The Case of the 2009 HP Lovecraft Film Festival

By Aaron Vanek

HPLFF09“I know I’m more nervous than I was when you saw me last year, but you don’t need to hold a clinic over it. There’s plenty of reason, God knows, and I fancy I’m lucky to be sane at all.”

– “Pickman’s Model”, by H.P. Lovecraft

NOTE: I have made a concerted effort to withhold any spoilers in the movie reviews, though if you read the original story it is based on, you already probably know how it ends.

It has been a rough year. Probably for you as well as for me, if not more. The economy is not what we imagined it was. The country is deeply divided on a host of issues, from health care to gay marriage. In the illusory realm of motion pictures, DVD sales are down again, although Blu-Ray sales are picking up slightly, but not enough of the slack. We’re in the 200th anniversary year of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth, and 119 years since H.P. Lovecraft entered this world. And so, the 14th annual Portland H.P Lovecraft Film Festival returns again, albeit barely.

IMG_0302Times are tough all over, and Lurker Films and Arkham Bazaar are not immune to the downturn (have you completed your collection of fine, Lovecraft-themed DVDs? Maybe it’s time to expand to the Weird Tales and Edgar Allan Poe collections). To add injury to economic insult, festival organizer Andrew Migliore’s own body tried to strangle him. If I remember the story correctly, mere days before the Lovecraft Film Festival’s opening invocation by Robert M. Price, Andrew entered the ER with severe abdominal pain. It wasn’t localized, a typical sign of appendicitis, but spread across his gut. The doctors immediately rushed him into surgery, to pull out his nearly-ruptured appendix. The reason why it wasn’t in a specific location? The appendix is normally 10cm in length; Andrew’s was more than twice that. Without hyperbole, he may have delivered the world’s longest worm-shaped (vermiform) pouch organ, surpassing that of Safranco August, removed in autopsy on August 26, 2006, at the Ljudevit Jurak University Department of Pathology in Zagreb, Croatia. Guinness is being contacted. Andrew hobbled around most of the fest holding his guts in, and he couldn’t be hugged for fear of tearing the stitches. Doctor’s orders.

But the show must go on, and go on it did – though not without a few technical glitches, which always seem to haunt at least one screening every year. This time, it was the opening Friday night premiere of Pickman’s Muse, a feature film written, directed, produced, lensed, and edited by Robert Cappelletto, who also made the visually-striking To Oblivion years ago while in film school. The sound vanished into another plane of existence at the start of the show, requiring a blood sacrifice to the gods of video decks to bring it back. While they were chanting in the projection booth, I sighed and stepped up to the stage to softshoe for the audience, tossing out swag to pacify the crazed crowd.

Pickman’s Muse went on to win a Brown Jenkin award for the audience pick of Best Adaptation. It’s a modern-day blend of the stories “Pickman’s Model” and “Haunter of the Dark”, the latter of which features the sinister Starry Wisdom Church. Robert managed to find the absolutely-perfect location for the ruined church, both interior and exterior. He also built a model of it to photograph against a darkly-psychedelic sky. The use of light and shadow and colour for a film about a painter was exquisite. But it was nice to have the sound as well, finally.

The Statement of Randolph Carter (directed by Kyle Aldrich) played before Pickman’s Muse, this one a modern retelling of a bureaucrat tasked with cataloguing a police file (statement) of the Randolph Carter disappearance.

sleeping_deepThe next programming block featured a trailer for The Sleeping Deep, directed by Jeffrey B. Palmer from his script, which won the Brown Jenkin Award for Best Screenplay last year, plus a very good, very disturbing period version of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” that featured a life-size puppet of the Old Man so realistic and well-controlled that the movie was halfway over before I realized it was artificial – and I’m still creeped out because of it. This realization was made by Robert Eggers, but special props go to the Old Man puppeteer, Anita Rundles. The prime cut of this block was Relic of Cthulhu, a feature that won Best Comedy and Best of Show Jenkin Awards. It was directed by Henry Saine, with a script by friend and lead Devin McGinn. I regret mentioning that it’s a comedy, for that’s not immediately apparent. At first, it appears to be a no-budget pastiche parody of Lovecraft by people who don’t “get it”, but as it continues, it’s obvious that the filmmakers not only “get it”, they did a brilliant job of explaining the Mythos while romping with the tropes of Lovecraft’s stories and movie adaptations. Surprisingly, the production design (makeup, props, locations, effects etc.) are of a much-higher quality than I would expect for a humourous movie that has the feel of The Office or Superbad but with twice as many laughs, especially if you are a Lovecraft fan. And if you are a Lovecraft fan, this is required viewing. Later that night, while I spoke with the filmmakers and the Executive Producer, I tried to convince them to release some of the props used in the movie, much like the HP Lovecraft Historical Society did for their landmark picture Call of Cthulhu. Be on the lookout for the Relic of Cthulhu, whether the actual Relic or the movie itself. The performance by Gregg Lawrence as”Captain Olaf” is comedy gold. After the movie played, Captain Olaf’s lines immediately repeated through the rest of the theater like wildfire: “Nothing but a whole heapin’ of fish rapin’!”

IMG_0293After the movies concluded this first night, the crowd migrated to nearby Tony Starlight’s for a funny performance by Chuck & Dexter, the least competent Cthulhu cultists around. I was sitting in the worst possible seat to see the show, but I’m pretty sure it ended with artist Ann Koi winning a drinking contest.

Part of the HP Lovecraft Festival is CthulhuCon, which occurs during the daylight hours of Saturday and Sunday. These hours feature panel discussions, interviews, and author readings in the theaters. There are some films screening as well. This year, the guest list featured the usual suspects: Editors/critics ST Joshi and Bob Price; authors Joe Pulver, Wilum Pugmire, Laird Baron, Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pettit, Jr., plus Scott Allie and Shawna Gore from Dark Horse Comics. This year, our ranks were bolstered by writers Gary Meyers and William F. Nolan, who was the Guest of Honor. We missed, however, Arkham Studios sculptor, filmmaker, and impeccably-attired Bryan Moore, and the conspicuous absence of Sean Branney and Andrew Leman of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, who had a good excuse: they were shooting the feature film version of “The Whisperer in Darkness”. They did, however, call in for a phone discussion to the audience on Sunday.

twidheadI was on the “Print to Film” panel, though I can’t remember a word I said nor how it went, except that I probably gave my standard spiel: there are cinematic translations and adaptations, the former being “as close to the text as possible,” the latter being “the filmmaker’s interpretation and take on the story.” I typically prefer adaptations, the notable exception being Leman and Branney’s’ Call of Cthulhu movie.

On Sunday, I was honoured to be a part of the Robert Chambers panel, sharing the microphone with Gary Meyers, Joe Pettit, Jr., Wilum Pugmire, and the animated and slightly-antagonistic Joshi and Pulver. Rather than bore you with my words here, you can listen to the hour-long discussion courtesy of Sarah Gerhard, She Who Never Slept, on her blog (with plenty of photos and a recap):

I saw a few more flicks after the panels. Sunday’s matinee was the AIP (British) Night of the Eagle, based on a novel by Fritz Leiber and adapted by Charles Beaumont. It’s not on Netflix, but Anchor Bay is listed as a distributor. This enjoyable tale from 1962 concerns a skeptical college professor whose rationalism, beliefs, and sanity are challenged when he discovers his wife is a witch who has been protecting and supporting him through magic.

The_MistOn Saturday afternoon, I saw Shorts Block Three, which shewed indie movies you are unlikely to see on the big screen outside of a festival, possibly not ever. It has been a long-standing gripe of mine that there is no way to watch all the movies at the HPLFF without cloning myself, so this year, I missed out on Shorts Block One and one other, a feature called Beyond the Dunwich Horror. I skipped the screenings of Stephen King’s The Mist and the Best Feature Brown Jenkin winner, Colour From the Dark, because I’ve seen them on DVD (and you can, too).

  • Beyond the Wall of Sleep – Directed by Nathan Fisher. Imagine if Rob Zombie infused a Lovecraft tale with his redneck sensibility, leeching out any intelligence, mystery, or acting chops.
  • Dirt Dauber – Directed by Steve Daniels, this eerie picture, similar in some ways to the bizarre, experimental mind-twisting short Begotten, with characters by David Lynch, runs a little long yet has a deeply-satisfactory payoff. A man wakes up naked at a fish hatchery, but finds a suit hanging in an abandoned shed nearby. Then he is picked up hitchhiking, and it gets a little weird. Worth seeing if you can find it. Dirt Dauber won a “Best Short” Jenkin award.
  • The Music of Erich Zann – A frequent story for adapting, this one is directed by Jared Skolnick. I don’t remember much more than that; this wasn’t remarkable but for the setting (a condemned building), and the climax.
  • Saturday evening, I saw Shorts Block Two, with the following pictures:
  • Forlorn Hope – Directed by Marko Kattilakoski. Winner of Best Period movie, this takes place in Germany in 1631, after the battle of Breitenfeld (the first big Protestant victory in the Thirty Years War). It has to do with that wily ol’ Nyarlathotep, popping up at crucial times and places to wreak human havoc. Subtitled, it’s extremely well-acted with great production design. It’s not in the subtitles, but the antagonist’s name, “Spinne”, translates into”Spider”, which is all-too apropos.
  • Lenore – Directed by Asli Sonceley. A moody Poe period piece without dialogue but extremely effective mood, tone, music, etc.
  • Séance – Directed by Robin Kasparik. Another great period piece about a witch forced to channel a dead woman to find out where her treasure lies. Does everything work out in the end and everybody divvies up the loot equally? What do you think? This one was more occult-y than Lovecraftian, but a very good film nonetheless.
  • The Call – Directed by Daniel Linke and starring David Pringle (from Cthulhu), this is an interrogation of a scientist (Pringle) who knows a lot about the Mythos. Too much, perhaps? Not bad, maybe a bit too much like The Matrix.
  • The Dead Don’t Lie – Directed by Rob Hunt, this is a short comedy about a dumb guy that, for whatever reason, buys The King in Yellow off Ebay. Even as a comedy, I can’t imagine these characters buying any books without pictures of naked women in them.
  • The Quiet Darkness – This started off the Block, and I unfortunately missed it.

Following Shorts Block Two and the dinner break, writer (Alien) and director (The Resurrected) Dan O’ Bannon was awarded the Howie for his contributions to Lovecraft Cinema, but he wasn’t able to travel to the festival, so he accepted the award a few weeks earlier in his home, and a video speech was screened.

That night, I watched Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace, which I haven’t seen in at least ten years. It was great to see this adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” on the big screen, starring Vincent Price in an old castle, but it’s a crime that the distribution company forced Corman to put Edgar Allan Poe’s name to it. The script is by Charles Beaumont, and has nothing to do with Poe other than the title and a tacked-on quote at the end. But this was the first Lovecraft feature film, and worth watching for that alone. And it’s a pretty good classic horror movie, too.

With The Haunted Palace were two 35mm foreign films: Mite, a stop-animation piece about a house, grandma, and giant dust mites taking over the world (directed by Karl Tebbe); and Lazarus Taxon, an apocalyptic short about a flooded, plague-filled world and the price to pay for life. Ably-directed by Denis Rovira, it’s another foreign film closer to the occult category than straight Lovecraft, but again, a fine weird tale.

the-haunted-palaceThe last new picture I saw at the fest was a rough cut of a Charles Beaumont documentary. Beaumont is one of my favorite screenwriters, who, in addition to the two features Night of the Eagle and The Haunted Palace, wrote many of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone TV series. Beaumont was cut down by early-onset dementia at age 38. The doc needs some more editing and the best sound remix money can buy, but it was very informative and has interviews with many of his family members and close friends, such as the Guest of Honor this year, William F. Nolan. It’s very touching and left me with some profound words of truth…that I didn’t write down and now forget. I’ll have to see this one again, and anyone who writes, or enjoys writing, must also watch.

The festival concluded with another secret screening of Elwood that has become de rigueur for the end madness. Consequently, I had to flee to Tony Starlight’s and attempt to cleanse my brain with the Lovecraftian Cocktail menu they designed specifically for the festival. You can read my coverage of these non compos mentis cocktails as part of my column here:

And thus passed another HP Lovecraft Film Festival. It hasn’t driven us completely mad or killed us…yet.

Start making movies, or pinching pennies, to attend the next one!

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IFPThe Case of the 2009 HP Lovecraft Film Festival