Monday, September 19, 2011

Lovecraft Film Festival

We are definitely going back next year.
I just spent Friday and Saturday night at the H.P.Lovecraft Film Festival & Cthulhu Con held in the Warner Grand Theater of San Pedro, California. The Warner was built in 1931 and still retains its original beautiful art deco styling, the perfect venue for this event. This was a most refreshing experience to follow the Comic Con, as it was much smaller and pretty much stays on topic. If you're a Lovecraft fan, you will enjoy the gathering of like-minded others.
The first night was spot-on with three screenings that fit the theme like a glove. There was a 1968 BBC production of M.R.James' "Whistle And I'll Come To You". Though not a Lovecraft tale, the elements are very much in our featured writer's meme, with a desolate and olde landscape, an ancient eeriness, and a curious folklorist haunted by it all. It was the execution of this production that pleased the crowd most, letting the drama unfold at its own pace. The lead actor was marvelous, too. This was followed by a film I happen to have in my personal collection: The Haunted Palace starring Vincent Price and Debra Paget. It was fun to see the Roger Corman interview in which he revealed how a film based on a Lovecraft story is attributed to Poe in the title. Seems the studio geniuses thought it would sell better if Corman was doing another Poe film. In spite of that, fans of the Charles Dexter Ward tale by Lovecraft will recognize it even before Price appears as Ward. I am a fan of Debra Paget and she delivers here, holding her own with Price and a few other familiar faces. Finally, we were treated to a rare gem in the Lovecraft universe, a screening of Berkeley Square, starring Leslie Howard in the time travel story ahead of its time which Lovecraft was obsessed with during the last years of his life. The author saw this film four times after its release in 1933 and his own novella, The Shadow Out of Time, was inspired by it.
Exceedingly rare and just about impossible to find in any home viewing format, the motion picture Academy (that's right, of Oscar fame) provided the copy at the festival. If you are a fan of all time travel stories since 1933, you'll be amazed at how this movie did it first, (except perhaps The Time Machine) especially Somewhere In Time and just about every comedy on the theme in recent years. The humor is surprisingly relevant, making the modern audience laugh at every joke. Everyone particularly enjoyed when one character tells a female character that women are "all alike in the dark". Berkeley Square is a must see, if you can find it, and was the perfect film to close the night. After the screenings, everyone wandered down to the Whale & Ale Pub for a few drinks and chat and then retired for the evening.
The second evening was a bit hit and miss. First up was Cast A Deadly Spell, a 1991 comic noir film from HBO that honestly bore little resemblance to anything Lovecraft, save for the hard-boiled detective main character being named after the writer. If you like Big Trouble In Little China, watch that instead. This film is actually in a genre I'm not terribly fond of personally, i.e. comic fantasy. This stuff rose up in the 1980s and became more prevalent after the success of Douglas Adams' works (though not as successfully). However, a lot of people like smirky cute send-ups of fantastic literature, it irritates me too much to watch it. That's why I stepped out and perused the vendor areas for the remaining 45 minutes after reaching my saturation point. Too bad because there are elements to this film that could have carried it without all the schtick that drove me out of my seat. This was followed by a Spanish production, La Sombra Prohibida (The Forbidden Shadow), a SyFy quality melodrama inspired by Lovecraft. This one was subtitled, which is fine. Its problems are in deciding what it wants to be. At times it was telenovela, then edgy horror, then fantasy. The first half literally made me doze off, though the second half indeed became Lovecraftian with a subterranean realm of ancient mystery, robed cultists and the eldritch god Cthulhu emerging from the depths. However this was quickly ho-hum again with more endings than movies should have. Still, this one was Lovecraftian, even featuring the author himself as a character in an early scene. This was followed by the short film entries, often the reason for going to any film festival. There were the usual moody, atmospheric offerings, some good and some better. There was humor and there was thespian angst. Most notably, the thespian gymnastics were presented in typical 'actor' fashion in a dragging adaptation of Curse of the Yig and the more entertaining (but curiously present) adaptation of The Raven. I was willing to accept the M R James film the first night, because it is indeed evocative of the star of the show, but I draw the line where shorts entered in competition are concerned. At a Lovecraft festival, a Poe film should not even be considered. But there it was and, much to the surprise of more than just me, guest judge director Guillermo Del Toro gives it the tying win with Strange Aeons, a moody prose short, sorta kinda Lovecraftian. Really? OK. My vote went to Shadow of the Unnamable, a truly Lovecraftian tale featuring one of his greatest characters, Randolph Carter. If you can find it, check it out. Finally, we were on to the big event...
The Whisperer in Darkness is the second film from the H.P.Lovecraft Historical Society. Based upon the story of the same title, this film was worth the wait. The group's first cinematic outing was a silent version of Call of Cthulhu, which any Lovecraft fan must have in their collection. Whisperer shows everything they learned from that effort and then some. Once again a science fiction classic shows its roots in a story that predates it by decades. This story is an earlier Invasion of the Body Snatchers told here in a most entertaining early 1940s style. The cast is recognizable from their first film but they're even more colorful and enriched, very fun to watch. Matt Foyer in the lead is very good and needs to be in more movies (take note Hollywood), and his supporting cast is up to his challenge.
The visual style of the film I adore: LIMITED CGI and mostly practical effects with miniatures, thank the gods. You will love the classic science fiction touches in execution as well as the noirish cinematography. What you will notice is how engaged you become in the action and drama which rivals any of the crap from Hollywood of the past several years. One crowd-pleasing moment I won't reveal, but it doesn't follow typical Hollywood convention and we loved it. In the end, I wanted to see it again that night. Hats off to director Sean Branney and the crew at HPLHS for delivering one of the best indie films I've seen. This film was really a great cap to a most enjoyable festival. Festival emcee and organizer, film director Aaron Vanek deserves kudos for putting on a great show. My entourage already plans to attend next year and I recommend it to all Lovecraft fans. Go to their website here. As mentioned before, I'm attending events in the coming twelve months since Comic Con to replace the disappointing San Diego event. This festival was a great start to that quest, delivering a truly satisfying experience. Look for a future report on the next...


Sascha Renninger said...


I´m glad you liked our film, "shadow of the unnamable."

We´ll be playing the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland this month as well.

Help support our endeavour and watch our trailer on youtube. And please place a comment if you liked it. We put a lot of effort into this film and we´d love to continue bringing fresh adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft to you!

Also, check out our first review:

All the best

Sascha Renninger

Nick the Hat said...

Excellent overview and review, Shadow of the Unnameable was also my favorite short, in flavor, style, mood and effects. It was great and well thought out. Exceeded my expectations, and when I think of the short blocks that's the film that starts playing in my mind.
Good times at the Grand Warner during these Strange Aeons.

Walter Bosley said...

I really enjoyed the festival. My son and I have been attending the Comic Con every year in San Diego since 2004, most often as an industry pro. Neither of us are 'comics guys' per se, but it's a major pop culture event. However, this was our last year doing our full group all four days because, frankly, we experienced fewer good cons than so-so cons.
What we both liked about the Lovecraft Festival is that we are both into the main topic, it's focused on that topic, and there isn't a monstrous crowd to deal with. Also,we are both filmmakers so we really appreciate the screenings, especially the shorts.
I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to competition, I must admit, thus my comments above -- but I'm honestly just glad that there IS a Lovecraft festival.
I'd like to see more films from Sascha and others. We're already looking forward to next year! Naturally, a discussion with my son about entering a film next year happened that night. I'll post something here if we decide to do that and what it'll be. I'm hoping to be busier with 'Secret of the Amazon Queen' soon...
How'd you guys like 'Whisperer'?