Saturday, May 22, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The COLOUR of Lovecraft, Part 3

There are some people that subscribe to the philosophy that the world is back and white. That there are only two kinds of people in the world. You are either a conservative or a liberal. A sinner or a saint. An exacting Lovecraft purist that thinks any adaption that slightly deviates from the letter of Lovecraft’s words is nigh un to heresy and the Non-purists (read: heretics) who only want the barest essence of Lovecraft’s story to be brought into play as a skeletal framework for some insane, unrated gore effects. There are two kinds of people; those that try to compartmentalize the world into two little categories and those that call bullshit on that. RE-ANIMATOR (1985) is a masterpiece. So is THE RESURRECTED (1992). I love them both. Are you trying to tell me that I have to choose peanut butter or chocolate? The hell you say!

I think no film has done a better job investigating that grey area, if you will, than Ivan Zuccon’s THE COLOUR FROM THE DARK (2008). After VJ co-conspirator Mr. Wilson stumbled across Zuccon’s early works, I’ve been hooked on his movies and was highly anticipating the release of this one. Not only does it not disappoint, but if it had been shot on film, I think it would have been a real sleeper hit. And there lies the cruxt of the problem.

Zuccon cut his teeth making very low budget, shot on video movies that were essentially typical back-yard horror films. I still have yet to track down an import copy of his first effort THE DARKNESS BEYOND (2000), but his second THE UNKNOWN BEYOND (2001) had some good elements but was really too amateurish on all levels for me to recommend. THE SHUNNED HOUSE (2003) is where Zuccon starts to shine. An anthology of loose adaptations that infuriated the purists and brought the wrath of American horror-obsessed fans who mistakenly lumped him with Uwe Boll and Ulli Lommel. Low-budget and shot on video, but featuring some really striking visuals and imagery that showed true talent. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Lovecraft never wrote about a woman playing the violin, except the violin is actually her torn open arm and the strings are her tendons. That may not be part of Lovecraft’s story, but it is a powerful image and Italian filmmakers great and small have always gone off on their own artistic tangents. Greeks break plates, Italians wax artistic. That’s what we like about them. If Lucio Fulci had simply made ZOMBI 2 (1979) a straight-up rip-off of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) as the producers had wanted, I seriously doubt we would still be talking about it today. Nor would it be used in a Windows 7 commercial. No, really. I couldn’t make that up.

Zuccon made two other films following THE SHUNNED HOUSE and before COLOR FROM THE DARK, but COLOR FROM THE DARK is his return to Lovecraft and his most accomplished outing yet. Here Zuccon, due to budgetary reasons, or simply to streamline the story, dispenses with the meteor entirely. This is a wise move in my opinion as the concept of evil being brought to earth from scary outer-space has been done so much that it is now hokey. It was pretty much lampooned in CREEPSHOW (1982) and these days it's not even remotely as scary as it must have seemed in the ’20s when space exploration was the realm of total fantasy. Instead Zuccon focuses on what was in fact the ultimate source of the evil in Lovecraft’s story, the well. And, yes, he has added his own elements and subplots. Seriously, get over it. If the additions were bad, I’d be the first to put the boots to him, but here most of it is cracked out of the park. The only areas that are lacking can be chalked up to budget.

Set in Italy during WWII, a rural farm is struggling to survive during the German occupation. The head of the household, Pietro (Zuccon regular Michael Segal), is a hard working man of the land who bores his wife Lucia (Debbie Rochon) to sleep at night with his mad bedroom skillz. He provides for them and his sister-in-law, a 20 year old emotionally retarded mute girl named Alice (Marysia Kay) who’s closest friend is a creepy rag-doll named Rosina. Rosina not only talks to Alice in a weird language that only Alice can understand, but sometimes functions as her eyes allowing her to see things that she’s afraid of (this little character contrivance is played out much better than I made it sound). One night the well begins emitting strange colored light and a noxious mist, the water tastes fine, so Piedro continues to use it for his crops and at the dinner table. The next day the crops have grown large and ripe, but taste bitter and this is when things start sliding straight down to hell. Almost literally in this case.

The film starts with Rosina being thrust into our faces as Alice navigates the staircase from her bedroom to the kitchen. We don’t know why it terrifies her, but it’s a really neat little link back to the original story and makes for a brilliant opening sequence. Alice covers her face with one hand and uses the other hand to hold Rosina by her red yarn hair, navigate the treacherous stairs and go outside to peer into the well. While Rosina is peering into the well, she slips and falls in. Alice, distraught, follows her. Suddenly Alice wakes up in bed, soaked in well water. These weird, visually arresting dream sequences are sprinkled throughout the film and while they seem to not really be Lovecraftian on the surface, one of Lovecraft’s favorite recurring elements was horrific dreams. Here they provide a necessary cut away from the main plot. Adapted from a six page story, that plot can get a little dry when stretched to over an hour and a half if you refuse to add any additional subplots.

Zuccon rolls out his story at a leisurely pace, he’s in no hurry, but at the same time he is focused, he never meanders or gets sidetracked. He is meticulous in the details and uses them to build atmosphere and suspense. The near neighbor, Ammi, here is represented by Giovanni (a surprisingly Irish Gerry Shanahan), who lives with his granddaughter Anna (Eleanor James). In addition to their daily life of toil, they are harboring a Jewish woman who is being hunted by the Nazis. She eventually is caught and provides the basis for a weird and creepy subplot in which Alice visits her quickly putrefying corpse over the course of several days with her doll Rosina. Zuccon takes the liberty of adding a few new characters to the mix. If you were totally cynical you could say he did it just to raise the body count, but I found the addition of a wandering priest who becomes completely unglued by the “sick” Lucia to be a cool little subplot that adds depth to the story.

This brings us to the point that most Lovecraft purists will absolutely hate. The fact of the matter is that the evil represented here is not so much Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, evil so old it isn’t even evil, per se, but it just is, but a more Christian view of evil. Represented by electric mist and dancing lights that look like reflected water, which is reasonably Lovecraftian, the evil behaves in a deliberately and wholly anti-Christian fashion. The family is more "possessed" than "diseased" as in the story. For example, Lucia in a fit of madness spits on the crucifix in the dining room and a black rot spreads out around it, eventually causing it to melt and decay. Personally I have no problem with the subtle alteration as it adds a richness to a story without really having to explain much as, presumably, we all are familiar to some extent with Christianity. Hell, several centuries ago damn near every continent on the planet learned about Christianity whether they wanted to or not, so this is a pretty simple but effective device that crosses all boundaries. I don’t think THE EXORCIST (1973) would have been anywhere near as successful or as resonant if Regan’s extreme case of ADD was caused by solar radiation or some bad LSD… come to think of it that last one would have been pretty cool. Regardless, even though it veers out of Lovecraft’s waters, it still is effective and once again, in my opinion, if it makes a good movie and you don’t destroy the themes or intent of original story, I’m for it.

To be fair, some of the acting could have been a little more impressive. Michael Segal has not only buffed out his biceps, but has beefed up his acting chops as well. Even so, he is effective, but not exactly a master of his craft. Elenor James (another actress that is cast more for looks than anything else) isn't very impressive either, but at least is not annoying or irritating. The biggest surprise here is that ex-softcore star and frequent supplier of gratuitous nude scenes, Debbie Rochon, actually does a shockingly good job as the wife who has flashes of possessed insanity. You could argue acts like a completely normal woman when flipping between her normal meek self and her “possessed” alter ego. Did I just go there? Sorry about that. Anyway, Rochon may not be up for an Oscar any time soon, but here she shows a range and skill that was previously unknown. She also has grown a bit long in the tooth and unlike most actresses (particularly ones who have made their money off of their looks) does not try to hide it here, which gives authenticity and maturity to her character. In many ways the maturity of a filmmaker can be quantified by their use of restraint, here that means the glamor make-up is saved for another day. Also notable on the acting front is Marysia Kay, who is totally believable in her role as Alice, and it is through her acting and Zuccon’s directing that Rosina actually becomes more than a prop but a full character. It's also neat touch that Rosina, as the week progresses, becomes more and more faded with her red yarn “hair” turning gray as if even a rag-doll is being consumed by the evil from the well. The only glaring errors on the acting front would be Gerry Shanahan as Giovanni. I have no problem that there is an Irishman and his English granddaughter living on a farm in rural Italy, but at least have the decency to cover this by giving them Anglo names. Honestly if that's all I can bitch about, Zuccon should be happy.

Sadly Zuccon still can’t seem to raise enough money to shoot on film and I firmly believe that if this had been shot on film, it may have garnered more praise. Even so, Zuccon makes the most of his medium, pushing it to limits heretofore unseen. His camera prowls smoothly around the periphery of dialogue scenes, he uses big master shots, lots of atmospheric cut-aways and more camera set-ups than multiple SOV efforts, showing real confidence and skill as a filmmaker. His sets and costumes are detailed and well thought out. With the help of some mostly unobtrusive CG processes, he gets the best use of shadows that he can, adding layers of texture to the screen in a way that is screaming out for a bigger budget. To be fair, some of the CG misses the mark. A dream sequence in which Lucia slices her cheek open with a straight razor and an eye opens up inside is a great idea, but the CG work is just not up to snuff and ruins the effect. If you can’t pull off the effect that you want, I feel that you should save that idea for another day and come up with something that you can do effectively. Fortunately these missteps are few and far between.

Another thing that adds to the experience on the whole is the music. The score is also bigger and better than any shot-on-video movie has any right to be. Providing a simple, restrained, but totally effective, haunting score using strings and horns, Spanish composer Marco Werba, like Zuccon, shows more talent than anyone else doing low-budget SOV movies and should also be destined for greater things. He has also composed scores for some of Timo Rose’s painfully amateurish SOV outings that, Werba’s score aside, are the embodiment of everything that is bad about SOV movies. Timo Rose is like Uwe Boll without the high concept or budget. Zuccon just doesn’t have the budget. His directorial skills have come to a point where he needs to find some backers to grow as a filmmaker.

  The crazy thing with this movie is that I am a certified SOV hater. Video magnifies every flaw, has no visual texture, makes make-up look like make-up and makes a lack of make-up look awful. It simply lacks subtlety and makes it so easy for talentless jackasses to release something that isn’t worth a rental fee. Zuccon is actually aware of these issues and works really hard at overcoming those huge drawbacks. It kills me that people watch HOUSE OF THE DEAD 2 (2005) and call it “fun”, “entertaining” and “not as bad as the first one” and then watch this and say it’s shit and has nothing to do with Lovecraft! In the end, if you are one of the black and white people, this isn’t like RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and it’s not THE RESURRECTED (1992, probably the most authentic Lovecraft adaptation to date), it’s in the gray area in between and if you are like me, that “colour” will suit you just fine.

(I can't seem to find a trailer that really does justice to the movie's pacing and feel, the two that I found try to make it look like a fast-paced slasher film, so this teaser will have to do)

For those who are looking for some more meat, the Italian website Splatter Container (maybe that lost something in the translation) has a short interview up with Michael Segal (scroll down for the English language version).

Coming in the next few months, the Germans will have their turn at an adaptation with the black and white short film DIE FARBE (2010). Some information on the making of it is available on their website. While it's disappointing that this is just a short film (again), this teaser simply oozes atmosphere and is much anticipated around here.

[Edit] We have since reviewed the film here.

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