H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival: San Pedro 2011: Part 1

By B.A. Campbell

Though one of his best stories (“The Shadow out of Time”) hinges on time travel, Lovecraft was never much concerned with the future. He was uncomfortable enough in his own time. So, if he had been given a guest pass and a time machine to visit the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, held September 16th and 17th this year in San Pedro, California, there’s a good chance he would have declined. Nevertheless, he was with us in spirit, as hundreds of Mythos enthusiasts piled into the historic art deco Warner Grand Theatre this weekend.

This is the second year the Lovecraft Film Festival has chosen the Warner Grand for its venue. I can imagine few locations more evocative of Lovecraft’s opus: The interior of the theatre is as old and ornamented as a Dagon temple, and its baroque spirals and geometric starbursts put one in the perfect mood for tentacles and star signs. Plus, it’s been standing since “The Whisperer in Darkness” was first published.

That night held an aberrant, chilled breeze, perhaps as Lovecraft’s spirit wafted by to check out the models and props on display during pre-and-post-festival receptions held in the Grand Vision Annex. These props, mostly donated by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) from their adaptation of “The Whisperer in Darkness”, included several miniature landscapes, each filled with forbidden secrets: a Mi-Go nestled within a cave in the Vermont hills, or a lightning ball representing a portal beneathan ancient henge. There were also costumes and props, the Akeley mailbox, and a special spoilerific display hidden behind a black curtain. Guests at the reception got to mingle with the filmmakers and other special visitors, including Lovecraft, himself. Special ticketholders also received a gift bag full of lovely Mythos swag, including a tentacle-headed sucker from Cryptocurium too perfectly monstrous to eat, a telegram from the HPLHS, a fun-size bottle of Bowen’s Whiskey, and a free issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, featuring an article on Lovecraftian cinema by festival organizer Aaron Vanek.

Over at the theatre, both floors of the lobby had been taken over by an eldritch bazaar. Many lucky festivalgoers went home with such fine memorabilia as Miskatonic class rings from Badali Jewellery, Mystic Cult of the Elder God fezzes from Fez-O-Rama, hand-sculpted Cthulhu busts by Joyner Studio, a custom art print titled “Clownthulhu” by David Milano (who also designed this year’s poster), and humorous bumper stickers, such as the one sold by Arkham Bazaar that read, “No Nyarlathotep, No Chaos.” Arkhamites on a budget could find something at the HPLHS’s “Shoggoth Outlet Rack”, which housed affordable “discontinued/non-Euclidean items”.

Many spirits attended the opening night of the event and Lovecraft’s might well have been among them. The lingering dead was something of a running theme for this year’s films, whether they be ghosts (metaphorical or actual), alchemists, or beings not quite dead but no longer fully human. The first film of the night, Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You, invoked these spirits with a toot on its titular whistle. A minimalist-but-marvellously-effective supernatural tale, featuring a stupendously moony performance by Michael Hordern, this film wasn’t based on one of Lovecraft’s tales, but it might as well have been. It was, in fact, as the opening narration helpfully provides, based on a tale by M.R. James, known for his “peculiar atmosphere of cranky scholarship”. It’s a “tale of solitude and terror…and it has a moral, too!” Whistle shows that you don’t need to lock yourself away with eldritch texts to go slowly insane. Professor Parkins manages it perfectly well amidst a group of people, though his estrangement is exceptionally well presented, both by repeated scenes of his companions ceaselessly mumbling and his own off-kilter responses, which are often phrased like thoughts-out-loud directed more at himself than at his interlocutors. The professor starts out with a few screws loose, consistently drawing laughs from the audience with absurd, off-hand comments like “Sleeping, no doubt,” after stumbling on a grave during his daily trudge through the cemetery. But, after discovering an old flute with an odd inscription – “Who is this who is coming?” (“We shall blow it and see.”) – he suffers a breakdown that Vanek, smartly turned out like a turn-of-the-century conjurer, described as “what happens when you miss a sanity roll.”

This year’s Howie award, presented to those who have made great contributions to Lovecraftian cinema, went to Roger Corman, director of the first screen adaptation of a Lovecraft story: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Haunted Palace’. No, that’s not a typo, as Corman explained after accepting the award (He couldn’t attend in person – probably working on Piranhaconda – so he appeared on video). It seems that those brilliant Hollywood advertising execs didn’t think Corman’s more-faithful-than-expected adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” would be recognizable to American audiences, so they slapped on the title of a Poe poem that had absolutely nothing to do with necromancy or Joseph Curwen. Pinning a single stanza of the poem onto the end seemed enough grounds to declare that the picture was “from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe (and a story by H.P. Lovecraft).”

Lovecraft’s excessively stylized prose isn’t always easy to translate to film, but Corman seemed to know exactly what to do. His elaborate, theatrical sets, colourfully lit and filtered through a fog machine on overdrive, perfectly complement Lovecraft’s grandiloquent opening text, narrated in the recognizably lilting voice of Vincent Price. Never one to put half-effort into a role, Price gives a typically memorable performance here, delightfully hammy at times (such as when he’s giving the side-eye to the ludicrously creepy portrait of Curwen that dominates the film’s narrative) and actually frightening at others – the scene in which Curwen, in the body of Ward, tries to exercise his “husbandly prerogative” with Ward’s fiancĂ©e was actually uncomfortable to watch, mostly due to how convincingly he plays the role of the physically-identical-but-monstrous doppelganger. Meanwhile, the audience was cracking up when Dr. Willets, with a straight face, mentioned “the Necronomicon – have you heard of it?”, marking the first mention of the book in cinematic history. The obviously inanimate creature in the pit was probably not as effective as it was on the film’s debut, but it’s always fun to see Vincent Price flamboyantly play with fire and the inferno at the film’s climax calls to mind a time in Hollywood when explosions actually meant something.

The final film of the evening was not actually influenced by any of Lovecraft’s tales. Instead, it was the influence for several of his stories, most notably, “The Shadow out of Time”. Introduced by the grandson of original director Frank Lloyd, Berkeley Square was Hollywood’s first real time travel film, and a particular favourite of Lovecraft, who saw it four times after its debut in 1933. Together with the antiquity of the theatre, this film (once thought lost, restored only recently by the Academy) made the night feel like a double trip back in time: back to the 1930s, then from there to the 18th century, where Lovecraft doubtless felt more at home. There was undeniable power to the thought that Lovecraft, had he ever ventured as far west as San Pedro, might once had seen that same film at this very theatre.

It’s not surprising that Lovecraft thought of the film as a “weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memory,” as expressed in a letter to one of his contemporaries. It’s plain to see how “The Shadow out of Time” was shaped by his search for a way to reconcile the major plot hole of this film, which he loved, regardless. Lovecraft felt certain that a visitor to our time from an earlier era would suffer “shattered nerves” and “doubts of his fixed place in the time stream.” Sound familiar? One of the film’s standout scenes, in which a girl from the 18th century sees a kaleidoscopic, nauseating vision of the modern age – skyscrapers, planes, trains, cannons, flashing lights, soldiers in gas masks – and sees only “devils…demons…not men,” likely resonated powerfully with the author of “The Outsider”, who felt himself monstrously out of sync with an entire era. We also see such themes explored in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. The uncanny similarity between Standish and a portrait of his ancestor (even more crucial to the plot of The Haunted Palace than it was to the original “Charles Dexter Ward”) was a coincidence of cosmic significance.

After the theatre doors closed on Friday night, guests repaired to the Whale and Ale Pub, to enjoy spirits of a more convivial sort.