Dear Pickman’s Muse,
Any good artist, no matter what his or her medium (painting, film, literature, sculpture, etc.), should be open to interpretation. As such, there are many different ways to interpret the term “Lovecraftian” when pertaining to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Some apply the term to the author’s sense of the malign cosmos, an inhospitable universe in which human beings are insignificant in the grand scheme, incapable of coming close to comprehending the strange creatures and powers that comprise it for if they could, they’d go mad. Others prefer to see it in simpler terms, focusing purely on the monsters themselves, figuring the more tentacles, the better. This is perhaps another reason a majority of films based on Lovecraft’s works fail to hit the mark; the filmmakers’ interpretations of his writing gets lost in the translation between literature and cinema.
In your case, Pickman’s Muse, you’ve taken a rather unique approach toward presenting the last story Lovecraft wrote (at least, the last that wasn’t in cooperation with another author), “The Haunter of the Dark” for the screen. It was a somewhat internalized story that dealt with a young artist/writer’s descent into madness after discovering an alien object of cult worship in an abandoned church, the object being a “crazily angled stone” that revealed insane and terrifying vistas in the mind of those who beheld it. Seems simple enough, right? Perhaps, but given the rate of success of Lovecraftian adaptations in the past, one would be wise to approach you or any film based on this particular story with a fair amount of trepidation.
What is so unique about your approach is the manner in which you combine two unrelated Lovecraft stories to form what actually comes across as a pretty seamless narrative. In so many respects, your primary inspiration is indeed “The Haunter of the Dark,” but by making Pickman from “Pickman’s Model” the protagonist, you provide a wonderful cinematic conduit to express the madness suffered by the deranged artist as a result of his encounter with the otherworldly forces worshipped by The Church of Starry Wisdom. This madness is shown in several marvelous ways evocative of classic horror films, particularly in the disembodied voices of those forces beckoning Pickman, as well as the startled, disgusted, and outright horrified reactions of those who see Pickman’s paintings, all the while never showing us the images themselves. It’s the classic formula of never showing us the monster lest it no longer frightens… well, except for brief glimpse at the end with a lightning flash.
Your cast is competent enough; hardly of the caliber of a big budget production, but credit must be given to Barret Walz – who looks like Barry Pepper – for churning out a wonderfully nervous performance that exudes all of the restrained mania and introverted obsession of the character, reminiscent of a young Rutger Hauer. Similarly, Tom Lodewyck does a decent job of playing the unhinged Goodie Hines, Pickman’s predecessor in the deterioration from eccentricity to violent insanity – one of your own contributions to the story, and one that also plays on classic horror along the lines of The Silence of the Lambs. It’s really a shame so few of the other actors and so much of the dialogue simply fall into that category of low budget cinema, lacking the polish necessary for believability.
Some of your other more noteworthy aspects include a tastefully minimalist score, composed by Willy Greer, focusing more on atmosphere and a reserved hysteria that never explodes into bombast or histrionics as most movies of your type would. Similarly, your visual presentation is top-notch, never subverting yourself to gratuitous gore or exhibition (again, the “less is more” approach used to excellent effect). Some of the imagery, marked by chiaroscuro slashes of light and shadow, is pure Lovecraft, though the color palette seems all too limited to a high contrast of sterile blue/gray tones in some sequences and fiery yellow in others. Still, it’s remarkably tasteful and effective.
You’re not without your flaws, but you do present one of the more noble attempts to bring the subtler aspects of Lovecraftian horror to the screen. Perhaps where you succeed the most is in bringing the cosmic esoterica to a wider audience without sacrificing the essentials of Lovecraft’s stories or his universe; by keeping the references to Nyarlathotep or any of the Old Ones on the periphery and concentrating on the characters and the atmosphere, you actually make for a surprisingly accessible horror film while still being faithful to Lovecraft’s literary spirit. I must say you, Pickman’s Muse, are a worthwhile viewing.
Hope to see you again,