semi new direction; The play as a movie

I am feeling a bit in transition at this point with the Keeper’s blog. I have found myself going over the same ground on more than a few occasions, and rather than just turn into a circular discussion I think I’m going to start going into actual scenario construction and background aspects construction for my campaigns. Not presenting completed scenarios here, at least not at this point in things, but bringing up things that I am bringing into my campaigns. To start with, a twist on the King in Yellow for my CoC Mondern era campaigns.

An infamous play, with catastrophic history, and hotly suppressed when first printed, continues underground. If you add in the events from the scenario compilation/semi-campaign Ripples from Carcosa, the play’s actual history long predates its ‘known’ publication in the Nineteenth Century. As a play, it is a logical step that any film director who knew of the play may have been tempted to try to bring the play to the silver screen. It is also a logical assumption that this would have happened more than once, successful or not (how many versions of Frankenstein have there been? Or Beau Geste?)

Therefore, in my campaign, there have been multiple attempts, some never getting to a full print, some going to a completed movie, none of which have had general release. The stories of the directors and their versions follows. I will occasionally make reference to real individuals in this, but they are being used for fictitious purposes, and no disrespect or slight is intended in this. All of this information presented here is available to players who try to research it, but to date there has been little pressure to, and only one group ever tried to find out about any of the versions, going for the most recent.

The first attempt to film it was, naturally, a silent movie, filmed in Germany by a contemporary of Fritz Lang, Oskar Kruger, in 1925, under a straight translation of the title “der König in Gelb.” Kruger was a maverick filmmaker who tried to work outside of studio influence as much as possible. He was able to secure some funding for his ‘dream project’ from one studio, and several investors, though he described his project as a mythic fantasy, never providing great details to any of the investors. The rushes were profoundly disturbing, and the silent medium did not translate the text of the play adequately. This version of the film was completed, though watching it leaves a muddled mess, the story not fully carrying over, textually, though the actions do follow the plotline of the original play. The cast did have access to the full play, and some of them did read more than small parts, to their detriment. More than half of the cast never acted again, three of them succumbing to madness and spending the bulk of the rest of their lives in institutions, four others dying prematurely by various causes, all of them suspicious in nature. Kruger was despondent over his failure to carry over the vision, and was unable to film another full length piece, only managing a handful of short films before he lost all support. Some level of madness clearly affected him, and he managed to outlast his career as a filmmaker by about ten years, working as a projectionist in a cinema in Berlin until his death in 1938.

The second version was a Spanish adaptation in 1939, El Rey Amarillo, a version that, while completed, was never distributed. The director, Enric Murgo had succumbed fully to the madness of reading the play and adapting it into a screenplay. He had retained some level of cunning and never let the cast read the entire script, only letting them see the scripting for small scenes at a time. He also filmed the scenes out of sequence, though he arranged a screening for the studio heads and cast after he put the final print together. Murgo was the only survivor, a full third of the screening’s audience never being seen again, the others all dying by violence. Murgo was tried for murder, and found guilty but insane, spending the rest of his days in an asylum. This black and white film was confiscated during the trial procedings, and no known copy has ever been discovered. Rumors persist that the original print was stolen from evidence and is still out there, but has never been presented in any public forum.

There was a dearth of attempts to film the play until 1957, when Hammer Studios quietly arranged a production to begin, using sets from other productions for the initial footage. The director, Wallace Matthews, admittedly started filming without reading the original source material, working from a script that was a loose adaptation of the first act, written by Frank McDowell, who released a script based on the second act from an asylum in northern England. A third script was never delivered, and Matthews argued with the studio that the second portion of the script was nearly incomprehensible, and managed to secure, after studio review, to build his own version of the rest of the script based on the first third, and the workable parts of the second. A studio head was using his influence to keep the film moving forward as a vehicle for his girlfriend at the time, Virginia French (real name: Esther Parker), who was cast in the role of Cassilda, which inexplicably was presented as the female lead. In this version, Prince Aldones, rather than being a sibling, was presented as a prince of a neighboring kingdom, and some of the text implies that he may be in Carcosa in exile. Prince Uoht was played by a young unknown actor, Ben Harrow, and in this version had many of the lines originally written for Aldones in the play. While the ending is grim and a bit savage, it has so little resemblance to the original play that unlike the original play, or seeing productions of the play, or other film versions, there is no apparent mental damage from seeing this adaptation. It was released under the title “Under Dark Moons”, and eventually released to video under the title “Castle Nightfall” (a reference that shows nowhere in the text, and has puzzled a few scholars)

Ironically, AIP tried to film a version in 1963, using a protégé of Roger Corman’s, Brendan Finney as a director, with Corman listed as producer. Finney was able to secure a copy of the original play, in French, and translated it into English in scrrenplay format. This proved his undoing, however, as he was unable to retain his sanity. Similarly to Murgo, however, he was able to keep his madness from being clearly evident, at first, though he failed to have Murgo’s foresight and began filming the script in sequence. Madness began to overtake the cast and crew, and production halted after three weeks, with half the film completed, and multiple deaths. The footage is rumored to have survived, but the film was never completed, and ends about a third of the way into act two of the original play. None of the surviving leads ever worked in film again.

In the 80’s, an independent studio attempted a strangely modernized version of this film, an American company filming in Vancouver. The film was set in an unnamed city, though some exteriors were filmed in Milan and Paris to ‘add flavor.’ While some attempted to attach known names to the production later, all of them denied any connection to, or knowledge of the project. The change of the torturer Keleth to a detective of sorts, and the shift from direct nobility to the upper echelons of a strange upper class society, with all of the names and ranks left intact leaves a strange and disturbing film, with the Phantom of Truth coming across more like a movie slasher, leaving most of the characters dead by mid-story, though they all return for the film’s conclusion, which is at least reminiscent of the original play’s conclusion, this climax happening in the Phantom’s lair, a penthouse loft apartment with a somewhat panoramic view as the backdrop for the arrival of the King in Yellow. This film went straight to video under the title “Yellow Nights” and is at best a weak adaptation. No sanity loss for viewing this film. This movie was widely criticized for the incest subplot, which is considerably more graphic than the relationships in the original play.

The final known full adaptation of the play was filmed in 2005 as something of a ‘pirate project’ by Mattieu Rossier. He filmed this movie without permission or funding. He was the most rational-behaving of the filmmakers who adapted this play, first securing funding for a fantasy movie with a completely different script. He then snuck the scenes for this film into the working script and filmed them out of sequence while filming the authorized film (which was released under the title “Winterheart”) Using the sets, costumes, actors, he completed both films in relatively short time, and began to edit them into their respective works.

He unveiled “the King in Yellow” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. Since the film was not ‘on the books’ for the studio that made it, he was allowed to present it as an independent film. The screening was a bigger disaster than Kruger’s. A riot broke out in the cinema, only forty two known survivors out of an audience of three hundred and seventy five. Of the survivors, twenty seven have total amnesia regarding the incident (or pretend to), though all have shown signs of lingering trauma. More disturbingly, even though no member of the cast or crew was ever able to see the intact film (except for three cast members in the Sundance screening), all but seven, including Rossier, have died since the filming. Some by illness but most by acts of violence. This film, like the others, has been withdrawn and suppressed, with many claiming no surviving print exists.

However, on the internet in the last few years, a version has been leaked that purports to be this adaptation. The impact on those who watch it seems to bear this out, and there are active motions to remove the film wherever it is found.

A bit long winded, and a lot of behind the scenes stuff, but in Call of Cthulhu, that is not uncommon.


What makes a story Lovecraftian, part Three, Cinema

This is going to be a bit odd, to start with, but when you start looking at Lovecraftian stories, cinema is one of the more hit or miss areas, though the successes are awesome. It is also even more subjective, you will have people commenting and debating whether or not a particular film is or is not Lovecraftian at considerable length and energy.

To start with, adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories to movies often completely miss the Lovecraftian themes. Strangely, some of them at least pick up hints, some do better than others. The story that I tend to shorten the title to ‘Charles Dexter Ward’ was adapted as “Edgar Allan Poe’s the Haunted Palace” The story behind that is easy to find, but has more to do with the studio’s pressure for the title than anything of Roger Corman’s wishes. This is by no means a close adaptation of the original story, but it is an entertaining movie that takes the themes of the story well, and also brings up Lovecraftian themes in a few sequences towards the end. So it stands as a successful Lovecraftian movie, if not an optimal adaptation. Conversely, the first attempt to film ‘The Colour out of Space”, “Die Monster Die” is a grim and ghastly piece of work, an embarrassment to the careers of pretty much all involved. Similarly, the first attempt at ‘the Dunwich Horror” is a complete failure as an adaptation, though it does have its fans (I don’t really put myself in that group I have to admit.) successful adaptations of Lovecraft’s work really didn’t find their footing until Stuart Gordon did “Reanimator”, an adaptation of “Herbert West-Reanimator”, which is not my favorite Lovecraft story by a considerable distance, though I have to admit that the film captures some of the feel of the story, and puts it in the modern milieu effectively. This led to many other adaptations in subsequent years, and the success rate became much more hit and miss. Some excellent successes are still debated by some fans, so again, the subjective nature is more evident. The HPLHS productions of Call of Cthulhu and Whisperer in Darkness are, to me, wonderful films, and the adaptation of ‘The Colour out of Space’ originally released as “die Farbe” I think is as good an entry as possible.

But Lovecraftian cinema is not limited to adaptations, and films like ‘Yellowbrickroad”, “Absentia” and even “Horror Express” pick up on the themes and play with them without coming anywhere near Lovecraft’s work directly. Now again, these films are of mixed quality and there is more than a little debate over them, and how Lovecraftian they are or aren’t, but they at least touch on the concepts, the hints that the universe is more than we imagine it to be, and our concepts of controlling the universe are woefully misinformed and inadequate.

Sadly there are films that try to be Lovecraftian and fail, sometimes so painfully you wish for the silhouettes of movie seats and two robots with a human companion to throw lines back…some of these are just bad movies, some are good movies that fail at the concept. I won’t name names here.

Maybe at this point, this isn’t the best place to bring this up, but I ran into an interesting thread in a podcast (the Lovecraft Geek, Robert Price’s nice bits of exploration) on a re-listen that I think warrants mention somewhere in this particular discussion. While Lovecraftian fiction posits a somewhat nihilistic bend, stressing the insignificance of humanity in the universe as a whole, it also presents, in many of its works, the value of clinging to our humanity and striving to effectively ‘push back the darkness’ as much as possible. I also will say that this fiction, cinema, gaming or books, is an item that involves as most science fiction, fantasy and horror, a suspension of disbelief, and reading and enjoying these works does not require a compromise of any point of view or ethical, philosophical or religious stand. If you are unable or unwilling to set aside those concepts for the suspension of disbelief, then such fiction, among many other types of fiction, may not be for you. I have other feelings about that, but those are my feelings and I won’t go into that here, I am not seeking to argue the validity of anyone’s viewpoint.


What makes a story Lovecraftian, part Two, All sorts of Critters

This is going to be the most intuitive for anyone who is a serious Lovecraftian fan, but it is something I’ve heard repeatedly from any editor or publisher of Lovecraftian fiction or gaming scenarios. The fact that it is repeated so often indicates that there are people out there who don’t get this point. A monster alone does not make a Lovecraftian story. Particularly if the only thing to recommend it as Lovecraftian is that it has tentacles. Some people inevitably create a horror story and put in a complicated monster and present it as a Lovecraftian story.

Now I readily concede we read stories in which monsters can exist with some level of glee, and a well written horror story with a monster can be very entertaining..but that doesn’t necessarily make it Lovecraftian. Even attempts to categorize Loveraftian themes to a point, handled without the somewhat nihilistic viewpoint discussed in part one can fall short of being truly Lovecraftian.

Back to monsters before I get back to that. Looking at Lovecraft’s own fiction, several of his own works that do meet the primary Lovecraftian criterion feature no ‘monsters’ as such. Thing on the Doorstep, Charles Dexter Ward, while we have monstrous characters and actions, no real monsters show up (Though something monstrous is hinted at in Charles Dexter Ward). In Lurking Fear and Rats in the Walls, we have monsters of sorts, present and past, but they all are of human stock, degenerated but human regardless. So a monster is not necessary at all, but the theme is the key.

Some of the best Lovecraftian movies are either monster free or monster light, but that is a matter for part three.

Graham Masterton wrote two novels Manitou and Revenge of the Manitou (I have subsequently discovered that there were later books in this ‘series’ that I had been unaware of, but I have not, sadly, read them having just become aware of them), that actually do borrow from Lovecraftian themes, with a villain that, as memory serves me, comes from the works of August Derleth Lovecraft ‘collaberation’ The lurker at the Threshold, and presents it intruding into modern times (modern at the time at least). I have to say that while he brings up the concepts, they are countered by forces that fall more into the “Derlethian” mode than anything Lovecraftian, which I would tend to refer to as “Lovecraft Light”.

At this point, a brief diversion into this concept, the Lovecraft Light. Derleth’s writing took Lovecraftian ideas and presented a less nihilistic tone to his stories and began a trend to ‘sytemizing’ and ‘categorizing’ the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, carried on by Lumley and Carter among others for some time, trying to make them come across as more understandable entities, almost flying in the face of how they were being presented in the days when Lovecraft, Bloch and Howard were throwing it together at the beginning. Some of the stories were more successful than others in execution and concept, but they presented ideas that to some extent mitigated aspects of the Mythos and these are elements that are either removed or downplayed. Though, granted, creations from these attempts are included in the Mythos in games, and as I said, some of the stories are more successful than others, and it can be debated (and often is) how Lovecraftian they are. But there is a grey area, which ultimately is part of the fun.

In a field where the idea is the unknowable…the boundaries of it fight easy classification. Which is appropriate.