H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival: Best of 2015

Several of the films in this set leave me with a distinct “What the hell was that about?” feeling even after multiple viewings. Some of them, however, even the WTH ones,  are excellent. There’s definitely an aquatic theme running through this batch of winning films.

The Night Ocean

This beautiful short film was the Winner for Judges’ Choice in 2015. It’s Spanish, but the voiceover is in English over animation in a style that looks like watercolor paintings or drawings in a sketchbook, just the sort of thing an artist would do, and accompanied by a melancholy piano composition.

Night Ocean

The narration is taken from the short story of the same name, Robert Hayward Barlow’s collaboration with Lovecraft when the former was a boy of 18. It’s been edited to remove some of the more purple-prose phrases to become a series of elliptical and poetic statements, and there’s a least one addition that I can’t find in the original text.

An artist has rented a secluded house on the beach for a month’s vacation, beginning at the end of summer. At first, he enjoys swimming during the warm and sunny days, and there are late-summer parties dancing to jazz music on the pier.

Then the sunny days come to an end and the summer tourists are gone. Autumn swiftly sets in. The narrator is alone, walking on the empty beach now, and strange things begin to happen.

Small creature on the beach

“I found a small creature on the beach. I’d never seen anything like it.”

 

One rainy day, he sees what looks like a group of people in black swimsuits out in the turbulent water and shouts to them and waves his arms. They ignore him. Another is standing closer to the shore, but does not appear to be human–then a wave crashes up on the rocks and all of them disappear.

On another night, the climax of the tale, during a storm, a large, slug-like creature comes up onto the beach, along with a number of those strange little creatures the artist has seen before. They gather on the sand near his house, and he watches them through the window.

The slug-creature lifts its “head” toward him, and the formless appendage morphs into something almost human. Then it returns to the water.

Slug-face

“It was a man or something like a man… but it swam with a horrible ease.”

Soon after this, the month comes to an end. The artist goes home. There’s never any explanation for the weird things he’s witnessed by the seaside, but the story concludes with this lovely piece of prose:

“Even yet I do not know why the ocean holds such a fascination for me, but when I behold the awesome billows surging in endless strength, there comes upon me an ecstasy akin to fear  so that I must abase myself before this mightiness.

“In the shrouded depths of time none shall reign upon the earth, nor shall any motion be, save in the eternal waters. And these shall beat on dark shores in thunderous foam, though none shall remain in that dying world to watch the cold light of the enfeebled moon playing on the swirling tides and coarse-grained sand. Then all shall be dark, for at last even the white moon on the distant waves shall wink out. Nothing shall be left, neither above nor below the sombre waters. And until that last millennium, the sea will thunder and toss throughout the dismal night.”

666 sq ft

A very short film about a guy who moves into a new apartment and hears a wheezing, moaning sound in the night. Is it the plumbing acting up? The radiator? He complains to the landlord, who says he doesn’t hear anything and advises the tenant to get some earplugs if any noises bother him.

But the tenant is determined to hunt the sound down. One night, he traces it to a panel at the back of the closet and, behind it, finds a monster embedded in the wall.

It doesn’t end well.

Escape from Midwich Valley

Winner of the Film Festival’s Best Adaptation Award.

To me, Midwich means The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham’s 1957 science fiction novel which was adapted to make the classic British horror movie, Village of the Damned. But this 9-minute French film has nothing to do with that. The story it adapts is The Shadow over Innsmouth.

Innsmouth is in Midwich Valley. Who knew?

Escape from Midwich Valley

The story is presented as a music video with no dialog. Instead of one lone traveler, a young couple arrives in the decrepit town via minibus–whether they are hitchhikers or this is the usual public transport to Innsmouth isn’t clear. They wander around town and disturb the villagers by poking into side-streets and seeing things that outsiders shouldn’t.

The next part of the story plays out fairly faithfully to Lovecraft’s original:  There is an attack on the couple at their hotel room; they escape out the window and run down beach, pursued by villagers with dogs. When the  minivan drives by, the boy hijacks it.

The two look briefly happy, thinking that they have escaped Innsmouth… but then something large and fish-froggy blocks the road ahead of them.

MamanThroughout this film, flashbacks have shown traumatic childhood incidents to tell us that the girl’s barely remembered past is connected with Innsmouth, so it’s no surprise that things turn out better for her than they do for her unfortunate boyfriend. If I’m lip-reading correctly, the word she says at the very end is “Maman“.

August Heat

At first viewing, this seemed to me to be a sort of adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House, and I watched it anticipating a grisly cannibalistic murder or at least an attempt at it. But nothing like that happens. It’s based on a short story of the same name by WF Harvey that I’ve never read, and the ending is less explicable.

It’s a sweltering hot summer day. A young man sits alone in his city apartment, sketching. We hear the sound of a siren in the street outside and there’s a loud pounding noise as if one of the neighbors is banging on the pipes. The young man draws the face of an old man. The banging stops.

He folds up his drawing and takes his bike out for a ride. We can still hear that banging noise as he rides, but whether or not he hears it isn’t clear.

Eventually, hot, tired, and sweaty, he passes by a stonework yard where an old man is chiseling a name and date on a tombstone. His name and today’s date. The old man is the one he drew the sketch of.

The old man invites him in for a drink of water. When the young man shows him the sketch and asks about the carving, the old man answers that he’s working on that stone just for practice; he likes working with his hands, and the stone has a fault and will crack in cold weather so it’s of no practical use. The name and the rest of of it is just a coincidence. “One hell of a coincidence,” he admits when the young man presses him. He’s put today’s date on it, since this is the day he finished his work on it.

The young man hangs around. They have some beer and talk about women. It all seems quite nice and friendly and, apart from the tombstone thing, not at all ominous.

August Heat

When it gets dark out, the old man gets up and looks out the window into the night. “I think it wants to rain,” he observes.

He turns to look back at his guest. His reflection does not turn.

It’s a strange and incredibly eerie note to end upon, but I have no idea what it means. Are they already dead? Did the young man expire from heatstroke while in his room when he first heard the pounding–presumably the chiseling on his tombstone? Or is the old man some kind of Grim Reaper and the young man about to meet his doom?

The Statement

A “modern retelling” of The Statement of Randolph Carter with Carter seated rather sullenly in the Gainsville police station as he reports what happened to Professor Harley Warren.

The most noteworthy aspect of this is that it was primarily filmed in the Santa Fe College Bat Cave. Carter accompanies Warren underground, down those stairs beneath the slab into caverns where they find certain eldritch symbols written on the walls. This is nicely claustrophobic and some of the tunnels don’t look as if there was room for much more than the two actors and someone with a handheld camera.

Eventually, Prof. Warren announces that he must go on alone, and leaves Carter behind, communicating with him through radio walkie-talkies. It’s via these, during a moment when his lantern goes out, that Carter hears his friend’s final pleas for him to run before it’s too late–and that final warning from another voice.

Fat Rabbit

I had some mild WTH moments with The Night Ocean and August Heat, but this film is a major WTH.

A pioneer couple is alone out in the desert. The woman is in labor and gives birth in a room surrounded by numerous lit candles. The baby dies… or does it? We hear a normal baby’s cry, but in the next scene the parents are burying the child.

The father starts digging at the grave and seems very upset. There’s a brief struggle, until the mother smacks him in the head with a rock. The blood from the cut seeps into the ground and is absorbed quickly as if the grave is soaking it up.

Fat Rabbit

Whatever they buried now comes to rumbling, gurgling, slurping life. It’s not a zombie baby, but a round, floating, pulsing thing like a balloon made of pieces of flesh. They lead it around with them on a rope.

It’s at this point we get the only dialog in this short film.

“It’s too small,” the wife says.

“No, it’s fine,” her husband insists.

She replies, “The one Jim and Ruth had, it was twice as big as ours. Ours is too small.”

“Then we’ll just have to…” he begins, but I can’t make out the rest of the sentence; he mumbles and their flesh-balloon baby is making loud slurping noises. Feed it, perhaps?

One day, they take their flesh-balloon baby out for walkies to what looks like the Grand Canyon. Baby has grown bigger and tries to float higher, pulling against the rope as if it’s ready to fly free.

Mom stabs Dad in the throat with a knife. His blood rolls down across the sand, and the balloon baby lands to slurp it noisily up. It grows much bigger. and finally pulls its rope away from the loosened grip of its dead father’s hands; its mother tries to grab the rope, but can’t. Baby floats away into the sky.

The woman starts digging a grave for her husband.

From the beginning, scenes of the couple’s activities are intercut with text from a religious document titled Angelus Carnem Doctrinam (Latin for “angel flesh doctrine”), which provides spiritual advice about what to do so that “the gates of promise shall open.” This title is the only clue that helps me to guess at what’s going on: I take it that the couple and their unseen friends Jim and Ruth belong to some kind of cultish sect, and the bizarre thing that’s happened to their baby was what they anticipated and wanted. Perhaps a flesh-balloon “angel” afterlife is what the woman also expects for her husband when she buries him, and eventually for herself.

The meaning behind the title of this film, on the other hand, remains a mystery to me.

L’Appel (The Call)

A 17-minute film in French, and another one about the irresistible attraction of the sea. Two police detectives are summoned to the beach where the naked body of a dead woman has washed up–oh, wait, she’s not dead after all.

She bites the hand of the elder detective, then jumps up and tries to run off. The other police on the scene catch her and, once she gets some clothes on, take her to an interview room at the police station. Creepy smileBut she doesn’t answer the younger detective’s questions about how she ended up on the beach; she just stares silently with a creepy look in her eyes and creepier little smile.

It soon emerges that the elder of the two detectives knows her. A flashback scene shows that she was lost overboard when they were out sailing and he’s presumed that she was dead until now.

She speaks to him, but not to explain how she didn’t drown. The only thing she says is that he’s not wearing his wedding ring. So she’s his wife?

How long ago did she disappear? The elder detective denies knowing her when his young partner asks, and the younger man doesn’t recognize her himself. So it might have been years ago.

The older man has been strangely affected since he was bitten. He feels thirsty and light-headed. While he’s off in the men’s room splashing water on his face and drinking from the tap, the woman leaves the police station. He finds his young partner unconscious on the floor of the interview room, mouth full of water that he chokes on and spits up as if he’d been dunked underwater although there’s none in the room.

TransformationWhen the older man returns home to his cottage near the beach, he finds the woman waiting for him. He says that he loves her and doesn’t want to lose her, and they end up having sex. I would say that they break his water-bed, but there’s seaweed in the water that gushes out from under the mattress.

When he wakes, he finds that he’s undergoing a change… so it’s a good thing he lives so near the beach. His partner arrives just in time to watch him head out into the sea.

Mercy

This poignant but disturbing 4-minute black and white film won Best Short Film

A group of teenagers come upon a creature lying on the beach. One of the kids, our narrator, informs us that she knew it was still alive; she could feel its thoughts crawling around in her own brain “like ants in a honeycomb.”

Telepathically, the creature asked her to reach inside its body through a slit like a gill, to touch its heart.

Please, it said. All you have to do is squeeze.”

Touched its heart

While she did reach inside, she couldn’t bear to put it out of its misery. Instead, she and her friends pushed it into the ocean even though she knew it was no more a creature of the sea than of the earth.

She continued to feel its crawling thoughts in her brain, until they eventually stopped. The creature took four days to die.

After that, she tells us, “its blood messed up our skin, changed it.” They were all afflicted with a strange rash or suppurating flesh. We see quick images of the kids in the hospital, injections, drainage tubes, limbs in bandages.

They end up sitting back on the beach, staring out to sea. The narrator concludes:

“Sometimes I still feel it. Its mind is gone, but its body is still out there, floating….

“When I look back on that day, I picture myself squeezing. And somehow everything turns out okay.”

Lure

A stop-animated short by Monsieur Soeur, who also made The Bone Garden which features on the 2016 HPL Filmfest DVD.

A nerdy-looking man is spending some time at a forest cabin, fishing in a nearby, remarkably deep pond which appears to be a water-filled fissure in the earth. As the water level sinks and his fishing pulls up increasingly odd specimens, he forms the impression that something more than fish lives down there at the bottom.

When the fissure is almost entirely dry, he begins lowering down objects on his fishing line to lure whatever’s down there out and capture its attention. Eventually, he makes contact and communicates with the intelligent being that lives in the caves at the bottom. He feels he’s found a kindred soul, someone “who appreciates what’s inside my head.”

One day, he scales down into the depths of the fissure to meet it.

The Lure

Well, he was right… but not in the way he anticipated.

I like the animation work on this one better than The Bone Garden; the figures and background are more distinct. The creature in the cave has the objects sent down to it embedded on its body, and each item is clearly seen.

The Craft

Another WTH film, “based on the life and works of HP Lovecraft,” as we are informed in the opening credits, but I really like it.

Richard Pickman is a painter of the macabre. That’s nothing new, but here he’s a late Victorian gentleman–not a decadent, avant-garde 1920s artist–and he’s living in someplace that looks a lot more rural than downtown Boston.

Richard enjoys the music of Erich Zann and plays it on the Victrola to listen to with his wife Sonia. “This is my favorite piece,” he tells her.

Their marriage seems to be in trouble. We meet the Pickmans in the middle of a serious discussion. Sonia insists that there be complete honesty between them; Richard agrees, but his wife has her doubts that he’s still keeping things back.

Richard’s paintings are rejected at the local gallery. The Art Committee calls them “grotesque” and says they will reimburse money he paid for the showing.  But Richard doesn’t care about the money. He tells them:

“Does my work frighten you? I have always known that I am an outsider, a stranger in this century…. You live on a placid island of ignorance amidst a sea of black infinity you were never meant to voyage.”

Which sounds rather familiar.

Sonia has her husband’s sketchbook, titled “Pickman’s models”. In it are drawings and notes in another language about his imaginings. At the gallery, she imagines she sees one of these monsters wandering otherwise unnoticed among the crowd of visitors and art critics.

That evening, she finds Richard’s studio at their home cleared out. She seeks him out at an empty church in a field, which was featured in one of the paintings he left behind.

She finds him and his paintings in the basement. “The only place for an outsider,” Richard tells her from the darkness.

Unfortunately, when he startles her by stepping out into the light, she drops the candle she’s holding. Instead of getting out of there before the whole place goes up in flames, they stand and have another personal conversation while the paintings around them burn.

Sonia: “Richard, look around you. This place is a nightmare. These demons could never love you like I do.”

Richard: “The only demons I ever painted were my own.”

She leaves the burning church, and he stays to die with his work.

Richard Sonia

Fourteen years later, the widowed Sonia listens to Zann on the gramophone. “This is my favorite piece,” she tells the gentleman friend who’s seated with her.

Meanwhile, down in the basement amid his dad’s surviving paintings, sits a young Harry-Potter-looking boy typing out a story titled “The Craft.”

Dark Watch

Five huge transport spaceships are traveling together to colonize another planet: Gaia, Mary, Baal, Shakti, and Isis. Our narrator aboard the Mary and the communications officers on the other ships check in with each other, make jokes and smart remarks… until there’s no response from Isis. The ship has gone dark. The other ships can see that there’s a breach in one of the habitat sections, but the damage doesn’t seem severe enough to have killed everyone on board.

5 transport shipsIsis continues along with the other ships, maintaining its course in formation.

Two days later, Isis launches a silent shuttle, which is allowed to dock on Shakti under armed escort.  The officer aboard Shakti reports that the shuttle is empty. They’ve scanned, and there are no life forms inside it.

Suddenly, Shakti also goes dark and silent.

“At least one person lived long enough to flash SOS,” the narrator tells us. “Probably the only Morse they knew. And then nothing.”

Two days later, Shakti launches two shuttles, one at Gaia and one at the narrator’s ship, Mary. These shuttles weren’t allowed to dock, but were shot down.

Since then, the surviving three ships have been on what the narrator calls a “dark watch.” We used to be afraid of more shuttles, she adds, until we realized that it’s just a matter of time until they reach landfall. All 5 ships.

“1 year, 6 months, 18 days. That is exactly how long we have to wait.”

We never see the narrator or any of the other people behind the voices from the other transport ships, only the exteriors of the ship models and shuttles against the starfield. The model work looks very good from a distance, although it tends to look a bit plastic when up close.

Pickman’s Model

It was perhaps a mistake to put The Craft so close to this in the DVD order, since they’re both based on the same story.

Pickman's Model

This wonderful animated film was another winner for the Judges Choice for 2015. It’s from a Mexican artist and production, but the narration and dialog are in English.

In the framing story, a young man named Thurber is writing about that night at Pickman’s studio a year earlier. His health and nerves have been ruined by the experience.

What follows is a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s story as Thurber visits the subterranean studio to view Pickman’s most horrific artworks, hears some strange scrambling noises, and accidentally picks up a photograph that Pickman has supposedly taken to provide a realistic local background for his latest work.

I note, however, that the narrative text isn’t actually taken from Lovecraft’s own. PickmanThurber also follows Pickman from the studio when they hear the noise–and in a shaft of moonlight sees what Pickman has gone out to confront. That knowledge is what has so deeply disturbed him.

I’m sorry to say that poor Thurber’s fate isn’t as pleasant as that of the narrator in the original story.

But the most noteworthy alteration to the story is that it makes what was only hinted at by Lovecraft about Pickman’s relation to his models explicit.

The film begins with the artist being interviewed by a  reporter, which is repeated with its punchline after the end credits:

Reporter: “Where do you get all these ideas from?”

Pickman: “From my mother.”

Reporter: “Is she a painter?”

Pickman: “No… But she has always inspired me.”

Pickman and Mom

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.

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