lcbingewatch

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+.

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.

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.

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.

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.