The Weird Tale Collection, Volume 1: The Yellow Sign and Others (2006) **
It is both unfortunate and entirely understandable that Robert W. Chambers has sort of fallen through the cracks of literary appreciation since the middle of the last century. Understandable because the great majority of his 87 volumes of published fiction are the purest hack-work, in which implausible, flatly written characters fall tediously in love with the conspicuously undeserving in the midst of what ought to be (but aren’t) exciting settings and circumstances; and unfortunate because buried in that vast mountain range of dross are a few of the finest horror stories of the late 19th century. In his early years, before he permitted his innate talents to be subsumed within and overwhelmed by an even more powerful gift for spotting and exploiting the next ephemerally profitable trash-lit trend, Chambers assembled a small but potent body of work that prefigured such pulp-era scare specialists as H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Like those later writers, Chambers posited in his fantastic tales a world distinctly madder than the one we know, where wholesome religious observance is stealthily perverted into occult blasphemy, where the dead walk unnoticed (or at any rate, not consciously noticed) among the living, where mysterious and frequently horrible creatures lurk in out-of-the-way environments to prey upon the unwary. But more strikingly than any of that, Chambers arrived almost thirty years before Lovecraft at the idea of a mythical book of unspeakable evil, oft alluded to, but never concretely described or synopsized. His proto-Necronomicon was not a compendium of unholy scriptures, but rather a play entitled The King in Yellow, a work of such perfect, soul-harrowing bleakness that anyone who reads its second act is forevermore incapable of seeing anything but cruelty, corruption, and insanity in the world around them. Fans of the antique macabre who don’t know Chambers are missing out, although the best stuff is concentrated in his first collection of short fiction, The King in Yellow, and all but the truly obsessed can safely skip everything later than 1897’s The Mystery of Choice.
Even more than Lovecraft’s stories, the best of Chambers’s writing seems to dare the cinematically inclined to try filming it. The rewards of success (well, the artistic rewards, anyway) would be vast, but the chances of success would be infinitesimal. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, then, that up until just a little while ago, I knew of no such attempt ever having been made. Consequently, I was therefore doubly intrigued when I learned about The Weird Tale Collection, Volume 1: The Yellow Sign and Others, a direct-to-video anthology movie stitched together in 2006 from a trio of unreleased short films made from three to five years earlier by unconnected creators working in three different countries. Here, at last, was a Robert W. Chambers movie, and what’s more, here was one that seemed to have a fair hope of not sucking. I say that because the anthology format offers opportunities that are foreclosed to conventional features. Like short stories, short films are free to be allusive, opaque, and elliptical. It’s alright for a ten-, fifteen-, or even thirty-minute movie (and by extension, a collection of same) to leave the viewer with a hundred questions and no clear answers. Such a film can get away with being unstructured, inconclusive, and incomplete, because the entire concepts of structure, conclusiveness, and completion take on different meanings as the time devoted to telling the story is compressed. In the end, though, I was disappointed by The Weird Tale Collection, Volume 1, for two reasons. First, the longest and most fully developed of the three segments was far and away the worst, and second, the various filmmakers were unanimous in approaching the challenge of adapting Chambers from a direction that will be all too familiar to followers of Poe and Lovecraft movies— they basically shot whatever they wanted, and then slapped a Chambers-derived or Chambers-inspired title on it.
That longest and most fully developed segment is the subtitular “The Yellow Sign.” Roommates Tess Riordan (Poison Ivy: The Secret Society’s Shawna Waldron) and Edith Carmichael (Andrea Gall, of Deadly Lessons) have recently opened an art gallery, which puts them at the “scrambling and hustling for exhibits to present” stage of their careers. One night, Tess dreams of being lured and pursued through an enclosed space hung with disturbing surrealist paintings by a ghostly little girl (Chloe Moore) and a hulking man with yellow eyes (David Reynolds, from House of 1000 Corpses and Legend of the Sandsquatch). The dream leaves her fairly rattled, but it fortuitously leads to a potential business opportunity. Naturally, given the girls’ shared occupation, Tess and Edith alike find the paintings the most interesting part of the dream when the former tries to explain it to the latter. Edith is struck by a similarity between what her friend describes and the work of a real artist she remembers from her undergrad days. His name was Aubrey Scott (Dale Snowberger), and he showed some of his stuff some years ago at the college that Edith and Tess both attended, although Tess claims not to recall any such exhibition. Evidently Scott sort of dropped out of sight after that, but Edith believes he still lives and works in the area. In fact, now that she thinks about it, it seems to her that a comeback showing from a long-dormant artist could be just what the Carmichael-Riordan Gallery needs to get it onto its feet. Rumor has it that Scott was rather difficult to work with (okay— actually, rumor has it that he was a lunatic), but maybe Tess should look him up anyway. If nothing else, a meeting with Scott might satisfy the girls’ present curiosity regarding whether Tess’s subconscious really did decorate the walls of her nightmare with buried memories of his art.
Aubrey Scott is indeed still in town, and while “lunatic” might be just a slight exaggeration, it also might not be. At the very least, he’s prickly, angry, and mistrustful, the kind of guy who uses contempt for others as a shield for his own huge but fragile ego. And yes— his studio is crammed with old pieces that Tess recognizes from her dream. Now that she sees them again in the physical world, Tess finds Scott’s paintings and sculptures scary and disturbing in a good, intellectually exciting way, and she expresses her eagerness to set up a show for him at the gallery. Scott, however, is weirdly reluctant to show any of his creations again. In the end, he agrees only on the condition that Tess pose for his next picture.
Posing for Aubrey Scott is rather like posing for Hannibal Lecter (assuming Lecter weren’t hungry at the time, I mean). He seems to take as much interest in baiting Tess into uncomfortable psychoanalytic conversations as in actually painting her portrait, and eventually he draws out of her the story of a brush with mental illness that she had as a child. Tess became convinced that she had a twin sister named Camilla, who lived in a faraway land called Yhtill, in its capital city of Carcossa. Camilla would come to visit her daily, and almost as often, she would take her on excursions into that other world. Tess’s condition reached a crisis point one day when Camilla’s castle in Carcossa was invaded by a hulking, yellow-eyed man who came to hassle the children about something called “the Yellow Sign.” The dream, if that’s what it was, caved in on itself then, and Tess lapsed into a catatonic state that persisted for weeks. When she finally emerged, there was no more Camilla, no more Carcossa, no more Yhtill. Scott makes a startling claim upon hearing her story. He says that her “madness” was nothing of the kind, that her dream world really existed, and that Camilla was not her imaginary twin, but her doppelganger in a very real parallel universe. He should know, because he’s seen it himself— his Yhtillite double is named Aldones, and Aldones knows Camilla very well. As you might expect, Tess is thoroughly freaked out by this development, and would surely have severed all ties to Scott were it not for that exhibition the gallery needs so badly. She’s not half as freaked as she’ll be, though, after she reads the book the painter lends her at the end of their next sitting— an antique edition of a play called The King in Yellow…
The second segment is called “Tupilak,” and it is of French origin. I have no idea which Chambers story it’s supposed to be based on; he wrote nothing by that title to the best of my knowledge, and although it feels like the back-story to a vignette out of In Search of the Unknown or Police!!!, it isn’t actually that. In any case, the central figures this time are Max (José Ponce) and Kelvin (director David Leroy, probably the same one who wrote and directed another short horror film called Brutalos), who once went on a journey together to the Arctic. No reason for the trip ever emerges, but that really isn’t important. What does matter is that their Inuk guide died as a result of something that happened during its course. Max heard the Inuk’s last words, which he interpreted as a curse upon the two white men. Specifically, he believes that the dying guide sicced a tupilak on them, a sort of revenge golem usually understood as a malevolent spirit bound to or emanating from a chimerical figure carved in walrus or narwhal ivory; there’s some indication as well that in the mythos used here, the tupilak also personifies freezing to death. Now the standard practice in these situations is to laugh off “native superstitions,” but last year— on the anniversary of the Inuk’s death— Max had an experience that made a believer of him. He was walking alone in the woods when he was suddenly struck with the certainty that someone was watching him. A moment later, a terrible chill came over him, followed by a strange lethargy. Then came numbness, a sort of spreading paralysis, and finally unconsciousness. That is, Max experienced all the symptoms of death by freezing, except, rather mysteriously, for death itself. In fact, he found upon his awakening that he had come to no harm whatsoever, and that preternatural sensation of being watched was gone. Kelvin, however, thinks his friend is full of shit. After all, the Inuk’s curse was pronounced against both of them, but he’s never faced any harassment from ass-freezing vengeance demons. That’s exactly what Max finds most troubling— why hasn’t Kelvin had any tupilak encounters of his own? And for that matter, why did the tupilak change its mind a year ago, and let Max live? Those questions seem especially pertinent just now, because today is another anniversary of the men’s Arctic misadventure…
Finally, with “The King in Yellow,” we have, of all things, an Italian J-horror clone. A teenaged girl (Eloisa Alquati) rummages through the disorderly shelves of a used book store. A friend of hers (Tamara Fragale) is hospitalized with injuries sustained in a serious car crash, and could really use something interesting to read during her convalescence. The girl selects a ragged and seemingly very old volume entitled The King in Yellow, and things take a sharp turn for the bizarre. First, her hospitalized friend begins appearing to her in the guise of a Ring-influenced Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl. Then she wakes up in an eerily deserted hospital, and her efforts to find either the way out or someone to explain to her what she’s doing there in the first place lead her instead into confrontation with a menagerie of monsters straight out of Silent Hill (although the inspiration for them has to have been the video games rather than the movie, which didn’t exist yet when Emiliano Guarneri and David Fragale made “The King in Yellow”).
It’s ironic that the weakest segment in an ostensible Robert W. Chambers movie should be the only one that bears recognizable resemblance to any specific thing written by Chambers. Aaron Vanek’s “The Yellow Sign” is a very loose adaptation at best, but its origins in the story of the same name are at least plain enough. On the adaptational faithfulness scale, it rates about the same as Die, Monster, Die! or Murders in the Rue Morgue. Unfortunately, Die, Monster, Die! is also a fair point of qualitative reference, with the further stipulation that “The Yellow Sign” lacks anything to equal the appeal of even a decrepit and wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff. Ill-focused, badly acted, and sluggishly paced, “The Yellow Sign” also devotes far too many of its 45 minutes to Aubrey Scott’s mad ramblings about the nature and purpose of art. The yellow-eyed guy never presents the aspect of ineffable, skin-crawling repulsion that defines his nearest counterpart in the print version, and it was a big mistake on Vanek’s part to turn Scott into the principal villain of the piece.
The shorter, foreign-made segments are so much better than “The Yellow Sign” that their brevity (taken together, they’re less than half the length of the headliner) becomes extremely frustrating. “Tupilak” especially I’d like to see developed into something more substantial. José Ponce and David Leroy act rings around the entire American cast, and the story (although again I can’t fathom its supposed connection to Chambers) is far and away the cleverest and most satisfying of the bunch. I particularly love the ultimately central notion that disbelief itself is the most powerful form of magic. “Tupilak” also benefits greatly from being the only one of the three segments shot on 35mm film, even despite a tightly circumscribed shooting environment that might naturally seem very forgiving of video cinematography. “The King in Yellow,” by contrast, profits just as much from the fuzzy, scratchy, pixilated images captured by the cheap, consumer-grade camcorder used in its creation. The action seems always to occur at several removes from reality, which is more than appropriate, since that’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening. Meanwhile, the crappy picture quality has its usual salutary effect on the segment’s crappy monster makeup. And of course there’s something to be said for the simple fact that this episode puts more effort into overt scare tactics than the others. Both the preceding segments are muted and cerebral, so it makes for an exhilarating change of pace when The Weird Tale Collection, Volume 1 goes out with a faceless thing chasing a girl through an institutional basement. I would have appreciated some fleshing out here as well, but at the same time, the slender premise benefits from a terse and elliptical treatment. “The King in Yellow” could certainly stand to be ten minutes long instead of seven, but more than fifteen would probably be wasted. In the end, though, the problem is one of imbalance. “Tupilak” and “The King in Yellow” are good for what they are, but they’d have to be a lot more in order to counteract “The Yellow Sign.”