Posts tagged movie review
“What’s the Frequency, Lovecraft?”: the Vibrational Horror of ‘YellowBrickRoad’ and ‘Banshee Chapter’1
I’m currently reading through the slush pile for RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, up to my neck in stories of dread machines that tweak human perception just enough to allow other dimensions to be experienced. I mention this only to give you a sense of where my mind is at these days. Probably editing this book has tweaked me somewhat towards seeing what I’ve come to call “frequency” or “vibrational” horror in two recent movies that could, without too much conceptual massage, be seen as the grandchildren of Lovecraft’s tale From Beyond. The films in question are YellowBrickRoad (2010) and Banshee Chapter (2013), and both have as their central horror not physical monsters from this (or any other) world, monsters encountered by entering a physical space, but a kind of creeping psychedelic paranoia surrounding the idea that the monsters of other planes, coterminous with ours, are always here, in our space, waiting for us to see them. We need only adjust the frequency, and there they are, right over our shoulder, or already in our heads. Indeed, the second film I’ll be talking about, Banshee Chapter, makes specific in-media reference to Lovecraft’s story. Both films are highly effective mash-ups of traditional narrative and found-footage techniques.
written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
starring Clark and Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler
Not unlike its precursor, The Blair Witch Project, much of the initial horror in YellowBrickRoad arises from the fear of losing oneself in a wild place: being alone, and hurt, in the woods, with people you have learned not to trust. Anyone who has spent an unwanted emergency night in the forest will feel this film on that level. (I have, and did.) The plot: an obsessed filmmaker and his wife (and a standard-issue crew of photographers, cartographers, wilderness guides, a psychologist, an intern, and one townie keen to join the expedition for reasons of her own) set out to solve a 70-year old mystery that had been covered up by the military and recently declassified. In 1940, the population of an entire New Hampshire town dressed in their best duds and started a walk along a trail that led into the northern woods. Most vanished from the face of the earth, others were found horribly mutilated, and one resident managed to return, but died insane and rambling about music that only he could hear.
It’s this aspect to the story that moves YellowBrickRoad into “frequency horror” for me: the evil the film crew encounters on the trail is intangible, ever-present but non-local, and insidious. When, three days into their expedition, the crew begins to hear old-timey dance hall music, it comes from everywhere, and nowhere. The intern reports that her GPS is on the fritz: the device reports them as being in Guam in the morning, Paris by noon, Barcelona by evening. Similarly, the cartographers (a brother and sister team) begin to experience difficulty keeping their coordinates coordinated: the numbers work going up the trail, but are radically skewed on the return. “The land is like liquid,” the brother states.
Not only the land, but also time and their own internal psychic experiences become malleable. Personality flaws and grudges are blown into high relief, and under the influence of the music, cracks begin to appear in their minds. Memories are no longer reliable or even accessible, simple cognitive tasks (as tracked by the team psychologist) become increasingly difficult, frustration and anger and confusion build and build until someone snaps and the killings begin.
But even that is not the central horror. For a lesser flick, it might be. Kill-crazy madman with a machete stalking innocents through the bush is a standard trope. But in YellowBrickRoad, that madman, and all of his companions, know that something is terribly wrong. And by the time they get him secured and are preparing to save themselves, it is already too late. Whatever it is that is affecting them on the trail (cosmic radiation? geomagnetic fluctuations? ghosts of the dead townspeople? God? It is never explained, which is wonderful, a good nod to Lovecraft, and to the scriptwriters credit) turns up the volume and they are plunged into as disruptive and terrifying an alteration of reality as I have ever witnessed on screen.
Essentially, the terror of YellowBrickRoad is auditory in nature. Sound is the evil thing in the woods: monstrously loud, deafening, shake-you-to-your-knees, make-your-ears-bleed sound. It leaves no room in their heads for anything other than the desire to escape that hellish noise. And it is hellish: a thrumming, discordant, spiking roar that on a decent sound system or coming through good headphones will make you wince and feel sick with vertigo. (Big kudos to the sound design people on this film.) Nothing can stand against this aural assault, which seems malevolent and calculating. Imagine the BWAAAAAM noise from the film Inception, jacked-up on steroids and angel dust, just waiting for you to almost get your bearings before jumping you from behind. It’s like that. To borrow from another Lovecraftian narrative, imagine the Colour Out of Space as a sonic entity. Sanity and reason, relationships and ethics, everything breaks and dissolves beneath it. The group splits, and splits again. The madman breaks free and escapes, and begins to hunt them all down. The ones he can’t catch suicide by various gruesome methods. It all ends in awful, destructive noise and madness and death.
Now, there is a meta- aspect to the film as well, one that plays into the ending, which many have found disappointing. The title is meant as a clue: it is said that the original townsfolk, disillusioned by the Second Great War and wishing to escape into the fantasy of the films they watched religiously in the towns theatre (The Wizard of Oz being a favourite) were called into the northern woods by the evil force that resides there. In one of the opening scenes, the declassified coordinates for the mysterious trailhead take the confused team to that very same theatre, where they meet the townie girl who leads them to the actual trailhead and accompanies them up the trail. By the end, we’re left with the team’s leader, the filmmaker, following his obsession to the “end of the trail” and abandoning everything and everyone he ever valued along the way, only to find himself walking into that same theatre again, where he is presented with a horrific Silver Screen vision of the end of all things. It’s a weird Ouroborous of an off-note, and as mentioned, one that many viewers of the film found unsatisfactory, but at the end of the day I think what we’re looking at in the final scenes of YellowBrickRoad is the internal experience of a man finally losing everything, including himself, to utter horror.
Banshee Chapter (2013)
directed by Blair Erickson
starring Ted Levine, Katia Winter, and Michael McMillian
The horror of Banshee Chapter is less vague in its origins, and targets its victims more specifically. In the film, beings from another dimension have influenced military scientists to synthesize a version of DMT (which, in case you don’t know, is in its normal state already the most powerful psychedelic known to man, and endogenously produced in trace amounts by our pineal glands), which is then used in covert MKUltra-style research, administered to unsuspecting hippies and radicals and the like, with disastrous effects. A modern researcher into these experiments manages to procure a sample of the drug, takes it, and disappears, leaving only disturbing footage of his drug trip and notes toward a book on the subject, notes that reference mysterious “numbers stations” and broadcast relays in the desert. Not long after his disappearance, a journalist friend of his, obsessed with learning what’s happened to him, begins to put the pieces together.
Her journey takes her to his so-called “friends in Colorado” who provided him with the experimental drug. The second act takes place in the house of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque character (played with scenery chewing gusto by Ted Levine) and if you’ve ever been so unfortunate as to experience chemically altered states in strange environments with hostile people, then these scenes will certainly resonate with you. (I have, and it did.) The paranoia ramps up considerably here, with double-crossings and betrayals and general drug-induced mind-fuckery weirdness, until the agenda of the other-dimensional beings becomes apparent: the DMT acts as a radio receiver for the beings from beyond, who then enter this reality and wear humans like suits. Again, the evil comes to us through a tweak in our perceptions, a change in the frequency of our being.
Much as with the creatures in Lovecraft’s From Beyond, seeing these beings means they can see you, and the third terrifying act is a mad and ultimately futile scramble in the desert to locate the secret government broadcasting station that allows the beings access to our world. The Thompson character even goes so far as to drop a complete synopsis of From Beyond on the journalist before a pivotal scene, which almost seems too meta to work, but it does, somehow. Banshee Chapter fulfils the early promise of Lovecraft’s story, and in the process treads some interesting ground rarely seen in current horror. Like YellowBrickRoad, there’s no way to actually escape this evil, since it is vibrational in nature… if you’ve ever been spooked by the idea that radio waves are in fact passing through you right now, loaded with music and information and god knows what else, then this film understands you. These things are everywhere, they are at your elbow even now… like the nameless protagonist in From Beyond, once you’ve seen them, you can’t unsee them. “It would help my shaky nerves if I could dismiss what I now have to think of the air and the sky about and above me.”
Personally, I’d like to see more treatments of this theme, as I think it’s a really effective way to “transmit” horror to the viewer. What are your favourite “frequency horror” films? Enjoy the trailers for YellowBrickRoad and Banshee Chapter below, leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re feeling suitably inspired, consider submitting a story to our RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond anthology!
Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in both Summer of Lovecraft and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
… and Here’s Why You Should Fix That
Film efforts based on the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft most often fall into two categories: the loving yet slavish adaptations of specific stories (the excellent silent treatment of The Call of Cthulhu by the HPL Historical Society is a prime example) or the campy “(loosely) based on” goodness of Stuart Gordon’s decades of work. (For one instance, Gordon’s Dagon isn’t the story Dagon; it’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Spanish-style). Very rarely does a film come along that explores new ground, or attempts to frame the Lovecraftian thematic material in interesting ways from outside the accepted canon.
2008 saw the North American release of director Dan Gildark’s CTHULHU, a film that was plagued by negativity from a large part of the Lovecraftian fan community long before it graced a screen, a negativity that followed it into its general release. And that’s a shame, because CTHULHU is a unique and much-needed entry into a genre (and let’s be honest, Lovecraft is a genre, now more than ever) that over-values campy fun and a kind of eldritch hipsterism in its films over serious examinations of the Old Gentleman’s themes.
Resistance to the film takes a few forms. Gripes have included the fact that CTHULHU is not, in fact, a re-telling of The Call of Cthulhu, drawing instead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth for its source material; and given that, the setting for the movie’s Innsmouth stand-in (Astoria, OR) is in the Pacific Northwest, and not hoary old New England (oh, perish the thought); that Tori Spelling is in it for a couple of scenes; and that (and this last is by no means the least of the complaints) the main character, Russell Marsh, played with great empathy by actor Jason Cottle (Law & Order, The Haunting of Hell House), is a gay man. Even relatively positive reviews for CTHULHU can’t seem to shake off the lingering homophobia that leads to the use of disparaging terms like “butt buddy”.
Well, shake it off, Lovecraftians (once, twice, three times and you’re playing with it, mind), because today we’re going deep into CTHULHU, and why it’s one of the best Mythos-inspired movies you probably didn’t watch the first time round (for reasons) and why you should rectify that soon-ish.
First off, the technical stuff. CTHULHU can very rightfully boast about its sound and music design, which is minimal, tone-perfect, and creepy. Same goes for lighting, photography, location and set design: there are some breathtaking shots in this film. There is a single-shot car accident within the first 15 minutes that deserves serious kudos; a flash-cut stumble through black underground passages that’s particularly terrifying;
dream sequences that pulse with nightmarish power and the kind of singular imagery one expects from German art haus films; and an excellent tracking shot over at least a hundred extras (members of the PNW surfing community as Deep Ones) slowly exiting the boiling tide that puts an ominous cap on the narrative. CTHULHU was shot digitally, there is a marine-layer of blue and dim, washed-out grey light that rolls over everything in the film like a bank of cold fog, marking it as a very West Coast film.
Now, if you’re into weird entertainment, and you don’t know about the films of David Lynch, then I don’t know what to say to you. Honestly, I’d think you were being a little disingenuous. Well, Gildark & Co. know their Lynch, and CTHULHU needs to be viewed through a Lynchian filter for its real beauty to shine through. Is the acting of every performer (other than Cottle) strange, wooden, and forced? Oh yes. Yes, and consistently so, which I believe is a deliberate choice, recalling the twisty mythic resonance of Twin Peaks. From the one-note leader of the Esoteric Order of Dagon…
to the vitriol-spewing sheriff robotically chewing up the scenery with completely out-of-left-field quotes from Yeat’s The Second Coming; from the bland-as-toast gay love interest to the over-the-top come-hitherness of Ms Spelling’s tadpole-babymama in her ridiculous short-shorts, these are characters that are meant to be painted with broad strokes. Broad characters, stilted wooden dialogue, unlikely motivations, all these help to colour the narrative in sickly, disorienting hues, a narrative set in the final moments before the return of the Great Old Ones: these are end times (arguably, the End Times), the radio and television broadcasts that chatter in behind the scenes reveal an earth that is giving up the ghost, giving up all illusion of ever having been a rational place. There is no place in the world left for sensible human interaction. There are no sensible humans left.
And as far as the dialogue is concerned, well, please recall that Lovecraft couldn’t have written a normal sounding conversation between two humans if his life had depended on it. When Cottle’s Marsh sits with his insane great aunt in an attempt to dig information from her, or interacts awkwardly with the girl from the liquor store, or hangs out on a dock with the film’s raving Zadok Allen stand-in, it works, somehow. Especially when you close your eyes to listen. It’s Lovecraft dialogue, updated to the 21st Century.
That’s the key, I believe, to the film: a (symbolic) closing of the eyes. (Don’t actually close your eyes; the photography, remember? It’s very good, gorgeous, even.) There are many dream sequences throughout its 100 minute length, but the whole thing is a dream. CTHULHU has the same languid urgency of a fever dream, profoundly unsettling singular images presented without commentary, scattershot logic and senseless narrative leaps. Leering faces. Headlong tears down darkened streets, claustrophobic corners, vast unfeeling land-and-seascapes. As Marsh’s dreams begin to bleed into his reality, the entire narrative opens up from a simple return-of-the-prodigal-son story into something far stranger.
Alright, though. Let me address that simple story first. Because of course, it’s not so simple. Or rather, it is, but a single aspect of the story tends to overshadow the film (and the minds of its largely hetero critics) as a whole, namely the sexual orientation of the character of Russell Marsh. Yup, he’s gay. Nope, Lovecraft never wrote a gay character, or even came close to writing a character with any kind of sexuality at all. The complaints about CTHULHU tread this same ground over and over: “is the gay thing really necessary?” goes the refrain. “It’s exploitative.” And so on. And it might be, were the film a vehicle for some kind of homosexual agenda. But it’s not: what Marsh is (a son, a brother, a prodigal, a professor, and many other things before and beyond his orientation) serves the story, and not the other way around.
And really, of all the Lovecraft stories where a gay protagonist would work, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is top of the list! Shadow… is all about the fear of breeding, of monstrous genetic heritage, of sexual assault and unwanted miscegenation, mutation, body horror. Would Ms Spelling’s creepy drugging and rape of Marsh be less horrific if his character was a straight man? I submit that it would.
(An aside: the choice of Ms Spelling in the role of “Susan” here is, honestly, inspired. In the film we are presented with a community that has fully embraced and incorporated their Deep One heritage: like the rapidly decaying world outside its borders, it has been normalized. Horror is an everyday thing. Everyone is in on it, there are no detractors from the EoD dogma, and more importantly, no overt monsterism. Susan and her psychotic hubby may be using Marsh to spawn monsters, but they are not monstrous looking.
And so Spelling is a great choice for the role: conventionally attractive, and yet it must be admitted that she has the wide face and slightly ophthalmic eyes that characterize the Innsmouth Look. Off-putting because of its familiarity. No robes and mutations here, these are cultists who pass.)
Anyway, back to Marsh. He is literally attacked by breeders, with (in the context of the story) all that the word implies. The results are horrific, nauseating. Gildark doesn’t show the viewer what’s in that clawfoot tub in the final moments of the film, and he doesn’t have to. That’s good scary filmmaking, right there, and the repugnance and horror of the situation is only made deeper and richer with a gay lead. It fits. It works. It’s not a distraction, or an aberration; it’s decent, thought-out narrative.
Nor is that scene in the bathroom the only time such skill is on display. There are choice little moments throughout CTHULHU that allow the film to stand apart from the pack. A hallucinatory encounter with a strange gemstone in the attic of a fishing shack; the apparent (but never fully explained) return of a dead ancestor; a nice shout-out to Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness during a jail escape scene; and an encounter with a bad piece of CGI on a darkened highway that, again, works despite itself, because it is so brief, so out-of-context, so never-touched-on-again.
Weirdness piles on to weirdness, and the cumulative effect is very interesting indeed. For myself, I don’t need every little tic and odd thing classified and pinned to a board in order to feel comfortable with a film; the more strange errata are present, the more deranged (and happy) I am. Film should derange, it should unsettle, and horror films especially so. If Gildark was going for the nightmarish vibe of a descent into madness, then he succeeded.
There is however one moment, to my mind, where the whole effort trips over itself, and interestingly, it is a moment that could be considered as a bit of fan-service. About halfway through the film, Marsh finds himself in an empty house with a dead-eyed little boy who he suspects is the missing child he’s been looking for. The kid’s been waiting, waiting, watching snow on an old TV like every dead-eyed kid since Poltergeist has, and when he’s asked who he’s been waiting for, Bustah Brown breaks the fourth wall in a close-up shot and intones “CTHULHU”, and there’s a musical sting as it happens, a deep bass tone. It’s forced. It’s weird. There’s no follow-up, only an immediate scene change. Gildark, in an interview, has stated that “Cthulhu” for him, as a word, embodies forces that operate outside our perception. Which is fine on the surface of it, but in a film where so much is left unsaid, implied, hinted at, and obscured (there is no explicit mention of the Deep Ones, for instance, at least not by name, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon is present, but actually pretty goddamn esoteric, by all accounts) the actual mention of Cthulhu (less as the Great Old One and more as the title and theme of the film) by a moppet in short pants feels contrived. If anything, that one scene came across more as “Lovecraftian fan exploitation” than all the supposed gay exploitation. It could easily be removed without doing any harm.
So, if you missed this one the first time around, or went in expecting a standard Call of Cthulhu RPG scenario translated to film and came away disappointed as a result, I encourage you to shift your frame of viewing reference and give Dan Gildark’s CTHULHU another try. It’s not a perfect film, but then, films that get better with repeat viewings rarely are.
Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
I first heard of Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow from someone on my twitter feed. I’m sure this happens a lot, with the exchange proceeding along the following lines…
Person A tweets: “Beyond the Black Rainbow… #WTF did I just watch?” Persons B through L then offer up their various fevered interpretations of a film that, thankfully, resists and confounds interpretations as much as it invites them.
The best response I ever read went a little something like this: “Beyond the Black Rainbow is your standard Boy meets Girl, Boy enters the Void and returns with knowledge that cannot be contained by a human mind, Boy rips Girl’s throat out with his teeth, Boy obsesses over Girl’s telekinetic daughter in a Black-Ops MK Ultra-esque research facility with psychic androids. You know, same old, same old.”
The film is deliberately, even meticulously, styled after the straight-to-VHS shock-horror films of the early 80s that graced the shelves of your local video rental joint. You could call it an homage, except that Cosmatos has gone far beyond that call and entered into a realm of deeply realized hyper-nostalgia, insisting upon fully analog period-compatible production methods in both his visuals and the soundtrack (brilliantly executed by Jeremy Schmidt of Vancouver BC’s Black Mountain). The film recalls and references 2001: A Space Odyssey, Altered States, Scanners, and THX 1138, among many others. It genuinely feels like it was made in the year the film is set in, 1983; made and then lost to obscurity, buried in some failed video distributors back-catalogue, only to be exhumed and made available again nearly thirty years later.
And, surging below the obvious cinematic influences of Kubrick, John Carpenter, and Michael Mann is the nighted existentialism of our man Lovecraft.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is Lovecraftian to the core. If we live on the shores of a black sea of infinity, then this film is a primer for what happens when we piece together dissociated knowledge and voyage far, against all reason and rationality, upon those seas.
Dr Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) is the founder and head of the Arboria Institute, a quasi-mystical therapeutic facility utilizing a New Age-y mish-mash of techniques such as neuro-psychology and “energy sculpting”, hypnosis and “benign pharmacology” to help people attain “happiness, contentment, inner peace.” A tone-perfect promotional video for the Institute opens the film and immediately we can smell the hubris coming off the screen: this man, and anyone associated with him, is clearly about to venture into dangerous territories.
A note about plot: the same old same old summary above is as succinct as anything I could write here, but if I’m going to claim an HPL influence, some details (which will not spoil the film, guaranteed!) will be necessary. Halfway through the film, we are taken in flashback (using an arresting, visually blown-out photography effect that is migraine-like in its intensity) to the traumatic event that is the source of the later horrors: the young Dr Nyle (Michael Rogers) is Dr Arboria’s test pilot for an experimental drug used in conjunction with a thoroughly unsettling-looking sensory-deprivation tank that is, basically, a circular pool of black muck into which he descends. Dr Arboria, assisted by his young wife, urge Nyle to “bring back the mother lode” and the younger doctor does, in spades.
Using macro-photography techniques, analog smoke and water effects, jarring lighting contrasts and a very effective hollow maquette of the actor’s head, we experience Nyle’s takeover by a hostile, nameless force. The scene is reminiscent of some of the more hallucinatory images from Ken Russel’s Altered States. Scored with a droning, oppressive track that features heavy Mellotron use, the possession is claustrophobic, horrifying, and all the more so for what we imagine is occurring to the victim. Every terrible thing possible pours into his head like sentient smoke and we are sickened as much by the unknowable (by us) terror of it as we are by the aftermath. Nyle emerges from the pool and commits a monstrous act…
The good Dr Arboria, by now at least half-way insane if not fully, seeks to mitigate the awfulness of his loss by baptizing his now motherless infant daughter in the very same pool, believing that she will become the first of a new breed of humanity. She does, after a fashion, but grows to become a captive of the Arboria Institute and the new, power-mad Nyle, who has usurped Dr Arboria as Director, addicting the older man to research-grade opiates. Nyle keeps her powers suppressed with the facilities mysterious machines while he performs his malevolent therapies upon her. The rest of the film is largely Elena’s (Eva Allan) attempts at escape from Arboria.
Something I have always found fascinating about Lovecraft’s characters is their essentially pathetic nature. Despite their hard-won and far-reaching knowledge and their claims to a high level of competence and control over themselves and their world, they find themselves fighting a panicked, rear-guard battle against powerful forces of irrationality that arise just as often from within their own chaotic selves as from their contact with outer realms of being. For the Lovecraftian protagonist, Madness is absolutely certain, even if Death is not. And when Death does arrive, it often does so in a completely banal, pathetic manner: think of Wilbur Whateley’s ignominious passing by, of all things, a guard dog attack.
Nyle here fulfills that type well. By the third act, we learn that his transformation was not only of the mind, but of the body as well. We are witness to a physical transition, which, while understated, is made all the more sickening by our understanding of the twisted mind behind those eyes. Nyle is a man exposed to awful truths from Beyond, a man who has warped and mutated over the years from the constant pressure of hosting those truths within him. Within the stark, well-lit corridors of the Arboria Institute, he could maintain a fetishistic illusion of control over Eva, her father, even himself. But once Eva does escape, and Nyle goes on a violent hunt outside the facility for her, all control is lost, if it was ever there at all. Nyle’s death, when it comes, is sudden, laughable, almost ridiculous. Like many a Lovecraftian protagonist before him, his knowledge, and whatever small but horrific measure of power it gave him over others, has made him a victim.
It should be noted that Beyond the Black Rainbow is a glacially paced film. You have not seen “slow” until you’ve clocked its one hour, forty-five minute run time. Thankfully, it is so well-crafted visually, and the skillful intensity of the actors (who are often subjected to very close-up camera work so that we can see every twitch and anguished micro-expression) makes it a psychedelic slow burn that’s quite enjoyable. And, as mentioned previously, it’s a film that leaves a lot open to interpretation, and provides no easy answers, which as far as I’m concerned is another black feather in it’s Lovecraft cap.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is available from the film’s distributors here (trailer is there as well and worth a look even if you’re not planning to see the film) and it’s streaming on Netflix for the foreseeable future.
(This review written by Martian Migraine Press author S R Jones. It originally appeared on the Lovecraft eZine 12 March 2013)