The HP Lovecraft Film Festival is a long-running tradition here in puddletown, dating all the way back to 1995. Until last year it ran under gloom-tinted skies during dank, rainy, fungus-infested October, but now for some reason its set during the bright and sunny temperate days of May. Though I don’t approve of the date change, the fest has grown better and more sophisticated with each passing year.
The event takes place at the Hollywood Theater, a Portland movie palace from the 1920s that now houses a repertory company and shows a wide range of art films. The place maintains its ancient ambience quite nicely and is, I am told by people who actually worked there, definitively haunted. I myself — normally Mister Rational Thought who rolls his eyes at “Ghosthunter” shows on Discovery — felt some moments of being watched and glimpsed shadowy figures in dark corners, so I can’t conclusively say that I don’t believe that something still lurks there.
I can’t say that I’ve attended every single festival (I started around ‘02 or so I think), but I’ve attended enough to know that it’s a blast every year. It’s a great opportunity to meet both HPL writers like S.T. Joshi and W.H. Pugmire, and to actually discuss filmmaking with the creators themselves. I think the high point for me was when I had the pleasure of meeting the great scream queen Barbara Crampton, from Reanimator and From Beyond. It was in Reanimator that she participated in one of the most disturbing sex scenes of all time, being molested by the severed but still living head of the late David Gale. Like pretty much all of the actors I’ve met, she was a class act and it sounded as if she had a blast being menaced by extradimensional monstrosities.
The fest includes feature-length films as well as shorts from around the world, and though the works are of varying quality they’re always pretty fascinating. I managed only two of the four short blocks this year, seeing such varied flicks as the awesome George Jones and the Giant Squid, Seizures and Grasshopper. As you might note, sometimes the connection to the great HPL is a bit tenuous, but there’s always at least a slender thread binding them.
Non-film highlights included witnessing the members of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society presenting their radio-play version of At the Mountains of Madness, live and in person. These guys are all theatrical actors with amazing voices, and their live play included a cool newsreel-style film that they created entirely out of old newsreel footage, portraying the supposed Miskatonic Antarctic expedition. For a real treat, check out these guys’ radio plays.
I managed two feature films that I have not seen for years, and both of them were pretty awesome. First was John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which I think is one of his best works. I’d recommend anyone who enjoys SF and supernatural cinema to check it out — it’s clearly inspired by Lovecraft and the works of Nigel Kneal, specifically the Quatermass movies (Carpenter himself wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, and characters in the movie have Lovecraftian names like “Marsh” and “Danforth”). A science professor and his students are asked by representatives of the Catholic church to investigate a mysterious object that has been discovered beneath a church in Los Angeles — an object that has been there for centuries and has been watched over by a secret order of priests called the Brotherhood of Sleep. The malevolent entity inside the cylinder reaches out, possessing first the street people of the area (led by a pale-faced Alice Cooper) then members of the team in an effort to summon its “father” from his prison in an alternate dimension. To call the entity “Satan” is a horrific understatement. There’s plenty of creepiness and philosophical discussion of science vs. faith, good vs. evil, and the ending is creepily ambiguous.
The crown jewel of the festival however was what is being called the “Cabal Cut” of Clive Barker’s neglected masterpiece Nightbreed. In a story that I fear is far too common in Hollywood, Clive Barker directed the film in the wake of the successful Hellraiser, then presented it to studio execs, who stared at him blankly, said “I don’t get it,” and told him to reshoot half the movie. While the result was not a bad film by any measures, it also wasn’t quite what Barker had in mind. The movie flopped due to studio indifference, but a VHS copy of the rough cut was found a couple of years ago. The rough video footage was then spliced into the existing film, pushing it to 144 minutes in length (the final edited studio cut was a mere 102 minutes), and making the story quite a bit more coherent. According to Russell Cherrington, the gentleman responsible for the new cut, there is real interest in seeing the Cabal version released to video, and with up-to-date digitization techniques, the rough video footage can be restored to crisp, clean DVD/Blueray quality.
In brief (and there are awesome resources for this film to be found elsewhere), Cabal (spoiler warning) is the story of Aaron Boone, a young man tormented by dreams of an underground city inhabited by bizarre monsters. His psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (director David Cronenberg in one of his few appearances as an actor) manipulates Boone and frames him for a series of brutal murders, which Decker himself actually committed. Shot dead by police, Boone returns to live as a “Nightbreed” and finds the city of Midian, “where the monsters live” apart from humanity. The “monsters” are actually the Tribes of the Moon, the last survivors of ancient races who once inhabited earth but were exterminated by the violent humans. Boone joins their community but soon after his girlfriend Lori follows and discovers Midian for herself. Dr. Decker in turn follows Lori, learns about Midian and is determined to destroy it and its inhabitants, aided by the police and by violent local humans. In the battle that follows, Boone releases the Berserkers, a band of savage Nightbreed, which destroy the human attackers. Dr. Decker dies in the battle as well, and Midian is destroyed. Now given the name Cabal by the ‘breed’s god Baphomet, Boone is charged with finding a new city for the outcasts. Lori is still in love with Boone, and kills herself rather than lose him, but he restores her to life, transforming her into one of the Nightbreed. Roll credits.
That really glosses over a lot of the story, and the entire thing should be seen in its entirety. As I said, the original cut wasn’t really all THAT bad, and tells sorta the same story, but with more of an emphasis on Dr. Decker’s murders, giving it more of a “slasher flick” feel, rather than a horror/fantasy/love story as Barker intended.
Though I loved the film, it wasn’t without its faults — some of the plotting is a little jumpy. The scenes where Boone returns to live and escapes the hospital are confusing, and they are followed almost immediately by scenes of Boone and his companion Narcisse in Midian, with Boone having already been more or less accepted by the Nightbreed. Most of the humans, particularly the cops, are portrayed as fairly one-dimensional rednecks (First cop: “I think we’re only killing ‘em ‘cause they’re different!” Second cop: “Isn’t that reason enough?”). Nightbreed can easily be seen as a movie about racism, sexism and homophobia, but the allegorical elements are laid on a bit thick.
Honestly, that’s all beside the point, I think that Nightbreed’s strengths, especially in the new cut, overwhelm its shortcomings. I can see what a heartbreaker this whole project must have been for Clive Barker — after trying to make the Star Wars of monster movies, he had his work taken away and chopped down into a truncated little remnant of itself, misunderstood by studio execs (who hadn’t even watched the entire movie) and promoted as a slasher flick. To add insult to injury, many critics laid the blame at Barker’s doorstep, suggesting that the uneven pacing and incomprehensible plot (a result of studio cuts rather than Barker’s direction) proved that he was a hack director. Barker pretty much stayed out of Hollywood until Lord of Illusions in 1995 (another pretty awesome movie that tanked at the box office, unfortunately).
The remainder of the festival went as smoothly as I’ve come to expect, with crowds of alternative types surging from tiny theater to tiny theater (I skipped a whole short block because the theater was at least 90 degrees and humid), a small dealer’s room in the lobby upstairs, an adjoining structure renamed the Esoteric Order of Dagon and given over to readings and game demos (including Sandy Peterson’s Cthulhu Wars, which I regrettably did not see), speed painting contests, panels for Lovecraft enthusiasts and after parties at Tony Starlight’s Lounge.
About my only real complaint is that while I usually have companions on Friday and Saturday, most of my friends end up abandoning me on Sunday leaving me to attend the festival solo. Sunday morning i did my electronic bill paying and discovered that I was kind of broke for the rest of the month, so I attended the event feeling pretty glum, even going so far as to consider not seeing the Cabal Cut, which was one of the main reasons I attended the fest in the first place. Rescue came in the form of friendly artist Lee Moyer, creator of some awesome literary pinup calendars and more book covers and posters than a normal human can count, whom I got to hang out with before the flick and who shared some of his newest art with me, so it ended up being a decent time after all.
Unfortunately, I ate too much popcorn and pizza and spent the night with severe indigestion, so today I’m feeling a little unsteady. I think that after a lifetime as a popcorn connoisseur I’m probably going to have to swear off the stuff and maybe smuggle in bananas or something when I go see movies.My diabetes simply isnt forgiving enough for me to overwhelm it in that fashion.
So that pretty much encapsulates the spirit of the HPL film fest for me — I have a great time every year even though I usually have to go stag on Sunday, and the celebration of Lovecraft and his works gets bigger and more impressive all the time. One of these years I’m hoping that John Carpenter or Guilermo del Torro joins us. And if anyone reading this wants to go, by all means let me know. Maybe we can hang out on Sunday.