The Testimony of Randolph Carter

Carter and Warren on the Gainesville pike“I will not deny, though my memory is uncertain and indistinct, that this witness of yours may have seen us together as he says, on the Gainesville pike, walking toward Big Cypress Swamp, at half past eleven on that awful night. That we bore electric lanterns, spades, and a curious coil of wire with attached instruments, I will even affirm; for these things all played a part in the single hideous scene which remains burned into my shaken recollection. But of what followed, and of the reason I was found alone and dazed on the edge of the swamp next morning, I must insist that I know nothing save what I have told you over and over again.”

From The Statement of Randolph Carter

This is one of H. P. Lovecraft’s early macabre works, written in 1919. It’s a simple, very short story about two men who visit an abandoned cemetery to open up a crypt in the middle of the night. One goes down inside the crypt for reasons he has not made entirely clear to his companion, who remains above ground. The two continue to communicate via telephone equipment they’ve brought with them, and the man on the surface hears some things that shake his sanity… and leave him with a bizarre explanation about what exactly became of his missing friend.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/src.aspx.

The Statement of Randolph Carter was used as the basis for a 50-minute long student film by Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and their Lovecraft-inclined friends in Denver during the late 1980s. (The same time I was at the University of Colorado in Denver. Small world, huh?)

For this film version, the story’s title has been changed to The Testimony of Randolph Carter–a slight but significant difference. A statement in this context is something a witness or other person with important  information might provide to the police during an investigation. Testimony is given at a trial, which is where we find Randolph Carter (Darrell Tyler) as the film begins.

Seated under a reddish spotlight in a minimalist courtroom set with the also red-lit figures of a judge, stenographer, witnesses, and lawyers around him, Carter is on trial for the murder of his friend.

“Did you kill Harley Warren?” the prosecution asks him bluntly.

The lawyer for Carter’s defense is quick to point out that there’s no proof that Warren is dead; he encourages Carter to tell his story, which provide a frame of narration for the flashback scenes that follow.

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Film Review: The Shuttered Room

August Derleth is a somewhat ambiguous figure in the personal history of HP Lovecraft and his work. On the one hand, Derleth is the reason most people today are at all familiar with Lovecraft. If it weren’t for his Arkham House press keeping Lovecraft’s stories in print, they might otherwise have been lost to pulp horror obscurity. On the other hand, Derleth not only kept Lovecraft’s finished work alive, but contributed posthumous “collaborations” to what he called the Cthulhu Mythos, built on notes or fragments of story ideas Lovecraft left behind… and Derleth wasn’t the writer that Lovecraft was.

He’s not actually a bad writer–he could do some nicely creepy things with the lonely woods and lakes of Wisconsin–but he also had the nerdish need to categorize and rank his monsters. Even in his best stories, someone will pull out a checklist to try and identify the particular Elder God that’s causing all the trouble so it can be dealt with correctly. If nothing else, Derleth’s scope of vision is more narrowly focused than Lovecraft’s and his cosmic horrors aren’t indescribable beings barely comprehensible to the humans who encounter them, but tend to be a tad more localized.

The Shuttered RoomThe Shuttered Room is one of these collaborative works, based on a few sentences in Lovecraft’s notes. I hadn’t read the short story since I was a teenager, nor seen this 1967 film version in nearly as many years. The original story isn’t available online, but as I recall it, a young man, one of the Whateley clan, inherits property in Dunwich, including an old mill that contains the eponymous shuttered room. He is directed to tear down the mill and kill anything living he finds inside. Of course, he doesn’t do this, and the inhabitant of that room manages to slip out and wreak havoc. In spite of the location and Whateley name, the story has more to do with Innsmouth than Dunwich.

The film version gets rid of most of the original story apart from the Whately name (as it’s spelled here) and the central plot idea of a young person inheriting an old mill with a mysterious shuttered room. The Innsmouth connection is lost, but the story still bears some relationship to The Dunwich Horror in a non-supernatural way.

It begins with a little girl saying her prayers before her mother tucks her into bed. After Mom and Dad have gone to their own room and gone to sleep, something unseen opens the door of the room at the top of the stairs and makes its way down.

Red DoorThis door is the most ominous-looking thing in this movie; it’s painted bright red when the rest of the house is in muted browns and greys, and it features a peep-hole ringed with little sharp spikes so that whatever’s normally kept locked in can’t even stick a finger through.

A camera-point-of-view creeps down the stairs to enter the parents’ room and stands briefly beside their bed as they sleep, then goes to the nursery where the little girl wakes and screams.

Mom and Dad awake at the commotion. “You forgot to lock the door!” says Dad as the couple heads downstairs to rescue their child from whatever is menacing her. The mother is attacked and falls to the floor, but the father takes hold of the intruder and, dodging the swipes it makes at his face, firmly guides it back upstairs to its room. The red door shuts.

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Blu-ray Review: The Mummy

Ancient Egypt has been on my mind for some time.  It was the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audioplay of Imprisoned with the Pharaohs that I reviewed last spring that made me think about going to Egypt someday.  Curse of the Pharaoh followed, as well as two different versions of Death on the Nile, and various Mummy movies from Hammer and Universal. Eventually, I worked my way back to original film–Universal’s The Mummy from 1932, starring Boris Karloff.

Boris Karloff as The MummyThis movie was filmed in California with stock footage of the Valley of the Kings and back-screen projections of contemporary Cairo, but very few movies from the early sound era ever filmed on location. Its sets and settings are steeped with imagery and lore from ancient Egypt, though a lot of it is historically confused or fiction created specifically for this story–but one also expects a certain amount of mystical fabrication from a movie about a mummy that’s come back to life. What’s most interesting to me, however, is how little of this movie’s manufactured lore and story template are reused in the numerous sequels and remakes over the 85 years since it was made.

The Mummy begins with the British Museum 1921 Expedition at Thebes. An archeological team headed by a man with the unprepossessing name of Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered a previously unknown and undisturbed tomb. With his colleague, occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward van Sloan, basically playing von Helsing from Dracula again under a different name), and an eager young archeologist named Ralph, Whemple examines the dig’s most interesting finds:

  • A 3700-year-old mummy of a man (Karloff, or at least a convincing-looking dummy replica of him at this point). The mummified man did not have his organs removed before burial, as was customary, and shows signs that he was still struggling when they wrapped him up and entombed him. The man’s name, Imhotep, is carved on his sarcophagus, but the sacred spells that would protect his soul in the afterlife have been chipped away. The trio speculates that he must have done something truly horrible and sacrilegious to have been doubly damned in this way. (Ralph quips that perhaps Imhotep “got too gay with the vestal virgins”.)
  • A small casket of gold containing an even smaller box with its seals intact and a warning upon it:  Death and eternal punishment for anyone who opens it.

Sir Joseph: “Good heavens, what a terrible curse!”

Young archeologist: Let’s see what’s inside!

The mummyDr. Muller and Sir Joseph go outside to discuss the dangers of opening the box and unleashing a millennia-old curse; they both already assume that the box contains the Scroll of Thoth, which the goddess Isis herself is said to have used to resurrect her slain husband Osiris. This scroll, which we were introduced to via text at the beginning of the film, is part of that fabricated mythology, although it is loosely based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

While they’re talking, the young archeologist gives in to temptation and opens the box. Inside, there is indeed a papyrus scroll, which he sits down to transcribe.

This leads to my second-favorite scene in this movie. It’s a beautiful sequence in understated horror, analyzed in minute detail by better film critics than I.

Basically:

The young archeologist reads the hieroglyphics he’s copied aloud in a low murmur. Behind him, unnoticed by him, the mummy’s eyes open just a crack, enough that we see a glister of life. The bandage-wrapped arms crossed over the mummy’s chest slowly move downward.

This is all we’ll see of Karloff as the wrapped-up mummy in motion. No long scenes of leg-dragging staggering around in search of victims for Imhotep!

While the oblivious archeologist continues to read, a wrinkled, aged hand bearing a large jeweled ring reaches into the shot and takes the scroll from the table. The young man only now looks up. We don’t see what he sees. He screams in terror and backs up against the nearest wall, then starts to laugh maniacally.

The mummy's hands Hand takes the scroll Scream! The mummy leaves

A couple of trailing bandages are glimpsed going out through the door.

Muller and Sir Joseph, hearing the commotion, return to find an empty sarcophagus, an empty box, a dusty handprint on the work table, and Ralph still laughing as his mind, unable to cope with what he’s just seen, tips over into insanity. “He went for a little walk!”

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DVD Review: Night/Curse of the Demon

This 1957 film is loosely based on M.R. James’s 1911 short story, Casting the Runes–a story about a warlock who sics a demon on his enemies by secretly passing them a slip of paper with a runic curse on it. The only way his victims can escape a horrible fate is by giving the runes back to him without him knowing it, so that the curse rebounds back on the caster. Although the plot and characters are altered from those in James’s story, this version is generally considered one of the best films adapted from his work, and one of the best horror films of its era.

It’s a British film with a mostly British cast, but with an American star to draw a U.S. audience, which was a common practice at the time. It was released in the UK under the title Night of the Demon and in the US as Curse of the Demon.

The DVD has both versions of this film on it: the 95-minute original UK version and the US release, which is about 10 minutes shorter. The order of the scenes are slightly rearranged in the US version, and two full scenes plus some other little bits here and there are removed.

Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes...Both versions of the film begin with shots of Stonehenge back when it stood alone on Salisbury Plain and wasn’t surrounded by wire fences, visitor parking lots, and gift shops. A solemn narrator tells the viewer:

“It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. It is also said that Man, using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols, can call forth these powers of darkness–the demons of Hell.”

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BluRay Review: The Quatermass Xperiment

a.k.a. The Creeping Unknown.

It Creeps. It Crawls. It Kills!

Soon after the BBC version of The Quatermass Experiment had finished airing in the summer of 1953, Hammer film studios obtained rights to make a movie version and started planning. Prior to this point in Hammer’s history, the studio had primarily made comedies and crime dramas; to market their films in the United States, they often used American actors in starring roles.

Hence Brian Donlevy’s being cast to play a very un-British Bernard Quatermass in this particular film. Quatermass’s creator Nigel Kneale did not like this at all.

In compressing the 3-hour BBC series into an 80-minute film, director Val Guest, who co-authored the revised script, also took other liberties with the story. Kneale didn’t like these either, especially the altered ending.

But we’ll get to that part when we come to it.

This film version begins with what would become a horror-movie trope: a couple necking. Not being American teens, they aren’t parked in a car in some Lover’s Lane, but have made themselves comfortable in a haystack on the farm belonging to the girl’s father. A deafening roar like a jet engine interrupts their kissing and they run like hell for the inadequate shelter of the farmhouse.

The next thing you know, there’s a rocket sticking nose-down into the pasture like a giant lawn-dart.

The QI RocketWe meet Quatermass and the key members of his Experimental Rocket Group–Judith Carroon, Dr. Gordon Briscoe*, and Marsh–along with a querulous guy from the government office funding them, as they drive up to the crash site together in a VW minibus.

Their conversation covers the basic info from the first episode of the series: the rocket was missing and out of contact for 56 hours. They don’t go into why an American is heading Britain’s space program, but it’s obvious right away that the character of Quatermass has changed in more ways than his nationality can account for. This is a man who goes ahead and does whatever he decides is right and doesn’t listen to anyone else once he makes that decision. He launched his rocket, the QI, before he received final approval because he got tired of waiting for the bureaucrats to make up their minds.

After the exterior of the rocket has cooled down, the hatch is opened and Judith’s husband Victor emerges to collapse once he’s outside. His only, whispered, words are “Help me” before an ambulance takes him away. He reflexively clenches and unclenches one fist.
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DVD Review: Five Million Years to Earth

Since I’ve already covered the plot of this story in detail in the 6 episodes of the BBC television version from the 1950s, I won’t go over it again except where there are significant or interesting differences.

This Hammer film version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit was filmed in 1968. It was revised by Kneale himself to cut it down to less than half its original length, but I don’t think he has anything to do with the new, alternative title that was used in the U.S. However, as nonsensical as Five Million Years to Earth is as a title, the first difference I make note of is that, in this version, there really isn’t a Pit either. The deep hole of the Knightsbridge construction site is gone; this time, our story begins in the Hobbs End Underground station, which isn’t very far underground. But the phrase “the Pit” also has certain connotations beyond a simple hole in the ground, suggestive of Hell and demons in keeping with the nature of the creatures discovered buried there. “Quatermass and the Renovated Tube Station” doesn’t evoke that same note of horror.

Ape-man skull At the Hobbs End station, workers are extending the train line when they dig up the fossilized skeletal remains of some hominids. The strange object that Dr. Roney’s team first takes for an unexploded bomb is discovered less than 7 minutes into the film, opening credits included.

Both the fossils and the object are found in the clay in the back wall behind the subway tracks, so there is no sense of remarkable archaeological chronology here–more a sense of surprise that things so close to the surface weren’t dug up ages ago.

Captain Potter of the Bomb Squad (Bryan Marshall) is still too young to have WWII experience. In this version, he’s the one who seeks out Colonel Breen (Julian Glover, who was born in 1935 and is way too young himself to be playing a crusty old WWII vet at this point in his career). After the meeting at the War Office where Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is told that his Rocket Group is about to be handed over to Breen, Breen receives Potter’s phone message and Quatermass comes along with him since the two were intending to thrash the matter out over dinner. This little bomb problem is just a stop on their way… until they get a look at the thing that obviously is no bomb. And when the undamaged skull turns up inside the sleek and shining black hull, Quatermass is drawn into the mystery whether Breen wants him there or not.

Tiny 'pentacle' on the ship's hull

Dr. Roney and Quatermass aren’t previously acquainted, but they bond quickly over their mutual dislike of Col. Breen.
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DVD Review: The House of Dark Shadows

The House of Dark Shadows is a film based on the popular soap opera, made in 1970 while the show was still running and while some of the original cast were still around. It’s a highly compressed version of the first 100 episodes or so starting with Barnabas Collins’s resurrection, with some events and characters rearranged.

The film begins with Maggie Evans and another young woman whom I don’t know named Daphne searching for David Collins, first around Collinwood–which looks like a real house instead of a collection of flimsy sets. Then Maggie goes over to the abandoned old Collins house to look for the boy. Dialog will later establish that Maggie is David’s governess; Vicky Winters is long gone or else, in this version of the story, never existed.

While at the old house, Maggie runs into Willie Loomis, who apparently works for the Collinses and in his spare time hunts for some long-missing jewels. He tells Maggie about an important clue to their whereabouts and, after David’s father Roger fires him a few minutes later, decides this is the right time to follow up by visiting the Collins family crypt.

Willie gets choked - in color!Willie doesn’t find the jewels, but he does find a coffin sealed with chains, which he opens… and the rest of the scene plays out pretty much as it did in the television version except that it’s in color.

As in the television version of events, all we see of Barnabas is a ringed hand.

Oh, and Daphne? No point in getting attached to her. While leaving Collinwood that evening, she walks down a long and spooky avenue of trees toward her car and becomes Barnabas’s first victim before we’re ten minutes into the movie.
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DVD Review: Night of Dark Shadows

I put this movie into my Netflix queue because of the title, thinking it had some connection the supernatural soap opera. In spite of the title, however, it has little to do with the TV series; the little it does is more of a detriment than than a benefit except in the marketing sense. Changing the names of a few characters and locations would remove the relationship, but improve the viewing experience.

The story begins with Quentin Collins and his wife Tracy (Kate Jackson before she was anybody famous) inheriting the family mansion, Collinwood, from Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard whom it seems has recently died. The Collinwood seen here doesn’t resemble the house in the series. Instead of flimsy studio sets for the interiors, Collinwood is a now shown inside and out as a handsome and spacious, actual house. This is a reasonable change; the filmmakers had a much bigger budget, so of course they’d want to make use of it with a good location.

The housekeeper, Carlotta, is waiting to welcome the young couple upon their arrival. The Collinses jokingly refer to her as “Mrs. Danvers,” but they don’t know the half of it.
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Film Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

I’ve been waiting for this film to come out on DVD for a long time, since I first saw and fell in love with the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s (HPLHS) 1920s-style silent film The Call of Cthulhu. This latest film from the HPLHS is a talkie, done in the style of an early ’30s horror film.

The Whisperer in Darkness isn’t as close an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story as Call of Cthulhu. The first thing that struck me when I began to watch it is that there are a lot more people here than appeared in the written story. New characters are introduced, and characters that were no more than alluded to by Lovecraft are present, fleshed out with dialog, and given roles to play in the drama that leads our protagonist Albert Wilmarth to his fate.
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A Cottage on Dartmoor

This is a long overlooked British silent film, directed by Anthony Asquith in the early days of his career. I’m posting my review of it here because the cottage reminds me of Orlan’s at the end of the novel–one large room below, and a partial loft above. The story is not at all similar.

A man breaks out of Dartmoor prison and runs across the darkened moors to the title cottage, where a woman is putting her baby to bed in the loft. He breaks in just before she comes downstairs. When she sees him, she is naturally alarmed… but they call each other by their first names.

Most of the rest of the movie is a flashback to when the escaped prisoner was a barber and the woman a manicurist at a posh hotel barber’s shop; he is smitten with her in a shy-but-slightly-creepy way and believes she returns his affections due to a misunderstanding about some flowers he sent her. When she falls in love with one of their regular customers, he goes into full-blown jealous stalker mode and follows the couple on a date to the movies (They’re in a silent movie, but they’re going to see a talky).

The scene in the theater is one of the movie’s high points: we never see what the audience is watching, but we observe all their reactions. I guessed that the short before the main feature was a Harrold Lloyd comedy from the way a boy in the audience reacts to Lloydish-looking man in glasses sitting near him. At one point, the scene features enough quick cuts to keep the shortest of modern attention spans happy. And while nearly everyone else is the theater is enthralled by the movie–and the manicurist and her boyfriend are cuddling up during the suspenseful parts–Stalker-guy is seated in the row immediately behind them and never takes his eyes off them.

The next day, the boyfriend comes into the barber shop for his usual shave and manicure. While the couple flirts as she works on his nails, guess who is holding a straight razor near his throat? This scene is a forerunner the sort of suspense work we’ll later see from Alfred Hitchcock. And since the man holding the razor escaped from prison at the beginning of the movie, the tension of the moment increases only toward dread.

The movie is worth seeing just for these two sequences alone.