I’s the beginning of October, and we are fast approaching the most wonderful time of the year. For a certain type of person, that time has nothing to do with a rotund, problematic elf spying on children and bouncing them on his knees, promising them things they want but don’t need. Instead it’s focused on ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night. For the next month-plus or so, there will be parties, haunted houses, corn mazes and trick-or-treating.
But for adult aficionados of Halloween, there is perhaps no better start to the fearful festivities than the 28th annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, taking place at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland October 6-8.
H.P. Lovecraft himself is one of the most, if not the most, influential practitioners of weird and macabre literature in the last century and a half – which is interesting, because he’s not really that good. His prose is often wretched, childish and overwrought, and his oeuvre is shot through with a particularly florid brand of racism and xenophobia. But neither of those aspects, I think, are where Lovecraft gets his appeal. Nor do fans of his work need his language and skill to equal that of say, a James Baldwin or a Cormac McCarthy, because the sheer power, breadth, and depth of his ideas and imagination are undeniable.
You can see his influence in many of the tentpole manifestations of contemporary horror, from Stephen King to John Carpenter to Ridley Scott’s Alien to the recent hit television show Lovecraft Country. Lovecraft is such a pervasive thread in the tapestry of what horrifies 21st century American society that it is often not even recognized as such when it is being experienced.
During his lifetime Lovecraft’s impact and influence did not equate to material success: He died in relative obscurity, and even disfavor. But his vision of humanity’s cold and lonely place in a cosmos that is indifferent at best and actively hostile at worst, and the effect that revelation would have on our collective psyche, was prophetic.
In the 21st century, when we recognize humanity’s ultimate annihilation as not just a possibility but a probability and have a burgeoning suspicion that it will happen sooner rather than later, Lovecraft’s ethos and aesthetic are, if anything, more resoundingly resonant than they were when he lived. The primary theme at the center of Lovecraft’s fabled Cthulhu Mythos can perhaps be best summed up in the opening paragraph of arguably Lovecraft’s most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid isle of ignorance in the midst of black seas of affinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”
This single paragraph is the uncanny eye of the Lovecraftian storm that will be taking place during the first week of October at the Hollywood Theatre. That weekend is the culmination of nearly a year of work from the people who run it, the dynamic goth duo of Gwen and Brian Callahan and a host of volunteers, not counting the collective weeks, months and years culminated by the films’ various creators.
The Callahans started out as regular patrons of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, flying up annually from their then-home in New Orleans to participate. After Katrina, they decided to make their home in the Pacific Northwest, and a few years after that the Lovecraft festival’s founder, Andrew Migliore, let them know that he was stepping down and if they wanted the festival to continue, they would have to take it over. They did so, and have been running it ever since.
The festival will have about sixty films culled from more than four hundred submissions, hailing from sixteen countries around the world. It will feature twenty-two world premieres, six U.S. premieres, and various other regional, local, and Pacific Northwest premieres. There will be eight feature films, including a special screening of Rebekah McKendry’s 2022 Shudder original Glorious, a film that combines the elements of a rest-stop bathroom, a hangover, a glory hole, Lovecraft, and the voice of J.K. Simmons.
Now, for sensible, healthy, well-adjusted people, “glory hole” and “Lovecraftian” are words that should never be uttered in the same sentence, let alone combined into one movie. But for the rest of you, all these different aspects, and especially Simmons as an elder god or demon or monster, on the other side of the aforementioned hole, should make Glorious a must-see event.
Other particular highlights include The Veil, directed by award-winning (including an Oregon Independent Film Festival award) director Cameron Beyl, a two-person drama in which “Redemption gives way to a reckoning when a reclusive retired priest shelters a young Amish runaway in crisis, only to reveal a mystery that ties her to a terrifying encounter from his youth … and the shimmering curtain of aurora that rages overhead.”
About Frogman, Gwen Callahan states, “Usually, I hate found-footage films, but I loved Frogman. They keep the shaky cam to a minimum, they really tell a story, it’s got a lot of heart, and just when you think, ‘Where is this going?’ the shit hits the fan and things get real weird, real fast.”
The festival will also include dozens of short films ranging from one minute to around half an hour.
From Kenya comes Isaya Evans’ Grogan’s Lodge, a short that grapples with that country’s legacy of colonialism and how it impacts the younger generations.
The Weaver, a Bram Stoker Awards first runner-up for short films, is a nasty piece of work from Norway, by director Øyvind Willumsen, that Callahan calls “awfully, awfully good” – and that “awfully” can be taken in more ways than one. It’s about a nurse coming to take care of a demented old lady – who just might not be an old lady at all. The Weaver features an absolutely insane performance by actress Isa Belle (stage name?) who goes all out.
The Temple is a Canadian adaptation of a Lovecraft story by the same name. Directed by Alain Fournier and stunningly animated, The Temple is exactly the kind of gem you hope to discover at an independent film festival. Daring in vision, virtuosic in execution, this film both honors and expands the source material in thrilling ways.
There will also be a number of speakers and guests of honor. Cody Goodfellow is a weird-fiction author, screenwriter, actor and, according to Callahan, the “high priest of the HPLFF who will be presiding over the festivities and he’ll be doing the sermon at the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast.” Which is on the Sunday of the festival, and for which tickets will be sold. Guests of honor are Rebekah McKendry, director of Glorious, and Clay McLeod Chapman, novelist, comic book writer, and podcast creator on Jordan Peele’s Quiet Part Loud series. You can see the full list of guest speakers, designers, and directors on the website.
Like its sister event, the Portland Horror Film Festival, which happens earlier in the year and is also hosted by the Callahans, above all else the Lovecraft festival is driven by a maverick spirit. This is not committee filmmaking. There are no toys being sold here. There’s no catering to the lowest common denominator. These are the most independent of independent films, made on varying degrees of low budgets, all of them having next to no chance of making their money back. The filmmakers are telling the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them, the only parameters being money, of course, and then their skill and their will. One of the beauties of a block of short films is that in the time it takes you to watch a typical feature, you will see a host of different sensibilities, storytelling methodologies, techniques and aesthetics.
Gwen and Brian Callahan mirror that spirit. They are true believers. The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival is a pure and genuine labor of love for them. They have a handful of volunteers who help out over the course of a year. “We have a couple of volunteers that help out year-round,” says Gwen. “When things get crazy busy they’ll will pop in their heads and say, ‘Hey, do you guys need help with anything?’ And we’ll be like ‘Yeah, can you come over Saturday, Sunday and Monday and fold shirts for me?’”
Which, if you’ve never run a film festival that only just manages to make enough for itself to exist again the next year, can be invaluable. “I still feel like sometimes I don’t know how I manage to get people to do this for me,” says Gwen, “but ‘Thank you!’ I think they’ve all been to the festival and understand how special it is. There is nothing else like it in the world. It is a very community-oriented event. Everybody that takes part is interested in Lovecraft or a fan of Lovecraft or his contemporaries, and how unique is that?”
And what better way to celebrate our collective consciousness cracking like an egg in the face of the knowledge that the universe doesn’t know or care that we exist or actively wants to destroy us, than to descend into the abyss for an entire weekend with dozens of artists exploring the myriad ways our utter destruction can and will come about? In the words of local horror mogul Matt Blairstone, “The world celebrates our demise.” We should celebrate it back.