‘The Unholy’ Production Designer Felicity Abbott on Creating Horror Film’s Creepy Kern Babies

The kern babies in Sony Pictures’ “The Unholy” might very well join the realm of creepiest movie dolls when the movie is released in theaters on Good Friday, April 2. It was production designer Felicity Abbott’s job to fashion them, part of a Scottish tradition among Celtic farmers who would bury the totems at the end of their fields to bring good luck.

The idea, says director Evan Spiliotopoulos, was “that the dolls would absorb all the negative energy in the field, and everything would be cleansed.” The film is an adaptation of James Herbert’s 1983 horror novel “Shrine,” about a tree with magical powers that cures people. The movie incorporated a supernatural element into the Scottish custom, focusing on a deaf and mute girl who can hear and speak after visiting the tree.

In the film, Spiliotopoulos relocated the setting from the U.K. to Massachusetts. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Gerry Fenn, a struggling journalist who travels to the small town of Banfield for a story. While there, he discovers a kern baby buried within a petrified oak tree. The baby is wrapped and chained with an impossible date of Feb. 31, 1845, engraved into a metal tag. The date connects to a tombstone in South Carolina on a witch’s grave. “The reasoning,” Spiliotopoulos explains, “was when you put an impossible date on the tomb of an evil thing, that thing cannot come back because that date will never come to pass.”

Desperate for a news story, Fenn breaks the kern baby to “free the spirit.” Not long after, Alice, played by Cricket Brown, is able to hear after a “miraculous visit” from the Virgin Mary. Is it a miracle or something far more sinister?

Though typical kern babies were woven from corn or wheat stalks, Abbott referenced Queen Anne dolls, with elongated faces and bright rosy cheeks, which were in fashion in England in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. “Ours had to be cracked,” she says, “because the script required that. It had a porcelain head, hands, and feet, with a wooden pegged body because certain things needed to be carved into the body.”

The production designer went through four iterations of the figurine during the concept stage before settling on the final scale — close to the size of a real infant that could be cradled. The idea was to speak to the history of the creepy dolls of cinema, referencing Annabelle from “The Conjuring” franchise, “Chucky” and a number of scary ventriloquist dolls. “The Unholy” used 10 heads and bodies, which were interchanged according to what was happening in the storyline.

The dolls weren’t the only thing designed to terrorize audiences. Abbott and set decorator Michael C. Stone transformed a nondenominational church in Sudbury into a Catholic church, which plays a central part in the film’s supernatural story, with religious themes, including a statue of the Virgin Mary that proves mutable to magic.

Further complicating the process was the pandemic, which forced a shutdown just four weeks into filming on March 16.

“When we came back after shutdown in September, shipping wasn’t easy. Things didn’t arrive, and it became complicated,” Stone says. One of the missing items: the statue of the Virgin Mary. But Stone persevered. “I eventually found a gentleman in Pennsylvania who had collected thousands of statues of the Virgin Mary,” he says.

Spiliotopoulos says he ultimately had his pick of eight Virgin Marys in order to “cast” just the right one.

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