Friday, 20 January 2023

Oblique References...

I have been watching scary movies recently and something odd has jumped out at me: many films lately have references to the Mythos contained within them for no readily obvious reason. It’s started to make me wonder.

I have a feeling that this is predicated upon a two-pronged phenomenon. Firstly, Lovecraft has become “cool”. I mean, sure, he’s been trendy for a while now, but recently his work has moved upwards into a stratospheric level. He’s become a household word. Secondly, his stuff exists more-or-less in a public domain limbo: everyone uses his material without having to reference the fact too hard. This is in keeping with HPL’s own thoughts on the matter – he and his Circle friends took each other’s concepts and messed about with them all the time, without fear of it being called out as plagiarism. It was “open source” material within their set, before such a concept existed. Later members of Lovecraft’s extended circle of correspondents – like Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley – are more controlling of their works and concepts these days, but in Lovecraft’s lifetime it was open slather. My sense is that copyright issues and IP concerns will soon be tightening up about Mythos material…

In the meantime, many producers of film and televisual horror material seem to be using Mythos imagery to shortcut notions of what it means to be ‘scary’ into their works. In the first season of “True Detective” for example, the villain at the heart of the first season mystery was referenced as the “King in Yellow”, a term that has all kinds of implications for Mythos fans. It turned out that the villain had nothing to do with Chambers, or with Lovecraft, but the term was deliberately used as a flag to get imaginations and fan expectations running wild before dragging them to bitter disappointment. Later on, in James Wan’s “Aquaman” film, there was the blatant insertion of a paperback copy of “The Dunwich Horror”, lying unregarded on a coffee-table, just to set a certain tone. Previous to that, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” featured a character that looked very much like it was based upon Campbell’s Great Old One Y’golonac, and I wondered at the time if there had been any legal discussions concerning the portrayal.

It's common knowledge that movie production houses are less than keen to risk money on untried material. They will bank cash only on stuff that’s been done before, on copycat material that their spies have told them that rival companies are investing in, or on ideas that have already been enthusiastically embraced by the viewership. Paradoxically, what the audiences want however, is stuff that’s actually new and interesting – we want our expectations challenged; we are keen to have accepted notions subverted. And yet, the money won’t support it – they’ll give us another version of “Dune” instead, but with better effects technology, for what that’s worth. I have a sense that slapping a Mythos rationale onto a horror flick that has nothing – ostensibly – to do with Lovecraft’s oeuvre, has become seen as a ‘safe bet’ option and one worth financing, regardless of the fact that the best cosmic horror films of the last few decades – “Primer”; “Pi”; “Spring”; “The Endless”; “Synchronic” -  have had nothing at all to do with Cthulhu and Co. As it is, I fully expect season two of “Wednesday” to feature a Mythos trope of some kind…

The two recent filmic versions I’ve seen that caught my attention were “Underwater” by director William Eubank starring Kristen Stewart and “The Empty Man” by David Prior. They’ve debuted more-or-less in that order, so let’s deal chronologically:

“Underwater” is a futuristic, ostensibly science fiction, thriller set onboard a mining facility seven miles below the ocean in the Mariana Trench. An explosion destroys part of the base, and what’s left seems likely to follow suit, taking all the survivors with it. A plucky band struggles to avoid a grisly fate by donning deep-sea diving apparatus and walking across the ocean floor to a neighbouring structure that has escape pods as a feature. Many things go wrong, and someone has to stay behind to ensure the survival of the rest of the group: this doomed saviour witnesses the entity behind all of the chaos which is revealed to be…Cthulhu! Fhtagn! The creature design is a bit wonky and idiosyncratic but, if you needed any other confirmation that this is indeed the Big C., we are treated to HPL’s own design for his cosmic critter jumbled together with some maps (marked with suspicious pentagrams) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot while Kristen Stewart is rummaging in an abandoned locker for supplies.

This film is basically a re-make of “Alien”, with a few of the crowd-pleasing elements of “Aliens” folded in, so there’s really nothing new happening in this movie – Stewart is so obviously channelling Lt. Ripley from the first frame that it’s almost painful to watch. Perhaps the director and writers thought that injecting Cthulhu into the narrative would make it somehow ‘fresh’? I don’t think that it had the effect they were after – for my money it bent a straightforward sci-fi thriller right out of shape and ground the entire story to a halt, in much the same way that “Event Horizon” became a disappointing supernatural horror flick after establishing itself as a science fiction action film. I know it’s called ‘cosmic horror’, but that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be set in space (or beneath the sea, which amounts to much the same thing).

Prior’s “The Empty Man” is a more subtle beast. Right at the end, our protagonist is confronted by an entity existing ‘beyond the veil’ which has been trying to cross over into our dimension. The visuals of this tense moment are sketchy and quickly glossed over but the image of the alien creature is, to all intents and purposes, a dead ringer for Nyarlathotep in its form as the Bloody Tentacle, or Bloody Tongue. As with “Underwater” there is little or no preamble to this revelation; it just gets unveiled in a ‘ta-dah!’ moment.

I’m not sure why these filmmakers think this kind of thing is a good idea. In these types of movies, the excitement of the situation and the slow unfolding of the narrative are what keep the viewers engrossed; dumping these icons in at the last minute undermines all of the creative activity that precedes them. Sure, an uninformed newb will see the Bloody Tentacle in all its glory and go “Woah! That’s a cool looking beastie!”; however, those versed in Mythos lore will all go “Oh, okay: it’s just Nyarlathotep. All is revealed.” In one fell swoop, the boundless possibilities of the enigma get wiped off the board to be replaced with a limited subset of expectations.

And sure, some of those expectations are quite bad. Much fan material established on the notion of Nyarlathotep winnows down to “he just makes people go mad!” and all narrative through-flow stops the moment that this happens. The entity is so much more complex than this, but this short-sighted view of the Outer God kills off many stories before they get a chance to go anywhere interesting (I direct you Joseph Pulver’s woefully-edited compilation volume Ripples from Carcosa as evidence). Fear thrives on a lack of information; the unknown scares us while the familiar does not. A familiar monster is just that – as soon as we know that “it’s vampires!”, the mystery vanishes like a popped balloon: we all just break out the stakes and garlic and get busy.

And it’s not new: Stephen King learned the problem of the familiar trope while writing ‘Salem’s Lot – sure, there are some genuinely scary moments in that book, but essentially, once we know it’s vampires, the cat leaves the bag and we’re all soon just getting down to the business of leech extermination.

“The Empty Man” is based upon material that’s so much more interesting than these surface notions of the Big N. and its so-called modus operandi. Tulpas and their manufacture by organised cults attempting to contact the Beyond are a great idea, and this movie shows that there’s a lot of creative room to move and to delight an audience; but plonking a Mythos mainstay in the middle of it all – without any foreshadowing, or any clues – just cuts it off at the knees. I wonder if the writer and director actually wanted Nyarlathotep to be the cause of the mayhem? Or was it just some art director who saw the Chaosium image and thought “That’s cool – let’s rip it for the film!”? And was the director a bit miffed when he found out? Or did everyone involved just think nobody would be paying attention? Well, hate to break it to you, they were.

Working with books, you see a distinct difference between generations of readers and sometimes it can be painful to navigate. Oftentimes I get a young person coming in who is going off about how cool some new writer is and how they’re doing stuff no-one has done before. I immediately say “Michael Moorcock” because if it’s ‘new’ in sci-fi or fantasy, odds are, he’s already taken a stab at it. Most often I’m met with bewilderment and the response, “who dat?”. (I roll my eyes quite a lot.)

And yet, this lack of knowledge seems to be what filmmakers are banking on. “We’ll just bung a shoggoth in there,” they’ll say; “no-one over thirty will be coming to see this flick, so they won’t spot it for what it is.” It’s a shallow and patronising attitude. And it’s lazy.

Of course, if the intention all along was to have Nyarlathotep as the villain of this piece, and to create a Mythos-based work of cinema, then that’s perfectly fine. I would suggest though, that the writers needed to seed their story with more references to the Outer God in the preceding material before the big reveal – intention only looks like what it is if it’s worked for; otherwise, it’s all just arbitrary.

As it is, this film has many issues, before you even get to the neat-and-tidy red bow of a Mythos connexion trying (desperately) to pull it all together. The pre-credit sequence is a standalone (and later abandoned) twenty minutes that feels like it’s the (much better) short film that springboarded the idea of the later movie, bolted whole and unmodulated onto the piece; the urban legend notions of blowing bottles on benighted bridges (a la “Candyman” and its successors, but possibly a ham-fisted nod towards the idiot pipers surrounding the throne of Azathoth), is dropped almost as soon as it’s mentioned and then thrown out with the trash; the investigation is plodding and dull; the revelation of what the cultists are up to and the source of the mystery is a densely-packed somnolent monologue that will punish anyone falling asleep during its delivery; and the reintegration of the opening material is sloppy and unhandily managed. A lot of breathless commentary is available online to the effect that re-watching the film after having the secret revealed is worthwhile for deeper understanding – I’m sorry, I’m a firm believer that reading the last page before starting the text is cheating. And anyway, life’s too short for do-overs, and a movie should show you what it’s all about without requiring that the viewer do subsequent homework. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but if people start clamouring online to have someone explain a movie to them, doesn’t it mean that the film has failed – explicitly – to do its job?)

(Also, for anyone who might have missed it, the main character’s surname – Lasombra – is Spanish for “the shadow”. This is appropriate, given how things transpire, but did anyone else realise that it’s the name of a vampire clan from the “Vampire: the Masquerade” roleplaying game? Given that they chose to use an image of Nyarlathotep that is heavily-promoted by Chaosium in its gaming products, the film’s art department and writing staff are obviously well-versed in gaming tropes and material, so how did they miss this? Personally, I heard the name, and my first thought was “no – they wouldn’t dare…!”; I’m fairly certain I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. Was it accidental? If so, don’t movie production houses have people who check this stuff so that unintended connexions which derail or confuse the plot are prevented from happening? Which (again) raises the question: was it deliberate? And to what purpose?)

What I’m wending my tortuous way towards is that, if you’re going to make a Mythos movie, commit to it. Don’t be coy and hide clues where no-one will see them without sifting the footage frame-by-frame (like I did). Don’t have some Lovecraftian mainstay leap out of a box at the end without any kind of preamble or context. As Yoda said, “do, or do not; there is no try.” If you’re making a film that directly references the Cthulhu Mythos and the writing of the Lovecraft circles, scatter some Elder Signs around the place; put some of the background cast in “Miskatonic U.” t-shirts; let there be at least some possibility that the viewers will be able to connect the dots and lock into what the movie is all about.

Otherwise, do your own thing; make your own movie from your own ideas. Stop bothering Cthulhu and let him sleep…

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