Lovecraft binge-watch: children of the Yellow King

This post is #5 of a series.

One of H.P. Lovecraft’s inspirations was Robert William Chambers (1865-1933) an author of weird fiction whose most famous creation, The King in Yellow, is a play in book form capable of driving readers insane. The narrator of Chambers’ story “The Repairer of Reputations” describes his experience with the play this way: “I remembered after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the fire-light. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet.”

Books that harm the reader remain a popular subject in horror, though modern versions of the trope often substitute other media. In John Carpenter’s excellent “Cigarette Burns,” an episode of the Masters of Horror anthology series, the medium in question is a film, La Fin Absolue du Monde, whose premiere ended in a deadly riot. Norman Reedus plays a ne’er-do-well theater owner and cinephile who is hired by Udo Kier to track down the movie. (La Fin‘s sole print was reportedly seized and destroyed after the riot, but Kier knows this isn’t true, and he’s willing to pay handsomely to see it before he dies.)

The phrase “cigarette burns” refers to the changeover cues that let projectionists know when a film reel is nearing its end. As Reedus gets closer to his quarry, he starts seeing flashes of these cues superimposed on reality—a sign that the film’s spell is already taking hold of him. As the protagonists of such stories invariably do, he ignores the warning and keeps going.

The entire Masters of Horror series is currently streaming for free, with ads, on Tubi; “Cigarette Burns” is the eighth episode of season one. For a double feature, you might try pairing it with John Carpenter’s other entry in the cursed media subgenre, In The Mouth of Madness.

David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, is a mock documentary about another supposedly cursed movie. A brief introduction gives the history of the film: At a 1988 screening in Budapest, the theater spontaneously combusted, killing everyone inside. A number of programmers at film festivals to which Antrum was submitted died shortly after watching it. When a 1993 showing of Antrum in San Francisco also ended in tragedy, the movie was withdrawn from circulation. Until now.

A liability disclaimer then appears on screen:

…and after a thirty second countdown, the cursed film is shown in its entirety. It’s a clever gimmick—undercut, in my case at least, by the fact that not only did Antrum fail to kill me, it never came close to making me believe that it could. But it did get me wondering whether there’s a version of this film that would make me believe, and what that would look like.

Antrum is currently streaming on Tubi and Freevee. (Note: if it does kill you, please don’t @ me.)

My current favorite example of the cursed media trope is Graham Reznick’s Deadwax. Hannah Gross plays Etta Price, a record hunter who becomes obsessed with finding the Lytton Lacquer, a legendary LP whose producer, Lyle Lytton, died during its creation; the sound of Lytton’s death is said to be encoded in the grooves of the record.

On its own, the Lacquer is worse than useless. Listening to even a fraction of it causes madness; listening to the whole album is fatal. To employ the Lacquer “properly,” the would-be listener must first be “tuned” by hearing three other Lytton records—Keys One, Two, and Three—played in synchrony, after which the Lacquer becomes a door to another reality. It goes without saying that this is one of those quests where success will leave you wishing you’d failed. But by the time Hannah realizes that, it’s much too late to give up.

Deadwax is billed as a series, but the episodes are short (the total running time is less than two hours), which gives it an overall structure and feel very much like that of a concept album—one that I would highly recommend. It’s available to stream on Shudder and AMC+.

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