Lovecraft binge-watch: Hell House LLC, et. al.

This post is #8 of a series.

The list of found-footage films I’ve enjoyed enough to watch more than once is pretty short: There’s the largely forgotten granddaddy of the subgenre, 84 Charlie MoPic, as well as The Den, The Last Exorcism, Apollo 18, and some of the entries in the V/H/S franchise. And then there’s Hell House LLC and its sequels.

Written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, Hell House LLC concerns a 2009 haunted house attraction staged in the abandoned Abaddon Hotel in Rockland County, New York. On opening night, a mysterious disaster claims the lives of fifteen people. Five years later, a crew making a documentary about Hell House fall victim to the same dark forces that caused the original tragedy. The movie you end up watching is a meta-documentary that combines video from both 2009 and 2014.

This documentary framing helps Hell House avoid the pacing problems that bog down too many found-footage films. And while there are some jump scares, most of the tension comes from the very Lovecraftian sense of mounting dread as you watch these doomed people ignore danger sign after danger sign until it’s too late.

Cognetti followed up Hell House with two direct sequels that expand on the Abaddon Hotel’s mythology and change the scenario just enough that you don’t feel like you’re watching the same movie three times in a row.

Last year brought a spinoff sequel, Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor, which shifts the setting to an isolated mansion in the same county as the Abaddon Hotel. The backstory here is that in 1989, Eleanor Carmichael and her daughter Catherine were brutally murdered in the manor, while her husband, Arthur, and her son, Patrick, went missing; police discovered a single set of footprints in the snow leading away from the house. The mystery of what happened remains unsolved.

Fast forward to 2021. An internet sleuth named Margo Bentley arranges to rent the Carmichael Manor for five days. She brings along her girlfriend, Rebecca, her brother, Chase, and some cameras to record the ghosts who are rumored to haunt the manor.

Like the original Hell House, Carmichael Manor is structured as a documentary, so we know from the outset that none of these three are getting out alive, but even without the upfront spoiler, it wouldn’t be hard to guess the ending. During her initial walkthrough of the property, Margo asks the rental agent what’s behind the locked pair of French doors in the upstairs hallway. “Old storage,” he replies, vaguely. “I don’t even have a key for it anymore.” After he leaves, Margo gets the doors open and finds that the stored items include a pair of life-sized clown mannequins:

This is the point where I’d be speed-dialing the rental office to find out whether it’s too late to get my deposit back, but Margo doesn’t want to leave, even after the clowns start moving around the house. And while Rebecca and Chase have a bit more sense, they wait too long to force the issue. Bad luck for them, but if you like scary movies about terrible decision-making, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The entire Hell House LLC franchise is streaming on Shudder and AMC+, and the first three films are also available free, with ads, on Tubi.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: Archive 81 (+1)

This post is #7 of a series.

I thought about including Archive 81 in my “cursed media” binge-watch, but like it enough to give it its own post. This eight-episode series is a Netflix production, developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine, based on Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger’s podcast of the same name.

Mamoudou Athie plays Dan Turner, an archivist at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. A corporate executive named Virgil Davenport offers him $100,000 to restore and digitize a set of fire-damaged videotapes. The tapes were recorded by a cultural anthropology student, Melody Pendras, who was compiling an oral history of the Visser Apartments when the building mysteriously went up in flames; Davenport believes that the video archive may provide answers about exactly what happened.

Dan takes the job, but the deal is fishy from the start. Claiming that the tapes are too fragile to be moved, Davenport insists that the restoration work be done at an isolated research compound in the Catskills. The place has no internet access or cellphone service, the landline makes funny clicking sounds whenever Dan uses it, and despite Davenport’s suggestion that he’ll be alone on the property, it soon becomes clear that he isn’t. Dan also learns that Davenport didn’t just hire him for his technical skills: he’s got a personal connection to the story. Dan’s family died in a house fire that occurred around the same time that the Visser burned, and Dan’s late father, a psychiatrist, appears on one of the restored videotapes. It turns out Melody Pendras was his patient.

A lot of folks would cut and run at this point, but like any good horror story protagonist, Dan decides to stick it out. Having found a spot on the property where his cellphone works, he enlists his friend Mark back in New York to act as a remote research assistant and sets to work solving the mystery. The narrative jumps back and forth between Dan and Mark’s investigations in the present day and Melody Pendras’s adventures in the Visser in 1994. One of the series’ many neat touches is the way the videotapes (and later, Dan’s father’s session tapes) serve as a literal medium for moving between the timelines: we’ll see Dan watching the restored footage, and then the perspective will switch to the location where Melody is recording and stay with her even after she lowers the camera. Very late in the game, a film archive recovered by Mark becomes a gateway to the 1920s, where we learn the backstory of a demon-worshiping cult, the Vos Society, whose headquarters once occupied the same site as the Visser.

Archive 81 is not without its flaws. Although the series generally does a great job of maintaining a tense atmosphere, the demon at the heart of the mystery manifests as a laughably bad CGI effect. Another, bigger problem is the series’ conclusion: although we do learn what caused the fire at the Visser, what happened to Melody Pendras, and how Dan’s father was involved, the final episode ends on a twist/cliffhanger that is meant to set up for a second season. Unfortunately, Netflix has canceled the series, leaving poor Dan stranded in limbo. It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the series that I’d still recommend it, but you should know going in that you won’t get a full resolution of the story.

If you’d rather watch something with a definitive ending, let me point you instead to Marc Carreté’s Asmodexia, a Spanish-language horror film set in and around Barcelona in the unseasonably hot December of 2012. As the film opens, exorcist Eloy de Palma and his teenaged grandaughter Alba set out on a cross-country trek to the site of “the Resurrection,” which is due to take place in three days. To say any more would risk spoiling things; just trust me, it’s good. Currently streaming on Shudder and AMC Plus.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: two from India

This post is #6 of a series.

The two stories I want to highlight today aren’t inspired by the official Lovecraft canon, but they do fit thematically into the Lovecraft ethos, and they’re both very good.

Ghoul, a Netflix original three-part miniseries written and directed by Patrick Graham, is set in a near-future India where sectarian violence has led to a military crackdown on civil liberties. Radhika Apte plays Lieutenant Nida Rahim, an intelligence officer in training. Despite being a member of the Muslim minority, she’s a true believer in the system who reports her own father for subversive activity, naively believing he’ll be “reeducated” and released unharmed.

This act earns Nida a surprise posting to a government black site, Meghdoot 31, where she’s told she will assist in the interrogation of a notorious terrorist, Ali Saeed. But the “Ali Saeed” who arrives at the site is something far more dangerousa flesh-eating shapeshifter in human form, summoned from the unseen realm to hold sinners to account.

As the ghoul uses its powers to turn the torturers against each other, Nida becomes a target: Major Das, the second-in-command, is convinced that she’s somehow responsible. Meanwhile Nida, having recognized the monster for what it is, tries to figure out which of the prisoners is responsible for summoning it, even as she fights to stay alive and to protect the one true innocent at the site. It’s a wonderfully creepy cat-and-mouse game.

Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad stars Sohum Shah as Vinayak Rao, whose mother was the mistress of the wealthiest man in Tumbbad village. Fifteen years after his father’s death, Vinayak returns to Tumbbad to seek the fortune in gold rumored to be hidden beneath the decrepit fortress where his father once lived. Vinayak’s paternal grandmothera literal monsteroffers to share the secret of the treasure in exchange for a merciful death. But she warns him: “Not everything you inherit should be claimed.”

The treasure is guarded by a god, Hastar (not to be confused with Hastur of the Cthulhu Mythos), who as punishment for his insatiable greed was cursed by his divine mother to be forgotten by men and never worshiped. Hastar possesses an infinite supply of gold coins, and it’s possible to steal from him, but the method is extraordinarily dangerous and only yields a handful of coins at a time. Vinayak is willing to take the risk; he returns to the fortress again and again, and becomes a wealthy man. But as his grandmother warned, the wealth is a curseit slowly robs him of all happiness, and, in the film’s final act, threatens to do the same to his son.

Here’s an interesting fact about Indian cinema that I learned from watching Tumbbad: under regulations passed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, all depictions of tobacco use must be accompanied by a visible health warning. As Vinayak sinks further into a dissolute lifestyle, the phrase “SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH” begins popping up in the corner of the screen. It’s true, but ironic in contextlung cancer is the least of Vinayak’s worries.

Tumbbad is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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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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Lovecraft binge-watch: The Whisperer in Darkness

With the publication of The Destroyer of Worlds just five weeks away now, I thought I’d revive this series of blog posts about Lovecraft-inspired films and TV series.

In Lovecraft’s 1930 novella The Whisperer in Darkness, a Miskatonic University folklorist named Albert Wilmarth strikes up a correspondence with a Vermont farmer, Henry Akeley, who claims that the old legends about monsters living in remote areas of the countryside are true. These creatures, the Mi-Go, are extraterrestrials from Yuggoth, an undiscovered ninth planet located at the outer rim of the solar system—but their real home is much farther away, in “strangely organised abysses wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination.” Wilmarth is skeptical at first, but Akeley provides him with photographic evidence and a Dictaphone recording of one of the Mi-Go speaking to a human confederate.

Unfortunately for Akeley, the Mi-Go are jealous of their privacy, and they know he’s been telling tales about them. Some of his letters to Wilmarth are intercepted in transit; those that get through describe an increasingly dire situation in which the Mi-Go stage nightly attacks on Akeley’s isolated farmhouse. He’s able to hold them off for a while with guns and police dogs, but his days are numbered. “I am fully resigned,” he writes at last. “Can’t escape even if I were willing to give up everything and run. They’ll get me.”

This despairing missive is followed a day later by another letter—this one entirely typewritten—in which Akeley’s attitude is completely transformed. It was all a big misunderstanding, he says. He’s met with the Mi-Go and it turns out they’re TOTALLY friendly! They’d really like to meet with Wilmarth too, so he can see for himself how friendly they are! He should come up to the farmhouse as soon as possible—there’s a convenient train that’ll get him into Brattleboro, VT just a few hours after dark! And, oh yeah, as long as he’s coming, he should bring along Akeley’s letters, and the photographs, and the Dictaphone recording…

You’ll never guess what happens next.

Andrew Leman and Sean Branney followed up their 2005 silent-film version of The Call of Cthulhu with an adaptation of Whisperer (trailer here). Like the prior film, it’s shot in period style—this one’s a talkie—and the black and white photography makes the low-budget special effects more persuasive. Matt Foyer gives a good performance as Wilmarth, and even the hammier acting—like Daniel Kaemon’s turn as the villainous Mr. Noyes—feels both deliberate and appropriate, exactly what you’d expect from a 1930s horror movie.

The screenplay improves on Lovecraft’s novella in a number of ways, starting with the fact that Wilmarth’s decision to go to Vermont feels a lot more believable. There are still plenty of warning signs, but nothing so blatant that only an idiot could fail to see that the Mi-Go have laid a trap. And the film’s climax is both more elaborate and more satisfying, with Wilmarth doing his best to disrupt the Mi-Go’s plans for world conquest before attempting a desperate escape in a crop duster’s biplane.

The Whisperer in Darkness is not available on any streaming service, so unless you’re lucky enough to live near a really good video rental place, you’ll have to buy the DVD from the H.P.L. Historical Society. I think it’s worth the money—and if you haven’t already, I’d recommend treating yourself to a copy of The Call of Cthulhu as well.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: The Call of Cthulhu and The Laplace’s Demon

This post is #3 of a series.

In “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft introduced his most famous monster, an alien god with the body of a dragon and a head shaped like a giant squid. Cthulhu currently waits, dead and dreaming, in his house in “the nightmare corpse-city” of R’lyeh, which lies hidden beneath the waves in the most remote region of the Antarctic Ocean. From time to time—when the stars are right—R’lyeh rises to the surface and Cthulhu sends out a telepathic call to his human worshipers around the globe, whose assistance he requires to complete his resurrection. “Call” tells the story of one such moment in the spring of 1925, when the apocalypse was barely averted. But the cult of Cthulhu endures, and one day, inevitably, R’lyeh will rise again, and Cthulhu will emerge to destroy human civilization.

A Hollywood adaptation of this story could easily cost tens of millions in special effects alone. But in 2005, Andrew Leman and Sean Branney filmed The Call of Cthulhu on a shoestring budget of $50,000 by staging it as a classic silent movie, with many of the same effects techniques that would have been used in the 1920s. The waves of the Antarctic Ocean are billowing sheets of fabric with glitter for spray; R’lyeh is a stage set built from plywood and cardboard; and Cthulhu, when he appears, is a stop-motion animated model. Shot on video and computer processed to look like old black-and-white film stock, it’s surprisingly effective. And if you watch it on DVD (which you’ll have to, since it’s not available on streaming), you’ll have a wide choice of languages for the intertitles, including Basque, Romanian, Welsh, and Luxembourgish. Be sure to check out the “making of” featurette, too.

And if you’re up for a black-and-white double feature, I’d recommended pairing Cthulhu with The Laplace’s Demon, an original Italian-language film directed by Giordano Giulivi. The title refers to a hypothetical being imagined by Pierre-Simon Laplace, an early French scientist who believed in a deterministic universe; the demon knows the position and momentum of every atom in the universe, and can calculate with perfect accuracy any past or future event, including the actions of sentient beings. In other words, with enough information and processing power, free will is revealed to be an illusion.

In the film, a team of seven researchers working on predictive software are invited to the remote island home of the mysterious Professor Cornelius. Upon their arrival, the researchers and the boat captain who brought them to the island find themselves trapped inside the professor’s mansion. A videotaped message informs them that they are to be the subjects of an experiment. The same room where they found the videotape contains a scale model of the mansion, and looking inside they can see eight white pawns—one for each of them—whose clockwork driven movements exactly mimic their own. A careful examination of the mechanism reveals that the pawns are not being manipulated by remote control; their movements are pre-programmed. And every so often, the uncoiling of a large clock spring triggers the appearance of a black queen—corresponding to a mechanical monster inside the real mansion—that zeroes in unerringly on one of the pawns. This is the experiment: If they cannot figure out a way to defy the model’s predictions, they’ll all be dead by dawn.

The Laplace’s Demon is available to rent or purchase through Amazon Prime.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: Colors out of Space

This post is #2 of a series.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour out of Space,” a meteorite lands on the Gardner farm in the wooded hills west of Arkham, Massachusetts. The meteor is carrying some sort of alien life form encased in globules of a strange and indescribable color. The color contaminates the farm’s groundwater and mutates the local plants and wildlife; as the corruption advances, every living thing in the vicinity, including the unfortunate Gardner family, begins to decay and die. In the end, the color launches itself back into space, leaving behind a “blasted heath” of gray desolation where nothing will grow. The story’s narrator fears that something else might be left behind too. Referring to a reservoir that will soon cover the blasted heath, he writes, “Nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham.”

“Colour” was reportedly Lovecraft’s favorite of his own works, and it’s a favorite of filmmakers as well: IMDb lists a half dozen adaptations, beginning with the 1965 Boris Karloff film Die Monster Die! More recent versions include the 2008 Colour From the Dark, which sets the story in fascist Italy, and a low budget Spanish film, Blasted Heath (original title: Erial), which despite the name is really more of a Night of the Living Dead knockoff.

The latest take, 2019’s Color out of Space, is by South African director Richard Stanley. I’m a fan of Stanley’s two previous films, Hardware and Dust Devil, so I was really looking forward to this one, but ultimately it just didn’t work for me.

My main complaint about the film is that it can’t seem to decide what tone it’s going for. This is a tale of cosmic horror in which Nicholas Cage plays an alpaca farmer. I’d describe his character arc as Goofball Dad into Cranky Goofball Dad into Psychotically Angry Goofball Dad Slaughtering Mutant Llamas With a Shotgun. Which would be fine if the whole movie were an absurdist comedy, but if that was the intention, Cage is the only actor who got the memo. Joely Richardson as Mrs. Gardner plays her own descent into madness straight, and delivers most of the film’s truly horrific moments. But the tonal inconsistency undercuts this, and I found the result neither scary nor funny. It’s just weird.

There were things I liked. Visually the film is gorgeous. Tommy Chong turns in a good low-key performance as an aging hippie squatting on the Gardner’s land, demonstrating how comedy can work in a horror film. The Gardners’ daughter, Livinia (Madeleine Arthur), has a nice meet-cute scene with hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), though their relationship doesn’t go anywhere. And of course I was grateful for the excuse to make bad puns about the Necro-llama-con.

Color is currently streaming on Hoopla if you’d like to check it out for yourself.

My own pick for best “Colour” adaptation is the 2015 German film Die Farbe, by director Huan Vu. It relocates the doomed farm to the Swabian-Franconian Forest but is otherwise very faithful to Lovecraft’s story. Die Farbe is shot in black and white, except for the alien color, which, as in the Stanley film, appears as a pinkish purple. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi (free, with ads), and Kanopy (free with a public library card).

I also want to namecheck two other films. The first is Creepshow, the 1982 horror anthology by George Romero and Stephen King, whose second vignette, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (based on King’s short story “Weeds”), is clearly an homage to “Colour.” In this case, the meteorite is filled with an alien version of the goop you smear on Chia pets. Farmer Verrill (played by King) gets some on his fingers and soon has space moss growing all over his body. This one’s definitely a comedy, but everybody involved knows that, and it’s short enough that the joke doesn’t wear out its welcome.

My other recommendation is Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel of the same name. A meteor strikes a lighthouse on a remote stretch of coastline and creates an expanding zone called “the shimmer” that mutates everything inside it. The shimmer’s boundary blocks radio transmissions and knocks out drones. Human investigators sent inside don’t return, with the exception of a Green Beret played by Oscar Isaac, who shows up at his home a year after his disappearance, suffering from amnesia. Federal agents arrive shortly thereafter; they scoop up Isaac and his wife, a biologist and ex-soldier played by Natalie Portman. With Isaac now on life support and fading fast, Portman volunteers to join a team of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) on an expedition into the shimmer.

Though I haven’t read Vandermeer’s novel, the film feels like a cross between “Colour” and J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World. Like Stanley’s Color, it’s a visual feast, but the tone is consistent and the characters are a lot more interesting. Currently streaming on Epix and DirecTV.

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Lovecraft binge-watch: Spring and The Void

To pass the time as I wait for the premiere of the Lovecraft Country HBO series—just over two weeks away, now!—I’ve been on a Lovecraft binge-watch.  There’s a lot to choose from. For a guy who never set foot in Hollywood, H.P. Lovecraft has an impressive IMDb listing, with 214 writing credits at present. And those are just the movies and TV shows directly based on his stories. The two films I want to highlight today belong to the much broader category of original works that incorporate Lovecraftian themes.

Spring is a rare example of a Lovecraftian romance. Lou Taylor Pucci plays Evan, an American who flees to Italy to escape legal troubles at home. He hooks up with Louise (Nadia Hilker), who claims to be a local girl even though she doesn’t sound particularly Italian (“I’ve lived in a lot of different places,” she explains, adding matter-of-factly that she speaks a dozen different languages). There are some other unusual things about her: her eyes are different colors, and she has an unspecified medical condition that makes her sensitive to sunlight and occasionally requires her to run off to the bathroom and inject herself with a serum. Despite some misgivings, Evan is smitten, and believes that Louise may be the love of his life—the catch being that if he’s wrong, she’ll kill him. It’s a surprisingly sweet and funny story, a kind of Before Sunrise with tentacles.

The Void, a more traditional horror story, opens with a shooting massacre at a house in the woods. A lone survivor escapes and gets picked up by Sheriff Deputy Carter (Aaron Poole), who takes him to a small rural hospital. Soon afterwards, the hospital is surrounded by knife-wielding robed cultists, and a malevolent force starts driving the trapped occupants crazy and mutating their bodies. It’s a fun ride that compares favorably to the old John Carpenter classic Prince of Darkness.

Spring is streaming on Tubi right now (free, with commericals), and if you’ve got a library card, you can watch The Void on Hoopla, but both films are also available as cheap rentals on iTunes and Amazon.

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