Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Director Drew Goddard’s sophomore effort, Bad Times at El Royale, comes six years after his fantastic debut effort, which in itself was held up for years due to studio bankruptcy issues. That feature debut, which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon, quickly shot to the top of beloved modern horror comedy classics thanks to clever writing, a meta dissection of horror tropes, and an insane amount of blood and creature effects. Considering Bad Times at El Royale is just weeks away from release, now seems like a perfect excuse to revisit The Cabin in the Woods.
As if we really needed a reason.
A simple premise, in which five friends find more than they bargained for when traveling to a remote cabin in the woods, is turned into so much more thanks to Whedon and Goddard’s script. Those five friends are unwittingly part of a grand sacrifice, forced to choose the form of their destruction from a pantheon of monsters locked away beneath the land on which their cabin sits. Though they select the Buckner family, or more lovingly the Zombie Redneck Torture Family, the audiences get a bloody taste of every imaginable creature and monster by the final act when all hell breaks loose.
Seeing just how insanely bloody the final act is, and the number of creatures loosed upon the underground facility, it’s a pleasant surprise that The Cabin in the Woods went mostly practical. Goddard and Whedon tapped David LeRoy Anderson (2004’s Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist and American Horror Story TV series) and his company AFX Studios to handle the design and special makeup effects. At the peak of the special makeup effects teams’ production, there were 75 crew members working hard at creating the blood, gore, and monsters of the film. Just about every major film and monster received an homage in The Cabin in the Woods.
While nearly every monster gets a brief moment in the spotlight, from zombies to horrifically toothy ballerinas to violent unicorns, the creature with the biggest payoff in the film is that of the Merman. All Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford) wants in the film is for someone to choose the Merman as their destructor. The adage “Be careful what you wish for” comes full circle as his wish is granted in his final moments.
The Merman was a combination of special makeup effects artist Joseph Pepe’s design, puppeteer Hiroshi Katagari’s sculpture and paint job, and Richard Cetrone’s performance. Cetrone also played the Werewolf, but that character wasn’t nearly as cumbersome as the Merman. Anderson’s contribution to the creation of the Merman? The blood-spewing blowhole. It wasn’t initially part of the script, but Anderson’s suggestion that the blood spew from the monster’s blowhole once he bites down on Steve was met with enthusiasm by Goddard. Being that this was practically handled, Goddard could really only get one shot of the Merman spurting blood from his blow hole as the set was drenched after and impossible to clean up. So, Goddard had the effects team hook the monster up to the largest batch of fake blood they could find, and it spews a steady geyser of blood upward out of the blowhole.
Cetrone endured hours of makeup to get into character, often curling up into fetal position and napping while the makeup team transformed him into the Merman. He then had to be carried via stretcher to set thanks to the lack of mobility. The effort poured into the practical effects is just one (albeit major) part of this film’s enduring charm. There’s a ton of bloody reasons this film is a fun watch, but the payoff between Steve Hadley and his monstrous Merman ranks high among them.