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Journal of No. 118


September 18th, 2011

HPL Film Fest Los Angeles 2011 @ 12:20 pm


I drifted (slowly through Friday rush-hour traffic) down to San Pedro for the start of the second Los Angeles-based HPL Film Fest [here's what little I wrote about the first one down here]. Any annoyance at the traffic was alleviated by being ushered into the VIP reception hosted at the Grand Vision Foundation's digs near the Warner Grand Theater itself. Got to hobnob with friends old and new, and drool over the props and things from Whisperer in Darkness. Sean and Andrew brought a ton of stuff along, and it looks as good in person as it does on screen. Also had a chance to try out some Bowen's Whiskey before it's available in stores. They served it in some ice shotglasses that were a little better in concept than execution; it forced you to drink fast as your beverage and container rapidly turned into a puddle in the middle of your hand. So I didn't linger over the bouquet or taste, but it was pleasant and a bit on the sweet side. I also had one of their whiskey-ritas. It sounded like an abomination -- clearly perfect for a Lovecraftian gathering -- but the combo of whiskey and basil-infused lemonade was surprisingly good.

Oh, and I suppose there were some films, eventually.


First up, Whistle and I'll Come to You, based on MR James's similarly named story. I love James' tidy little antiquarian ghost stories, and this BBC production captures the charm and the spook factor pretty well. That... thing on the beach is no doubt made on a BBC budget, but after the slowly building set-up, it's freakin' eerie. [And while I'm linking things in my mind, the one great James film adaptation is Night/Curse of the Demon, based on "Casting the Runes", which makes a cameo of sorts in Cast a Deadly Spell, which screened the second day of the fest.]

A tribute to Roger Corman, with his video'd acceptance of the Howie award, followed by Haunted Palace. Roger talked a bit about how the production went from an adaptation of HP Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" to "THE HAUNTED PALACE... based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe... and a story by howard philips lovecraft.
The film holds up reasonably well. It's not the best of the Corman/Price collaborations, but it's certainly not the worst either. Interesting to see how much screenwriter Charles Beaumont added to really make it *more* Lovecraftian, at least in a name-check way. It's set in Arkham rather than Providence/RI, and even the big C gets a mention. I wonder where Cathie Merchant's character shopped for her revealing outfit in Puritan New England. Not that I'm complaining. Also kind of funny that Ward's resemblance to Curwen is not so surprising, inasmuch as all the residents of Arkham look just like their ancestors. Which reminds me... does Elisha Cook Jr. ever win? Even crippled newsies can get the better of him.

Then Aaron's big coup, a screening of a newly restored print of Berkeley Square with Leslie Howard. A film that Lovecraft saw several times and inspired the Shadow Out of Time (and a bit of Charles Dexter Ward as well). This is probably the first time the film has been screened publicly in 50 years, and it was great to hear the director's grandson give a little introduction, and to hear aaronjv stand on a stage and thank the Academy.
The film is a pretty early talky, so sadly some of the dialogue was a bit difficult to hear -- one of those jobs where they hide a microphone in a potted plant in the middle of the room and hope they get the sound they need as people walk around and act. But it's easy to see how it would have punched Lovecraft's buttons; L. Howard being transported from the horrid Jazz Age back to the Georgian period Howard L. loved so well. Leslie Howard's Oscar-nominated performance is excellent; some nice subtle details as he negotiates the different protocol of an earlier age. The love story/resolution is a bit mawkish, but really it was such a treat to enjoy this film.

I skipped out on the afterparty at the Whale & Ale, but I was back bright and early to earn my keep as a VIP next day as part of the author reading and discussion alongside fellow scribes Denise Dumars, rejectedrefuse, Ted Grau, C Courtney Joyner, and Cody Goodfellow, who ably moderated and participated. I was so anxious about my own reading that I could hardly pay attention to a word anyone said in their own readings. I can well understand the wisdom of Ted's solution to have his wife read for him. I was glad Denise offered her nonfictional musings about possible mythological antecedents for Cthulhu, since I started off in a nonfictional vein myself. I was inspired by seeing Vincent Price burned as a witch the previous night, so I dug out my bit of Lovecraftian almost scholarship on the identity of Pickman's witch ancestor. This dry scholarship I characterized as giving the audience its vegetables, but I followed it up with some dessert, a reading of a few of the Eldritch Quintuplets. They went over well, though I fear I permanently dispelled any possible mood of cosmic dread. Indeed, in the ensuing discussion, I managed to reach the height of hypocrisy by decrying most modern Lovecraftoid fiction and the rise of plush Cthulhus and other Lovecraftian kitsch. Bad Mike. But I must not have come off as too much of a jerk, as our kind host, Jerry at Williams Book Store managed to move a half dozen copies.

Back at the theater, we started off with Cast a Deadly Spell. If you haven't seen it, it's a lot of fun. The bizarre anachronistic videogame analogy that comes to mind is that, just as Red Dead Redemption had the Undead Nightmare version, Cast a Deadly Spell is the Lovecraftian Nightmare version of LA NOIRE. Raymond Chandler meets HPL, with Fred Ward as our gruff non-magic using gumshoe in a 1940's Los Angeles where everyone uses magic. And Julianne Moore as his old flame/femme fatale. The screenwriter and an actor were on hand for some lively Q&A.

During the all-too-brief dinner break, I strolled down to the San Pedro Brewing Company for a quick quesadilla and a beer. Good stuff, and they have free tours of their brewery Fridays at 4:30. Aaron randomly popped in to get some change, and I'm afraid I stole some of his precious time, though that may be the only time he sat down all day.

I couldn't remember if I'd seen La Sombra Prohibida before. The description seemed familiar, so I dawdled a bit and chatted with a few people. When I drifted in, it soon became clear that I hadn't seen it. So I missed the first twenty minutes or so, but got caught up in the action, though it's kind of a downer... the darn Earth gets saved again! What is it with that?

Next up the shorts:
First the short shorts:
Call of Nature: a quick joke
Ritual: a quick nonjoke
Pickman's Model: a quick shock

Black Goat at least ended the string of happy endings. That lack of happiness made me happy.

Static Aeons shared the prize for best short, but it left me pretty cold. The visuals were computer animation... it was sort of like watching someone play a creepy version of MYST. Accompanied by a poetical voiceover that I couldn't seem to focus on... I think film burnout was setting in.

Idle Worship started with some really really beautiful stop motion as a skeleton comes to life. I confess I am a sucker for animated skeletons, but unfortunately the animation in the rest of the short is merely good. If it had all been as lovely as the opening sequence, I'd overlook the fact that the story isn't much of one. But I still enjoyed it.

Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Yes, I know, I know. Another frickin version of the frickin Raven. But this was really a great surprise and well worthy of being the other cowinner for best short. I was dubious when I read that it updates the setting to the 1950's, but really it's a well-conceived reimagination and beautiful as well.

Shadow of the Unnameable - This almost worked for me. The title sequence was inspired and awesome, as you sort of emerge from out of a pulp magazine. In the main story itself, some of the composition of live action and CGI elements was a little clumsy, but I think it actually gave the piece a more dreamlike fantasy feel that worked in its favor. Maybe their clumsiness was intentional, in which case it was genius! A little different acting, a lot different denouement, and this coulda really been something. I blame the source material, which is not one of HPL's finest.

Curse of Yig. Another one that I wanted to like more. Some uninspired acting and uninspired presentation. A story that could use more condensing. And the most important thing.. I really like the ending of the story. You are led down a garden path, and then Zap, a final revelation that makes it all worse. But it has to be ZAP. One quick line and cut to black, and let the audience think about it for three seconds and all go "EW!" at each other. This got stretched out to Zzzzzzzzaaaapppppppp. And if you try to stretch out a P, it just sounds like fffffft. [Looking at the original story, they filmed the dialogue of the last paragraph exactly as written, but I think you really only need the first sentence. The speed of reading and the speed of listening to filmed dialogue are a little different.]

Then the Whisperer in Darkness. I've already talked a little about it, but I think I'll withhold further spoiler-y comment til more people have had a chance to see it. But another great piece of work from the HPLHS, who well deserve their best in show prize. Getting to be a VIP gave me a swelled head, but nothing like the size of my big melon on the screen of the Warner Grand in the debate scene.

I schmoozed a bit at the afterparty, and then away home.
 
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:September 18th, 2011 03:27 pm (UTC)
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I'm forgetting all the people I met, friends old and new, but this has gotten long enough. I love you all. Especially you, dear reader.
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From:Donovan K. Loucks
Date:September 18th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
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I recently bought Night/Curse of the Demon on DVD because I enjoy it so much. Jacques Tourneur is a terrific director and I really dig the special effects. Spooky stuff.

I have a blurry copy of Berkeley Square on VHS tape and hope that it can be restored and distributed on DVD at some point.

Does The Curse of Yig star Tim Uren? I've yet to see it, but am curious. Tim lives here in the Twin Cities and I've seen him perform the story on stage, as well as "The Rats in the Walls" and Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations".

Good for you for "decrying most modern Lovecraftoid fiction and the rise of plush Cthulhus and other Lovecraftian kitsch." I receive Google Alerts of Lovecraft-related items and am inundated with such nonsense. It's an effort to dig the genuinely Lovecraftian stuff out of all the chaff.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:September 18th, 2011 11:01 pm (UTC)
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I have a blurry copy of Berkeley Square on VHS tape and hope that it can be restored and distributed on DVD at some point.

Aaron will know more, but I believe he mentioned that he had to deal with Criterion in some connexion with getting the exhibition rights, so that would seem to be a good sign for a DVD release.

Yep, that was Tim Uren in Curse of Yig.
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From:angry_vampire
Date:September 18th, 2011 10:56 pm (UTC)
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i think iced glasses really only work in ice bars, -5 degree weather plus gloves solves the puddle problem
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From:aaronjv
Date:September 23rd, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for coming, and the recap!

Case of Dexter Ward was written in '27, IIRC, so Berkeley Square didn't influence HPL, but yes, I also sensed some of the same themes.

I agree that the dinner break was too short; I knew that going in. I'll make sure it's longer next year. This schedule was just so packed.

I sat down while the films were playing; I only saw bits and pieces of each one (including BS).

I concur with your reviews of the shorts, although I liked "Idle Worship" more than you, and thought it was beautiful throughout. Other than that, I feel the same way as you on all the others. And for the record, the short shorts were intended to be just that, little bits to get people into the room. Call of Nature is a bumper-trailer for the festival anyway.

Actually, I agree with all of your movie reviews but for Idle Worship.

As to releasing Cast a Deadly Spell or Berkley Square on DVD, the two I always get asked about:
I have no idea. I'll see if I can talk to Criterion about coming out with a DVD of BS, and getting some commentary from the likes of Christopher Gray (grandson), and Joshi.

I'm already looking at next year's fest, improving on this model.




Journal of No. 118