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October 9th, 2012


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10:34 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Vigor Mortis
Aaaand this is another night when I'm just not going to have enough time to watch a feature-length film, write it up, and get to bed at a reasonable time. Instead I've watched a short film, and will likely do the same tomorrow. Fair warning. The good news is that any short film I'm likely to watch is probably on YouTube or Vimeo, and you can watch it during your lunchbreak, which is actually what I did today.

Vigor Mortis is a Dutch film based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft called "The Hound". In 1922, Lovecraft famously submitted five stories to Weird Tales magazine with a cover letter demanding that any story found suitable for publication must be printed verbatim, with every pedantic semicolon, every inappropriate italicization, and every outdated Augustan spelling intact. "The Hound" was accepted, and like most of Lovecraft's stories (especially his early ones (and we consider 1922 to be early)), he eventually decided it was an embarrassment. Wikipedia quotes Peter Cannon as saying that HPL wrote it "with tongue at least partly in cheek", and I recall S.T. Joshi once describing it as "self parody", but I think Joshi plays that card whenever he gets self-conscious about his Lovecraft scholarship. There's a quote in some letter or other that Lovecraft wrote around this time where he basically admits that he enjoys embracing his worst impulses, and that is what I think he's doing in "The Hound".

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You may not know "The Hound", and you are almost certainly unfamiliar with Vigor Mortis. Luckily for you, a summary of one will suffice for the other, because Vigor Mortis is a very faithful adaptation. I've said it many times, but the most faithful (though not necessarily the most effective) Lovecraft adaptations tend to be short films with no budget. Vigor Mortis is effective and faithful.

"The Hound" is about two men: the narrator (unnamed in the story, Edgar in Vigor Mortis), and his companion St. John, who live together and feed each other's unhealthy interest in the macabre. They're connoisseurs of gruesome, lurid art, and grave robbers to boot, and their collection includes preserved bodies, decomposing heads, statues, headstones, gristly paintings, and other stuff you wouldn't want in your house. In their researches, they discover the story of another legendary grave robber who famously stole Something Potent and was probably buried with it.

Edgar and St. John check out the Holland churchyard where the guy is buried, exhume the body, and discover that the potent something is a amulet carved from jade in the shape of a winged hound, hanging around the neck of a mutilated, but surprisingly intact corpse. They take the amulet home and give it a prominent place in their museum, at which point strange things begin happening. They begin to feel that they are being constantly watched, sometimes pursued. There hear phantom knocks, shrill laughter, and the beating of huge, leathery wings. Eventually Edgar finds St. John mutilated, and hears his last words: "the amulet... that damned thing!"

Edgar plans to return to the Holland churchyard to re-deposit the amulet, but theives steal it from him, and the next day their gristly demise is reported in the papers. Edgar, now nearly insane, re-opens the grave anyway, and finds the corpse in an altogether different attitude: caked blood and bits of flesh drying around its sardonic grin, and the amulet is clutched tight in bony fingers. Whereupon Edgar loses it and runs cackling and screaming off into the night.

That's the original story, anyway, and Vigor Mortis manages to stick very closely to it. There are a few interesting stylistic changes -- namely it plays with the chronology by using a lot of flashbacks. What surprises me the most, I guess, is that it's obviously and utterly dirt cheap, but makes no narrative sacrifices. I hadn't thought of it before, but really, this story has no need for special effects. In this case, compromising on the visuals made for a much better film than anything the filmmakers could have afforded.

The execution is also much better than the original, which includes an incredible accidental homoerotic subtext. It's hilariously difficult to take the story seriously, but these guys managed to fix it, mostly by deciding not to flesh out the characters very much. Not a complaint; it works.

Vigor Mortis may have been a student project -- I'm not sure. At any rate, there's no one involved that you've heard of, mostly because they're Dutch.

And speaking of Dutch, there's one thing missing from the movie: "The Hound" is the only instance in recorded history where an author has tried to strike fear into the hearts of his readers by italicising the phrase "in the Dutch language!" Are you frightened yet?

Head over to HPLovecraft.com to read the original story and see what I'm talking about.

If that doesn't interest you, try the film. It's only 17 minutes long, and you can watch the whole thing on Vimeo.

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31 Days of Halloween: Vigor Mortis - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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