Horror films as art house fare? While that may not be the express goal of Lurker Films, The Yellow Sign, the first in its DVD series called The Weird Tale Collection, certainly suggests that approach.
Lurker Films was originally launched to produce DVD and VHS releases of films and television shows directly or indirectly inspired by the work of horror master H.P. Lovecraft. Having released four DVDs of Lovecraft-inspired video, it has broadened its scope to release what it considers the best in "weird tale and literary horror." The Yellow Sign combines both.
Although branded as the first volume of The Weird Tale Collection, the centerpiece of the DVD is the 45-minute The Yellow Sign. It was inspired by a short story of the same name that appeared in The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories published by Robert W. Chambers in 1895. The title of that collection refers to a fictional play said to drive those who read it mad and which is integral to the stories in the collection. Lovecraft was so taken with the work, that he even incorporated the Yellow Sign in his works.
Director Aaron Vanek, who shot the film digitally, brings the tale into modern America. Tess Reardon, played by Shawna Waldron, is having nightmares that involve an artist and his unusual, almost grotesque, paintings. Her partner in the art gallery Reardon co-owns believes she is dreaming of an actual artist, Aubrey Scott, who did one art show and then became a recluse. Reardon sets off in search of Scott with the goal of hosting a show of his work at their gallery. Scott, played wonderfully by Dale Snowberger, agrees on the condition that Reardon pose for him. During the sittings, Reardon discovers the truth about her past, Scott, and reality.
As seems requisite, Reardon comes off as an almost fairy tale-like damsel. Although a beautiful business owner, she has that trace of naivete necessary for such a tale. We all know she shouldn't go up the stairs of the building where Scott lives. We all know she shouldn't enter his studio. We all know she shouldn't pose for him. We all know there is something more here than meets the eye. Yet isn't the fact Reardon embarks on her actions despite this what helps create the tension so essential to workable tales of horror?
By recording the short digitally, Vanek gives it a mood that not only supports the feel of the genre but subtly reinforces that it is inspired by a tale more than 100 years old. It is in that sense that the production could be seen as rising to the level of an impressionistic art house film. It also comes with both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby sound and includes in its bonuses two audio commentaries, deleted scenes, and parts of Snowberger's audition.
There are other less directly related bonuses. The DVD contains two foreign-made shorts as well as a short documentary on Chambers by an individual who has studied the author's work.
The longer of the shorts, "Tupilak," is a French work by and starring David Leroy. It is not related to Chambers but has a tangential connection to Lovecraft and, in fact, won the short award at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. It uses a slightly different approach to what might be called a monster tale. Two men who leave their Inuit guide to die in the polar wilderness are cursed by him to be pursued by a Tupilak, a creature of Inuit mythology that is sent by its maker to do harm to an enemy. Representations of the Tupilak have appeared in films based on Lovecraft's 1928 short story, "The Call of the Cthulhu." Leroy accomplishes his goal of "mak[ing] a classical monster movie without a monster in it." As we never see the Tupilak, we are left to wonder about the exact source and nature of the revenge sought by the guide.
There is also the even shorter Italian short, "The King in Yellow." The first in a planned series exploring Chambers' work, it is an almost hallucinatory tale of a young woman who goes to an antique shop to buy a book for a friend in hospital but who ends up in a nightmarish world where she is to meet the King in Yellow.
The Yellow Sign certainly isn't for all tastes and, in fact, may not be for all so-called horror fans. Both the tales and the films are phantasmagorical to the point of at times being abstract. At the same time, movie studios that produce so-called blockbuster horror films could learn a lot from the approach toward these stories, both in terms of style and production.