artist, Eli Dorsey,” the director says. “There are about 100 CGI shots in the film, but they’re so minimal that the idea is the naked eye will never catch them.”
Here is the final version of the character, complete with digital effects. Gane’s hair has been darkened with color correction, among other tweaks.
“The Dagmar family have these dead eyes, almost like hardboiled eggs that have been cooked a bit too long,” Geoghegan says. ”The white eyes we did digitally. We didn’t want to force our actors to wear white contacts all the time, and now, not only are they white but they appear to glow.”
The Dagmars are also surrounded by steam that lets off wherever they go. “Their bodies are still boiling, not only from the fact that they were burnt to death, but with this rage,” the director says, pointing out another digital effect. “There’s a light heat signature around the Dagmars. It’s that sort of blur you see when driving down a hot highway.”
They’re also a family, so they’re very close-knit, often touching each other. “Whenever they do, you see fiery cinders come off their bodies, almost as if you rubbed two logs together in the fireplace,” Geoghegan says.
It may be easier to simply set the actors on fire, but that makes it hard to get second takes.
Also, actors don’t like to be set on fire.