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Pickman’s Muse (USA, 2010)


Since the advent of the H P Lovecraft Film Festival, Lovecraftian independent films have become something of a cottage industry. This is a mixed blessing, as it has given us some remarkable films, such as the work of the H P Lovecraft Historical Society, but it has also led to many amateurish and downright painful attempts that assault the viewer’s sanity for the wrong reasons. As a result, I approach any new Lovecraftian independent film with a mixture of excitement and dread.

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While Pickman’s Muse may not be quite of the same calibre as The Call of Cthulhu or Out of Mind, it is a relatively polished film with a strong script. The restrictions of the budget show in the limited sets and special effects, but writer and director Robert Cappelletto has made excellent use of the resources available to him, and even images as simple as a shape moving behind a frosted glass screen become threatening in his hands. The film’s only weak point is the amateur dramatics-style performance of the actor portraying Dr Ambrose Dexter, which is simultaneously overwrought and stilted.

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The story itself is a loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, although as the title suggests, it uses elements of Pickman’s Model as well. In the film, the artist Robert Pickman is struggling for inspiration when he becomes obsessed with an abandoned church on Federal Hill, visible from his window. After a visit there and an encounter with a strange gem locked in an oddly fashioned metal box, his work changes, becoming abhorrent to sane sensibilities. His friend and doctor, Ambrose Dexter, becomes alarmed, especially as he has seen this happen before, with horrific consequences.

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Lovecraft’s stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. Most of them feature a passive narrator who observes horrors and has few interactions with other characters, and The Haunter of the Dark is no exception. While some die-hard Lovecraft fans may dislike the fusion of the story with Pickman’s Model, and the absence of the Haunter of the Dark itself, Cappelletto’s adaptation is canny and assured, bringing the elements of these two stories together into a coherent and gripping script. Personally I am happiest when I see a free adaptation of work I love — the original stories will always be there, but here we see something new being synthesised from them.

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The other potential difficulty Pickman’s Muse overcomes is showing Pickman’s work itself. As the film progresses, his paintings depict alien landscapes and atrocities beyond human comprehension, and the mere viewing of them is an affront to the observer’s morals and sanity. Obviously any depiction of them would fall short of what is described, so Cappelletto wisely shows us only hints and glances, allowing us to experience the horror of the work through the reactions of witnesses.

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Beyond being one of the more successful Lovecraft adaptations to date, Pickman’s Muse is a strong horror film in its own right. The building menace of Pickman’s descent into madness, the location used for the abandoned church and the subtle ambient score all add to a growing sense of disquiet that pays off with a highly Lovecraftian climax. This is a film that should please any Lovecraft fan, and may make fans out of the uninitiated.

Trilogy of Terror (USA, 1975)


When I was around ten years old, I remember a couple of my cousins in Dundee discussing a film they had seen on television that had terrified them. It involved a small wooden doll coming to life and stalking a woman in her flat. Both of them complained that they couldn’t sleep after seeing it.

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As the years went by, I read and heard more about this movie, which by now I knew was named Trilogy of Terror, a portmanteau film based on stories by Richard Matheson. Matheson had become one of my favourite writers, especially for his classic novel I Am Legend (which must surely be turned into a decent film one day). No one seemed to remember much about the first two stories, but they were all frightened by the doll segment, based on Matheson’s story, Prey.

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Now, almost 40 years on, I have finally caught up with Trilogy of Terror. While I had not exactly mythologised it in my mind, I probably did set my expectations too high, considering it was a TV movie of the 1970s. What I was not prepared for was for Prey to be so poorly executed that I spent almost the entire segment in helpless laughter.

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Each section of Trilogy of Terror features Karen Black in a different role, and is adapted from a Richard Matheson story by William F Nolan or Matheson himself. The first is about the power struggle in an illicit affair between a reclusive university lecturer and one of her students, and is by far the most successful of the segments. While not wholly unpredictable, it does at least offer some darkness and twists.

The second story is the weakest, covering the increasingly vitriolic rivalry between two very different sisters, finally leading to black magic. Anyone who doesn’t work out what is going on from the first scene probably needs corrective surgery.

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This brings us to Prey, the longest of the three segments at almost 30 minutes. In it, Amelia, a young woman with an overbearing mother and a struggling romance buys an unusual birthday gift for her anthropologist beau — a Zuni fetish doll, supposedly with the spirit of a tribal hunter bound within. From the moment Amelia reads the manufacturer’s warning scroll that states the doll will come to life if its gold chain is removed, everyone knows what will happen.

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The only surprise is that the implementation of the animated doll is so unfortunately comical. The sounds it makes appear to have been dubbed from an episode of The Muppet Show, a comparison that is not helped by its movements resembling those of Animal, the drummer from the show. Other times, the movement is just a dark blur across the screen accompanied by wibbling noises. Worst of all are the scenes in which the fetish engages in hand-to-doll combat with Amelia; poor Karen Black is left waving a wooden doll around like a smaller version of Bela Lugosi fighting the stuffed octopus in Bride of the Monster.

While it is undoubtedly a terrible film, I was unable to dislike Trilogy of Terror simply because it made me laugh so much. Given that it was directed by Dan Curtis, who made the far superior The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler TV movies, also written by Richard Matheson, and starred an actress of the calibre of Karen Black, Trilogy of Terror should have been something special. Maybe if I had seen it thirty-eight years ago I may still have been haunted by the image of a pint-sized doll stabbing Karen Black in the leg with a pointed stick, but watching it now all I can to is laugh to the point of near incontinence.

Sleep Tight (Spain, 2011)


When does a thriller become a horror film? This question kept intruding into my mind as I watched Sleep Tight. In the first act, Sleep Tight stays firmly within thriller territory, which is not to say that it isn’t dark. As events escalate and the true depravity of the protagonist’s actions become apparent, however, all doubt that Sleep Tight is a horror film dissipates.

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In my opinion, the difference between a thriller and a non-supernatural horror movie is one of intent. A thriller offers you a build-up of tension, sometimes through portraying horrible things, and entangles your emotions in its story before offering you a safe release. Horror is not so gentle. It doesn’t care who gets hurt, whether it repels or sickens its audience, and it offers no guarantee of well-being afterwards. In fact, the best horror haunts us in a way that thrillers cannot, slipping into our minds long after like an intruder in the night.

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Intrusion is what Sleep Tight is all about. César, a concierge at an up-market block of flats in Spain, is unable to feel happiness. He flirts with suicide on a daily basis and envies the light that he sees in others, especially in the vivacious, trusting and happy young tenant, Clara. Unable to share her happiness, César sets out to destroy it by insinuating himself into her life and violating her health, relationships and sanity. His role is almost one of a vampire, but one who feeds on the joy of life instead of anything so mundane as blood. César’s cruelty and manipulation extend to other victims as well, and he leaves a long trail of broken lives throughout the film.

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César is played by Luis Tosar, who turns this monstrous man into a tragic and, sometimes, sympathetic one. Tosar convinces us of César’s loneliness and alienation even as he carries out acts of sadism, and his ability to switch between superficially charming, sad and sinister with slight shifts of facial expression makes for compelling viewing.

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Sleep Tight  was directed by Jaume Balagueró, whose name will be familiar to fans of Spanish horror films. He is best known as the writer and director of the first two [Rec] films as well as fine horrors such as Darkness and The Nameless. While Balagueró did not write Sleep Tight, the script is as chilling as any of his own work, and filled with nuance and shifts in tone. While Sleep Tight is rarely less than dark, it has a sardonic touch that makes some scenes blackly humorous. As the story moves on to its soul-crushing climax, though, any humour disappears and we are left with the horrific outcome of César’s actions and the understanding of just how far he has taken his plan.

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Some people will find Sleep Tight uncomfortable viewing. It may lack the gore and visceral nastiness of many modern horror films, but the emotional violence portrayed is devastating. The violation of the life and body of an innocent woman for reasons beyond her understanding is a genuinely upsetting thing to see. While I may be able to make an argument to class Sleep Tight as a thriller, if I were so inclined, there are few horror films I can think of which have quite the same capacity to shock and disturb.

The Conspiracy (Canada, 2012)


One of the central images of The Conspiracy is a scattering of newspaper articles taped to a wall, with sticky-notes and lengths of coloured wool connecting them. This image serves as perfect shorthand for the film itself: it is something you have seen many times before, implemented in so obvious a manner as to be a cliché. Also, like the conspiracy theorist responsible for the collage, I find myself having to search deeply to find anything of substance in The Conspiracy.

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The Conspiracy takes the form of a pseudo-documentary, a format almost as irritating as found-footage films. Worse, in this case, the latter half of the film is shot using hidden cameras carried about the persons of the protagonists, so the only scenes that have the potential for scares or drama are undermined by shaky camera work and blurry picture quality.

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The premise is that a small group of independent film-makers have decided to shoot a documentary about conspiracy theorists. One of their interviewees (who looks alarmingly like me) vanishes mysteriously, and this leads a crew-member to try to reproduce his work. In the process, he uncovers the existence of a powerful secret society, finds a source with inside information, and takes his investigation in increasingly reckless directions.

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My main complaint about The Conspiracy is that the decent work it does in setting up the situation in the first act is steadily undermined by lazy and obvious plotting. Having read the short summary in the previous paragraph, try to work out how the story would progress. The chances are that you just got it right, especially if you’ve seen The Wicker Man. If you came up with something different, I wish you had been the one writing the script.

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Everything else about The Conspiracy is satisfactory, barring the shaky-cam work in the last act. The characters are interesting and well-portrayed; the tie-ins with existing conspiracy theories are competently researched, if superficial; and there is something of a sense of menace to the conclusion. The end product, though, is dull. The most likely theory I can offer as to why such a promising film was botched so badly is that the real powers-that-be got to the film-makers and convinced them to produce something that would make conspiracy theories too boring to engage with.

The Body Snatcher (USA, 1945)


There are few horror films that come with quite the pedigree of the The Body Snatcher. Adapted from a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and produced by the legendary Val Lewton (producer of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie), it was directed by Robert Wise, who would later make The Haunting, possibly the finest ghost story committed to film. Moreover, The Body Snatcher was also the final screen pairing of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who had collaborated on seven previous features and whose names were then synonymous with horror.

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Karloff is undoubtedly the star of The Body Snatcher, taking the role of the sinister cabman and eponymous body snatcher, John Gray. Gray is a sinister presence, spurred to vile acts by avarice and his obsessive desire to have a social hold over the snobbish Doctor MacFarlane. MacFarlane runs a teaching hospital and depends on Gray for the supply of fresh cadavers, but their dark shared history gives Gray other leverage in their power struggles.

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Lugosi, on the other hand, plays a minor role as a menial worker in the hospital who learns that Gray has moved from being a resurrection man to a murderer in order to keep up with demand, and decides to extort money from Gray. Though both Karloff and Lugosi had played iconic roles in the heyday of Universal horror films, it was obvious by this stage that Lugosi’s career was faltering in a way that Karloff’s never quite did. While Karloff worked on progressively lower budget films, his near-swansong was the superior Targets, whereas Lugosi ended his days working with Ed Wood.

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Stevenson’s original story was inspired by the real-life case of Burke and Hare, who murdered 16 people in Edinburgh and sold their bodies to Dr Robert Knox. Knox, Burke and Hare all feature in the background of The Body Snatcher, tied to the shared history of Gray and MacFarlane. The film’s other nod to the history of Edinburgh is a cameo by Greyfriar’s Bobby, the famously loyal terrier that stood watch over its master’s grave, although in this version of history, Bobby’s vigil is cut short by the flat of Gray’s spade.

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While The Body Snatcher is strongly anchored in Edinburgh’s history, its geography and people are less well served. Apart from a small amount of stock footage, the locations are largely generic studio sets, and the version of Edinburgh presented has only one Scots inhabitant, with the rest of its population comprising Americans, a handful of Englishmen and one rather lost-looking Hungarian.

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The Body Snatcher is as much a melodrama as it is a horror film, with the struggle to perform a daring operation on a dimpled moppet at the centre of events. When it moves into darker territory, though, it does so unapologetically. The tone of the film is bleak and shadowy, and Karloff’s leering face brings a chill with it. There is murder, grave-robbing, blackmail and betrayal aplenty, and the climax is a white-knuckle ride into the realms of madness.

As a Hollywood film of its period, there is little to The Body Snatcher that will raise a modern eyebrow, but it is an exemplary reminder of a rich and deep type of cinematic storytelling that is largely a thing of the past.