The H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival is an annual event that’s held in alternate years in Portland, Oregon, and in Providence, Rhode Island. I haven’t been to the Festival, but the couple who organize it come to the NecronomiCon to show what they consider the best short films for that year. These films are based on Lovecraft’s stories or those of other macabre writers, or may just be Lovecraftian in subject or tone.
On my recent trip to Providence, not only watched the latest batch, but bought DVDs of the best short films from earlier years. I’d seen some of them during my previous visit in 2017 and hadn’t forgotten them.
I’m going to look at the most recent set first, and go back from there.
Echoes in the Ice
The plot of this first short Canadian film recalls The Thing. A group of scientists in the Arctic arrives at an abandoned research station (the name of which appears to be Pickman-Derby) to find out what happened. The researchers who were working there have all disappeared. The power is off and the rooms are freezing.
Exploring the station for clues, the group discovers a door that’s been chained shut on the lowest level. When they break the lock to get inside they find a monstrous statue that looks vaguely Cthulhu-esque but without the face-tentacles. It’s sitting in the middle of what they call a “well” but looks more like a fountain pool to me. The statue and well appear to have been here for a very long time, and are perhaps the reason this base was built up around them.
The water in the well has glistening fragments floating on the surface that respond by forming into new patterns when one of the men reaches out toward them. The water is strangely, almost hypnotically, attractive, and he almost touches the surface before one of others stops him.
The group’s leader has meanwhile found a cassette tape recorded by the last survivor of the missing researchers. The voice on the tape says that the statue “shows us things.” Everyone was affected by it to some degree. The survivor then says that he killed the others, locked the room that contained the well, and is going to leave the station, preferring to die in the natural, extreme cold than remain here under that thing’s influence.
This short film is almost like the first act of a feature-length movie. The group begins to have visions, which just suggests that things are about to start over again. Then a tentacle extends up out of the water, and one of the men reaches out to touch it…
This is a touching and disturbing very short film (~7 minutes), with no dialog.
A couple has just lost their baby. They are putting away the baby’s things around their home, when the grieving mother drops and breaks a small plaster handprint; this upsets her so much that she leaves the house.
The bereaved father tenderly picks up the broken pieces and reassembles them on the dining-room table to take a photo with his phone. The image shows an intact handprint, and when he looks at it, he sees that the plaster disk on the table is also restored. He tries a photo of an empty vase; his wife had just thrown out the wilted sympathy flowers. Fresh flowers appear in his photo and in the vase as well.
He then goes into the partially cleared out nursery to take a photo of the baby’s empty swing.
When the wife returns via the kitchen door, she notices that a baby’s bottle is waiting to be warmed on the stove. When she enters the living room, she sees the dead flowers back in vase and the broken handprint on table.
So what is her husband rocking in the swing in the nursery? We don’t see the baby, only the mother’s horrified reaction.
The House of the Seven Gables
This is my favorite of the short films on this DVD, and it won Best Short Film for 2018. It’s a highly compressed telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel into 25 delightfully animated minutes.
In a framing story, an elderly man tells his granddaughter the history of the old house. In the 1600s, Colonel Pyncheon accused farmer Matthew Maule of witchcraft in order to obtain the highly desirable property which Maule refused to sell to him. Maule was hanged as a warlock, and Pyncheon built his multi-gabled house on the land. This backstory is shown in stark silhouettes and simply drawn images. All but one of the flashback scenes are shown similarly as traditional animation, while the main story, set in the 1850s, is in painstaking and charming stop-motion.
Phoebe Pyncheon has come to stay at her seven-gabled ancestral home with her aged spinster cousin Miss Hepzibah. Phoebe meets her cousin’s lodger, a young man who takes daguerreotypes (an early type of photograph). She learns that Maule’s son was believed to have hidden a document somewhere in the house which will provide the finder with a fortune, and that Alice Pyncheon, whose death was connected with an attempt to find it, haunts the place; Phoebe hears music from Alice’s spinet playing in the night and sees her ghost.
Hepzibah’s brother Clifford also lives in the house, a semi-recluse upstairs since he was released after 30 years’ imprisonment for murdering his uncle. Another cousin, Jaffrey, shows up and tells Hepzibah that he believes Clifford knows where that hidden document is–and if he doesn’t tell, then Jaffrey will see that he’s sent back to prison.
While Hepzibah goes upstairs to fetch her brother, Jaffrey sits in the parlor to wait. But the ghost of Matthew Maule appears to him and Jaffrey suffers a particularly nasty fate that’s not entirely undeserved.
It’s been years since I last saw AIP’s Twice Told Tales anthology that featured its own brief adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables, and I’ve never seen the 1940 film, so I can’t say how much this animated version takes from either. I merely note that both Colonel Pyncheon and Cousin Jaffrey bear a caricatured resemblance to Vincent Price, who was in both (but didn’t play Jaffrey in either).
The animation is expressive, and gets away with several gory images. The backgrounds are detailed–I especially love that the parlor where Jaffrey dies has pale green walls with floral wallpaper borders, which looks a lot like my own living room, except that I don’t have a haunted spinet or little antique gravestone carvings flying around. Much of the dialog is taken from Hawthorne and has a lovely old-fashioned feel; the worst I can say is that a couple of the voice actors sometimes sound as if they don’t understand their lines and are reading deadpan directly from the script.
A young couple invites a reporter friend over to experience their new Shining Trapezohedron with them. He says that he just wants to watch them use it at first, but since they’ve already doped up his tea to help “expand his perceptions,” he’s in for the ride of his life, like it or not.
The Trapezohedron is taken from Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, but otherwise this film has little to do with that story. The “expanded” experience involves increased awareness of each others’ consciousness and a kind of telepathy, and that’s when the couple suggests they can step it up into actual body-swapping. This has a distinctly Thing on the Doorstep vibe. And then we find out that the woman has cancer…
The Final Nights of E. Zann
Another animated short, not even 3 minutes long, based on The Music of Erich Zann (which is an extremely popular subject; it seems like there’s always at least one adaptation in every set I’ve seen).
The vibrant animation style is reminiscent of the psychedelic artwork of the 1960s and early ’70s, with a palette of mostly reds, greys, and black. There is no dialog, only the music that Zann frantically plays on his cello to keep the weird images he sees outside the window of his room at bay–but they do get in.
A estranha casa na bruma
It’s more of a shack, really, in this 15-minute Portuguese adaptation. Even after re-reading Lovecraft’s story, I’m not entirely certain what’s going on here.
A man dressed in monkish clothes (he’ll later identify himself as a pilgrim) is hiking barefoot through a desolate winter forest, when he comes upon the house sitting on a cliff above the sea. The bearded, shirtless man who lives inside pops his head out the window and, when the pilgrim asks if he can spare some food, agrees and invites him in–through the window, not the door.
After sharing some bread that has bright blue spots on it (is it meant to be moldy?) the two converse. The shirtless man offers to wash his guest’s dirty and damaged feet, but the pilgrim insists that his injuries are his atonement for his sins; the man washes them anyway. The pilgrim asks how his host can live in a home where the front door faces “the void,” but he doesn’t get an answer.
Then someone bangs on the door. Instead of answering, the man bolts the door and shushes the pilgrim to keep quiet while the banging goes on. It gets dark outside and he lights some candles, but the darkness appears to pass over swiftly. Then there’s another rhythmic tap on the door, a sort of “all clear”; the bearded man blows the candles out.
The pilgrim is leaving the house in the mists, when he turns back suddenly. The door is now open and he goes inside. The man is gone, but he’s left a book with an Elder Sign on the cover sitting on the table. The pilgrim opens it and looks over the arcane symbols and spells written within.
Some time later, he washes up on a beach where there are people dressed in modern-day clothes. His eyes have been torn out.
The Music of John Low
Shellshock made me a mute, they said. I’m not mute. It’s just hard to find the words.
This 35-minute film is a sort of Lovecraft Noir (also see The Resurrected), that refers to Erich Zann, but has little to do with it apart from the power of music. The 2018 Audience Choice winner, it’s a hard-boiled, circa-1930 detective story, filmed in Sweden, but apparently set in the US and in English.
John Low is a private investigator and WWI vet. He has scars on his back that look like claw marks, but he didn’t get them during the Great War. He can play the violin, but the music brings back traumatic memories of the day his mother died; his father fed her to some unspeakable monster he kept in the basement.
“It’s hungry,” Dad explains before he shoves her down the stairs to her doom. “I can’t help it.”
The last words his mother said to him were, “Don’t stop playing, John. Don’t stop playing whatever you do,” as if the music would protect him. As a grown man, John hopes that someday he’ll be able to play music, just music, without these horrific associations or the idea that he’s keeping the monsters at bay.
After this introduction with John’s voiceover narration and the first flashback to his childhood, the story proper starts when a woman enters his office. Her name is Diane and from the first we have hints that they’re in a relationship. But that’s not why she’s come to him today. She’s been sent to offer him a job. A book has been stolen from the Miskatonic University library, and they’re willing to pay him a large amount of money to recover it.
The book, says Diane, is ancient and covered in human skin. John knows what it is from this description, but doesn’t want Diane to say its name. She does: Surprisingly, it’s not the Necronomicon this time but another forbidden tome of occult lore, the Book of Ebon.
Edward Crawley is believed to be the thief. He was a professor of the occult at the university but has since gone home to Dunwich.
John takes a train to distant Dunwich to find Crawley and get the book back. Along the way, he’s set upon by a couple of thugs who have been following first Diane, then him, since the earliest scenes. They refer to Crawley as “The Prophet” and are preparing to kill John, when he jumps off the train miles short of the town.
When he finally reaches Crawley’s house, Crawley is sitting at his desk and reading the book. It’s the same book John’s dad had and it looks like the professor has been using it to do exactly the same things Dad did: he’s conjured up a creature that’s locked in next room–a Shoggoth, as it turns out–and has fed his wife to it.
“It was hungry,” Crawley echoes John’s father’s word. “I couldn’t help it.”
That’s when we learn that the object which John’s brought with him in his violin case isn’t the violin. It’s a tommy-gun.
He blasts the Shoggoth to pieces in a nicely done sequence, with the beastie just glimpsed as tentacles flailing in silhouette in the darkened room, the shell casings dropping on the floor as John keeps shooting, and Crawley sobbing in the floor.
Back home after he’s returned the book to the university, John and Diane share a romantic interlude, and he’s playing his violin. But is it just music, or is he still following his mother’s advice not to stop playing because there are still horrors out there?