Weird Tales & Edgar Allen Poe Collections

Horror fans may feel these collections are essential, but fans of the authors or aspiring genre filmmakers will appreciate them, too.

Weird Tale Collection Vol. 1: The Yellow Sign

Director: Various
Cast: Shawna Waldron, Dale Snowberger
Distributor: Micro Cinema
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Micro Cinema
US DVD Release Date: 2008-10-28

Edgar Allan Poe Collection, Vol. 1: Annabel Lee and Other Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: Micro Cinema
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Micro Cinema
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2008-10-28

Lurker Films has issued a series of five DVDs (so far) with short films inspired by the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, and these two volumes should be seen as adjuncts to that project. They consist mostly of recently made short subjects shot on digital video as more or less "amateur" productions -- that is, often by professionals or budding professionals but as personal rather than profit-oriented projects, to serve as calling cards or play in festivals like the Lovecraft-oriented NecronomiCon.

Volume 1 of The Weird Tale Collection is devoted to the American horror writer Robert W. Chambers, who came to prominence in the 1890s with a collection called The King in Yellow, a book about a book (also called The King in Yellow) with the power to drive its readers to madness. In this way, Chambers affirmed the power of art not only to disturb and change but to cause its audience literally to glimpse new realities. This was seen as a dangerous power, not always positive but one that cannot be resisted. Chambers clearly influenced Lovecraft, who praised his work and adopted some of its tropes.

Aaron Vaneck's The Yellow Sign, shot in a beautiful, now-vanished Los Angeles hotel (the Frontier or Million Dollar Hotel) updates a Chambers story in a way that could be regarded as a sequel. It concerns a young woman (Shawna Waldron) who works for an art gallery. She's been having dreams of a strange, reclusive artist named Aubrey Scott (Dale Snowberger), so she goes to visit him. He agrees to sign a contract with her gallery if she poses for him, and he tells her a story about children whose madness signals their powers as a shaman with the ability to live in two worlds.

This 45-minute entry is at least as intriguing as the average episode of Masters of Horror, sometimes more so, although the climax is both talky and abrupt. Perhaps its best production value is the diverse array of startling paintings by Jason Voss, which convince us of an artist whose nightmarish vision extends beyond the veil of our reality. Vaneck and his star provide two commentaries, one allegedly more risqué but with much overlapping material. There are also deleted scenes and goofs, and subtitle options are in English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Finnish, German and Portuguese.

David Leroy's French film Tupilak was filmed in what the package calls "a 35mm two-perforation pull-down process resulting in a beautiful Scope widescreen format." It's called the Multivision 235 process and Leroy identifies it with Sergio Leone and Dario Argento. The film does look pretty as it tells a snowbound anecdote about two Arctic explorers, one who feels guilt about leaving an Inuit man to die two years previously and one who doesn't. The guilt-ridden man believes they have been cursed by the titular spirit, which will pursue them relentlessly. This film may or may not be about the supernatural, but it's certainly about the power of guilt. In his notes in the accompanying booklet, Leroy states his intention of making "a classical monster movie without the monster in it. In fact, without any proof there really was a monster at all."

Lasting only a few minutes, the Italian The King in Yellow feels more like a trailer or preview. Although its basic story is very compressed and has something to do with being trapped in an eternal cycle of hallucination, it spends most of its time having its heroine pursued by monsters down hospital corridors. More than the other films, this has an unfinished "calling card" feel. Indeed, the notes by David Fragale and Leonardo Camastro declare this to be "episode zero" of a series of films.

In Chambers in Paris, we are given a tour of streets and locations that Chambers lived in and wrote about. Our guide and filmmaker is Christophe Thill, who has what may be described as an unconventional screen presence--frankly, a nerd with a lispy accent. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The Poe disc centers on Annabel Lee, a 20-minute work of stop-motion animation from the Brooklyn studio of George Higham. Poe's poem isn't horror, although it has a certain morbidity. As in so much of his poetry, and even his stories, it's about the narrator's sense of loss for a dead woman. In this case, she died of a chill in a kingdom by the sea. The poem is quite short, and Higham interprets it as a ghastly, horrific nightmare with the narrator played by a marionette of Poe and all kinds of grisly creatures and phantasmagoric sadisms, a farrago or stew of Poe-vian elements that make the film more reminiscent of Hellraiser than any of the Roger Corman cycle. We can safely say that it seems like florid overkill, also admittedly a Poe-vian element. There's even a moment where Poe kneels over a bloody gewgaw and screams "Nooooo!" at the sky. Higham actually calls this the Khan scene in reference to The Wrath of Khan and allows that it might be "a bit of a cliché". Oh well!

While two commentaries on The Yellow Sign felt like one too many, this film justifies its two because Higham gives one track to detailed technical explanations of how the many, many effects were achieved, while the other track focuses exclusively on aesthetic influences--writers, painters, films. Kudos for nods to Bosch, Brueghel, Friedrich and Böcklin (Higham as Brooklyn Böcklin?). These tracks do what such things should: increase our appreciation of the work we're watching. If that's not enough, and it doesn't seem to be, there's a well-done interview with Higham which employs various angles and effects to liven his soliloquies.

The Raven is a much longer poem, though Peter Bradley makes it into a shorter film without all the visual padding. It's in black and white (with color inserts) and its real star is the raven puppet, a wicked metallic-looking object who out-presences the clean young collegiate Poe-surrogate or the understated narrator who reads the poem. One nice element is the changing picture of pouting Lenore, whose multiple poses overlook the scene from her frame. Bradley doesn't offer commentary but there's a making-of on this item, and he also writes informatively about it in the booklet.

I've loved this poem since childhood, but seeing it enacted brought home for the first time a curious detail about the man's behavior. Once it's established that the raven will always answer with a single word, why does he insist on asking leading questions whose answer will enrage him rather than soothe him? He might just as well ask questions where the answer "Nevermore" would sound reassuring, like "Will I still be in this funk after next year?"

Alfonso S. Suárez's black and white The Tell Tale Heart is a recent Spanish film starring Paul Naschy, who can justifiably be called, in today's parlance, an icon of Spanish horror. (I suppose that means people worship his image, or at least it ought to mean that; I'm leery of how everyone suddenly went from being legends to being icons, often without even making a stop at being significant.) This film is more "inspired" by the story in question than a version of it. In fact, its characters and elements are entirely unrelated to the original. It also ends too quickly, just as its basic situation is being revealed and without any room for the title tale-telling.

Paul Day Clemens, who wrote a one-man show about Poe, provides a brief extra and also contributes to the booklet. Although few horror fans may feel that these collections are essential, they remain interesting enough to satisfy fans of the authors in question or to encourage aspiring genre filmmakers that there's a DVD market for their exertions.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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