Inside the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon

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Inside the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon

Ninety years ago, a relatively unknown pulp fiction writer, H.P. Lovecraft, returned from a hellish two-year sojourn in New York City to his beloved, idyllic hometown of Providence, R.I. The move back sparked a major leap in his creativity, and the stories practically tumbled out. The core tales of his Arkham cycle, or as it is popularly known, the Cthulhu mythos, were written in this period, stories that sealed his reputation as one of the greatest American writers of the weird tale, second only in influence to Edgar Allan Poe. These stories reimagined the gothic tale for the modern age. Instead of demons, ghosts and goblins, the entities were alien beings, called Old Ones, from beyond the stars who had ruled the earth ages before humans emerged from the muck. The main characters were often obsessive outsiders, researchers into and connoisseurs of forbidden knowledge, men and women who pushed against the boundaries of commonly accepted realities into the vast truths that exist beyond the ken of mankind. Quite often, when ultimately confronted with these truths, they went insane.

By any reckoning, H.P. Lovecraft was an unlikely candidate for a writer destined to achieve international recognition and acclaim. In the 80 years since his death, his stories and ideas have slowly percolated into widespread influence in the horror and science fiction fields, into film and mainstream popular culture. During his brief lifetime (he died of intestinal cancer in 1937 at the age of 46), his fiction was relatively unknown except to a small cadre of devoted friends and fans. During the 1960s and ’70s, his stories influenced or were adapted into episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, into films by Roger Corman and for American International Pictures. During the 1980s director Stuart Gordon, with tongue firmly in cheek, brought Lovecraft’s ideas blood-drenched and screaming into the modern age with cult classics Re-Animator and From Beyond.

Flash forward to 1994. Andrew Migliore, a software engineer out of Portland, Ore., was researching how to publish on the then-fledgling web. Long before the days of “build your own blog” sites, his company had a product to help newspapers get their content online. To test the product, Migliore needed some content, and brainstormed, “I’ll make a movie site. I like Lovecraft so I’ll just do a bunch of Lovecraftian movies.” His research evolved into Beyond Books, a site devoted to cataloguing and reviewing movies based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, such as Re-Animator, The Dunwich Horror and The Shuttered Room. Soon after the initial launch, he says, “People started contacting me.” Among them was director-writer John Strysik, who had worked on Tales from the Darkside as well as the short-lived series Monsters. During his college days at Columbia University, Strysik had written, produced and directed a short film called The Music of Erich Zann, based on the Lovecraft story. He offered to send a copy of the film to Migliore, who was impressed.

In contrast with the more straightforward Hollywood approach of Stuart Gordon, et al., Strysik had taken a more literary approach, matching the tonal qualities, mood and atmosphere of the story itself, in which the narrator has an experience—seeing Erich Zann’s musical performance open a portal to another universe—that doesn’t belong in his world, that is far outside the normal realms of everyday experience, and which leaves him haunted by this encounter for the rest of his days. “This was the first time I’d seen Lovecraft being taken seriously,” Migliore explains.

In the fall of ’95, Strysik asked Migliore if he’d like to screen the film in Portland. Migliore figured, “Great! I’ll start a film festival.” Strysik helped him track down Brian Yuzna, the producer of Re-Animator, which he’d wanted to show. Yuzna offered his unreleased film, Necronomicon, which was stuck in distribution limbo, instead. The producer also put him in contact with actor Jeffrey Combs ( Re-Animator, From Beyond), who introduced him to screenplay writer Miguel Tejada-Flores ( Revenge of the Nerds, the story for Beyond Re-Animator). “That’s how it all started,” Migliore recalls. “It was really that easy in some ways—some phone calls, and I guess being enthusiastic about it didn’t hurt.”

Now in its 21st year, The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon takes up its annual three-day residence this weekend, October 7-9, at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre. This year’s guests include director Stuart Gordon, writer John Shirley, weird fiction historian and literary critic S.T. Joshi and a slew of other creative forces. The small festival has grown into a unique international forum that appeals to a surprisingly large, varied demographic—filmmakers, writers, gamers, film and fiction fans, people from right-wing and left-wing political persuasions and all points in between. “There are some extreme opposites,” Migliore observes. “There are hardcore Christians talking to Satanists. There is straight, gay, bi, transgender and yet all those differences go to the wayside. We’re all talking and geeking out on cosmic horror, and in a way, celebrating our own humanity, brief as it may be. That’s amazing. I don’t think Lovecraft would ever have suspected this. This gives a venue to people who are on the fringes of society in many ways.”

These days, Migliore still owns the film festival and its DVD production branch, Lurker Films, but has ceded full-time operations to husband-and-wife team Brian and Gwen Callahan, who started out at the festival as traveling vendors. Yet despite changes in directorship, the overall mission has stayed the same: devotion to and promotion of independent films that explore cosmic horror and other themes near and dear to Lovecraft and his influences. Though the event has screened a number of the usual Hollywood suspects such as The Thing, and this year will show Gordon’s From Beyond to mark its 30th anniversary, Callahan insists, “We’re not just putting together a bunch of DVDs of films you’ve already seen before. By and large they are independent films by single creators, instead of committee filmmaking like you see in most studio films where there is no singular vision. … There’s almost no compromise on what it is they are putting on film, except perhaps for budget.”

Preparations for the event involve poring over hundreds of submissions from filmmakers around the globe, each vying for a coveted slot during the three-day festival. “We’re not the only folks that evaluate films, but we’re typically the last word, Gwen and I,” Brian says. “We have a coterie of other judges making sure we’re sane.” The curators keep two audiences in mind, he adds, “what sort of cinema Lovecraft would enjoy and what sort of cinema fans of Lovecraft would enjoy.” That includes all manner of cosmic horror dealing in encounters with ancient beings from beyond the stars; the weird tale, be it a ghost story or tales of macabre happenings; and the uncanny, like dream realms where things seem familiar yet slightly off. It’s not quite an exact science, Callahan explains: “We do occasionally bend the rules here or there [when] we really get the sense of, ‘Yeah, if you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’re really gonna like this movie,’ even if the connection is maybe a little tenuous.”

Callahan tends to favor films that provide an original take on Lovecraft’s worlds, and stories that prove their relevance today. Case in point: an adaptation of an obscure story, Hypnos, which premieres this year in one of the Shorts Blocks. A gay couple, both artists, make contact through their dreams with a sentient planet, which essentially wants to be one with them. “It’s a really quirky and interesting take on the Lovecraft story that does Lovecraft,” Callahan says, “but also one better. It gives it a little more heart and soul.”

Over the years, the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival has extended its tentacles from the misty lands of Portland to San Pedro, Calif., where a sister fest takes place under the direction of filmmaker Aaron Vanek. Several smaller events have also spawned in Seattle, Austin and Providence, R.I. Yet for all this growth, the sold-out festival viewings, and successful Kickstarter campaigns—this year’s offers an immersive storyline for deep-pocketed backers involving Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels and an alternate history of the Old Ones—the Lovecraftian ethos remains. “It really is a labor of love,” Gwen Callahan muses. “We feel like it’s important to continue to provide a platform for all these creators, artists, filmmakers, authors, sculptors, and performers who are doing things in the weird genre. For ourselves too. It’s fun to know that all of our projects are being paid off with more people doing creative things.”

Joe Pettit Jr. is a writer based out of Eugene, Ore. He’s contributed reviews to the All Music Guide to Soul: The Definitive Guide to R&B and Soul. He has also written for print and online publications including VideoScope, Ugly Things, Images and the All Music Guide Online.