Weird Tales & Edgar Allen Poe Collections

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.

RATING 5 / 10