Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shadows Out of Time

"Novel. n. A short story, padded." -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

I have to admit that when I first saw the trailer for The Valdemar Legacy: The Forbidden Shadow (2010, directed by José Luis Alemán) last year, it had me rabid to see the movie. Paul Naschy's last film has The Great Cthulhu in it? You couldn't design a movie more tailored to my baser horror appetites. It's too bad the movie couldn't possibly live up to that expectation, and this movie doesn't. Little did I know that it's absolutely essential to see the first film to have any hope of following along (particularly if you're watching without subtitles, as I was, and if your Spanish is functional at best, which mine is). Really, they're one movie split into two, though you can make an argument that each of them has a na7rrative unto themselves. These were two movies I wanted to target for the challenge and the internet obliged me.

The Valdemar Legacy (also 2010) follows the fortunes of real estate investigator Louisa Lorente, dispatched to evaluate the value of the Valdemar estate, a crumbling old Victorian mansion where her predecessor has vanished. Her employer thinks her predecessor has absconded with some antiques, something of value from the estate, but Louisa soon discovers otherwise. His mutilated body has been secreted in the house, where she dutifully finds it. She is then pursued by the house's inhabitant (and is given away by her cell phone when she attempts to hide from him). She's rescued by the groundskeeper, and the focus of the movie shifts to Nicolas, a private investigator who is hired by the sinister Maximillian (who has a cane with an ivory Cthulhu's head as a handle--I SO want that cane) to find Louisa. On the train to the estate, Nicolas encounters the mysterious Dra. Cervia, who relates to him the tragic story of the Valdemar family. The movie then becomes all flashback, in which Lázaro and Leonora Valdemar found an orphanage and fund it with fraudulent seances where they take photographs of spirits. They're exposed by unscrupulous journalist who, failing to blackmail the couple, vows to ruin them. In steps the British magician, Aleister Crowley, who has seen Lázaro's photographs and finds in them something genuinely otherworldly. He rescues the Valdemars from ruin, but demands a seance held during a lunar eclipse. Predictably, all hell breaks loose, during which Leonora is demonstrated to be a true medium. She sacrifices herself to save her husband and the orphanage. Cut back to the present, when Louisa discovers her true predicament, held captive by a bug-eating madman. The film ends on a cliffhanger.

The second film picks up more or less where the first film leaves off (it includes a preamble recapping the first film). Louisa has escaped and fled into the arms of a Romani fortune teller (in an ornate wooden caravan wagon, no less), while Nicolas and Louisa's coworkers converge on the Valdemar estate. Soon all of them are captured by the mysterious bug man and his accomplices and held captive in a torture chamber (the movie flirts with the imagery of, but does not embrace, the contemporary torture film). We also get a glimpse of Valdemar's life after the events of the first film, in which he pores over the Necromicon searching for ways to return his wife to him. One of his advisers is H. P. Lovecraft himself, presented here as a kind of wizard academic. Eventually, the mysterious figure behind the present-day events reveals himself, there's a climactic ceremony, and The Great Cthulhu himself is summoned...

My first impression: this is a slick example of commercial cinema. Hollywood-style production values have spread worldwide, particularly through the various outsourcings of Hollywood productions to places like Eastern Europe and, well, Spain. Second impression: this could use a touch of exploitation. Oh, sure, there's some sex in these films. And some nudity. There are even hints at darker sexualities (particularly in Crowley's frame-up of the reporter), but there's surprisingly little graphic violence or (for want of a better word) grit. This is a case where slick production is not necessarily a virtue. Most of the Gothic improvisations on display in these films are fairly hackneyed. There's a scene, for instance, where our heroes end up running across a stone bridge and it collapses as they cross it. I laughed out loud at that. This movie also has situationally functional cell phone coverage, which is also funny, perhaps even intentionally so.

Oh, and my desire to see Paul Naschy's last performance was a little frustrated by the fact that his part is basically an extended cameo. Nice to see, him, especially so late in his life, and he's good as a benign character rather than a villain, reminding me of the kindly old man roles that Michael Gough wound up playing in his old age after a career made playing rat bastards. Making that connection stronger is the fact that he's basically Alfred the Butler to Valdemar's Bruce Wayne. Upon reflection, though, this turns out to be an appropriate send off for Naschy, given that this is the same kind of "blender" movie he made so many times in the sixties and seventies, dodgy special effects and all.

It's always nice to see someone try to imagine Lovecraft's bestiary, but the results are usually pretty hit or miss. Lovecraftian monsters are almost always so horrible that the merest sight of them will drive human beings to gibbering madness. In other words, they're all probably unfilmable. Putting Cthulhu--or more probably, one of his star-spawned minions, given the way the scale of the thing varies--in this movie is a mugs game. The monster will never measure up. But, as I say, I like seeing people try. I think the downside of the big monster's appearance in this film is that you have to wade through nearly three hours of movie to get to it. That's a long way to go for a four minute payoff and a ridiculously easy banishment of the thing back to the outer dark. He's kind of a straw monster, which is totally outside the Lovecraftian conception of icky things you should not know.

The length is a problem. These movies probably should have been cut down into a single feature at about a two hour running time. While neither film ever drags, really, they both wind up following their sundry narratives into blind alleys from time to time. This is doubly true after the film's big climax. There's still twenty minutes of falling action afterward, and I wonder if the film couldn't have profitably left all of it on the floor of the editing room. This part of the story plays like the filmmakers weren't able to make the hard cuts that all filmmakers must make if they have any hope of creating something good. My advice to director José Luis Alemán? Learn how to murder your darlings.

Current tally: 9 film

First time viewings: 8

From Around the Web

Tim over at The Other Side delves into the dream world of Carl Th. Dreyer's Vampyr.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter visits The Keep and feels some Dread.

Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr catalogs Hammer's version of The Mummy and finds the exhibition to be a perfect summation of British colonialism.

Dr. AC at Horror 101 rolls on. He's racking up the horror movies (and the dollars) for his charity.

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