Archive for the Lovecraftian Horror Category


Posted in 2013, 60s Movies, Art Movies, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, Enigmatic Films, Family Secrets, Foreign Films, Garrett Cook Articles, Lovecraftian Horror, Madness with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2013 by knifefighter

By Garrett Cook


It’s been forever since I’ve written one of these columns. People and cities and ideas and lives change and mine did in several big ways in the last year. I missed writing for Cinema Knife Fight, and now I’m gonna do it again. I thought maybe I would start by finding a weird, shocking, filthy, perverse Criterion film. Something that would blow your mind and take you to the very edge of perception. And I did. Did I ever.

Cronenberg? Bunuel? Malle? Nope. Asian horror? Nope. Some kind of Swedish erotic art film? A little warmer. Imagine if Tennessee Williams and H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on a family drama set on an isolated island, a place tinged with madness, with the stench of malevolent cosmology hanging in the air. And there’s sin and sexual dysfunction and a sinister play with a dark truth at its core. So let’s add a little Robert “The King in Yellow” Chambers to the mix. Moody black and white cosmic horror. Yeah, that’s the stuff. So, who pray tell is the twisted mind behind this?

The man whose work inspired Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and who had a knight in plague-stricken medieval Europe confront the grim reaper himself. A true master of the horror genre. Who knows terror like…Ingmar Bergman? That can’t be right. But it is. Bergman is the genius behind THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), which was later remade (reimagined?) as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and pitted a knight in a chess game against death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). His film THE MAGICIAN (1958) had all of the elements of one of Val Lewton’s classics of psychological horror: from a man terrorized by doubts in his psyche to a murder that may or may not have been in the province of the supernatural. THE MAGICIAN is, as well as being a period piece and an excellent story about the power of art, a masterpiece of quiet horror.

And so is THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961).

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is one of those movies that defines in people’s mind what an art film is, or what a drama is. It looks on the surface to just be a story about a disintegrating family. The setup is not particularly horrific: a novelist takes his son, his daughter and her husband on vacation. His daughter is schizophrenic. She finds out his novel is about her and gets upset. Why is this of interest to a column on horror culture and filth in the Criterion Collection?

Because as I said, there are traces of cosmic horror and weird fiction here that are hard to ignore, but enjoyable to savor, as they seem to be in the wrong place. Near the beginning of the film, the son puts on a play starring the daughter, involving a knight’s strange relationship with a ghost. It’s cool that it calls back to the questing knight facing death in THE SEVENTH SEAL, but fans of vintage weird fiction might see another connection, another great “Death and the Maiden” play, embedded in a narrative: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow centers around an ominous play where the heroine’s sad song freezes the heart of the viewer. This play hints at love and death interweaving on a cosmic level, and at there being something deeply wrong in this family and on this island. The King in Yellow terrorizes you with evil in the walls of a metanarrative, and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY does the same. Something is wrong with this play. Something is wrong with reality. Something is loose in the theater.

Karin comes to a realization in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Karin (Harriet Andersson) comes to a realization in Ingmar Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Although her father feels Karin is incurable, Karin’s husband is trying to remain optimistic. He does not believe her condition will have to eat away her life. And it doesn’t seem to, until Karin finds her father’s manuscript. In her father’s manuscript, the heroine is an incurable schizophrenic, in her father’s manuscript, Karin his hopeless. When Karin reads this, she is naturally upset, but it seems to go beyond that and once again into the realm of weird fiction and magic. The fictional Karin is sick, so the real Karin becomes sick. The fictional Karin is too crazy to heal, so the real one must be as well. It works like a voodoo doll and warps the world like the sinister play in Chambers’ story. It has even, in some ways, turned into a grimoire like the Necronomicon from Lovecraft’s books.

Karin begins describing her hallucinations about people behind the walls watching her, judging her. She seems to have a strange sixth sense that she’s not just the protagonist of a novel, but that of a movie as well. She seems to see the framework and that there’s no difference between life and art and reality and fantasy. She faces the realization of the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, who discovers that the hideous paintings of his friend Pickman were modeled after a photograph from life. So the movie returns to the Pickman’s Model/King in Yellow delusion, the stuff that Lucio Fulci’s A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990) and John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) deal with, along with Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (made into a film by George Romero in 1993). The reality-warping power of madness shines in Karin’s dialogue, because Bergman has isolated the movie from the rest of reality. On this little island, all we have are people’s opinions on Karin’s madness, and Karin’s madness itself. Like Shakespeare’s power to conjure images, Karin’s makes things happen in your head, turning words into imagery, and therefore turning her words into reality.

Karin succumbs not just to insanity, but to her worst urges, performing an act of incest. Her behavior has gone from simply crazy to truly aberrant, committing on of the worst sins imaginable. This is a pretty sordid world Bergman has created, one without hope or moral high ground or a chance to gain rectitude, a world ruled over by a force that is less than benevolent. Without a single tentacle, we have the feelings Lovecraft sought to convey of smallness, depravity, insanity and isolation. And the feeling that Karin’s visions are right. There are people outside the screen watching and judging her and waiting for her to fall apart on both sides of these realities. And she is under the power of a man behind a camera who is frankly not going to be very nice to her.

As Karin finally cracks, she does so in fine Lovecraftian form, terrified by confronting the image of God. Creatures like Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu appear before the eyes of Lovecraft’s heroes to shatter their minds or prove that the minds of the hero have been shattered.

“God is a spider,” Karin says.

And while Bergman does not show the spider, we have now gotten the idea in our imagination that Karin has seen some dark god. Does it matter that she is crazy? Has this god driven her crazy? We can’t say definitively that Lovecraft’s protagonists have seen the Elder Gods, and we can’t say with any certainty that Karin doesn’t know something in this Swedish art-house gothic that shows no monster at all, THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY has as much in common with Val Lewton’s deep psychological thrillers for RKO in the 40s, in fact sharing a lot of themes with CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943),. and other films of their ilk. And all leave you with the same horrendous impression that something is out there and that mad and malformed as the human mind can get, there is a grain of truth to all of the hallucinations and all of the cosmic horror.

The discriminating viewer is not just one who finds meaning in the depraved and the weird and the horrific, but also one who finds the depraved, the weird and the horrific in the things that academics and squares and stuffed shirts say are meaningful and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY has that stuff in spades. So, if you like Lovecraft, Hitchcock or Lewton—or just an uncomfortable chill and a lump in your throat—Ingmar Bergman might be the scare you need.

© Copyright 2013 by Garrett Cook


“The Reassessment Files” Take a Second Look at John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2012, Ancient Civilizations, Cult Movies, Demons, John Carpenter Films, Lovecraft Movies, Lovecraftian Horror, Monsters, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2012 by knifefighter

The Reassessment Files:
By Paul McMahon (The Distracted Critic)

John Trent: You’re waiting to hear about my “them,” aren’t you?

Dr. Wrenn: Your what?

John Trent: My “them.”Every paranoid schizophrenic has one; a “them,” a “they,” an “it”. And you want to hear about my “them,” don’t you?


Maybe that’s where this first “Reassessment Files” should begin, eh? My “them.”

John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came out in 1994—almost two decades ago. I rented the VHS from a mom and pop place called Lake Ripple Video near where I grew up. The store itself was a bit of a sore spot with me, because before the video people moved in that shop was The Yankee Bookseller, and it’s where I spent every lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling dollar I earned. Lake Ripple Video has also long since closed. But I digress. Before I’ve even started, I digress.

The timing of the movie was such that I was on the verge of being unemployed because my job was closing. (Seeing a trend here? The mid-nineties sucked for that sort of thing.) I had a lot on my mind. The end result was that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came across as disjointed and incoherent, a blatant mess with logic holes and dropped plot strands. It looped endlessly and ended abruptly, leaving far more questions than answers. The kicker was, I really wanted to like it, having seen a CNN filler interview in which Carpenter promised this movie would have more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a monster story, so naturally I took that promise to heart.

Carpenter’s movie disappointed in a huge way. For the guy who brought THE THING (1982) to the big screen, I expected a hell of a lot more. Frankly, I got a much better view of the monsters during the CNN interview. I grumbled all the way back to Lake Ripple Video and tossed the whole IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS concept onto my mental trash heap and moved on.

Over the past few years, though, I have heard repeatedly at cons and on Facebook and from friends whose opinions I trust that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is one of the very best H.P. Lovecraft homages that exists. I’ve always used my skeptical eyebrow when dealing with these crazies. It’s a strategy that has worked well in the past, but lately there are more and more of these loonies to contend with, and my eyebrow is tiring. It seemed my best option was for me to give the film another look.

Since the movie is just shy of two decades old, I’m going to reveal spoilers if they come up. If that’s going to bug you, go watch the film before you read another word.

The movie opens with John Trent (Sam Neill, JURASSIC PARK ,1993) being thrown into a padded cell in a very busy lunatic asylum. Once his raving subsides, he’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, THE OMEN, 1976) and is coaxed into telling his story. He reveals that he was an insurance investigator, and he was sent to investigate a claim by a big-time New York publishing house that their star author—Sutter Cain (Jurgen Prochnow, most notably DAS BOOT, 1981) —has disappeared with his latest manuscript. As Trent reads and studies Cain’s books to familiarize himself with the case, we learn he’s anti-horror, most likely anti-fantasy, and probably anti-fiction of any form. Waking from a nightmare featuring repetitive disturbing images, he discovers strange lines on the covers of Cain’s paperbacks. He cuts them out and pieces them together. They form a map of New Hampshire, revealing the exact location of Cain’s fictional town of Hobb’s End.

To him, this means that the whole “disappearing author” thing is a publicity stunt and not a real mystery. If Trent seems more than a little disappointed by this, he seems positively put-out that he’s sent to find the town with Cain’s editor, the sultry Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, FRIGHT NIGHT II, 1988). Styles insists that the only person to have read the entire manuscript, Cain’s agent, went crazy. Turns out the agent is the same nut that attacked Trent with an axe in broad daylight and was shot dead by police earlier in the movie. Eventually, Trent falls asleep in the car and Styles manages to find the town after experiencing some haunting activity on the road, including a weird sequence where the car seems to be flying. Trent wakes when they arrive and they investigate the seemingly deserted town, finally discovering that Cain is living in the town’s church.

I came to the writings of Lovecraft after I saw the film. I’d say that has a bit to do with my not ‘getting it’ the first time. This time, I was surprised to find a veritable smorgasbord of creepy Lovecraftian images and events. There were many quick, indirect images of things that could be defined as “unnamable” and “unspeakable.” A lot of the horror happened indirectly and was hard to identify. On the two occasions that Styles reads Cain’s work aloud, she actually read passages of Lovecraft’s work, most notably “The Rats In The Walls.”

Things get complicated as Styles’ personality is swallowed by the town, resulting in her becoming more of a hindrance than an ally. When she disappears one evening, Trent finds her in the dark old church, watching Cain write. Trent watches as well and with a flourish Cain finishes the last page of his manuscript. The same Cain’s agent already read, which is why he went mad in the first place. If the book wasn’t finished until now, how could that have happened?

Driving people insane is the whole point of Cain’s book, by the way. Cain wants to drive his readers mad. Once a high enough percentage of the population is crazy, the Old Ones who sleep beneath the skin of the Earth can arise and rule the world.

Ah, the Old Ones...

This brings us to my biggest complaint, and the main reason I gave the film such poor marks all those years ago. The Old Ones are loosed before Trent has delivered the manuscript, so before anyone has read the thing. They, in fact, chase him through a mystical tunnel out of Hobbs End and into reality, and at no time do we get a clear shot of the things. Yeah, there are images of parts– a few drooly teeth here, an angry looking eye there, a pair of sharp talons on a scaly, deformed foot– but never a really good look at the monsters. I realize this was in keeping with Lovecraft’s style, but it definitely bucks Carpenter’s promise of “more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before.”

“More and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before!” – Enjoy this screenshot. It’s the best look you’re going to get.

They are “onscreen”– used a stopwatch to time it– thirty seconds out of a movie 5,700 seconds long, and a lot of this segment is Trent running, falling, and screaming. Even crap movies have more monster than this. If you absolutely insist on counting Mrs. Pickman’s “reveal” and Styles’ “transformation,” the total monster-on-screen ratio is two minutes out of 195.

Hardly “more and better monsters” at all.

Watching the sequences on freeze frame, it’s obvious the “Wall of Old Ones” cost a lot of money to pull off. We’re talking a dozen to twenty puppeteers just to make the creatures seem alive. To spend that kind of money and then not show the damn things… suffice to say that it’s one of the rare instances where if I’d been producing I would’ve stepped in and enforced my will that there be more– and clearer– shots of the creatures. “Put my money on the screen,” I’d have said. “Lovecraft used the terms ‘unnamable’ and ‘unspeakable’ because he dealt with the printed word and couldn’t fully convey the unusual monstrosities he was seeing. You, John Carpenter, are a filmmaker who has hired the wildest creative imaginers in the business today (The KNB effects group of Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger), so you have no excuse to hide your vision from the viewer.”

Anyway… I went into the movie this time expecting to be let down. Without the pressures that were dragging me down the first time I watched it, and with having read most of Lovecraft’s body of work in the interim, I was able to get into the spirit of the movie a lot deeper and it meant a lot more to me. The homages and tributes were recognizable and fun, and I had a good time, even though the monsters are few and far between.

I still think the film would’ve rocked with a THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)- type montage, where each monster is seen mutilating people in a different city. That would’ve been “more and better monsters.”

First viewing: 1 out of 5 stars

Reassessment: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Best Lovecraft homage ever? I remember one I liked better.

Stay tuned.

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon