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Saturday, December 17, 2011


THE H.P. LOVECRAFT COLLECTION, VOLUME 4: PICKMAN'S MODEL, conceived and produced by Andrew Migliore for Lurker Films, is part of their continuing effort to bring us the best of the short films based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  The previous volumes were entitled "Cool Air", "Rough Magik", and "Out of Mind."  Here, Lovecraft's chilling tale "Pickman's Model" is presented in three different interpretations, supplemented by two other short films.  Collectively, they add up to a couple of hours of solid entertainment for the Gothic horror fan.

I was unwilling to start another Lovecraft film review with the disclaimer "I've never read any of his stories, but...", so I found a website containing his complete works and gave "Pickman's Model" a read.  It's the eerie story of Richard Upton Pickman, a deranged artist whose paintings depict scenes of carnage and depravity so realistic and repellent that he is shunned by the "tea table" art crowd.  All except for a man named Thurber, who is morbidly fascinated by Pickman's work and wants to see more.  Pickman obliges him by inviting Thurber to the dark, haunted cellar where he does his most gruesome work and showing him exactly from whence springs his malevolent inspiration.  Which, as you might guess, turns out to be a rather unsettling experience for the unsuspecting art lover.

It's a very short story told in flashback by Thurber to his friend Eliot after the fact, and any filmization must be augmented by extra dialogue and events.  At 43 minutes, the 2000 TV-film "Chilean Gothic", directed by Roberto Harrington from an adaptation by Gilberto Villarroel, is the longest and most altered version on this disc. 

Here, the "Thurber" character is a journalist named Gabriel (Rodrigo SepĂșlveda) who is investigating the violent death of his friend Anibal, whose last known whereabouts were in the company of the renegade artist Pickman.  He interviews Pickman's only friend, an eccentric old professor named Mattotti, and the slovenly caretaker of a crumbling apartment house where Pickman once lived.  Both meet a violent end on the same night that Gabriel is lurking through the hidden tunnels beneath the apartment house, where he finds human remains. 

Tracking Pickman down to a remote island, he finds him inhabiting a large, shadowy mansion surrounded by paintings and sketches of unimaginable, otherworldly horror.  Here, Pickman is played by Renzo Oviedo as a frizzy-haired wild man--the other versions will each interpret him quite differently.  Gabriel's confrontation with Pickman leads to an event which is common to each of these films, which is the emergence of some terrifying, unnameable beast from a brick well within the cellar of Pickman's house.  This leads to a final revelation for Gabriel which is unique to "Chilean Gothic" and not found in any other version.  It comes as a pretty satisfying shock ending.

SepĂșlveda and Oviedo are intense in the lead roles and the film unfolds as a scintillating mystery that is well told, with an atmosphere of dread that lets us know things aren't going to end on a happy note.  Aside from some shock cuts of Aribal's ravaged body, most of the horror is left to the viewer's imagination, including Pickman's paintings themselves.  As Thurber tells his friend Eliot in the short story: "There's no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify."  Director Harrington reveals only oblique glimpses of the paintings to give us an idea of their content, with one notable exception: a full-on view of Francisco Goya's horrific "Saturn Devouring His Children", which will also pop up in the Italian version next on the disc.

Producer-director Giovanni Furore's "Pickman's Model" (2003) begins with a young woman answering an ad for a painter's model and ending up as an entree for the creature in Pickman's cellar.  Then we veer a bit closer to actual Lovecraft territory as a distraught Howard (Vittorio de Stefano) stumbles into the home of his friend Russel (Alessandro di Lorenzo) one night with a cloth-covered painting and a strange story.  The painting is a Pickman original, which piques the interest of art-lover Russel, and the story is similar to Lovecraft's, with Howard and Russel standing in for Thurber and Eliot. 

This time, the Pickman that Howard meets at an art exhibition is portrayed by Lorenzo Mori as a twisted, spidery hunchback with a really evil leer.  He leads Howard through some creepy old Italian backalleys to a dark, spooky house with stone passageways dripping with water and a cellar with the usual brick well.  As before, the content of Pickman's paintings is only hinted at, but this time we get a disturbing impression of them via subliminal flashes of some truly demented photographs--you'll want to go back and do some frame-advancing to get the full effect.  At one point, the wooden lid to the well starts to rattle violently, and Pickman grabs a gun and locks Howard out of the room, saying something about "rats."  Well, once we hear the blood-chilling racket going on in there, we know it ain't rats--the sound effects alone are enough to give you a large case of the willies. 

The rich cinematography here is nice after the grainy visuals of the Chilean effort, and Lorenzo Mori's scuttling, sinister Pickman is delightfully loathesome.  The story builds nicely to an ending that explicity follows the one in the short story, right down to a shot of the cellar creature itself.  It's still a bit less than our imaginations are capable of conjuring up, but the set-up and pay-off for the twist ending are well-handled. 

Next comes my favorite of the bunch, Texas director Cathy Welch's 1981 college thesis film "Pickman's Model."  The low-budget black and white photography makes it look like something out of the 60s--in fact, the dark, moody atmosphere and nightmarish locations give it the same oppressive aura that hung so heavily over Francis Ford Coppola's DEMENTIA 13 and Herk Harvey's CARNIVAL OF SOULS.  This time we finally get an actual Thurber, although his friends call him "Bill" (Mac Williams), and he's relating his strange story to his gal-pal Ellen (Nancy Griffith), which is pretty close to "Eliot." 

Bill and Ellen are members of an art club that consists mainly of straight-laced conservatives with little appreciation for the ghastly canvases of the eccentric Pickman (the director's brother, Marc Mahan).  As Bill enthusiastically tells Ellen, "Pickman dredges up our darkest fantasies...the ancient terrors in our collective subconscious," while she cautions him, "There's a trick to being fascinated with the perverse without becoming perverse yourself." 

Marc Mahan portrays Pickman as a man with a deceptively bland yet somehow ominous appearance which masks the keenly decadent and ultimately dangerous intellect within.  When he is expelled from the art club, Bill goes with him, intent on finishing his manuscript about Great Painters He Has Known with a special section on Pickman.  He gets invited to the man's house for a look at some of his latest works, and after proving his worthiness, is then taken to Pickman's super-secret studio where he does his really undiluted and downright freaky stuff. 

Deep in the heart of old Boston, a richly-historical setting haunted by the ghosts of the past and resonating with leftover evil from the days of the Salem witch trials, Pickman's crumbling old mansion is a nightmare-inducing spook house.  The well in the cellar, which in the other versions of the story is simply a generic doorway to Hell, is here directly related to the Salem witchcraft days in that it is a doorway to the underground passageways that were said to allow the witches and other creatures of the night to secretly commune with one another, and which may still contain something best left alone.  Pickman himself is part of that lineage--as he tells Bill, his four-time great-grandmother was hanged as a witch under the stern gaze of none other than Cotton Mather. 

Bill becomes increasingly disturbed by Pickman's paintings as we finally get to see some of them as described in Lovecraft's short story.  The renderings are crude but interesting, especially a portrait of a Puritan family in quiet prayer.  They're all bent in solemn communion with God except for the little boy, who is leering at the viewer with anything but pure thoughts.  Other paintings show victims being attacked and devoured by strange canine-human hybrids in graveyards and subways.  One of them, which depicts one of these beasts killing a boy, is brought startlingly to life in a shocking makeup-effects shot that is cheap but effective.  But most disturbing to Bill is the fact that Pickman's paintings are starting to dredge up primal fears within him that seem to be connected to past experiences that his memory has suppressed.

The sequence in which the unknown creature begins to emerge from the well is handled better here than in any of the other versions.  Bill is locked out and must listen to the blood-curdling noises behind the door until finally Pickman emerges.  There's something different about him now--he's hairier, his hands and face are twisted, and his teeth are sharper--in other words, he's beginning to resemble one of those creatures in his paintings.  At that point, Bill suddenly remembers something he had to do somewhere else, and gets his hindquarters out of there.

Lovecraft's story ends with the main character revealing that he swiped a photograph that was pinned to one of Pickman's canvases and stuffed it in his pocket.  Pickman always took photographs from which to better render the background details for his paintings--or so he said.  In the short story, as in this and the Italian film version, a final revelation concerning Pickman's photographs supplies the twist ending.  But here, there's an added sequence that pushes Cathy Welch's interpretation of the story even further into horror film territory and gives it a chilling ending that's right out of your worst nightmares.  Which is just one of the reasons I consider this film to be the highlight of the collection.

The six-minute short that follows is a distinct change of pace.  Based on a single sentence from an unfinished story by Lovecraft, Holland's "Between The Stars" (1998) features Jos Urbanis as Minnekens, an increasingly self-absorbed office drone whose only pleasure in life is to lie on his back with his head sticking out the window and gaze up the airshaft between the surrounding apartment buildings at a single square of star-bedecked night sky.  Another beautifully-shot black and white entry, Djie Han Thung's film is reminiscent of David Lynch's ERASERHEAD in style and content.  We really get into this guy's head as he wanders totally detached through his daily life, preoccupied with the facial pores of a chattering coworker or the miniscule white specks in the printed letters of a book.  A strangely upbeat ending ties this odd entry off rather neatly.

Finally, we get some primitive, old-school computer animation in the form of Geoffrey D. Clark's adaptation of Lovecraft's "In The Vault", the story of a vile cemetery caretaker named George Birch.  This drunken old sot isn't above tossing the dear departed into mismarked graves, robbing them of their valuables, or burying two of them together to save the effort of digging separate holes.  When a long freeze makes gravedigging impossible, the bodies are stored together in a vault until the spring thaw.  As fate would have it, George gets locked into this vault one night and must figure out a way to escape.  But before he does, the meanness and cruelty he has shown to his vault-mates in both life and death comes back to haunt him in a big way.

Clark's rendition of the story is short and simple--more of a childlike fairytale than a horror story--and it comes and goes leaving little lasting impression.  So I read the original story to see if there was more to it than that, and sure enough, it's a dark and disturbing tale of terror that could've yielded a much better adaptation than this.  As it is, Clark's "In The Vault" is a pleasant diversion, sort of like the cartoon that theaters used to play along with the feature, but it had the potential of being memorably frightening if only the source material had been better utilized.

I'm glad I watched THE H.P. LOVECRAFT COLLECTION, VOLUME 4: PICKMAN'S MODEL, because not only did it prompt me to finally start reading Lovecraft after all these years, but it also provided me with a highly-enjoyable evening's worth of really good Gothic horror.  Seeing how a single short story can yield such a mix of wildly-different styles and interpretations makes it consistently interesting.  And it's a great example of how mood and atmosphere can be just as effective, and sometimes more so, than a bunch of shock cuts and gore effects.

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