After a long delay, I have finally obtained the BluRay for the best short horror films from around the world shown at the 2020 HP Lovecraft Film Festival (a streaming festival that year).
It’s an interesting batch, with only one film loosely based on a Lovecraft story, and a couple of others that might be called allusions to the works of HPL.
A pretty good US-made film in an atypical setting. What starts out as the usual, boring night at work for a country and western DJ/radio talk show host named Rooster turns into a bewildering experience in recursive horror when several of his call-ins request that he play an oldie they call “U14”.
Rooster has no clue what U14 is, if it’s a song title or a juke box number, but since so many people are asking for it, he has a look in the store room. After digging through stacks of old 45s, he finds a box containing a set of cassette tapes labeled U1, U2, and so on. One is labeled U14, so he takes it back up to the control room along with some antique equipment that will let him broadcast tapes.
With some trepidation, he hooks up the tape player and pops the tape in — perhaps, like the viewer, expecting to hear some madness inducing cultist chant. But the song is a country oldie “Ain’t Nobody’s Business (if I Do)” by Earl Johnson. (Lyrically different but thematically similar to the blues song.)
Rooster laughs in relief. Then he suddenly awakes as if the whole thing were a dream, and the station mike is open, broadcasting dead air.
A phone call comes in and Rooster explains the radio silence as “technical difficulties” before the caller requests U14.
Time loops just a little bit as Rooster searches the storeroom again; we get the same shots of the stacks of 45s and the box of cassette tapes. Rooster hooks up the tape player and plays the song again. Then things start to get very weird. Most of it involves a zombie kid riding around the station hallways on a bicycle, or the zombie kid running around and the bicycle lying broken, which makes me wonder if all of this is Rooster’s punishment for a hit and run. He runs around the station too, finding the door chained shut and no way out.
When he next answers the phone, he begs the caller for help, only to be told that everything is perfectly normal and the best thing he can do is continue doing his job and play U14. “We’ll come do it the hard way if you make us.”
Rooster wakes one last time, but the ending suggests that his experience wasn’t a nightmare, and that he hasn’t escaped whatever fate awaits him.
An amusing, brief commercial for a gin made in Innsmouth, Massachusetts. A friendly and non-fishy-looking fisherman extolls the virtues of the beverage he always turns to: “When I feel my mind teetering on the edge of madness, I reach for the one thing that helps.“
“Made… by the same family, in the same way everything is done around these parts: In secret, and in deference to forces so far beyond the ken of man it would flay your mind raw should you dare to contemplate them.”
The Black Tome of Alsophocus
A nicely done Argentinian animated short with live actors, about one of those guys you find in Lovecraftian stories who hang around old book stores looking for curious and ancient tomes of forbidden lore. Usually it’s The Necronomicon, less frequently the Book of Eibon or the Pnaktonic Manuscipts. The Black Tome of Alsophocus is a new one to me.
Anyway, our hero finds the tome of the title. The owner of the store has no problem with him taking the book free of charge, so he unquestioningly and eagerly carries it home through dilapidated city streets to study it and try a few spells out.
At last, he achieves his goal and floats away into another dimension where dark gods are waiting. It doesn’t turn out well for him. It never does in these stories, especially when the name of Nyarlathotep comes up.
Let Me Go
I’m not sure what’s happening in this US-based film; there’s some explanation at the beginning via a broadcast voice, but it’s garbled and I can’t catch it all.
Basically, there’s an apocalyptic event going on, with a glowing red light outside and some sort of unseen creatures showing up to claim members of families one by one. The broadcast advises people to let their loved ones go, but the woman in the house where this film is set, nursing her sick little girl, the last surviving member of her own family, is determined that “they” won’t get the child.
When the unseen creatures come for the child, this determination is tested. Can the mother hold on to her daughter? Should she?
An unsettling Russian film about Yegor, a young construction contractor, his dodgy uncle Kolya, and a problem with a closet in a building they’re working on. An interior wall has shifted 30 cm. At first, they think the foundation has sagged, and the boss blames Kolya for doing his job while drunk.
But as the wall continues to shift beyond the outer boundaries of the building, with no sign of change to the exterior, it becomes obvious that what they have here is a doorway that open into another dimension — a dark world that stretches as far as they can see beyond the open door.
Uncle Kolya is all for bricking the doorway up and forgetting about it, but Yegor is excited about this amazing discovery that transcends the understanding of modern science.
Yegor’s friend and coworker Roma is also game to explore what lies beyond the doorway. Wearing a safety harness attached to a long rope, he ventures inside. Yegor and Kolya can’t hear him from the instant he disappears into the darkness, and Roma doesn’t respond to their shouting.
After Roma goes several feet into the darkness, the taut rope suddenly drops to the floor. Yegor yanks back an empty harness.
You might think that’s the last we’ll see of Roma, but he does return in a shocked and almost catatonic state. He can’t describe what happened to him beyond the door, only repeats, “Not for me… I can’t go.”
Yegor wants to take his friend to a hospital, but Uncle Kolya doesn’t want the police involved — especially after poor Roma appears to have dropped dead. The old man’s idea is to conceal what’s happened here, toss Roma into the darkness beyond the door and seal it over. Yegor feels enough loyalty to his uncle to do as he suggests.
He means well, but this turns out to be a bad decision. When Roma turns up again the next day, bruised but alive, still stunned, and repeating his phrase, Yegor realizes who the exit is really meant for.
The satirical and very funny story of a popular and vapid model named Lyra who, like Donna Noble, has something on her back.
This Canadian film begins when Lyra and her equally vapid gold-digger boyfriend Tom are out in the woods doing a video to be posted online. Lyra has over 40,000 followers who like hearing her talk about her life and how much she loves the new carob-based coffee at her favorite Cosmic Café.
Her career takes a sudden downturn when a meteorite lands in the woods near the spot where the couple are filming, and a little green glowing thing bites Lyra on the back of the neck.
As the parasite grows, Lyra becomes drawn and haggard. Her demand as a model, her popularity online, and her boyfriend’s interest in her plummet. She’s cut out of a photo shoot. People avoid her. The feedback on her posts becomes critical of her appearance, and Tom starts going out with another model whose number of “likes” are the rise.
Lyra is deeply concerned by her falling metrics and the sudden lack of job offers, but she never seems to notice the giant bug on her back.
Oddly enough, no one else does either, until one night when she crashes an exclusive party that she wasn’t invited to. Now looking like death warmed over, she confronts all her former friends and it’s Tom who remarks upon the bug just as Lyra falls to the floor. Then they all get out their phones to get photos and videos.
A Portuguese film, and again, I’m not sure what’s going on. A farming couple are dealing with blighted crops; nothing will grow on their land. The husband Antonio becomes frustrated and obsessive about it.
While digging, they discover a strange, giant seed like a tortoise shell buried in the earth. The wife Anna goes out naked in the night to shed her blood on it, so that it grows into a strange tree.
After Antonio finds her and takes her back into the house, he takes an axe to chop the tree down.
Or is this a dream? When Antonio wakes the next morning, he’s the one that’s bloody and bandaged while Anna is fine; she’s tied his wrists to the bed because she says he’s tried to injure himself.
The strange tree is there at any rate. The couple go out together to splash gasoline over it and set fire to it. Anna shuts her eyes and presses the little cross she wears around her neck to her lips to pray. When she opens her eyes, she sees that her husband has gone into the fire.
No idea what this means.
The Beyond is the one Lovecraft story that’s most often adapted for these short films; The Music of Erich Zahn is the only story to give it competition. But this is not the expected tale of Crawford Tillinghast turning on a machine that activates the pineal gland and allows people to see the invisible world of grotesque beings that goes on all around us.
Tillinghast is still in this visually and musically striking UK version of the story, as a doctor treating a patient who isn’t able to sleep — the young man’s pineal gland is damaged, Tillinghast will later explain. To begin with, he prescribes an experimental drug, a yellow liquid in an eyedropper-type bottle that will help regulate the patient’s circadian cycle. But he also warns that it will cause vivid dreams.
In subsequent appointments, the patient will describe his dreams. Well, variations on the same dream.
In his dreams, the boy stands in an open meadow flooded with yellow-tinted light, and a girl around his own age stands some distance away. Tillinghast suggests that his patient speak to the girl, and doubles the dose. When the dreamer tries to approach the girl, she looks alarmed and disappears.
It’s at this point that the boy suspects that what he’s experiencing isn’t a dream at all, and Tillinghast confirms this. He cites Descartes and states his belief that dreams give us glimpses into alternate realities; the drug he’s giving his patient is meant to stimulate the pineal gland and enhance the experience.
The next time the boy sees the girl in his yellow-tinted dream, she’s brought along a friend. And that’s when what starts out as Lovecraft takes a sharp, unexpected turn into Robert W. Chambers.
The final film on this BluRay, another from the UK, another satirical horror comedy, and I think it’s my favorite of this batch.
Successful academic writer Henry Salt finds a mysterious appointment for lunch written in his dairy. He doesn’t remember writing it, and he can’t make out the scribbled name of the person he’s supposed to meet. While he’s puzzling over this over his breakfast, he doesn’t listen to what his wife is saying: that “creepy guy from anthropology” who made a pass at her at a few months ago, and has been institutionalized for the past 8 weeks after a mental breakdown, has now made an amazing recovery and been released. He should pay attention, though.
Henry goes to the posh, pretentious, and rather repulsive French restaurant La Folie at the appointed time, but his date doesn’t show up. He phones his friends to find out if he was supposed to meet one of them, but they either haven’t seen him in weeks, or just saw him at New Year’s… which he doesn’t recall.
In fact, he’s lost several weeks and doesn’t remember what he was doing during that time. And what about the mustache he shaved off that morning? He doesn’t remember growing that. The one thing he does remember clearly is the bicycle accident that injured his arm.
In a conversation with his publisher the next morning, he discovers that he has the wrong date; he’s looking at last year’s calendar. His lunch date is for that day.
He returns to the restaurant, determined to keep his appointment. He asks the snooty maître d’ to be let in to see if there’s anyone he recognizes. But since he doesn’t have a reservation, they eject him and he’s arrested (although soon released) when he makes a fuss and punches the maitre d’.
Henry has also given his diary to a handwriting expert. The expert phones him to say that the scribbled writing on that page is definitely not his — someone else has written this appointment for him. Who would else had has access to his diary? Who would want to do this? Is there someone who might want to lure him away from his home at that time?
By the way, the indecipherable name is Oblativski, the professor who had the mental breakdown.
Believing that this man is having an affair with his wife, Henry goes to see the professor at his office. (Oblativski is the Chair of the Soul in Experimental Anthropology.) Not finding him in, Henry locates the professor at La Folie. It’s time for their appointment.
And it’s here that I got a surprise. Most of these HPL Festival films are extremely low-budget, products of love starring the same people who wrote or directed them, their friends, or local actors. But Prof. Oblativski is played by an actor I know (not personally, I mean; what I said the first time I saw this was, “Oh, my god, that’s an actual actor!”)
David Bamber has appeared in a lot of UK films and television, but he’s best known to people like me as Mr. Collins in the good version of Pride and Prejudice.
Prof. Oblativski knows exactly what’s been going on these last few months that Henry can’t remember. It’s not an affair.
He explains it all to the horrified writer: the two men had switched bodies, as the professor attempted to take over the writer’s life, have his success, his younger body and more handsome face, and his wife. The bike accident that broke Henry’s arm broke the transference. But Oblativski is intending to switch again, this time permanently…