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Posts Tagged ‘H.P. Lovecraft’

Labors Of Love(craft)

April 24th, 2013 No comments

I am not about to get up on my high horse about the intrinsic value of independent film. I like soulless, studio-driven, explosion-delivery systems as much as the next popcorn-muncher. But it’s fun to be swept along in the joy expressed by an indie filmmaker pursuing something he or she loves, financial compensation be damned.

Last week I was introduced to The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, one of the least commercial–and most joyful–films I’ve seen in some time.

It achieved notoriety by being the lowest-grossing film of 2012, though that’s a technicality. According to director Paul Bunnell, after winning an audience award at the Kansas International Film Festival–which is apparently something that exists–it received the prize of a one-week run at a single Kansas theater, where it made $117. Admittedly, there weren’t a lot of people at the midnight screening I attended, but surely we doubled that gross.

Johnny X is a pastiche of ’50s drive-in fare, specifically 1959’s Teenagers from Outer Space. But it’s more ambitious and entertaining than that low-budget junk, a semi-musical with song stylings ranging from surf guitar to rockabilly to Sondheim.

It concerns a gang of alien punks, led by the eponymous Johnny, who are “sentenced to Earth.”  (The Grand Inquisitor is genre veteran Kevin McCarthy, wearing a Devo hat in his final performance.) In addition to his non-comformist ways, Johnny is being punished for his theft of the powerful Resurrection Suit. Oddly enough, he still has it when he’s sent to Earth, but it’s best not to think about that.

His on-again, off-again girlfriend is Bliss, played by De Anna Joy Brooks, who steals the show with the vamp number “These Lips That Never Lie.” She grabs the suit and runs off with a soda jerk, with the Ghastly gang in pursuit.

Reggie Bannister (from the Phantasm film series) shows up as a club promoter looking to score with a concert by legendary rocker Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Batton, formerly of the band The Grass Roots) who is, unfortunately, dead. Did I mention that there’s a Resurrection Suit?

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X could’ve used a trim: at 106 minutes, it’s a good twenty minutes longer than the movies to which it pays homage. Still, the music is catchy and the whole affair is fascinatingly weird.

In a not-entirely-dissimilar vein comes The Whisperer in Darkness, the second feature film produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Like Johnny X, it was a long-gestating project kept alive by passion. And it too is an intentionally retro flick.

In 2005, the HPLHS released The Call of Cthulhu, their adaptation of the core work of horror author Lovecraft’s mythology regarding slumbering alien gods. In a clever conceit, they filmed it as if it had been a “lost” film produced in 1926, the year that the short story was published. As a silent movie utilizing impressionistic sets and low-fi special effects, it effectively disguised its low budget and amateur crew.

For their follow-up they went bigger.  The Whisperer in Darkness was published in 1931, so they intended to approach it as a sound film of the same era as the early Universal Studios horrors. And while Cthulhu was a brisk 47 minutes, Whisperer more than doubled that at 104.

In one sense, it’s less successful than its predecessor: as a 1931 pastiche, it fails. Keep in mind that ’31 was the year that the Bela Lugosi Dracula hit theaters. Dracula, for all its cultural influence, is crude and stagy, with sparse musical accompaniment provided by a couple of classical music pieces, notably “Swan Lake.” Whisperer appears considerably more polished, and features a full orchestral score of the type that wouldn’t be introduced until two years later when the original King Kong debuted.

Unlike the intentionally-jerky stop-motion animation employed for Cthulhu, the filmmakers this time opted for CGI. It’s an understandable decision, as the monsters are on-screen quite a bit and would’ve taken months to film by traditional methods. Yet, despite an attempt to “dumb down” the effects to make them appear more like stop-motion, they’re simply much smoother than would’ve been possible two years before (or really, twenty years after) Kong.

Most damning of all, it’s in widescreen. While that format existed in the early ’30s, it didn’t come into common usage until 1953, when it was seen as a way of bringing television viewers back to the theaters.

Aside from the opening titles, the entire film looks much more like something that would’ve emerged from the sci-fi boom of the ’50s. And honestly, that’s okay. The HPLHS might not have achieved their stated goal, but they made something that’s as good as some of the better genre flicks of the mid-20th Century.

Matt Foyer is appealing as the central character Albert Wilmarth, who travels to rural Vermont to investigate a farmer who believes that he has been beset by buzzing aliens emanating from a nearby mountain lair. The stories of the Mi-Go are just folklore, right? Right?

Whisperer incurs the potential wrath of Lovecraftians by extending the film past the end of the short story. The original tale concludes with a twist that would normally ring down the curtain on Act Two. Instead, there’s an action-packed third act which sees Wilmarth infiltrate the Mi-Go caves and attempt to escape their wrath in an old plane. Ultimately, it goes to a place no less bleak than Lovecraft’s own writings.

The only real downside to it is a mustache-twirling human villain who wears a cultist get-up that charitably can be called “unfortunate.”

Still, grouses about the authenticity of its alleged time period aside, it’s still a fine film straddling the line between fan effort and something more professional. I hope that the HPLHS will tackle The Shadow Over Innsmouth next!

31 Monstrous Failures #6: The Shunned House

October 6th, 2011 No comments

Author H.P. Lovecraft may have been one of the grand masters of horror fiction, but every once in a while his attempts to hint at vast, unknowable creatures from before the dawn of man took a crooked turn into the absurd.

One of Lovecraft’s tricks was to describe his terrible beasts as indescribable. He’d toss in a few words like “rugose,” “squamous” and “batrachian,” and allow the reader to fill in the picture. Another was to focus on one physical feature, such as the “three-lobed burning eye” of the evil god Nyarlathotep.

It’s the latter that resulted in the less-than-effective big reveal of the beast buried in the cellar of…

The Shunned House!

This is the actual house that provided the location for Lovecraft’s story, and it’s still standing on a street in Providence, Rhode Island.

Its fictional counterpart was more imposing, an abandoned structure with a malign presence that produced strange fungal growths and turned men into monsters. After witnessing the transformation and dissolution of his uncle, the protagonist of the tale decided to dig down to the source of the evil and dump several jars of sulfuric acid on it.

Suddenly my spade struck something softer than earth. I shuddered and made a motion as if to climb out of the hole, which was now as deep as my neck. Then courage returned, and I scraped away more dirt in the light of the electric torch I had provided. The surface I uncovered was fishy and glassy – a kind of semi-putrid congealed jelly with suggestions of translucency. I scraped further, and saw that it had form. There was a rift where a part of the substance was folded over. The exposed area was huge and roughly cylindrical; like a mammoth soft blue-white stovepipe doubled in two, its largest part some two feet in diameter. Still more I scraped, and then abruptly I leaped out of the hole and away from the filthy thing; frantically unstopping and tilting the heavy carboys, and precipitating their corrosive contents one after another down that charnel gulf and upon this unthinkable abnormality whose titan elbow I had seen.

That’s right; the “unspeakably shocking” thing that would haunt this man’s dreams until the day he passed from the Earth was a big elbow.

Oh well, they can’t all be Cthulhu.

Me Of Little Faith: Cthulhu Fhtagn!

August 19th, 2010 No comments

My friend Mark responded to my recent “Me of Little Faith” post with the following:

Dave! While you were “Facebooking,” you wrote:

“Alternately, we’re all just tiny, briefly-existing specks in an incomprehensible vast and uncaring universe who have created gods in our own image to keep the nightmares away.”

But, you forgot to write the most important part of your comment! Namely:

” . . . and soon, Cthulhu will awake, the seas will boil off, the continents will shake like gelatin, the electrons in the carbon atoms that comprise our bodies will be forcibly torn from their orbits, and our souls will be used as the clay for his obscene and inscrutable purposes.  Have a nice day everyone.”

I’m reposting this not only because I think it’s funny, but because Mark correctly identified the intersect between my personal beliefs and the writings of author H.P. Lovecraft.

I’ve long been fascinated by Lovecraft. At first it was mostly due to the absurd names he gave to his indescribably horrible horrors. (Oh yes, I’m so very terrified of Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.) Later, I came to recognize the massive influence he’s had on horror and fantasy literature, comics and movies.

The central themes of Lovecraft’s body of work describe a universe which is incomprehensible and, at best, uncaring. Mankind is neither the first intelligent life to walk on the Earth, nor will it be the last. Cosmic forces lurk in the gulfs of space and in the most inhospitable parts of our globe, biding their time until “the stars are right” and they reemerge to smite victims and followers alike.

Now, I don’t believe that extradimensional nightmares with far too many consonants in their names are anticipating the day when they can squoosh humanity between their rugose and squamous toes. But the notion of a universe that defies understanding has stuck with me.

When I think of our relationship with the seemingly infinite voids that surround us, I cannot help but be reminded of ants. Ants do some of the things that humans do: form castes, build structures, farm and fight. And their senses allow them to perceive much of the larger world around them.

But does that ant crawling up your pant leg comprehend the surface upon which it treads? Does it recognize you as another living creature? Can it have even the tiniest inkling about how denim is made, or about the Chinese sweatshop in which your garment was assembled?

I think that humans are perhaps a bit better off than ants in our understanding of the universe. We have complex equipment that has allowed us to look deeply in the darkness, and a scientific method that analyzes data and tests hypotheses.

But I believe that the universe is simply too large and too weird for us to ever truly figure it all out. And it strikes me as supreme arrogance for any of us to declare that they understand the nature and purpose (if any exists) of our shared reality.

If someone today arose from the rabble and claimed to be the living embodiment of God, we would (rightly) laugh them out of town. Well, most of us would, anyway. But a great many are all too willing to accept hearsay testimony on behalf of people who once claimed to have first-hand knowledge of God…or even to be God. And these people conveniently lived thousands of years ago, before mass communications or sensitive scientific instruments were invented, in a part of the world that, to be blunt, most modern-day Americans don’t exactly trust.

I hope you’ll pardon me if I say that I don’t believe that any of us understands it all.

31 Monsters #9: Lovecraftian Horrors

October 9th, 2009 No comments

As I became aware of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I had a hard time getting past the names of his cosmic horrors. Really, you want me to be afraid of something called Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young?

After my initial childish glee, I began to take a closer look and found that some of his themes coincided with my own philosophy about the nature of reality. No, I don’t think that there are squid-like, alien gods waiting for their chance to descend upon humanity in an orgy of madness and death. But a central theme of what’s been dubbed “Lovecraftian” fiction is that humans are nothing special. We are not the first inhabitants of Earth by a long shot, nor will we be the last. We are insignificant specks in a unfathomably vast, uncaring universe.

But hey, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while it lasts! So here is my handy guide to determine whether you, the reader, are a Lovecraftian horror.

lovecraftflowchart

Vocabulary Fun

March 30th, 2008 No comments

In an earlier post about Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, I mocked the latter’s overuse of such obscure words as “rugose” and “squamous.” (Another Lovecraft standard: “eldritch.”)

One of Howard’s own favorite words, however, was garden variety: “supple.” The one thing Hyborian Age gals (both types: royalty and whores) had in common was the suppleness of their limbs and even their spines. Sometimes they were “lithe”…but not without being supple.

Typical Zamoran street conversation:

“Why, Octavia, you’re looking quite supple today!”
“Of course, silly! Now, how about some whoring?”

Which is not to say that Howard wasn’t fond of enriching his word power. He liked the word “thew,” as in: “Conan rubbed Turanian jojoba oil into his bronzed thews to keep them supple.”

And it wasn’t enough for the Cimmerian to stab someone with a dagger, when a “poinard” was handy.

But if Howard had any word that was the equivalent of Lovecraft’s “squamous,” it was “sward.” The Hyborian lands were simply blanketed with grassy swards. That is to say that they were swarded. You couldn’t toss a poinard without it landing in a sward.

Thankfully, they were not rugose.

Conan The White Supremecist

March 28th, 2008 No comments

I’m very nearly through the first volume of collected Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, and as I approach the end I’m finding myself somewhat disillusioned. While it’s really no great surprise, it’s still a disappointment to see ever more blatant racism creeping into the later stories.

As I mentioned, Howard was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and the latter was certainly no friend of what he termed “mongrel throngs.” For that reason, Lovecraft’s work can be a teeth-gritting read at times; one occasionally has to stick one’s mental fingers in one’s mental ears and mentally hum “la-de-de, la-de-da.” The racism can’t be condoned, but it can be put in context of the time it was written.

For some reason, I hoped that Howard might be better. And for a while, I managed to fool myself. Sure, the misogyny was obvious enough; aside from Belit the pirate queen, the only women in a Conan story are simpering frails and evil seductresses. (To Howard, you’re either a princess or a slut.) But aside from the odd reference here and there to Conan’s whiteness, racial comments seemed largely lacking.

Then I got to “The Pool of the Black One,” in which the barbarian faced a lost city full of fiendish, black giants. But even here it seemed Howard had left himself some plausible deniability; as he made it clear “these tall ebony beings were not men,” but rather taloned monsters.

All such delusions were shattered in “The Vale of Lost Women,” in which a white woman named Livia is held prisoner by a dark-skinned tribe in the part of Howard’s Hyborian world modeled on Africa. When Conan, who has somehow made himself the chief of a rival tribe, visits the king, Livia sees a chance for salvation:

His appearance was alien and unfamiliar; Livia had never seen his like. But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.

Urgh.

She pleads her case to Conan, who at first seems uninterested in her plight:

“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs–that a white woman is their slave! Very well!”

Well, it’s certain that Livia is one white sheet from a rally, but surely Conan could care less? What matter the color of a warrior’s skin, to a man who values only the strength of a sword arm? Er, um…

“You said I was a barbarian,” he said harshly, “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man…”

And there it is. Sigh. For all their enlightened savagery, it seems that Cimmerians have the same hangup about miscegenation as 1930s Texan fantasy writers.

Perhaps it was asking too much to hope for a less repellent racial attitude. Of course, one can chalk it up as a product of the times and try to move on to the next good bit of bloodletting. But damn, it’d be nice to read some early 20th Century fantasy and not feel like a son of a bitch.

Late Night With Conan O’Barbarian

March 21st, 2008 No comments

I’m in the midst of rediscovering Conan, the bronze-thewed barbarian hero created by Robert E. Howard. On a whim, I’d picked up the first trade paperback collection of Conan comics from Marvel’s old black-and-white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. I’d read Marvel’s regular color Conan comic book for some years back in the day, but never bought the magazine (which, as it didn’t have to adhere to the Comics Code, featured more graphic content). I found myself enthralled by the book and its heady mixture of gut-spilling action, palace intrigues and mostly-naked wenches. Roy Thomas, who was responsible for Marvel’s involvement with the character, did a helluva job adapting Howard’s stories and adding his own.

Here’s a choice page from the book: a surprisingly well-timed bit of humor. (Yes, it’s a bit misogynistic, especially the last line, but in context of the story it’s not undeserved.)

I’m not certain how I first encountered Conan. I saw both of the feature films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger on their initial release. (Who’d’ve thunk that Conan the Barbarian would’ve had such a profound influence on California politics?) I also owned at least some of the popular paperbacks, which I’ve subsequently learned were barbarously rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp. And, as I mentioned, I read the comics for years, mostly during the long period featuring the pirate queen Belit. (Belit appeared in only one Howard story, but Thomas took advantage of a gap in its chronology to greatly extend her involvement in the title.) I’m not certain why I started buying them; it may have simply been part of my Dungeons and Dragons phase. However, I do recall that Conan was the one comic I followed that my mom also read. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve pondered the implications of that.

After plowing through the first volume of The Savage Sword of Conan, I decided to go back to the source material and purchased one of the newer trade paperbacks of Howard’s original texts. I have not been disappointed.

One thing that has struck me about the short stories is just how much they have in common with the horror work of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were contemporaries and correspondents, and it’s obvious that Howard started off aping him, especially whenever he refers to “cyclopean ruins” and “the nighted gulfs of space.” (However, so far in my reading he has yet to use the words “rugose” or “squamous.”) While Conan’s foes are often giant snakes or ape-like creatures, a great many of them are straight from the Cthulhu playbook: shapeless horrors derived from degenerate civilizations or from beyond the stars. However, Howard is a much better wordsmith than Lovecraft, and he does a terrific job bringing the lusty Hyborian world to life.

Conan himself is a curious figure. Make no mistake, he’s a mercenary, a thief and murderer a thousand times over, but he also adheres to a moral code and inevitably defends the weak against the strong. It’s also clear that Howard sees his barbarism as morally superior to the behavior of so-called civilized men. But man, you do not want to piss him off. As Howard notes in “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

I’m about halfway through the first short story collection, and have waiting for me a second volume of The Savage Sword of Conan. By Crom!

Reply Hazy, Try Again

November 28th, 2007 No comments

Saw The Mist last night. The flick–about townsfolk trapped in a supermarket by a mysterious fog inhabited by Lovecraftian* monsters–had been on my radar for some time. Writer/director Frank Darabont wrote the very effective 1988 remake of The Blob, one of my favorite gross-outs.

(*Lovecraftian = things with tentacles, apparently.)

The Mist is ambitious if flawed, and I give it major props for being a modern horror flick that isn’t about zombies, serial killers or torture. It also has the bleakest ending I’ve seen in a long, long time…and yes, that’s a good thing.

Far too many films cop out at the end, thanks to jittery studios unwilling to risk upsetting their audiences with anything other than a happily ever after, or producers who fall in love with their characters and pull back from giving them due comeuppance. It’s nothing new. The musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors–which is, after all, a Faustian tale about a nebbish who chops up people and feeds them to a hungry plant–lost its moral center when test audiences balked and the producers hastily reshot things so that Seymour and his paramour survived. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which initially ended with the main character running down a highway screaming “You’re next!” tacked on a coda which saw the authorities rushing out to confront the alien pod menace.

That’s why I welcome a movie that isn’t afraid to be unpopular, that remembers that horror isn’t just about severed body parts. In The Mist, the greatest horror is enacted upon its survivor, in a scene which is every bit as wrenching (if not nearly as iconic) as the classic Statue of Liberty bit from Planet of the Apes.

Several of the negative reviews I’ve read of the film decry it for just that reason, while others declare it to be anti-military or even anti-Bush. Never mind that it’s (closely) based on a story written in 1980, and that it makes no mention of current affairs other than an oblique reference to soldiers being shipped out “over there.” Bush defenders don’t like it because it’s a polemic against fearmongering, even though neither the practice itself nor stories in which isolated, fearful humans turn on each other are solely products of the post-9/11 era.

For me, what The Mist is about most of all is hopelessness and how people react to it. A pair of soldiers–the only ones who fully appreciate what the secret experiments at the local military base have unleashed–kill themselves. A holy roller declares herself the vessel of an Old Testament God and rallies others into a murderous mob. And in the one big change from the original novella, the film trades Stephen King’s unresolved ending–the protagonists driving away into the unknown–for one which is both more conclusive and less comforting.

There are a couple of faults. It’s about twenty minutes too long; not bloated, but longer than it needs to be to make its point. I was also a little disappointed in some of the creature designs. Some of the supposedly extra-dimensional monsters look too familiar: oversized bugs and spiders, as well as four-winged gargoyles. The most satisfying monsters are the shrouded behemoths, half seen through the mist, which appear to share little with terrestrial biology.

The Mist did very poorly in its initial week of release, demonstrating the limited appeal of horror films not involving zombies, serial killers or torture. But hopefully it’ll be talked about long after the likes of Saw IV.

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Hush, Children! What’s That Sound?

October 18th, 2007 No comments

Here’s something nifty: a trailer for a movie adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, from the folks who put out that excellent silent film of The Call of Cthulhu. This one is apparently a sound film, done as a ’30s horror flick.

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