Judge Russell Engebretson is grateful that the only yellow sign he has ever encountered was at the side of the road.
In the play entitled The King in Yellow there is mention of a mysterious symbol called The Yellow Sign. Those unfortunates who read the play through the second act may comprehend the meaning of The Yellow Sign, but in return for that knowledge they will sacrifice their sanity and perhaps their souls.
Since 2004 Lurker Films has provided a DVD outlet for small, independent films based on or inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert W. Chambers. Their catalog includes three volumes for Lovecraft (with a fourth on the way soon), one volume for Poe, and now the first volume in the Weird Tale Collection, which is devoted to Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933).
Weird Tale Collection Volume 1: The Yellow Sign and Others includes three films. The two short films are Tupilak (13 minutes) by director David Leroy and The King in Yellow (6 minutes) by director Emiliano Guarneri. The main attraction is a 45 minute feature based on Chamber's short story The Yellow Sign (1895). Director Aaron Vanek teamed with scriptwriter John Tynes in 2001 to bring the story to film in a reworked and updated version of the original. Despite the extensive revision, the feature manages to retain the eerie, otherworldly dread of Chambers' short story.
In The Yellow Sign, art gallery owner Tess Reardon (Shawna Waldron, To Kill a Mockumentary) is exhausted and on edge from strange dreams that she can only vaguely recall after waking. She learns that a man whose name she recalls from the dream is a real person, the painter Aubrey Scott (Dale Snowberger, Blow). Scott had a successful showing of his paintings eight years earlier, and then disappeared from the art scene. Tess decides to track him down and try to convince him to do a showing at her financially floundering art gallery.
She finds the reclusive painter tenanted in a once grand but now decrepit Depression era hotel that seems strangely deserted. He agrees to sign a contract with the gallery, but only if Tess will sit for a painting. She accepts his bargain, and as the painting proceeds she becomes a captive audience for the eccentric Scott's strange stories of child-apprentice shamans and a shadowy dimension of which our world is only a decayed image. At one point he tells her, "In the invisible world, there is a city. The city is so large that all the cities in the waking world are merely its shadow. The varied architectures of our cities are merely corrupted visions of the true city—the only city. Its name is Carcosa."
Back at home, Tess finds her dreams becoming more vivid and disturbing, full of references to a "Yellow Sign" that is somehow related to imaginary games she played as a child. Scott gives her a copy of a play called The King in Yellow. After reading the script, Tess begins to believe she may be an earthly incarnation of a character in the play named Camilla, and Scott is actually Aldones. By the time Aubrey Scott brushes the finishing strokes of Tess Reardon's portrait onto his canvas, her ability to distinguish between the real and the imaginary is slipping from her grasp.
Director Aaron Vanek has done a splendid job of bringing the Chambers story to visual life. H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by and admired the early work of Robert W. Chambers, in particular the stories from The King in Yellow. Both of these writers' works are notoriously difficult to translate to film, as anyone who has seen the numerous Lovecraft inspired films will attest. It's a triumph for the director, screenwriter, and cast to have created the story's dreamy, creepy atmosphere on such a miniscule budget with the lion's share of the shooting on one set.
The imaginative sets contribute greatly to the film's accomplished look. Aubrey's weird paintings (created by Jason Voss) adorn the walls of his apartment and extend beyond the canvases to cover the walls; bizarre Objets d' Art randomly scattered about the unkempt apartment reflect the disarray of Scott's mind; the creepy Punch doll and Victorian era photographs in Tess Reardon's bedroom integrate seamlessly into her lucid nightmares. Throw in an excellent, moody score and you have a film—if it weren't quite so cerebral—that would have been right at home as an episode on The Night Gallery.
The two short films are closer to student efforts, but not without their own charms. Tupilak is a tale of psychological aberration with only a slight nod to Chamber's fiction. On the other hand, in spite of an overlong, clichéd hospital-stalking sequence The King in Yellow is a genuine tribute to its source material and achieves two or three minutes of Chamberesque eeriness.
The Yellow Sign was shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera, so the transfer is less than spectacular. Despite a soft picture and occasional graininess, the colors are decent and shadow detail is at least passable. There was an odd problem with the aspect ratio that caused the picture to be vertically squeezed, but a bit of fiddling with the DVD player and projector remote set things right. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio was thin and murky. I only listened to it for a few minutes before switching back to Dolby 2.0 Stereo, which fortunately sounded quite good. It's a fine presentation for a low-budget production.
The best of the extras are the pair of commentaries by director Vanek and actress Shawna Waldron. One commentary is "normal" and the other "risqué." They are both enjoyable and impart plenty of information on how the film was shot and the many difficulties the crew encountered along the way. On one night their hotel set was broken into and thousands of dollars worth of makeup and equipment were stolen. Aaron Vanek says the thief was caught and they retrieved most of their stuff, but they had to buy their walkie-talkies back from a fence. Such are the perils of low-budget filmmaking in unsavory locations, I suppose.
The next best extra is Christophe Thill's excellent 15 minute documentary that covers the career of Robert W. Chambers after he moved to Paris. It discusses Chambers' influences (Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, the French symbolists) and how he abandoned his early horror writing for romantic suspense novels, which made him wealthy and successful. As Thill says, today he is mainly remembered for his supernatural fiction, the short story collection The King in Yellow in particular.
The DVD also includes a full-color, eight page, glossy booklet with information on the films and an excerpt about Chambers from H.P. Lovecraft's well-known essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.
A great deal of work and tender loving care went into the production of this DVD. It's a must-have for fans of this brand of supernatural story-telling. These films could usually only be viewed at a specialized film fest in a large metropolis. The team at Lurker Films is obviously composed of true-fans, and they should be commended for their valiant and continuing efforts to bring these short films to the general public. Better yet, reward their efforts with the purchase of a copy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Lurker Films
• Chambers in Paris
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