The Puppet Master: Icelandic Horror Meets Practical Effects

Kevin McTurk, Tab Murphy, Sjón, and Phil Tippett on their upcoming gothic short film, GRYLU SKER.

By Brandon Wainerdi · @ActuallyBrandon · July 25, 2023, 3:03 PM EDT
Grylu Sker Header

Kevin McTurk has had a long and storied career as an effects artist on films like Batman Returns, Jurassic Park, and Interview with the Vampire. Working for luminaries like Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and Martin Scorsese, McTurk has learned from the best and is now creating his own horror movies.

McTurk's previous short films have been very well-received, including his third and most recent puppet film, The Haunted Swordsman, which remains Kickstarter's most successful puppet short film project to date. The latest of these atmospheric, puppet-filled gothic short films, an upcoming Icelandic saga called Grylu Sker, is the subject of another Kickstarter campaign and features a veritable "who's who" of incredible genre talent in addition to its creator.

This new entry into his Spirit Cabinet canon, Grylu Sker's plot is described as "the tale of a lost explorer set in a world of Icelandic folklore. It is the story of an explorer's fight for survival on a bleak, unforgiving island and a re-imagining of the legendary Icelandic witch, Grýla."

Grylu Sker_RYLA (sculpture in progress by Leland Stewart)

Filming this fall, McTurk and his crew will use 36-inch-tall bunraku puppets (a traditional Japanese technique), in-camera effects, and "old-fashioned smoke and mirrors trickery." It is written by Tab Murphy (Gorillas in the Mist) and Sjón (The Northman), and is produced by Sultan Al Darmaki. It also features a special stop-motion effects sequence from the master, Phil Tippett (in case you weren't sold on this project already).

In an interview with FANGORIA, McTurk recalls, "My background in effects began back in my hometown of Pittsburgh. While finishing up my degree in Film at Penn State, I worked for Tom Savini on Two Evil Eyes, The Dark Half, and Night of the Living Dead (1990). After graduating, I was hired at Stan Winston Studio to work on penguin puppets for Batman Returns. This led directly into Jurassic Park, which included puppeteering the baby raptor when it hatched on screen. Most recently, I have been working as a Project Supervisor at Spectral Motion on films including Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Malignant and Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities.

Grylu Sker_ Ron Binion

Visual effects and puppetry have a long history together, the tangibility and weight of the creatures being at the forefront of the terror they can create. As McTurk eloquently says, "I find that puppetry is the perfect medium to tell these supernatural tales. Puppetry lends itself to the 'campfire storytelling' quality of ghost stories. As soon as the audience starts to watch these characters onscreen in the hands of an expert puppeteer, they lean forward in their seats and are completely engaged."

Grylu Sker takes inspiration from filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog, but also arctic tales from Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft. "For this film, I was interested in creating an original story that incorporated Icelandic folklore as witnessed by an outsider (in this case, a lost explorer shipwrecked on a bleak uncharted island)."

Grylu Sker Fabric Ocean Test

From these inspirations came the actual writing of the film, co-helmed by animation legend Tab Murphy, the screenwriter for many beloved animated features, including Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Having already partnered with McTurk on his last project, The Haunted Swordsman, Murphy was ready to dive into the world of Icelandic ghost tales. "Horror, if done right, can elicit such a primal reaction from an audience. It's that same idea of delivering a primal experience to an audience that keeps me returning to collaborate with Kevin", says Murphy. "He fully understands the guiding principles of the genre: that 'terror' is the fear of dying and 'horror' is the fear of the dead. With Grylu Sker, both principles are on full display."

Alongside Murphy is the Icelandic poet and screenwriter, Sjón. Horror fans will know him from his work on Lamb and Robert Egger's The Northman, but his work spans genres, types, and places, adding astounding depth and authenticity to the short film. "The folk tale, the myth always promises its audience that at its core, there is a hidden 'truth' about the human condition. And there always is. Cloaking our search for these truths in dark, exciting tales is a pleasure I will never get enough of." Sjón says, "A puppet film is the perfect form for a tale like this, for the puppet itself is already a metaphor for the human struggle to have control of our lives."

Sjón brought detailed knowledge of the place and time in which the story takes place and of Icelandic folklore, from which the villain springs: "Grýla the ogress is a horrific character known to every Icelandic child. My deep-felt fear of her made me make sure we wouldn't do anything that might trouble her and turn her against us in real life."

Gryu Sker Explorer

Another name familiar to genre fans, the legendary Phil Tippett, will contribute to the short film with a special stop-motion segment. After the production and recent release of his masterpiece, Mad God, Tippett is ready to help fellow visionaries. He says, "I understand the mindset of independent filmmakers with visions that must be self-produced. The deck is stacked against us. If you want to see it, you have to do it yourself."

Tippett, a stalwart in the stop-motion space, is also no stranger to the world of puppets. "I used puppets for a few scenes in Mad God, which played quite well and are memorable characters. Choreography for both stop-motion and puppetry is somewhat similar in that developing movement for artificial characters takes previsualization, designs, and storyboards. In Kevin's case, multiple puppeteers are required, wherein stop motion is a solitary activity. "

The stop-motion segment itself is a mystery. As Tippett teases, "Kevin has designed a very cool creature for a scene. Once the puppet is ready, we'll shoot it in my studio."

Sjón sums up the project best, saying, "When a story is told with puppets, it pushes the storytellers to tell stories that go straight for the heart of things. Even when you're working with the same themes as in live action, they have the tendency to become more primal and urgent. There is no space for anything superfluous."

"Kevin is a maestro at translating that emotional depth to the puppet characters themselves. You feel for characters that you intellectually know are made of plaster, cloth and fake hair!" Murphy adds.

Gothic puppetry. Icelandic ghosts. Practical effects. What else could a horror fan ask for? Learn more about the project here.