H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival: Best of 2019

When I attended the NecronomiCon in Providence last summer, I had the opportunity to view a number of the Film Festival candidates and to offer my opinions on some of them, if not an actual vote on which ones I thought were the best.

So I’m not surprised to see some of the films on this latest DVD from the Film Festival, although I am a little disappointed that other short films I did like were not included.

The Colour

Ammi Pierce and the meteorite

This German adaptation of The Colour Out of Space is a wonderfully done 10-minute stop animation film with some interesting live effects: Steam rises from the tea kettle, smoke or mists curl around within the rooms of an old house and, best of all, blue goop drips upward from between the slats of the wooden floor.

Ammi Pierce is writing in his journal as if he’s addressing his long deceased friend–presumably Nahum Gardner, although that name is never used.

In this version of the story, there was no Gardner family to be afflicted by whatever came in with the meteorite from outer space, and what happened 50 years ago occurred on a remote farm that Ammi and his friend worked together. It also appears as if Ammi has been living in the old house alone ever since the disaster, with the glowing meteorite sitting in a back room.

Meteorite Drawn to the well

The meteorite’s glow projects silent images upon the wall; Ammi watches and remembers that day when it came shooting down from the sky and crashed into the well. Ammi looked away from the light, but his friend was drawn toward it, even fighting Ammi when he tried to stop him from going to the well to meet his doom.

At last, Ammi takes a sledgehammer and goes out to deal with the meteorite once and for all. Hitting it isn’t really a good idea, but I suppose at this point he’s past caring.

The Unnamable Thing In the Attic that Should Not Be

The Unnamable Thing

Andrew Migliore and Gwen and Brian Callahan, the Film Festival’s founder and organizers perform their very own extremely brief–and occasionally fast-forwarded–parody of The Unnamable.

I had thought that this short piece was only an introduction to the Festival’s films, but it’s listed among the other films on the DVD, which no other introduction has been in previous years. Besides, I found it amusing and felt it was worth mentioning.

Backwoods

There were two short films set in the woods that I recall seeing last summer: In one, a man is lost in the woods, trips over a tree root and injures his ankle, and tries to seek help from a cloaked figure that scurries away or vanishes behind the trunks of slender trees whenever he gets too close. This turns out to be a bad idea. The other was a French film in which a man is out on a picnic with his young son in a glade near a wood; the child disappears while the father is napping. Hearing someone cry out in the woods, he ventures in in search of his son, grows more frightened, trips over a tree root, and cries out as he injures his leg. By the time he emerges back into the glen, he learns what became of the little boy.  I liked both.

This film is neither. In spite of the title, it’s a straightforward, 15 minute adaptation of The Picture in the House. The Picture in the House

A young man riding his bicycle through the New England countryside is caught in a rainstorm and seeks shelter at one he believes is an abandoned house. But there is someone living there, a very old, illiterate man whose prized possession is a book in Latin, Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo, featuring a gruesome illustration of a cannibal slaughter. The old man relishes this illustration very much.

The prime points of interest in this adaptation are the brief flashbacks we see when the old man speaks of the sea captain who gave him the book, and when he chuckles over the mysterious drowning of a bewigged parson on some long-ago date, and the black silhouette illustrations in the book.

The Cultist Next Door

A very funny 8-minute parody of those educational and socialization films that were made in the 1950s and were still being shown in schools as late as the ’70s. It has the look of an old film, its colors slightly washed out and the film marred by scratches, artifacts, missing frames, and a hair caught in the projector.

Suzie thinks about Shoggoths Billy and the Professor

The style of the cartoon segments is the simplified one that mimics the cheap animation of the era. And there’s a friendly professor from Miskatonic University to answer little Billy’s questions about the Old Ones. For example:

What do you do if you see a Shoggoth?

“Don’t look at it. Looking at a Shoggoth results in insanity and death. Duck and cover. But chances are that if you have seen it, you’re already dead. Running doesn’t help. But if it makes you feel better in your last fleeting moments as you hang on to the unraveling threads of reality, go for it.”

The professor acknowledges that we can’t stop the Old Ones, but we can stop the cultists who worship them.

How do you recognize a cultist?

Robes and strange medallions are a dead giveaway, but there are also more subtle clues:

  • Obsessive talking about sacrificial daggers.
  • Occult membership cards.
  • The Innsmouth look.
  • Depending on cult affiliation, a cultists may wear a goatee, full beard, mustache, or have no hair at all.
  • Fondness for cats.
  • Excessive use of ketchup, which resembles blood (actually, this last bit, where a hooded cultist pours an entire bottle of ketchup over a plate of french fries, goes on far too long–that’s the strongest criticism I make of this film).

If you suspect someone of belonging to a cult, inform the proper authorities immediately… although the authorities just might be cultists too.

Toon Old Ones

The Outsider

Blog readers have the advantage of seeing this short film’s title right there. This was not one of the films I saw last year, and there is no title at the beginning of this film on the DVD; it took me quite some time to realize which Lovecraft story it was adapted from. It’s an imaginative and modernized retelling. I’ll describe it as I first viewed it.

The film begins with beautiful images of beaches and lush jungles. These turn out to be photographs in a book–one among a stack of books that a man in a white shirt is looking through. When he gets to the end, to the blurb about the author/photographer, we can see that it’s him. His name is Stephen C (I can’t catch the rest of his last name).

Man in white shirtStephen appears to be locked up or trapped in a cellar. There are pipes overheard, and shafts of sunlight are cast in through gaps in the wooden walls. Moths occasionally get in through these gaps, and out again to freedom. He watches the moths and dreams of being outdoors running around in a sunny open field. In his dream, there’s more than one of him.

When he hears someone outside, he thumps on the door.

Stephen seems to be afflicted with some form of brain damage or perhaps a neurological condition. His movements are jerky and awkward, and when he reads aloud from the Bible–another book in his collection–his voice sounds slow and he struggles to pronounce some of the words.

At last, someone does open the cellar door. It’s a nerdy-looking young man in a glasses and a white coat (which made me think that this was an isolation experiment gone tragically wrong).

When he sees Stephen crouched on top of the table where the books are stacked, the young man looks horrified and runs away. Stephen leaps out of the room where he’s been trapped and tries to pursue the young man through woods, but he moves clumsily and is dazzled by the bright sunlight. He stops.

It’s after dark, and he’s still wandering the woods when he comes upon a house where a party is going on.

It was at this point that I finally realized which story this film was based on.

When Stephen goes inside the house, the music is too loud and the partygoers are having too much fun with a drinking game to notice him at first. It isn’t until he speaks that they scream and run out of the room in terror.

After everyone has fled from the house, Stephen pushes open a door and sees a hideous creature in the next room. They draw closer to each other. Their fingers touch…

The Outsider

Well, if you know the story, you know where this is going.

The most interesting thing about this adaptation is how it’s presented from Stephen’s point of view, even though for the most part, we’re not looking through his eyes. We see how he sees himself in his clean white shirt, although he’s obviously not the man he once was. How he perceives his surroundings (Was he really in a cellar? Or was the underground chamber where he’d been shut away something more traditional?) And, at the end, how he perceives his ghoulish reflection as a distinctly separate entity in the same room with him–with movements that do not mimic his own–until the mirror breaks.

Red Moon

The winner for Best Short Film of 2019. It’s barely 5 minutes long, but it packs quite a visual punch in that short time.

The full moon is strangely tinted red that night as Ben sets out on his way to work. On his truck’s radio, amid the static and interference, he hears an announcement urgently warning people: “Do not listen to the voices! They call for you.”

Ben looks puzzled, but he doesn’t understand what this message means until he reaches his place of work. His boss Dan’s truck is parked outside, but the building appears to be empty.

Then, when he calls out, a voice down at the end of the corridor that sounds almost like Dan’s answers him. They’re waiting for him. Everybody’s there. Come closer…

Ben’s spooked enough and smart enough not to go all the way down the corridor to find out whatever’s waiting for him there. He runs back outside to find that the moon is really red now and very close.

Red Moon

It’s even closer by the time he gets back to his home. He’s phoned ahead to tell his girlfriend to be ready to get out of there when he arrives. When he gets there, she’s in the next room, calling out to him. Can he come and help her with her bag?

Panicked, he goes back out the door. The moon is now nearly close enough to touch overhead.

Over the end credits, a radio announcer speaks of the disappearance of over 10,000 people last night. For their own safety, people are advised to go to designated shelters before nightfall.

It’s creepy as hell, not to mentioned visually stunning–I’m a sucker for images of planets looming too close (also see Hypnos from a few years ago). But I’ve no more idea of what’s going on here than poor Ben does.

The Last Incantation

This beautifully filmed 20-minute movie won as Best Adaptation. It’s not Lovecraft, but is based on a very short story by Clark Ashton Smith.

The ancient wizard Malygris lives alone in his tower in the forest with no companion apart from a little daemon-familiar he keeps in a jar.

Old and lonely, his thoughts turns to Nylissa, “a girl as frail and lovely as an orchid,” whom he loved in his youth and who died a very long time ago. With all his wisdom and the powers at his command, could he not call her back to the semblance of life, young and beautiful as she once was?

The Last IncantationYes, the daemon assures him. He has that necromantic power.

If he does bring her back, will he have any reason to regret it?

The daemon doesn’t give him a straight answer to this question, but Malygris starts looking through his books of forbidden lore until he finds the right spell.

He sets up the objects necessary to perform the ritual correctly: He lights candles. He places a bowl on the floor, which he fills with blood when he cuts his hand with a ceremonial knife. He draws a circle on the floor around the bowl. He performs the incantation (not in English nor Latin; I’m not sure what language he speaks). The room at the top of the tower is filled with a blinding light.

Then he calls out Nylissa’s name.

In response to his spell, the figure of a young woman appears. She affirms that she is the Nylissa he once loved, but Malygris is suspicious; she doesn’t look the way he remembered the Nylissa of his youth.  (To be fair, he probably doesn’t look much like the boy she loved either).

Convinced that she is only an illusion, he dismisses her back to the void. “I don’t believe in love. I don’t believe in you!”

Daemon-familiar Nylissa

Only after she has gone does the daemon mockingly inform Malygris that, for all his wisdom, there was still one thing he needed to learn about memories, and about love. Too late now.

Tome Alone

A brief parody of Home Alone. Dad has to pop out for a few minutes on an errand and instructs his two boys: “Don’t tread from The Necronomicon while I’m gone!”

Of course, the minute he’s out of the house, they do. You know how kids are. Wackiness and tentacles ensue.

Les Appelés (The Summoned)

Even during the viewings at the NecronomiCon, this half-hour long French film was spoken of as a Best Film winner. It’s not an adaptation, but it’s obviously been inspired by Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan–in particular, the portrait of Helen Vaughan and the self-destructive effect that she has upon men.

This central image of this film is the portrait of a woman gazing into a mirror. We only see her face in the mirror’s reflection. She’s pretty, but there’s a hint of cruelty in her small smile.

As the story begins, it’s the spring of 1920 in Paris, and this painting hangs on a wall in Alphonse’s study. Alphonse is gazing up at it, when there’s a knock at his door.

He’s invited a journalist, one Francois Duval, to hear what he has to say about the woman in the portrait, but he asks Francois if he’s been followed before he lets him in. Francois also a bit disturbed when he observes that his host is holding a revolver.

“Don’t worry,” Alphonse reassures him. “It’s not for you. I hope…”

When they go into the study, Francois takes notice of the painting.

“Do you know her?” Alphonse asks.

No, Francois doesn’t. Alphonse doesn’t either, but adds that if he knew where she was now, he would put a bullet through her head. He’s contacted the police, but they refuse to listen. They think he’s mad.

The reporter says that he wants to know the truth. Alphonse tells him, and us, in the form of a double, nested flashback.

The portrait

It all began for him a few weeks ago, when he visited his distraught brother Arthur. The viewer immediately notes that the Alphonse telling this story wears an eye patch, but the Alphonse in the flashback, talking to Arthur only a few weeks earlier, has two good eyes.

Arthur told Alphonse what had happened to his friend, Louis, who was the artist who painted the portrait. In the second flashback, Louis tells Arthur that he’s had a recurring dream about a place in the city where he’d never been before. She was there waiting for him. Her back was turned and he only saw her face in the mirror. “The face of a goddess.” When she smiled, he was under her spell. He felt a sense of peace he hadn’t experienced in years, presumably since before the war. All four of the men in this story are World War I veterans. Louis’s left arm is gone, but that doesn’t stop him from drawing or painting the image of this woman in his dream. He feels as if he does know her from somewhere. During the days, it’s as if he still hears her calling him to that place and he thinks only of sleeping again to have that dream and to see her.

The dream always ends when she looks into his eyes and says, “You have answered the call.” Louis wakes at that moment.

As Arthur and his friend part company, Louis confides that the street and building in his dream are real. They lie somewhere in the north of the city. He’s been there. But he didn’t go inside.

Louis didn’t show up at their next veteran’s meeting. By the time Arthur did see him again, it was too late.

Arthur returns home to his apartment one evening with a lady friend to find Louis sitting in a chair in the darkened room. After the lady friend leaves, Arthur tries to chat find out where Louis has been for the past week.  Louis is unresponsive to his friend’s tentative remarks, until Arthur says that he was worried that something had happened.

“Something did happen to me,” Louis replies. He went to that place. She was there. “I’ve finally understood, Arthur. Everything’s clear now.” He sees the world for what it is. Reality stripped bare of all our illusions.

Instead of speaking of this mysterious woman, Louis alludes to a “He” that’s shown him all this. Arthur notices it, and asks. He? Who?

Louis removes his eyesLouis answers, “His reign is coming. It’s pointless to resist. There’s no escape.”

To Arthur’s horror, Louis calmly removes his eyes. He offers to show Arthur the way.

In spite of his eyeless state, Louis can still see somehow and comes after Arthur with a knife. There’s a struggle, and Arthur is forced to shoot his friend to save himself.

He’s still badly shaken when he tells his brother Alphonse this. The police have been to the place Louis dreamed of and have found nothing.

Arthur has taken the painting of the woman from Louis’s home. What frightens him, he tells Alphonse, is that he’s begun to have that same dream, except that when he goes to that place he has his gun to try and kill her.

Alphonse tells the reporter that he was sympathetic to his brother’s distress, but at the time he saw this as a case of one very disturbed veteran and another affected by it. He suggested that Arthur come on vacation to Brittany with him, but Arthur refused. They didn’t see each other for a while.

When he visits Arthur after returning from Brittany, Arthur is apparently not there, but the lady friend is in the front room staring at the portrait on the wall above the fireplace. She turns and walks out without saying a word, as if she hadn’t noticed Alphonse though she brushed right past him.

Alphonse looks at the painting and is disturbed by it. Then he notices something even more disturbing: Two eyeballs sitting on an open book.

Arthur is home after all. He’s gone the eyeless way of Louis, and offers to show Alphonse the way too before he attacks his brother. The flashback ends there.

Alphonse ends his story by telling Francois that he escaped, but his own eye was injured. He sent the police to his brother’s apartment, but “the eyeless monster in the form of his brother” had gone. It’s been two weeks ago and Eyeless Arthur has not been seen again. Alphonse says he’ll be ready this time if it returns. He’ll be ready for that witch too.

Francois asks about the lady friend; Alphonse believes that she too has been drawn under the spell. There must be dozens of those eyeless creatures around Paris,  and maybe more everywhere else. “The scourge is spreading.” By the time it is generally known and his story finally believed, it will be too late.

But Francois believes him. Before he goes, he repeats that he doesn’t know the woman in the portrait, but reveals that he wanted to hear Alphonse’s story because of something Alphonse said in his invitation. He has been having that same dream.

Eyes

Apart from the two grisly eyeball/eyeless scenes, this is an elegant little period piece–perhaps not as visually exciting as some of the other films above, but I love the costumes, the 1920s details such as the pole-and-hook telephones and the phonograph even if they never come into the plot, the memories of the War looming over the characters in the midst of this new horror. The lighting is soft and subdued, but never melodramatically gloomy, and during one scene we can hear the rain coming down outside.

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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.