Dead Tongues

A short student film, presented to the Lovecraft Film Festival in 2016 and made available through the Film Fest on DVD. I finally bought a copy from them when I was at the NecronomiCon this summer. The DVD cover says that it’s “inspired by an H. P. Lovecraft story,” but the link is tenuous one.

Tony's video diary

“I haven’t slept in about four days now, translating shit, words I’ve never even heard of before. I had to board up the windows to help me concentrate. Every time I close my eyes, all I see is a hieroglyph… This is important.”

We hear this speech over quick cuts of a young man recording his video diary, the same young man pouring gasoline on himself and flicking a cigarette lighter, and a young woman in black attending his funeral.

When she goes to his apartment with armloads of cardboard boxes some time after the funeral, we get their story in flashback.

A month earlier, Stacey (Phoebe Fox) was excited when her boyfriend Tony Jermyn (Robert Justin Dresner) returned from a grad-student archeological trip to Peru, but Tony was even more excited about the discovery of wall carvings in a cave that looked like much smaller versions of the Nasca Lines. He wanted to do some independent research on them with an eye toward career establishing publication before sharing his findings with the (unnamed) university . “I’m going to be in National Geographic!”

Tony was extremely eager to get started right away, oblivious to all of Stacey’s Welcome Home overtures and forgetting this was their anniversary. Realizing that she wasn’t as important to him as his work, Stacey told him she was leaving; Tony was already so focused on his computer that he didn’t even realize she was breaking up with him.

Stacey exited in tears, leaving the flowers and Happy Anniversary card she bought for him on the living-room coffee table.

The now-dead flowers and dusty card are still there a month later. Tony probably never noticed them.

As Stacey prepares to start clearing out the apartment, she hears someone in another room — a man whistling a tune that sounds kind of like “We Three Kings”.

Pepper spray in hand, Stacey confronts the intruder, who looks exactly like Tony with a stubbly beard. “You died month ago! I was at your funeral — closed casket!”

The man laughs, tells her he isn’t Tony, and offers a photograph of the two of them as proof. Tony never mentioned that he had a twin brother. But this is Travis (Robert Justin Dresner, again), who has also come to clear out his brother’s stuff from the apartment so their grieving parents don’t have to deal with it.

Happy Anniversary card and flowers Photo of Tony and Travis

It turns out that Travis is the black sheep of the family. While his over-achieving, late brother was on his way to becoming an archeologist, Travis has just finished a prison sentence; he tells Tracey that he tried to steal and sell some medications from the pharmacy where he was working because he didn’t like the store’s owner. He makes a few insensitive remarks implying that Stacey’s breakup with Tony was the reason for his brother’s fiery suicide (something Stacey already feels guilty about), he doesn’t seem dangerous. So they order a pizza, talk about Tony, and divvy up the apartment to put things in boxes. Stacey takes the study.

There, she finds the textbook Tony bought for her on the day they met and a handful of thumb drives thrown into the wastebasket. What could be on them? Unfortunately, Tony changed his computer password and she can’t unlock it. She pockets the drives and takes them home that night. Her friend Jenny suggests that Tony might have downloaded some “Japanese tentacle porn” during his Peru trip, but when Stacey inserts one into her own laptop, it appears to be empty.

Later that night, in the textbook which she also took from the study, she finds a slip of paper with a password on it. Trying this on Tony’s computer the next morning, she finally accesses his video diaries.

Travis, who’s staying at the apartment while he’s cleaning it up, attributes the problem with her own computer to “technology, huh,” and watches the first entry with her. It must have been recorded soon after Stacey left; Tony is clean-shaven, almost prim-looking, and enthusiastic about deciphering the wall-carvings in the cave.

Tony reports that there are symbols that looks like the Nasca Lines, but why would any put navigation glyphs inside a cave? Also, there are other markings on the cave walls, which he first thought were a lost ancient writing, but when he “mirrored the image,” they turned out to be a form of Egyptian hieroglyphics. What an incredible discovery!

Stacey doesn’t want to go on, but Travis is curious and keen to understand if Tony’s work with the cave had anything to do with why he set himself on fire. “Put in the next one. I want to know what happens.”

In the next video entry, Tony displays a Jermyn family tree and talks about his great-great-great-uncle Arthur, who was a Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge in the UK a century ago. According to Arthur’s travel journal, which Tony has, Uncle Arthur also went on trip to Peru and saw what sounds like the same cave. When Arthur was there, the cave was full of skeletal remains. Tony says there were none when he was in the cave. A guide told Arthur that the cave was used for rituals by an offshoot cult of the Nasca people, who worshipped a god named Nyarlathotep.

Uh Oh.

But this ominous name means nothing to Tony except that it’s obviously Egyptian and confirms his assessment of the writing on the walls.

Stacey tells Travis that Tony phoned her shortly before his death and said that Arthur had “brought something back.” She had no idea who Arthur was or what that meant.

Travis replies that family history has it that Great Uncle Arthur was “bat-shit crazy” and lived alone in his mansion in England. He snapped one day, boarded up the windows, and wrote a letter to his brother about not letting “him” in. The same day, Arthur’s whole house burned to the ground.

Arthur Jermyn is the tenuous Lovecraft inspiration, although his story has little to do with this one. Lovecraft’s Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family is a thinly veiled miscegenation horror story: An 18th-century ancestor of the sensitive and erudite, but simian-looking Arthur Jermyn was an African explorer who brought home a mysterious wife from his travels; during his own studies, Arthur discovers the true nature of his n-great-grandmother and is so shocked to learn that he has arthropodal apes in his family tree more recently than most people that he destroys himself by fire. No cult in Peru involved, and Nyarlathotep doesn’t come into it.
Page from Arthur's journal
Stacey doesn’t like the implications that, like Tony, Arthur immolated himself  after visiting that same Peruvian cave. She wants to stop watching the video diaries, but Travis insists on going on. “Don’t you want to know what this is?” Travis has also found Arthur’s journals among Tony things. The hieroglyphics  from the cave are copied there, but the last pages have been ripped out.

Stacey discusses the situation with her friend Jenny every time she leaves Tony’s apartment; oddly, she always speaks of “Tony’s family” being there, but never tells Jenny it’s just the ex-con twin brother. Jenny tells her not to let “them” make her feel guilty or allow herself to be pressured by them into doing things she doesn’t want to, but Stacey keeps going back.

Back to the videos. Tony reports, disturbingly, that an analysis shows that  the carvings were cut into the stone wall without stone or metal tools; they only show traces of human bone and blood. He takes this to mean that the cultists rubbed their own fingers down to the bone making the marks in the stone, and then were slaughtered there in the cave.

Stacey is disturbed too when she hears this, but Travis says it’s probably a delusion of Tony’s, sleep deprived, overworked, and off his meds (Stacey has found a prescription for a schizophrenia medication in the bathroom cabinet). Mental instability runs in the family, Travis tells her. Like Arthur, Tony’s interest in the cave writings must have become “obsession, [he] pulled himself down the rabbit hole.”

In the next video entry, Tony announces that he has had a breakthrough and translated the hieroglyphs into Latin, then into English. He reads:

“From beyond the land, from beyond the sea, from beyond the sky, it wanders as it always has, and it always will, unsleeping and forever restless, reigning over the unseen. Messenger of the Old Ones, Executor of the Will of Azathoth, Chancellor of Madness, it comes as the rain in the rivers, ever changing, unstoppable. That which dwells beyond the sun, beyond the years. Nyarlathotep. The Yawning Void. King of the Night. He rose from the Tenebris. Engulfed by the night.

“We follow him, our king eternal, so that he may bring fear to our enemies… He rose his many hands to the sky, the moon enveloped by the night.”

That’s as far as Tony got, but the writing on the wall looks like it’s only this same passage over and over.

Travis creeping out Stacey and Tony's ghost

At this point, Travis wants to skip ahead to the final diary recordings. We transition abruptly to an extremely distraught and stubbly Tony who has had little sleep in the last 2-3 weeks and seems to be hallucinating. He speaks of messages from his institutionalized grandfather, who encourages him in his work, and from Travis, who “looks older”.

In his final entry, which we saw a bit of at the beginning of the film, Tony says, “I was wrong. It already has one foot in this world. It just needs the words-”

Suddenly, he has some kind of seizure and shouts “Shut up!” before he bites his tongue and gets blood on his shirt (as we saw at the beginning). He says something about Stacey before he exits the room, presumably to kill himself. There are a couple of thumb-drives that Stacey hasn’t yet seen, but she’s had enough for the day.

Also, Travis gets more creepy and ominous as Stacey and the viewer learn more about him. He is extremely manipulative, especially in the scene where he makes a move on Stacey, which she vehemently rejects; he tosses out pat phrases about stages of grief, bonding, and emotional healing, but she isn’t having it. And then there’s the scene that Stacey didn’t see, where Travis put the bottle of schizophrenia medication in the bathroom and, while staring intensely into the mirror, caught and ate a fly. So what’s behind his insistence on watching all the videos? Is it merely a somewhat unbalanced brother’s need to understand what happened, or does Travis have another agenda?

Video Stacey and Tony read the words

Unfortunately. Stacey goes back one last time to see those two video diaries she missed the day before. Filling in the gaps explains quite a lot, but it’s information Stacey would have been better off not knowing. She not only sees herself in the videos helping Tony make his breakthrough translating the hieroglyphics and reading them out loud, but learns the truth about Travis. She now knows what the man in the apartment wants from her.

No surprise that Nyarlathotep’s behind it all. He needs permission to enter our world. Will Stacey succumb and accept his offer, or will she take the same way out that Tony did in the end?

I enjoyed this film. It’s small and intimate, and its low-budget student production isn’t too obvious. Apart from a few extras attending the funeral at the beginning, there are only three actors playing four characters, and the central relationships between Stacey, Tony, and Travis are interesting as they develop. The two key actors both take on dual roles, and the distinctions are clear. The viewer knows the difference between Tony and Travis; even when Stacey hallucinates the stubbly ghost of her boyfriend, he doesn’t have the same wild edge as Travis.  Video Stacey is more flirty and confident than the bewildered young woman watching her; it isn’t necessary for Stacey to say she never visited Tony again and never did this — we know it isn’t her. The mystery of the writing on the cave wall is well presented, slowly uncovered by Tony and later by Stacey. I’m only a bit puzzled by why the film’s makers used Arthur Jermyn as the crazy great-uncle.


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.