Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Pickman’s Muse (2010)

By Brian M. Sammons

Pickmans Muse (2010). Director: Robert Cappelletto. Cast: Barret Walz, Maurice McNicholas, Tom Lodewyck.

Today, I’ve got a special treat for you, O fellow faithful cultists of Cthulhu cinema. It is a brand-new movie just chock full o’ Lovecraft. How new is it? Well, it’s so new that a lot of HPL fans I’ve talked to still have yet to hear about it. I’m here to do my little bit to change that, because, baby, this is the good stuff. How full of Lovecraftian goodness is it? Let’s get to it and find out.

Now, despite this title, this movie is not what you think it is. Sure, it’s based on the stories of one H.P. Lovecraft and, yes, there’s an artist named ‘Pickman’ in it, but that’s where the similarities between this movie and the ghoulish HPL tale end. This is the same kind of bait-and-switch that had publisher Chaosium call a Call of Cthulhu campaign “Shadows of Yog-Sothoth”, when it really deals with…well, I’m not going to spoil it, just in case you’re a gamer and have yet to run through that one. But doing that is a great way to communicate that what you have is based on Lovecraft, but then, still provide a surprise for even the most fanatical reader of Mythos fiction. Besides, a rose by any other name and all that… So, forget the title; it’s the movie that matters and that’s where this film shines.

Pickman’s Muse is one of the most serious, somber and scary films with ties to Lovecraft that I’ve seen in years, if not ever. While many movies based on HPL’s works give you the occasional wink and sly smile in between the spookiness, and oftentimes the splatter, this film plays things deadly straight. So, if you’re seeking a good-time Lovecraft film, like, say Re-Animator, then you should look elsewhere. However, if you want to watch a young filmmaker who takes not only his craft, but the very idea of horror, seriously, then this is the film for you.

Pickman’s Muse is actually a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”. The evil Church of Starry Wisdom still stands to this day and its baleful influence, much like Cthulhu’s call, has devastating effects on sensitive artists who look for something more than the mundane reality they feel mired in. One such depressed painter is Robert Pickman, who is just so sick and tired of life itself. One night, after contemplating suicide yet again, Pickman feels the pull of the church that rises outside his studio’s window, and the horrible secrets hidden within its rotting edifice. Suddenly, his most recent bout of artistic block is broken and he starts painting like mad. However, not only has his subject matter changed overnight, from quaint landscapes to far darker and deeply disturbing vistas and subjects, but he is mimicking the style of another artist named ‘Goodie Hines’, right down to the individual brushstrokes. What makes this case of unconscious plagiarism truly dreadful is that Goodie went completely cuckoo for Cthulhupuffs and killed a whole mess of people by cutting out their eyes. Could young Robert be on a similar path? Well, psychologist Ambrose Dexter, who not only has been treating Pickman for his depression, but is also the shrink in charge of crazy Goodie, definitely sees warning signs and starts investigating the matter.

Pickman, once fully infected by the taint left over at the abandoned church, starts hearing voices demanding him to ‘pay’ for the images of otherworldly horror that he has been allowed to see and paint. And you can bet those from the other side don’t take credit. The spiral of madness the young artist finds himself in starts swirling faster and faster, and the way he keeps eying that box cutter on his desk…well, you can bet no good, but maybe something Goodie, will come from it.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dexter looks into the odd church, the secretive society that still owns it, and even visits the rundown ruin. Unfortunately, once there, the psychologist finds the one-and-only misstep I thought this movie made: a crucified octopus. Yeah, that was just silly. It was the only time I laughed in this very dark movie, and I don’t think that was the reaction writer/director Cappelletto was going for. Still, if that’s the one-and-only tiny flaw I can find in the brilliant, Shining Trapezohedron that is this film, then that should tell you just how good this movie is.

By now, you should have a good idea of where this movie is going, but I won’t tell you what happens once it gets there. I will say that the climax is well-done and suitably Lovecraftian. That can be said for the movie as a whole. I thoroughly enjoyed Pickman’s Muse. The acting, all done by unknowns, was surprisingly good, with Barret Walz as the sad, and soon-mad, Pickman being a standout. As for creator Robert Cappelletto, he proves, not only to be a competent filmmaker, but shows that he has a keen understanding of what makes Lovecraft’s cosmic horror work. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Cappelletto does next.

Final Verdict: This film takes the ideas of cold, cosmic dread that Lovecraft pioneered and implements them masterfully without falling into the dreaded pit of pastiche. Nor does it just toss in some tentacles and goopy critters, and call it good. And don’t look for blasphemous big books o’ evil to be found here. Most of the usual tropes that have become shorthand for “Lovecraftian” in movies, and even books, are absent here. This film is all the stronger for it by focusing on what really matters: atmosphere, dread, and inescapable horror. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough and, if you would like a copy of Pickman’s Muse of your own, it is most easily accessible through Amazon.com. Go, order you copy now, and you can thank me latter.

You can buy Pickmans Muse from Amazon.com.

Brian M. Sammons

About Brian M. Sammons

Brian M. Sammons has been critiquing all things horror, science fiction, dark, or just plain icky for over a decade. His reviews and columns can currently be found in the pages of these magazines: Cemetery Dance, Shock Totem and Dark Discoveries, and on these websites: Horror World, The Black Glove and now here. Not being satisfied at being a humble and handsome critic, Brian has penned a few tales himself. They have appeared in the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, Dark Animus, and Horror Carousel, and in the anthologies Arkham Tales, Cthulhu Unbound Vol. 2, Horrors Beyond, and Twisted Legends, among others. He has also written extensively for the Call of Cthulhu role playing game, in an attempt to corrupt as many new, young minds as possible. Despite all this, Brian is often described by his neighbours as "such a nice, quiet man", and he loves animals.

Brian M. SammonsColumn: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Pickman’s Muse (2010)