A short film just under fifty minutes, Rough Magik Initiative (2000) is based not on H. P. Lovecraft so much as on imitations of imitations of H. P. Lovecraft, of the worst "fan fiction" variety.
The story told has more connection to a Chaosium companyi's role playing game about Cthulhu than in does anything of HPL.
Rough Magic Initiative properly speaking isn't even a movie. It was a pilot episode for a BBC television series that quite rightly never got off the ground. Hence it's alternate or subtitle, Episode Zero: An Age of Wonders.
It opens with a young nutter of a mother (Justine Glenton) who has become a "dreamer" creating a candle-lit idol of the demonic cosmic deity Cthulhu, & sacrificing her two small children while in a tra-la-la frame of mind.
Afterward, covered with blood, the police interview her, & she seems still delighted by what she has done. Mom's name, by the by, is Mrs. Machen, after the Yellow Nineties Decadent horror wrier Arthur Machen, which is what has to pass for clever in this dawg.
There is a secretive, evidently government-sponsored society called the Night Scholars (but we may recognize them as role playing gamers) whose duty it is, at any cost, to suppress the resurrection of the dreaming god, Cthulhu of the ocean depths. The growing number of "dreamers" has indicated Cthulhu may soon rise.
A big cheese from the Night Scholars, one Mr. Moon (Paul Darrow), shuts down the civillian police investigation.
He spirits the insane mother away to a secure facility, where she is kept in check underneath a vaguely celtic symbol called the sigel, which apparently keeps Cthulhu at bay, & is derived from an inability to spell signal.
The character of the mother is pretty much over with though we'll glimpse her condition in the coda. So the next chapter of the tale is virtually a different tale altogether.
Mr. Moon tracks down Warren (Gerrard McArthur), a "retired" member of the Night Scholars. By dangerous injections, Moon forces him to remember certain weird events of the Falkland War.
The flashbacks to the war are never convincing as soldierly events but comes off as a couple of Eagle Scouts filming themselves in grampa's meadow.
We wait & wait for weird or supernatural bits; a viewer's patience is stretched to the limit, until it's harder & harder to believe this is a short film rather than hours & hours long.
The soldiers encounter Wilson (Michael Pool), a second generation expatriot on the island. He's an insane cultist who warns of the return of Cthulhu. He teaches the use of the "sigel" to protect humanity from the ancient god.
Wilson's the best played character in this turkey shoot, & if anyone else had been up to his level of performance, this might not've felt so much like one of those agregious bits of fan-fiction that totally abuse the genius of H. P. Lovecraft.
Poor acting & much worse videography can't assist in salvaging the amateur screenplay. With lines like (I kid you not), "There were giants in those days; things were more big," its as close to illiterate as anyone can be & still manage to construct such a dreary excuse of a script.
When we finally get to see Cthulhu, the beastie is the worst possible CGI. There's absolutely no pay-off here. That this is the "main" feature on the disc, rather than an also-ran relegated to the Extras, is indicative of how untalented a filmmaker can be & still get the attention of cinematic Lovecraft fandom.
There are many extras to fill out the H. P. Lovecraft Collection Volume 2: Rough Magik, which helps to make up for the lousiness of the main program.
There's a commentary track for Rough Magic Initiative by producer Stephen Parsons; interviews amateurishly conducted, including with "big name fan" S. T. Joshi; & The Darkest of Hillside Thickets' music videos Colour Me Green & Worship Me Like a God; advertisement for the Lovecraft Film Festival; a text extra on HPL cinema. This stuff isn't very interesting, but of greater consequence, two short horror films, From Beyond (1999) & The Terrible Old Man (2001).
On the revised re-issue of the dvd, reteitled H. P. Lovecraft Collectioin Volume 2: Dreams of Cthulhu (Rough Magik Initiative) (2008), some improvements were made in the sound quality, & two additional short subjects were added, Christian Matzke's Experiment 17 (2005) & Experiment 18: The Hexenhammer-Projekt (2007). These are much the best things on the disc, so too bad for the poor saps who are stuck with the first-issue of the collection.
Except for the added short subjects, & especially artful Matzke films plus The Terrible Old Man at about fifty minutes length, most of these extras are neglible at best. Even so, the whole Lovecraft dvd series does make every effort to provide plenty of material on each disc, so one never feels cheated, even if that material is only rarely particularly good.
In order to never be disappointed, think of the discs as the filmic equivalent of issues of fanzines from the 1970s & 1980s which had lots of crappy Cthulhu mythos stories by talentless would-be writers likening themselves "lovecraftians." The dvds have the same charm as those old fanzines, potentially enjoyable in spite of the amateurism.
For the short films, we have foremost (in length that is) Bub Fugger's adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's The Terrible Old Man, a popular choice among minimally talented Lovecraft adapters. Compared to most filmed versions of this tale, this one's reasonably well acted, the videography (shot with a funky old Beta Cam SP) isn't bad, & it has a decent soundtrack.
Three guys (Rene Delazio, Todd Sanderson & Rock Moran respectively as Miles, Billy & Ronnie) are driving across country. One of them is afraid they might be pursued by the police for murder, inducing this "little impromptu vacation."
They plan to lay low at an uncle's boat near a small coastal town (with Chilliwak, British Columbia, standing in for the New England coast). At a tiny cafe along the way they first encounter the hideously scarred titular figure of the terrible old man (Paul Abbott), who pays for his coffee with a twenty-dollar gold piece. He's as disgusting as he is scarred & ugly, but the gold gets the attention of the three thugs.
Ronny the killer, Miles the ringleader, & Billy the guy who thought it was a bad idea to rob the old weirdo, show up at the run-down Victorian abode. Billy waits in the car. Ronny & Miles pull on ski masks & enter the building with guns ready.
The terrible old man has a collection of mason jars, each labeled with a different man's name. Suspended in each jar is what looks like a stone. Three empty jars are already labeled Ronny, Miles & Billy.
They can't catch the old man who moves with unbelievable speed. With eyes glowing golden, his demonic capacity spells doom for the would-be thieves.
Not badly done at all. The added intimations that the town covers for their resident demon is a nice little touch. Why this was relegated to extras instead of the comparatively rotten Rough Magik Initiative is a wonder.
In the Extras, the interview with director & crew for this little film captures them as appealing geeks from science fiction fandom. (See other fanfilm adaptations of The Terrible Old Man.)
An earlier film by Bob Fulger is From Beyond (1999) at twenty-plus minutes, inspired by the tale of the same name, & admitting in the end-credits a debt to the wonderful Gordon Stuart version of From Beyond (1986). Jordan Pratt even impersonates Jeffrey Combs from Gordon's film.
It's not a third as good as Terrible Old Man, but it has a moment or two, & as much charm as can be expected of an artless home-made micromovie. The leap forward in directing & writing between this film & the much finer Terrible Old Man is an intriguing contrast. Some makers of fanfilms really don't get better, as it's just too damn easy to win praise from fellow fans they may never even realize they need to get better.
The standard amateur method of adapting HPL to a visual medium is to barely adapt it at all, but to just read condensed fragments of the short story & have that narrated on the soundtrack, with some pictures behind the narration.
From Beyond starts out in just that manner of telling rather than showing, but soon switches to actual dialogue, though even that is closer to being narrated than providing much in the wayi of the visual, since for the most part the two characters just sit & jabber with meaningful intensity that inspires unwanted giggles. It comes off as the Readers Digest condensation of the story.
Our narrator (Jordan Pratt) drives his VW bug to Crawford Tillinghast's house. Tillinghast (Miles O'Donnell) looks like he lives on a diet of greasy burgers & delivery pizza. Clearlyk he couldn't afford such a house unless he was a squatter, but evidently he used to have a servant, who is mysteriously absent. The narrator can't get any answers from the guy, but he wants to take him upstairs & show him his "resonator."
They go upstairs & sit in front of the resonator & pretty much stay facing each other in the chairs thereafter. The resonator is a funky prop; I liked it. After more expositional dialogue Tillinghast flicks on the machine. The film has been dark but now turns deep violet, as the resonator reveals another level of vision.
Some giant plankton are swimming about in the air -- amusingly bad FX! These we're told are around us all the time, unseen by us, while we are unseen by them. The resonator makes them & us visible to each other. And while the giant planktons are harmless, there are other far more hideous & dangerous creatures about to arrive, drawn to the resonator.
These are creatures which already did something terrible to the servant. Our frightened hero has come prepared even if the script fails to convey how he knew to bring a gun. He draws a revolver & shoots Tillinghast then shoots the machine.
This film is liked by a lot of Lovecraftians for adhering to HPL's own plotline, but to me, in making that plotline laughable, they've reflected poorly on the tone of the original. Plus, in & of itself, the film does very little, though it does have that good ol' amateur charm.
Experiment 17 (2005), at five minutes length, is a tale of Adolph Hitler gaining access to the sinister grimoire The Necronomicon. Using a lot of very cleverly chosen historical footage that was shot by Eva Braun.
The activities of the Nazi researcher are conveyed with new silent footage that perfectly duplicates the historical footage in appearance, creating an all too believable atmosphere.
The narrator tells of the misguided experiments conducted by Helmut Koch (well played by director Christian Matzke) for the sake of the Third Reich. We don't witness the earlier experiments, but the seventeenth to be conducted from encoded instructions from The Necronomicon is obviously the most misguidedly effective. The simple, shocking conclusion I shan't reveal, but by gum this is a fine wee art film.
The sequel Experiment 18: The Hexenhammer-Projekt (Experiment 18: Project Witchhammer, 2007) is twice as long at ten minutes. It, too, is built around a narration to silent film footage that looks vintage, but the style is distinct though related to the earlier fiilm. The silent footage has for narration a recording left by a young Nazi soldier.
The young Nazi soldier (Johannes Hollenkamp) was the last of a group of men with psychic powers who were drafted into the series of experiments conducted by the man who found Hitler's copy of The Necronomicon. Christian Matzke reprises this role.
After the seventeeth experiment ended in such grotesque horror, the project was seemingly cancelled, & our narrator releived of duty.
But when Hitler (Keith Anctil, who played one of the Nazi scientists in the previous film) had the report about the invisible demon roused by the seventeenth experiment, he wanted that power to save the failing Reich. And our narrator was horrified to be forced back into the project, by the increasingly maniac head of this series of experiments, who is now hideously deformed.
The weird spell results in surrealist imagery for the eyes of the viewer. For the participants it can only be regarded as disastrous, but must be seen, cannot be described.
Experiment 18: Project Hexenhammer is an amazingly creepy & effective example of art-horror, with historical verisimilitude, Hitler having authentically been interested in the occult.
Actor-director Christian Matzke has provided by far the best two films on this disc, films which work separately or together, & build on German expressionism in surprisingly innovative ways.
And if you didn't know Matzke lives in Portland, Maine, everything about these two films would convince you they were made in Germany. It is an incredible artistic leap forward from his awful Lovecraft film, an absurdist version of Nyarlathotep (2001) that in no way indicated the genius that was in him.
The H. P. Lovecraft Collection Volume 4: Pickman's Model (2007)
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