‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ Special FX Artist Norman Cabrera Talks Bringing Harold the Scarecrow to Life [Interview]

Whether you’re a hardcore horror fan, a casual moviegoer, or an avid comic book collector who occasionally catches the latest Guillermo del Toro adaptation, chances are you’ve witnessed some of Norman Cabrera’s legendary special effects work. Known mainly for his stunning contributions to del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Cabrera has had a hand in countless productions, ranging from John Flynn’s cyber thriller Brainscan, to Sam Raimi’s wickedly gruesome Drag Me To Hell, all the way to Quentin Tarantino’s ferocious femme fatale flick Kill Bill. Now, Cabrera is back on the big screen with his latest artistry in André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a chilling tale of four children who learn the hard way what happens when one reads from an ancient book etched in blood. 

I had the pleasure of chatting with the man himself about his incendiary career, in addition to his work on the new Alvin Schwartz adaptation. In the interview, we discuss Cabrera’s early days under the wing of his mentor Rick Baker, his views on the classic practical versus CGI effects debate, and what went down the day when his scarecrow Harold went missing in the corn field. 

I heard that today happens to be the 34th anniversary of your big move to L.A.

Yeah exactly! It’s also the day that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark debuted, so it’s kind of like a cool coincidence too, you know?

That’s wild. Happy anniversary!

Thanks! The other kind of round-about coincidence is that the first movie that I did in Florida, which was a low-budget, straight-to-video VHS back in the ‘80s called Scarecrows, it was also about killer scarecrows. So, there’s Scary Stories where I made a killer scarecrow and then, I also moved out here on the 8th and the movie comes out on the 8th, so there’s several weird coincidences there.

I was going to ask about that because I thought it was so fitting that one of the first films you worked on was about killer scarecrows and now you’ve made Harold the scarecrow in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is such a crazy coincidence. How would you say that working on the 1988 Scarecrows aided you when it came time to work on Harold?

I actually worked on other scarecrows, which is really weird. My favorite movie creatures are werewolves, I absolutely love werewolves, but I’ve done a bunch of scarecrows too, which is kind of interesting. You know Stephen King’s The Stand? The TV series from the ‘90s? Well for that film, the character Flag, who’s the demon, he turns into a scarecrow, and I made that scarecrow. So, that’s another scarecrow that I did, and then also, for Cabin in the Woods, I primarily did the werewolf in that, but I did a bunch of scarecrows for Cabin in the Woods, too, in that scene where there’s a ton of monsters all at once, I made a bunch of the scarecrows, oddly enough.

Apparently that’s just your thing now!

I must admit it’s kind of cool for Scarecrows to have been my very first movie in Florida before I moved out here, and then cut to the year 2019, and I’m driving into Westwood, and there’s this massive billboard on the side of a huge bank building with Harold on it, and it’s a crazy full circle. To be honest, it’s wild.

Yeah! I mean did you ever think that one day you would be driving down the street and you’d see a giant billboard with your creation on it?

I hoped that I would, but you never know if something like that is going to happen. It’s impossible to foresee something like that. I look at the road in front of me more than I look at the road that’s miles ahead of me. I tackle what’s in front of me first, then look at something that might happen ten years or twenty years from now, but I was always focused on making monsters for movies because it was like really my one true love. I was always pretty focused about that. You never anticipate driving through Westwood and seeing a massive billboard that’s literally the size of a bank building, and there it is! It’s a cool feeling, you know? I think anybody would be lying to you if they didn’t think that was cool. Something that you made is a hundred feet wide, on a billboard. It’s crazy.

Since you’ve worked on your fair share of scarecrows in the past on films like Cabin in the Woods, Scarecrows, and in the TV series The Stand, was there anything you picked up that helped inform your portrayal of Harold? Perhaps certain tricks that would make him more menacing?

No, I mean when I approach making a monster, I approach pretty much all of them with the same sort of philosophy. If it’s an evil creature that’s supposed to be really malevolent or whatever, I just try to pump in as much scariness as I can into it. Sometimes monsters can be sympathetic though, too. I think Harold has a little bit of the sympathetic type, even though he’s scary looking. The kids are really mean to Harold, so in a way you do feel a little sympathetic about him too. In the way that the Gammell drawing is, he has a hapless kind of vibe of also just being scary too, so I’m trying to capture that. It’s a similar approach for any monster. If it’s a scary thing, you want to make it evil and malevolent, but with personality that reads through, because after all, a monster in a movie is another actor in a film. It’s a being, it’s acting within the context of the story as something that’s living, even though it’s a fantasy scenario. It has to be treated like an actor, it has to be treated like something that has drama and backstory. The more of that you think about that when you’re making a creature, the more I think the creature will have a personality to it.

I know that Guillermo del Toro is very sympathetic towards his monsters, so it seems appropriate that you would find humanity in Harold while working on one of his projects.

To me, monsters are my friends, like they were when I was a kid in my room with monster masks. I love this stuff. To me, I wasn’t scared by monsters in the sense of being terrified by them or anything. I was scared by them like a kid would be thrilled by riding a rollercoaster. You’re kind of like, ‘Wow, this rollercoaster is freaking me out’, and that’s what I got out of monster movies. I was never scared to the point of terror, or had nightmares about monsters, for me, it was more about the thrill I got out of watching a horror movie. They were always something that I was attracted to.

Where would you say that attraction began? Back when you were just a kid living in Florida, where did this real love and passion for making monsters originate?

I think it all started with the old creature feature movies type of stuff that they would play on TV. When I was a little kid in the seventies, when I was still really pretty small, like six or seven, they would run creature features on television either late Friday night or sometimes early Saturday morning, and I’d stay up late or wake up early to watch these things. I was just completely absorbed by it. I loved all of the original Universal monster movies, and I saw Famous Monsters on the newsstand, and everything about it was aesthetically pleasing to my developing brain. For whatever reason kids are drawn to a certain thing, I was drawn to that. I just liked the thrill of it.

And then you decided that you wanted to start making monsters yourself?

I did, and that came to be, it was still quite early, maybe around age twelve. I was always an artistically inclined kid, I was drawing and painting from an early age and learning in school and learning on my own, that sort of thing. Then, I saw this mini documentary, it was like a little vignette that played after The Planet of the Apes, it ran on TV in the mid-seventies, maybe ’73 or ’74, and I saw this vignette and it showed John Chambers making a guy up with foam latex appliances, and he was turning him into an ape for film and it just blew me away. I was like wow, you can stick these pieces on somebody’s face and it was like a mask. In my brain, I hadn’t figured it out yet, it was like a little mask that was cut into pieces that was flexible and you glue it to a person’s face and then it can move. Like, the guy can talk and it makes the lips move. I mean, I was just like wow! I want to know how to do this. So I think the original spark was Planet of the Apes, and watching those original movies on TV, mostly.

How did you go about making this dream a reality?

First and foremost, I love the genre, I read the magazines, and after John Chambers, I discovered that there was this younger guy named Rick Baker. Since I followed what everybody did in the pages of Famous Monsters, I knew about people like Dick Smith and Rick Baker. Rick Baker was a younger guy, he was still in his early twenties, and there was an article in Famous Monsters that was just called ‘Rick Baker: Monster Maker’ and if memory serves me well, it was issue number 116. I remember getting this thing and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ There’s this guy and he kind of looks like a rebel in this t-shirt with long hair. He looked like a rock star. He wasn’t an old guy with horn rimmed glasses and a lab coat, he was this guy in a t-shirt and jeans and long hair and stuff and I was like, this guy’s cool and he’s making monsters! So I discovered Rick Baker and then you start delving deeper into it after that.

So then you moved out to L.A. when you were about twenty to work with him?

Yeah, and how that came to be was, at the time of An American Werewolf in London, Rick was doing a lot of press on television because it was being nominated for an Oscar. I was still living in Florida; I was just a fan. So, I saw these shows, one of which was called PM Magazine, and they did a little vignette on Rick, and at the end of the show there was a post office box number in the end credits, and on a fluke I just decided to send fan letter to Rick through PM Magazine with pictures of my mask that I had made as a teenager. I never expected in a million years to get a phone call back from Rick Baker, but that’s exactly what happened. I was just a teenager living in Florida and the phone rings on a Saturday afternoon and my mom picks it up, and she’s like, ‘Rick Baker’s on the phone’ and I’m like, ‘What!?’ You know, I thought a friend was playing a prank on me, but no, it was actually Rick Baker. He was very cool and was like, ‘Wow, you’re sixteen years old and you’re doing these cool masks, I just wanted to tell you, keep up the great work and if you ever want to come visit L.A., come visit and you can come and spend an afternoon at the shop and hang out’. He was into encouraging younger people who he thought had talent because the same had been done to him by Dick Smith, the godfather of makeup who worked on The Exorcist. He took Rick under his wing, and Rick became who he was because of Dick Smith. I think Rick was into passing it forward to other people who were enthusiastic and had potential at an early age. So, I developed a relationship with Rick over the phone and I’d send him pictures of my masks, and whenever he could, he would talk to me. So, a little bit of time goes by and I was twenty and had done the movie Scarecrows, and I called Rick and said, ‘I’m ready to move to L.A., is there any chance there might be some work for me?’ and he’s like, ‘Give me a call when you get here’ and lo and behold, he was hiring. So I landed in L.A. on a Friday, gave him a call, and on Monday I was working at Rick’s shop. It was a dream come true.

When did you officially join KNB?

Well, I knew those guys right from the get-go. When I moved here, you know you start meeting people in the business, that sort of thing, and I got to meet them and become friends with them, but I didn’t work with them for quite a while. The first official film I did with them was From Dusk Till Dawn, and then quite a few things from there, like The Walking Dead. I worked on Django Unchained and Kill Bill and a lot of other stuff for those guys. When I first met those guys they didn’t have a shop, they were working for other people. We were all in our early twenties. We had this crash pad in Reseda and people would go there on Friday nights to drink beer and watch monster movies and horse around. They were just trying to get things happening. Then, when they did finally get a shop and started getting higher profile movies, From Dusk Till Dawn came about and Howard [Berger] called me and was like, ‘Do you want to work on this movie?’ It had Quentin Tarantino, which I was a fan of, so I was already friends with them, but I started a working relationship with them.

I know most people associate you with your collaborations with Guillermo del Toro on Hellboy and Hellboy II, and rightfully so, but I was actually introduced to your work with the film Wishmaster. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working on Robert Kurtzman’s 1997 cult classic?

Probably the thing that you would recognize the most that I worked on in Wishmaster was that I was the Jack the Ripper guy that comes out of the painting in the film. That was me and the makeup I did on myself. You know when they go into the museum, and they see that painting of the Jack the Ripper guy with the top hat and everything, and he comes out of the painting? That was me! It was a little cameo I did.

Oh my god that’s so great. That movie gave me nightmares; it was one of the first horror films I ever saw.

That’s so cool!

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