H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival: San Pedro 2011: Part 2

By B.A. Campbell

The themes of time displacement and immortality – always pertinent in discussions of Lovecraft’s work – continued into the second day of the festival with Cast A Deadly Spell, a 20-year-old movie shot in the style of 50s noir; La Sombra Prohibida, a heavily Mythos-inspired film concerning a 150-year-old warlock; and the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s brand new adaptation of “The Whisperer in Darkness”, filmed as it might have been, had it been shown in Lovecraft’s time.

Before we could go back in time, however, those faithful to the cult of literature gathered across the street at Williams Book Store to look into the future of Lovecraftian writing. A panel of Lovecraftian writers and thinkers hosted a spirited discussion on, among other topics, whether any of them had a right to call themselves “Lovecraftian”. Among the authors were Denise Dumars, who shared her research into the real mythological inspiration for Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth (She’s gunning for African deity Olokun); Jenna Pitman, who read from an unpublished short story; and Ted Grau, who projected his consciousness into the body of his wife Heidi to read a deliriously creepy story about some rather unpleasant meteorology. Michael Tice also shared some Lovecraft scholarship concerning the true identity of Pickman’s Salem witch ancestress, followed by a rollicking selection of Lovecraft-derived limericks from his book The Eldritch Quintuplets, so popular with the crowd that he ended up taking requests. Cody Goodfellow read a scathingly witty piece featuring the Flying Spaghetti Monster. For the discussion, the authors were joined by The Lurking Fear writer/director C. Courtney Joiner.

Speaking of lurking fear, that became something of a buzz-word as the panel discussed the qualities necessary to identify a story as “Lovecraftian”. (The answers ranged from “like obscenity, you know it when you see it” to Joyner’s assertion that nobody aside from Lovecraft has truly written a Lovecraftian story. The best answer was probably also the shortest: “things that would really scare an atheist.”). They also deliberated on the difficulties of producing a Lovecraftian film and the survival of literature in an era where most short stories read like a bad film treatment.

Back at the theatre, we were rather lucky to have guests Joseph Dougherty and Peter Allas, writer and star of Cast A Deadly Spell, present to address all our questions and concerns following the film. Considering we’re talking about a movie in which H.P. Lovecraft takes on the role of a private detective in a magic-infused 1940s Los Angeles, there were plenty of questions to answer – such as: “How the heck do you convince HBO to let you make a movie about Lovecraft?” The film was a fun little mash-up, but as odd as the concept sounds, it works weirdly well with what we know of the real Lovecraft: In the movie, he openly refuses to make use of the modern conveniences of magic – deep down, they terrify him, just as Lovecraft was terrified by the scientific advances of his day. Neither Lovecraft can accept the unknowable-but-convenient reality of his age.

Nor was that the only time that evening that familiar, drawn visage was cast in flickering light across the screen. La Sombra Prohibida, written and directed by José Luis Alemán as a follow up to 2010’s La Herencia Valdemar, also featured a guest appearance by the man of the hour. For such a famously xenophobic individual, he sure got around. (A third Lovecraft, under the guise of Carter, can be seen in the short film Shadow of the Unnameable.)

La Sombra Prohibida was also the festival’s only on-screen appearance of Lovecraft’s most famous creation (unless you count the flatulent green knickknack in Call of Nature). This one was not adapted from any Lovecraft story in particular, but it remains deeply steeped in Mythos, as evidenced by the floorboard-shaking appearance of everybody’s favourite Great Old One whose name rhymes with ‘Lulu’. It’s lucky those Mythos underpinnings were there; otherwise, the audience might have been toppled within the first twenty minutes. The quarter-hour recap at the start of the film, rattling off names and shifting alliances at breakneck speed, made it no easier to follow the quick cuts and heavy exposition that characterized Sombra‘s first half. It seemed to owe as great a debt to the telenovela as it did to Cthulhu. However, the film remained visually lush, baroque, and generally unignorable, even if some of the finer points would be lost on an audience of the uninitiated.

Meanwhile, Sombra‘s amber and cyan colour palette seemed to pay tribute to another Lovecraftian Spanish-language filmmaker, who, as it happened, was the judge for the short films shown at the festival. The jolliest of horror visionaries, Guillermo Del Toro, presented the awards via video. Ever gregarious, he wanted to award three filmmakers with the top prize, but ended up reluctantly bumping one down to second place. This film was Joseph Nanni’s Black Goat, a tightly-storyboarded short Del Toro described as “reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood”. The two winners were Static Aeons by Gib Patterson – Del Toro praised its “echoes of urban fear” – and what seemed to be the audience favourite, Christopher Saphire and Don Thiel’s schizophrenic re-imagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, which Del Toro aptly described as “Barton Fink meets Mario Bava meets Edgar Allan Poe.” There was another short that I would have singled out for special mention: Michael Shlain’s take on “Pickman’s Model”, which hyper-efficiently packs all of the horror of the original tale into a two-minute film, with only a single line of dialogue.

The other short films shown were Rick Tillman’s stop-motion Call of Nature, addressed lovingly to “the only festival that understands”; Will Wright’s evocation-with-a-twist, The Ritual; Theo P. Stefanski’s surreal stop-motion Idle Worship, and two longer films. Shadow of the Unnameable, directed by Sasha Renninger, brought a slick aesthetic to Lovecraft’s cemetery tale – the special effects evoke one part graphic novel, one part pop-up book, and one part shadow play. Finally, Curse of Yig was an earnest approach to one of Lovecraft’s more traditional tales, managing to coax an impressive amount of atmosphere out of the essentially ludicrous concept of a vengeful Native American snake-god.

Del Toro sent a message out to all the filmmakers participating at the festival: “I hope you become huge filmmakers, and not in the way I have become huge…which is in my pant size.”

The screenwriting award went to Bill Barnett for The Old Man and the Box, with runner-ups Travis Heermann and Jim Pinto for Death Wind.

The festival closed with a final trip back to the cinematic landscape of the 1930s, express ticket courtesy of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s first feature-length “talkie”, The Whisperer in Darkness. Following hot on the heels of their silent film adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu”, the HPLHS may well have proved something we should all have suspected fifty years ago: Nobody can make a Lovecraft movie like the fans. A smart mash-up of modern pacing with practical effects and camera angles authentic to the era, meticulous attention to detail is paramount in Whisperer. These are true Lovecraft fanatics, people who have devoted themselves obsessively to the manufacture of an alternate universe, the universe of Lovecraft – not the universe in which he actually lived, but the universe he created through his writing. They know that the era in which Lovecraft lived and wrote, the era of modernity, rationalism and scientific discovery, is as essential an element in his work as are the mystical god-beasts from beyond the stars – in fact, the mystical god-beasts are as much a symptom of that era as radio or the electric toaster. That’s why the ludicrous construction of the Mi-Go brain cylinders, for example, seems so intrinsically right. That’s why it’s so horrifying for Dr. Wilmarth to hear “the foulest myths explained in concrete terms” – the horror is not in the foulness of the myths, but in the rationality of their explanation.

Besides, a lot of these abandoned techniques still work perfectly well, as Whisperer demonstrates. There’s always something to be said for a modern horror film that withholds the full view of its monster until the very end.

The film followed a trailer for the black-and-white German adaptation of “The Colour out of Space”, renamed ‘Die Farbe‘. If you’re like me, you probably don’t need a trailer to convince you the movie is worth seeing – the sleekly underspoken cover art is enough. It’s a shame the full film couldn’t be shown in Los Angeles this year.

If Lovecraft had chosen a title to sum up the films in the festival, it might have been “The Shape of Eternity”. From the aforementioned brain cylinders to Joseph Curwen’s more esoteric means of extending his life, nearly all of these films concerned themselves in one way or another with what Whistle and I’ll Come To You called the “survival of the human personality”. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, this theme ended up being best expressed in a film Lovecraft watched, but didn’t write: Berkeley Square. The film’s conception of a simultaneous eternal Now, where the dead walk, not as ghosts but as living people, just up the stream of time, makes us rethink what it means when we read the words Lovecraft might just now be putting to paper, separate but beside us in his own era. It makes us wonder what it means to adapt his still-living fiction to the animate medium of film.

Roger Corman may have summed up what I’m trying to say best when, speaking for all of us, he turned to the camera and emphatically declared six simple words: “I think his legacy should endure.”

For more info on the films and news on future screenings, check out the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival’s official website.