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How True Detective: Night Country got its ghastly ‘corpsicle’ just right

‘I’ve never been on a job where so much time and effort was poured into making a prosthetic’

The corpsicle — still, partially frozen bodies all writhing in terror — sits in the middle of an ice rink while two cops walk around it
Meet True Detective Night Country’s real star: The corpsicle
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

It starts as a flash — the briefest glimpse of something horrific, something freezing to the point of black. We get more: a head, a limb, a grimace. It starts to come into focus, around the scene, through bits of dialogue: These men froze to death in clearly agonizing terror, their bodies suspended mid-writhing as well as in the ground. Frostbite abounds; some even clawed their eyes out. Once they finally excavate the bodies, it will be as a singular, frozen mass, transported on a tongue of ice to the local rink so they can slowly defrost. It is Lovecraftian and spectacular. It is exactly what True Detective: Night Country production designer Daniel Taylor hoped it would be like.

“It’s the cornerstone of the entire show,” Taylor says. “It was absolutely terrifying to share the space with it. You were always aware. When we were dressing the ice rink, you were always looking over your shoulder because it felt like someone was watching you — or six people were watching you.”

To get the shape just right, Taylor and showrunner Issa López sat down to wade through all the “random thoughts that enter your head about what it could look like” after reading the description “corpsicle” on the page. They quickly narrowed down some details of what it had to entail: While Taylor had initially supposed the bodies could be in knots, López wanted them more linearly laid out. The sloping cascade of limbs would allow for the group to be all clearly “terrified in one direction.” To help illustrate how each scientist might be situated and entwined with another, López gamely dropped to the ground to start acting out how the terrified bodies would be frozen.

Among the influences they ultimately pulled in:

  • “A shrunken head where the skin has started to pull back and reveal this mouth that’s been dislocated or disjointed” (a work by Phil Hale, a López suggestion)
  • Berlinde De Bruyckere, a Belgian artist who sculpts “really violent sections that you have cutaways through, and you can see this kind of skin draped and stretched, and you’re not quite sure whether it’s part of a body you’re looking at”
  • Ringu — specifically “a reveal where they open a cupboard” (if you know, you know)
  • The eternal anguish of Francis Bacon (the painter, not the lord chancellor of Britain)
  • A photograph of a baroque underwater dance to lend the whole thing a “sense of movement,” as if this pile of bodies was merely paused in panic

That last one was a suggestion from their prosthetics team, Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey (a rec to López from Guillermo del Toro), who had the hard part of actually building the mass of bodies.

Pete (Finn Bennett) investigating a frozen body up close Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
A trio of frozen heads buried in the snow in True Detective: Night Country. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

To do that, there was another back-and-forth of how the bodies would be interlinked and entwined, and discussions around the various stages of them being thawed out. They got scans of the actors to make the proportions exact. After workshopping the expressions, they made the actors hold “these terrifying positions” with their faces for 20 minutes, so they could get a proper live cast. They talked to experts to get the exact right level of “the blackness that had taken over their feet and fingers.” It was extreme, but it’s what the corpsicle demanded.

“Every eyebrow hair was individually punched; every tooth was cast individually. It was an incredible bit of artistry — I’ve never been on a job where so much time and effort was poured into making a prosthetic,” Taylor says. “We see it in the dark in the blizzard, we see under the bright lights in the ice rink — there’s no hiding from it. It needs to be high quality.”

The result speaks for itself, a hulking mass of horror, something impossible and visceral all at once. When asked if he and López considered the supernatural at all when constructing the piece of art that is the corpsicle, Taylor declined to comment (at least, for those who have only seen through episode 2). Suffice it to say they wanted it to feel nightmarish; as Taylor said of De Bruyckere’s art: “It definitely feels organic, but it’s really nasty.”

True Detective: Night Country’s first two episodes, complete with the corpsicle, are now streaming on Max. New episodes drop every Sunday night at 9 p.m. EST.

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