The second batch of best short films presented by the Lovecraft Film Festival. I saw most of these at the NecronomiCon in 2017, but didn’t know which ones would be selected as “best.”
I’m surprised that a couple of those I found most memorable didn’t show up on this DVD–in particular, a modern adaptation of The Picture in the House where a woman living in an apartment building meets her neighbor during a city-wide blackout. For me, the most important criteria for judging horror films (even very short ones), is how they affect me afterwards. Do they stick in my mind long after I’ve seen them? Do they make me reluctant to turn out the lights or leave the closet door ajar?
Anyway, here are the Film Festival’s choices:
There Is No Door
This isn’t one I’ve seen before, but it’s my favorite of this DVD because it features one of my favorite horror themes–the history of the bad place repeats itself over and over again with variations. I can’t connect it to any particular Lovecraft story, but it is unsettling because what happens in the house is never fully explained.
This is the story of a girl named Sam, played by four different actors in different stages of her life as she witnesses inexplicable events in her family home.
In the first scene, Sam is about 9 or 10. Crouched on the stairs, she listens to her Uncle Rob talking to her mother; Mom pleads with him, “You don’t have to do this,” but he insists, “It’s time.”
Uncle Rob, teary-eyed but not answering her questions, speaks briefly to little Sam when he sees her, then disappears when she turns away from him (we see him duck down as she turns to go upstairs).
When Sam asks her mother where Uncle Rob went, Mom doesn’t answer either, but she’s burning a photo of her brother that had been on the living-room mantelpiece; she drops the ashes into a little urn that sits among the family photos.
A few years later, Sam has grown into a nervous and anxious young teen of about 13 or 14. She takes a knife from the dining room in a moment of suicidal depression, when she suddenly sees a small and antique-looking door in the wall that’s never been there before. As she moves away from it, the door follows her, appearing on the stair landing, then in the hall at the top of the stairs, and then in her bedroom.
It’s in her bedroom that she opens the door. At first, she sees nothing but darkness and a blur of light in the distance–and then another young girl in a Victorian dress looks back out at her. This scares Sam out of her suicidal moment; she shuts the door, drops the knife on the floor, and huddles under the blankets on her bed.
When her mother comes up to say goodnight, the door is gone. Mom picks up the dropped knife without saying a word about it.
Sam is then 16 and deeply depressed again. She has a straight razor, but on the evening she takes it into the tub with her, she’s interrupted by Aunt Sue’s visit to the house.
The conversation with Sam’s mother is much the same as Uncle Rob’s some years before: Sue can’t take it any more, and says it’s time. But, this time, Sam sees Aunt Sue go in through the little door. Mom burns her sister’s photo, and she realizes that Sam sees the door too.
“Tell me you don’t see it!” Mom insists, but Sam confirms that she does.
Sam runs up to her room. She’s left the razor under her mattress, and takes it out now. The moment she hold it to her wrist by way of experiment, the door appears. Sam goes in through it.
Beneath points of light in the dark void within are Aunt Sue with a handful of pills, Uncle Rob standing on a chair with a noose around his neck, that little girl Sam saw once before standing beside a bathtub full of water, and other people in period clothes from the 1970s to the 1920s–presumably earlier generations–each about to commit suicide in a different way. The ones we can hear are murmuring some variation of “I can’t go on.” The imagery is very eerie, and tells us that this has been happening to Sam’s family for more a century.
Then Sam looks through a window and sees back into her own living-room. Her mother is about to burn her photo.
As the people around her complete their various suicides, Sam runs as fast as she can back to the open door to get out of there and let Mom know she wants to live before her photo goes up in flames…
Now, it’s clear that the door is connected with suicidal impulses in a symbolic kind of way, but there were half a dozen people in the dark void beyond the door, and that’s a whole lot of suicides for one family. From what Sam as a grown woman tells her own little girl in the final scene, we’re given some intriguing hints that the family suicide rate is somehow connected to the house. Does the house need their occasional self-sacrifice? Sam says that the house is very old, that their family has always lived in it, and now that her own mother and father are gone (we aren’t told how, but their photos are still on the mantel), “Someone has to take care of it.” That’s as close to an explanation as we get.
Mary & Marsha in The Manor of Madness
A very animated and very short (under 3 minutes) animated short. There is no dialog–and no appendages on any of the characters, apart from the dog. Everyone is like the Fisher-Price peg people of my childhood, which is partly why I feel some instant affection for this cartoon style. Whenever anyone needs to carry or pick up an object, it appears against their limbless torsos.
The story as I understand it: Mary has been sent to live in an enormous and spooky old house with an elderly relative (whom I’ll call Uncle for the purposes of this review). The first thing Uncle does is shut Mary up in her room, but she is soon joined by her friend Marsha, who helps her to escape. Unfortunately for the two girls, all the household servants–and the dog–turn out to be tentacle-headed monsters who chase them around the house.
They wind up in the basement, where Uncle is preparing an unholy ceremony with Mary as the intended blood sacrifice. He just manages to nick her cheek with his knife–and that one drop of blood is enough to raise Cthulhu (or some other Elder god). But everything turns out all right in the end; the house is destroyed and the girls escape with the tentacle-headed dog.
“Sound is not only a matter of hearing. The entire physical structure is exposed to vibrational energy. Any sound interacts with our body, changes it to a very small degree, modulating the vibrations within our tissues and cells. In a way, we become the soundwaves…”
— Karin Steckheim
This was the Filmfest winner for Best Adaptation, although I’d say it was inspired by, rather than based on, the always popular Lovecraft story The Music of Erich Zann. It’s a 20-minute Austrian film in German (with subtitles), and done as if it’s a documentary about a band reuniting. The only parts in English are the occasional voiceovers from Karin Steckheim, an electrical engineer and something of a mad scientist, as she describes the goal of her research.
The band Wattmarck was put together and promoted by the electronics manufacturer of the same name. They were originally meant to demonstrate the sound possibilities of the synthesizers Karin invented, but in 1995, they suddenly found themselves with unlooked-for success. But Karin wasn’t interested in becoming a pop star. Resentful of the company’s attempts to make Wattmarck more commercial–including the release of a music video using puppets resembling the band’s members without her consent–Karin quarreled with the company’s management and walked out. Wattmarck dissolved soon afterwards and the musicians returned to their ordinary lives.
At least 10 years have passed. Karin has just announced that she’s made a significant discovery related to a piece of almost mythic Wattmarck company research.
“During World War II, based on the works of psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn and the musician Erich Zann, the Wattmarck company collaborated with the German army to create a device that would control brain waves by acoustic and electromagnetic signals…. Luckily the project failed. Their theories about how the Prinzhorn Frequencies could be used were wrong, but they had made considerable progress in synthesizing it.
“For years now, I’ve been trying to recreate and modify their device–not to control minds, but to connect them on a fundamental level by activating their resonance potential. But all material on the device was destroyed in the War. My progress has been slow, until I discovered something locked deep in the vaults of Wattmarck that was long considered lost… The manuscript of Erich Zann.”
— Karin Steckheim
Now that she’s found Zann’s music, she’s built a new synthesizer that can modulate in the Prinzhorn Frequency and create an entirely new and unheard sound. She wants to bring the band back together for one last concert to play it.
Curious, they all assemble at the old company factory they used to use as a studio. Their management, whom Karin still despises, is also present as well as a handful of other people who may be Wattmarck employees, fans of the band, or both.
It’s certainly the most unusual and imaginative use of Erich Zann I’ve seen, suggesting that the musician had an interesting career before he wound up in that Paris garret playing his violin frantically to keep whatever’s Outside at bay. The electronic music is both compelling and ominously creepy; you can tell there’s going to be trouble when the band starts playing it, even before the also creepy-looking new synthesizer (like a large snarl of hair suspended inside a glass box) starts to glow.
The band flees in terror along with their audience–everyone except for Karin, who stand triumphantly bathed in the light that fills the room.
“That is the subject of my research. To find the sound that resonates with the deepest vibrations of our mind that tries to answer those whispers in the silence.”
— Karin Steckheim
Often while watching these short films, I feel as if I’m only seeing the first act of a longer story. In this case, that’s true. At the very end of the credits, we’re told that the story continues on the Wattmarck website. Give them a visit!
The Doom that Came to Sarnath
Another animated short, just 4 minutes long, based on the Lovecraft story of the same name. The artwork is very simple, with the principal figures in motion before a static background, occasionally highlighted in color.
The story of the city’s doom is told by a wizened and cackling old man. The most noteworthy change from the original is that the high-priest Taran-Ish becomes the central character, urging the men of Sarnath to make war with the froggy-looking folk in the city of Ib on the other side of the “vast still lake that is fed by no stream and out of which no stream flows.”
While the warriors are celebrating their brutal victory over Ib, Taran-Ish gloats before the statue of the goddess Bokrug, which has been carried off from Ib as a spoil of war. But Bokrug isn’t without her powers, and her revenge–and Sarnath’s doom–fall that same night.
A 15-minute Peruvian film in Spanish (with subtitles), this appears to be related to The Call of Cthulhu although it’s not a strict adaptation.
Alonso receives a box that contains items related to his recently deceased father’s last expedition. He already has Dad’s gold cigarette lighter and feels a strong emotional connection to his father with it. He accepts the box and begins to look through its contents because he believes his father would have wanted him to.
Inside the box are notes, sketches of arcane symbols including one of a Cthulhu statuette, some newspaper clippings in Spanish, and a tape recorder with a cassette in it that plays a recorded chant and, at the end, Dad’s last words. Dad, we learn as the story progresses, committed suicide by setting himself on fire using that lighter and a can of gasoline.
Alonso is strongly affected by the chant and becomes obsessed with going through the papers to the exclusion of all else. “I must finish it,” he insists repeatedly to his wife when she tries to get him to take a break. He begins to fall apart emotionally.
From the beginning, he’s had flashes of dreams and visions. The most persistent of these places him on a beach, where he comes upon a small trunk. As he goes deeper into his studies, this vision becomes longer and more detailed. At last, when he opens the trunk, inside are that Cthulhu statue his father sketched, what looks like a Deep Ones’ diadem, and an old book which I think we can assume is the Necronomicon.
Alonso is horrified as he looks over these objects and reads pages from the book, but this is my favorite part. There is no dialog to indicate what these things are, but if you’re up on your Lovecraft you recognize them right away.
Then there comes a day when poor Alonso is completely demented. The trunk from his vision is now in his house. So is a can of gasoline. And he already has Dad’s lighter.
The Transition of Juan Romero
From Lovecraft’s story of a hapless miner who is affected by, and eventually drawn to his doom, by “an abyss so monstrous that no handy line might fathom it, nor any lamp illuminate it” that an explosion reveals in the depths of the mine. This 10-minute adaptation is noteworthy in that it was filmed in and around an historic mine.
There are two main characters, the mine foreman who is also the narrator, and Juan. Juan is a young man who was mysteriously orphaned as a baby with no idea of his true parentage (Lovecraft’s story hints that his lineage might be that of “the ancient and noble Aztec”). He expresses an interest in the very old Hindu ring that the foreman has picked up in his travels and wears–but don’t ask me what’s the connection between the Aztecs and ancient India.
One day, mine blasting opens up a cavern that disturbs the men. The foreman notes that it “shouldn’t be”; there’s water dripping even though they’re above the water table. No one seems to observe that the water is dripping horizontally. Everyone retreats until they can inform the mine supervisor, except for Juan who literally gazes into the abyss.
Late that night, Juan is drawn away from the cabin he shares with the foreman and returns to the mine. The Hindu ring starts to glow and the abyss opens up… and this is where Juan “transitions,” disappears into another dimension.
He’ll return at the end, but in no condition to tell where he’s been and what happened to him.
It’s got some beautiful visual effects–I especially like that horizontal water at the abyss–but just like the original story, it leaves me uncertain what the heck’s going on.
Sound from the Deep
This 30-minute film from Finland, in English, was the Film Festival Winner for both Best Short Film and Audience Choice. It was inspired by At The Mountains of Madness, although it takes place at the other end of the world.
This changed-around presentation of the story elements looks great, not least because they had the budget to film aboard a real ship in the Arctic (augmented by glacial stock footage), and because the crucial special effects don’t let the story down.
Mikael is a doctoral student in geology who is on an exploratory sea voyage with his mentor and supervisor, Professor Norberg. They are traveling with a crew of Scandinavians and Russians up near the melting edges of the polar ice cap to search for new natural gas and oil deposits. The rest of the crew and other scientists need not concern us, apart from a young woman named Sofia, a sonar technician.
Sofia is the first to hear the distant rumble beneath the water through her headphones.
The mission to find oil or gas deposits has so far been unsuccessful, and with the autumn, polar night is falling. They will have to return to port soon. While Sofia doesn’t think the sound is trapped natural gas, the professor seems certain that it is; when he appeals to Mikael for his unbiased opinion, Mikael supports his mentor. The ship’s captain agrees to go on for 5 more days to get closer to the sound and confirm what is it.
While they are standing at the ship’s rail that evening, looking out into the unexplored sea to the north, Mikael sees what looks like the spires and dome of a city atop an iceberg.
Is it a mirage? Before Mikael can ask if the professor sees it too, Norberg collapses into some kind of fit. The ship’s doctor calls it exhaustion and orders rest.
While sitting by the sleeping professor’s bedside, Mikael reads the notes Norberg has written about the nature of the sound. Norberg has also drawn some interesting circular doodle patterns that might be arcane symbols. In a marginal note, he wonders if the sound might be some kind of message or signal. A mayday? A warning?
When Mikael brings this idea up at a meeting after Norberg is recovered, the professor denies he ever thought any such thing; he claims he doesn’t know what Mikhail is talking about.
After this, Professor Norberg shuts Mikael out of all his research work and begins to behave strangely.
The ship goes on northward into the polar night. The crew finds the body of a strange sea creature, perhaps millions of years old, that was trapped in the now-melting ice. We don’t get a good look at the body as it lies on the deck, but the description sounds a heck of a lot like one of the Great Old Ones.
Mikael begins to have dreams of a sunken city (if you look closely, you can just catch one of the Old Ones swimming by), and a huge portal sealed by a device very much like the professor’s drawings.
Other members of the crew are affected too; at least one insists that they shouldn’t be here and must turn back.
Sofia hears the pulse of the sound all the time in her head now. She also believes it to be a message, but when Mikael asks what it’s saying, admits she doesn’t know.
When Mikael tries to bring his concerns to the captain, he learns that Professor Norberg has already spoken to the captain. Believing that Mikael is having a mental breakdown (not the first aboard ship at this point), the captain has the professor sedate the young man.
Mikael wakes and gets up just as the research team discovers what they think is huge natural gas pocket. They’re celebrating their success as they send a probe down to have a look. Sonia is not among the group.
The first visual image from the probe shows the ruins of a sunken city exactly like the one in Mikael’s dreams. As that giant portal comes into view, Norberg whispers “Now!” and explodes the probe, breaking the seal with its circular device.
All hell pretty much literally breaks loose.
Mikael finds Sofia tied up in the professor’s room and the two of them flee the ship as the freed Shoggoth surfaces and comes oozing through the ship’s corridors like gallons of hot fudge with a multitude of blinking eyes. The eyes are especially nicely done. Shoggy also sludges right over the man who set it free as its way of saying “Thanks!”
Some days later, Mikael is picked up in his life-raft; he’s been telling the story of what happened to his ship and its crew to the captain of the rescue ship. He tries to warn them, pleads to be taken back to land, but all they’re interested in is the last coordinates of his ship. They intend to head back north.
The selections on this DVD conclude with a music video, “Baby Got Bass,” a rap parody about a man who can’t get enough of those fishy Innsmouth ladies. I’ve seen several short films on the other Film Festival DVDs that indicate that a surprising number of people are vulnerable to the seductive lure of the mer-folk, but it rarely ends well.