CD Review: The Shadow over Innsmouth

When I purchased Whisperer in the Darkness from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), I also bought a set of their radio plays on CD, charmingly boxed in a cardboard recreation of an old-fashioned, gothic-style radio cabinet. These plays are performed for The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre–the conceit being that these are episodes from a 1930s radio series, complete with an opening announcer and a sponsor, Fleur-de-Lis cigarettes.

The first one I listened to was The Shadow over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s story of a young man from Ohio who takes an historical and genealogical tour of New England, including a visit to the decayed port town of Innsmouth. Once he starts poking around and talking to a crazy, drunken old man who knows all about the town’s history, he draws the ire of the rather fishy-looking inhabitants of Innsmouth and his brief visit ends in terrifying events that will change his life.

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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.

New Amazon review

“Kathryn Ramage effortlessly transports you to the Northlands, an alternate Earthly reality of magick and wizards. Once again, she delivers an unusual, unexpected — but very satisfying — take on the journey of becoming a wizard. Her world is vivid and believable, and the story very much character-driven; I didn’t want to leave, and I fell absolutely in love with Laurel — this is a perfect fantasy read for long weekend.”
Escape for a Weekend to the Northlands…, by Molly Kiely, June 23, 2011

New Maiden in Light review

Maiden in Light is beautifully written, vivid descriptive passages alternating with well-paced action, poetry intermingling with natural dialogue. Laurel herself is a likeable heroine, strong yet with understandable human failings, impulsive yet given to procrastination, and playful while capable of being ruthless; her story is reminiscent of the Romantic literary legend of Lorelei, a nymph inhabiting a rock above the river Rhine, who siren-like attracts the attention of would-be lovers, though her fate is somewhat different from Laurel’s. How the youngster gets to grips with the distractions that life throws at her while attempting to be single-minded about her calling and its associated responsibilities makes for engrossing reading, repaying the investment the reader pays in empathising with her character.”
GoodReads, by Ed Pendragon, May 24, 2011

Jubercat review of Maiden in Light

“The story begins with Laurel, who has never felt comfortable or accepted in her home town of New York, being called for by her Uncle Redmantyl to join him at Wizardes Cliff and become a magical apprentice. Laurel is happy to leave New York, and her adventures at her uncle’s home as she learns the ways of magic and makes friends with the other apprentices make for a delightful and charming read. Things change when she is sent back to New York on a mission for her uncle.”
Maiden in Light, review by Jubercat, LibraryThing, May 8, 2011

Film Review: The Ghost Train

This DVD came up as recommended on Netflix after I rented The Cat and the Canary, but it’s really not an Old Dark House movie as such. Old Dark Railway Station would be a more accurate description, although the story occurs during the usual dark and stormy night.

The Ghost Train was filmed during World War II, and it is a movie about the hardships and privations faced by ordinary British people during the Blitz. When a group of railway passengers on their way to Cornwall miss their connection and are forced to spend the night in a little rail station in the middle of nowhere during a storm, that’s only the beginning of their problems. One of their number is a painfully unfunny music hall comedian named Tommy Gander, who makes every effort to cheer up his fellow passengers; his fellow passengers make every effort not to toss him onto the railway, although one of them does throw out Tommy’s phonograph to put an end to his singing. Before he leaves for the night, the dour station master also warns this hapless group that the station is haunted by a ghostly train that runs past on an abandoned rail line and brings death to anyone unfortunate enough to hear or see it. Trapped between these horrible two fates–deadly ghost train versus sitting up all night with Tommy Gander–the plucky Brits make some tea and settle down to face the worst.

There are two or three nicely atmospheric moments in this movie: the station master tells the tale of the horrible crash that brought the ghost train into being; the sound of echoing footsteps on the train platform, which on investigation turn out to be this same station master, who then falls down dead; a young woman, not one of the passengers, shows up specifically to see the train and, as she tells the group about it in tones of rising hysteria, lights appear far down the tracks and the group hears the distant rumble of a train approaching…

Unfortunately, between these spooky little bits, one has to put up with a lot of tedious comedy.

The Cat and the Canary

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve taken a recent interest in recreations of old-style film genres. A Dark and Stormy Night, which is a spoof and loving recreation of the Old Dark House movies of the 1920s and 30s, has led me to seek out as many of these movies as I can find.

I’ve started out with the 1928 silent version of The Cat and the Canary. On viewing, it’s immediately apparent that this is the movie that A Dark and Stormy Night follows most closely. The Cat and the Canary begins with an old man dying and leaving his will to be read twenty years after his death. His surviving potential heirs–one elderly aunt and five cousins, most of whom must’ve been children at the time of their uncle’s death–show up at his spooky-looking house in the middle of the night for this reading of the will, and are greeted by a dour housekeeper who could give Mrs. Danvers some hints on how to be creepy. Everything is left to one niece, Annabella, but the family lawyer has a second document in a sealed envelope containing the name of an alternate heir if Annabella is deemed insane by a doctor’s examination. Before this second envelope can be opened, however, the lawyer is murdered and the envelope disappears with him. There are secret panels all over the place, and a mysterious hand emerges from the draperies over the heiress’s bed. Oh, and there’s a murderous lunatic escaped from a nearby asylum running around either outside or inside the house.

As the above description suggests, The Cat and the Canary‘s plotting and stage elements introduce several haunted house and murder mystery tropes that would be reused by everyone from Agatha Christie to Scooby Doo until they became standard genre cliches. I’d never seen this film before, but it felt like I’d seen parts of it a dozen times.

In spite of being recycled to death, The Cat and the Canary remains extremely entertaining for a film over 80 years old. It’s a fast-moving story, and features some imaginative and interesting imagery: The opening scene shows the old man sitting in his wheelchair before the silhouette of his multi-towered house, which then dissolves into a collection of enormous medicine bottles, then a group of bad-tempered cats surround this ill and elderly “canary.” A clock’s inner workings striking the chimes at midnight are superimposed over the reading of the will. When a painting of the old man falls suddenly off the wall, the reactions of the family are shown from the falling painting’s point of view.

The movie also seems surprisingly “talky” for a silent film. Title cards are not overused, and the actors appear to be speaking their actual lines so that the viewer can often follow what they’re saying without seeing an accompanying text. When Annabella describes how her diamond necklace–part of her inheritance–was snatched from her by the aforementioned hand emerging from the bed draperies, her agitated gestures and her family’s dubious looks tell us all we need to know about the situation. The mystery and spooky-house elements of the story are balanced by comic relief, mostly provided by the fussy aunt and one nebbishy cousin who is sweet on Annabella. While not all the comedy still works well, the filmmakers also have a little fun with the title cards they do use. When someone speaks of GHOSTS, the word appears in a large and wavy font. When the aunt swears at her nephew, the screen fills with the sort of expletive-deleted characters ones sees in comic strips.

Film Review: The Call of Cthulhu

HPLHS Logo I’d heard about this film some time ago, but only saw it for the first time recently. It’s a silent movie, made in 2005 but filmed as if it were the 1920s.

I’ve seen a number of Lovecraft-based movies over the years–a few pretty good, others passable, and some dreadful–and this is the most faithful adaptation of one of his stories I’ve seen yet.

The story follows the novella of the same name with only minor changes. The main protagonist reads the notes, newspaper articles, and other information gathered by his late granduncle about certain gruesome cults around the world that worship idols of a crouching figure, with “cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings”. Strange events that culminate in March of 1925 suggest that the creature represented, called “Cthulhu” by its cultists, isn’t mythic but lies dreaming in a sunken city in the Pacific.

Cthulhu statue These events are shown in flashback scenes as the protagonist reads about them: his uncle’s conversation with a young local artist who had fantastic dreams of the sunken city and sculpted his own bas relief of Cthulhu; a police raid on a cult in Louisiana swamps; an attack by another cult group in the Arctic on an explorer; and finally the account of the lone survivor of a Norwegian boat lost in the South Pacific about the island risen from the sea that he and his crewmates discovered… and what they accidentally awakened there.

After years of modernized Lovecraft, sexed-up Lovecraft, and Lovecraft dressed up to look like Poe, this is a welcome relief, and a delight to watch.

The film is obviously a labor of love by its makers. I especially liked the care taken with the look of the film:

  • The fonts on the title cards and even the copyright warnings.
  • The scratches and other artifacts on the film to make it look like a long-lost movie from the 1920s.
  • The twisted Cabinet-of-Dr.-Caligari-esque sets for the dream sequences and the city of R’yleh.
  • The shadowed eye make-up on the actors.
  • The stop-motion model of the dread Cthulhu, which reminds me of the work of Willis O’Brien.

For the moMatt Foyerst part, it looks like the 1920s. Some of the actors don’t look quite “period,” however, which makes me ponder exactly what it is that makes some people appear too modern and out-of-place in period pieces. Is it their hair? Their expressions? It’s not always an obvious quality.

But Matt Foyer, who plays the central protagonist, definitively has a face for silent pictures.

I’ve been taking an interest in this type of film, where the filmmakers–usually a small and independent production–use the techniques, sets, and acting styles of an earlier time. Larry Blamire’s spoof and loving recreation of the Old Dark House movies of the 1930s is another example I’ve recently become enamored with.

Dream sceneA friend has suggested that I get some actors to perform a scene from one of my novels and film it for YouTube; my publisher and I have discussed it and decided it’s far beyond our abilities to put together the sets, costumes, and other aspects of production necessary even to film a short fantasy scene competently. I’m therefore all the more impressed when I consider the amount of work and dedication that must go into making an entire independent film.