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San Pedro Falls Under Cthulhu’s Spell

This past weekend, Lovecraft enthusiasts descended upon the sleepy coastal town of San Pedro, California, for the annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & Cthulhu Con, where for three days, the ratio of black t-shirt-clad visitors with R’lyehian sayings punctuated by tentacles increased exponentially.

Utilizing crowdfunding, returning event organizer Aaron Vanek set up a project on Kickstarter this year and successfully raised over $9K. Vanek stated in the Daily Lurker – the event’s program disguised as a newspaper and a familiar prop concept for Cthulhu roleplaying – that the fundraising effort was helpful in “generating a tiny amount of profit after three years of minor losses.”

 



The three-day event kicked off at the purportedly haunted Warner Grand Theatre on Sixth Street, where most of the festival’s activities took place from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. Opened in 1931, the nationally recognized historic building’s ornate floral motifs and etched glass chandeliers lent charm and complemented the mystic surrounding Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos.

First and foremost known as a film festival, there were special screenings of feature films such as Dagon (2001) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994), which were accompanied by Q&A sessions with director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Sandy King, respectively; however, it was the short films that Vanek described as the “heart and soul” of the festival.



The fourteen shorts were grouped into two blocks and shown Saturday afternoon and early evening. Guest author Gary Myers, who has contributed significantly to the Lovecraft Dreamlands since the 1970s and written several books including The House of Worms, reflected that “adaptations of Lovecraft will be challenging . . . his stories tend to be light on character, on action, on almost everything it takes to make a story.” It probably explains why the films ranged from comedy to horror, from existentialism to nihilism. That said, a number of the films were able to rise to the challenge and create some fascinating interpretations.

 


Cthulhu’s Witnesses by filmmaker John Hidalgo, who stated this was his first submission to a festival, stood out for its decidedly comedic stance and started out the first group of shorts for the afternoon. Originally an assignment for his film class at Austin Community College, his mockumentary came from a combination of reading Lovecraft as a teenager and experiencing visits from door-to-door evangelicals. He said that "once you have the premise of Cthulhu’s Witnesses being evangelicals, it really wasn’t a challenge at all” to incorporate Lovecraft into modern day. The Unusual Case of Henry David Pierce (dir. Michael Bach) also provided a lighthearted parody of a professor who actually listened to sound advice.

Two films were built from real-life events but went in different directions with the stories. Jason Voss directed the documentary Banshee Bride that incorporated illustrations and drawings to tell of the tragic and eerie haunting of Lady Macalister, while Scott Milder’s Vanya fictionalized one Soviet soldier’s experience leading up to the dropping of the Soviet thermonuclear bomb in 1961.

Lot254 (dir. Toby Meakins) about a vintage camera collector who unknowingly unleashes a terrible horror was a pleasant scary gem, as well as James Bentley’s Miskatonic University, which was set in 1929 New England and followed the story of a professor whose sanity is slowly slipping away; however, it was the story of the little girl Sophie who misses her father in Reset from Swedish directors Marcus Kryler and Fredrik Åkerström that claimed both the judges' and people's choice awards for Best Short Film of the festival.

Although the films were central to the festival, there were several other activities that made up the “con” portion of the weekend. Over at The Whale & Ale Pub, people could enjoy a meal while a number of Lovecraft authors, including Nancy Holder, Jason Thompson (who also designed this year’s festival poster), Gary Myers, and several others, spun yarns from the lofty staircase overlooking the dining area. There was a late night session of pub trivia on all things Lovecraft. And, there were musical performances by Matt Mintz and Eben Brooks, as well as the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast that were scheduled the close the festival on Sunday.

 



There were plenty of shopping options at the theatre, however, as a Saturday attendee, finding time during the program was difficult. Several vendors were set up on the three lobby levels of the old time cinema house. Satisfying the curiosity of newcomers to Cthulhu mythos as well as the discerning Lovecraftian, merchandise covered just about any interest: jewelry, posters, ties, t-shirts, books, stickers, stuffed toys, props for roleplaying, shot glasses, and fez hats!

Brian Yuzna had a booth set up with lots of stills from many of the cult films he has produced over the years that included the Re-Animator movies. Event goers were able to purchase stills, get his autograph, and talk Lovecraft films with Yuzna.

Set up on the mezzanine level was artisan and illustrator Natalie Ewert of CreatorNat, who had several pieces of jewelry, small stretched canvas paintings, and masks for sale at her table. Her fantasy art nouveau pieces, many with feline motifs, fit right in with Lovecraftian style and sensibilities. “It’s always fun to see the other vendors’ wares and meet other creative artisans,” Ewert said, adding, “It’s a nice excuse to share some of my macabre creations.”

 


“It is always a good sign of a good festival or convention when you receive regular info and help whenever needed,” when Ewert mentioned the helpfulness of Vanek. Unfortunately, Vanek revealed in his Daily Lurker message that he was stepping down. Although a successor has not been selected as yet, Vanek promises the festival will continue.

Overall, although steeped in a mythos, the festival easily appealed to both newcomers unfamiliar with the world of Lovecraft and those well versed with all of the various twists and turns that has its foundation in early 20th century cosmic horror literature. It did feel as though the best events were packed into Saturday rather than balancing a few activities to Sunday. And, as mentioned before, more time available for mingling with vendors and friends would have been welcomed.

Gary Myers summed up the experience best (films and festival) by reflecting, “An audience of strangers bound together into a happy, little community by their common enthusiasm and interests . . . is diametrically opposite of the nihilistic loneliness at the heart of a good Lovecraft story. But, isn’t that part of the charm?” Yes, indeed.

Michele Brittany is an independent popular culture scholar and semi-professional photographer. She has edited James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy (McFarland & Company), as well as the forthcoming book, Essays on Space Horror in Film, 1950s – 2000s.  Follow Michele on Twitter, @mcbrittany2014.