Pickman's Muse Reviewed

Monday, August 30, 2010

There is sensation, and then there is atmosphere. These two themes--always in variant, sometimes conflicting doses--help define the boundary between Horror and weird fiction. In film, the effect is even more pronounced. Though there is a hint of sensation in Robert Cappelleto's new film, Pickman's Muse it relies heavily on an ominous atmosphere steeped in strange imagery. It may, in fact, be the most strictly atmospheric movie of this type to surface for a long time. When considering the enormous amount of effort H.P. Lovecraft marshaled to craft atmosphere in his own work, while continuously stressing its importance to weird fiction as a whole, Pickman's Muse may also be one of the most authentically Lovecraftian screenplays yet.

Any Lovecraft admirer will guess the production is based on HPL's story "Pickman's Model." Not quite. Instead, the cinematic storyline only owes a small part of its inspiration to this tale, while much more is drawn from "The Haunter of the Dark." Cappelleto's Pickman (played by Barret Walz) is an unsympathetic and psychologically unhinged painter, renting a shabby apartment and struggling to overcome the painter's equivalent of "writer's block" to get on with his shadowy existence. He has just come away from an indeterminable period under the care of his psychiatrist, Dr. Dexter, and soon finds new inspiration in an unusual looking church outside his apartment window. The plot thickens when Pickman's new creations begin to resemble another psychopath's products.

If two stony legs can be identified as key support for the atmospheric success here, one is definitely Walz's performance as Pickman. This character undergoes a radical shift from tormented drone to maniacal apostle, and his obsession's depth is convincingly portrayed. Pickman's shunning of relationships and reality will not appeal to some viewers, but weird aficionados are sure to find his character potently Lovecraftian. A few may even see a slightly Ligottian sleepwalker being nudged into an unwanted, demonic lucidity by forces that exhale the sinister. For Robert Pickman, Cappelleto wisely appropriates Lovecraft's pessimistic observer, but substitutes a downtrodden, malfunctioning mindset for a civilized one. When Pickman's encounter with the remnants of Starry Wisdom reaches its zenith, the result is more chilling than when Lovecraft's many genteel narrators fall to the beyond.

The Starry Wisdom Church, an otherworldly temple reeking decay and mystery, exudes more atmosphere than Pickman or any other character. Its cosmic malevolence is well reflected in one scene, where Cappelleto employs very conscious cinematography to capture a Medieval looking spire wrapped in exotic yellow sky. Yet, as haunting as its exterior is, Starry Wisdom's gutted innards house many oddities as well. Curious idols, including a crucified octopus, reveal a toxic persona that is beyond human occultism. Additionally, the abandoned shrine houses the shining trapezohedron, the source of unimaginable "visions" for artists who have made psychic contact with the church.

In surprising, but effective contrast to the dreamy fortress of Starry Wisdom, Cappelleto chooses to make other horrors more subtle. Pickman's blood curdling paintings are left to the imagination. The same goes for the spectral representatives of Starry Wisdom, who manifest as shadows in glass and swirl through the night. Adapting Lovecraft is unique in that many of his well described horrors can, theoretically, be brought to life on the screen. However, the long track record of disappointing gore and soggy monsters in Lovecraftian film making does not always mean directors should deploy the Providence author's creatures directly. The maker of Pickman's Muse realizes this, and he succeeds in casting a spell upon the viewer's imagination, where images and sounds suggest terrors far scarier than actually pulling the curtain back all the way would.

Despite Cappelleto's tasteful preference for subtlety and atmosphere, there are a few exceptions which, fortunately, complement this prevailing attitude. The mindless laughter and ravings of Goodie Hines, an interned lunatic touched by Starry Wisdom before Pickman, strikes a dissonant and tension building chord in several scenes. Similarly, the film's last act, where Pickman's frustration and artistic addiction rises to boiling point, features moments where the psychologically horrific spell withers into the background, replaced by concentrated blows of unmasked horror. The tempered pacing and precision with which action is delivered, though, ensures nothing is lost--and many will leave haunted by both the dominant, long running atmosphere as well as the final grisly revelation.

Pickman's Muse is a darkly beautiful journey, rendering its Lovecraftian elements in the vice grip of pure atmosphere. In a time when major directors are looking at giving Lovecraft's work a multi-million dollar treatment that will surely include overt action and shocks, Robert Cappelleto shows Lovecraftian cinema may be best in the artistic fog of unknowable phantoms. This is a technique that delivers not just images, but ideas nestled inside H.P. Lovecraft's stories. And, certainly, one hopes this will not be the last time Cappelleto uses it on weird fiction, translating its literary anxieties into moving, breathing demons.

-Grim Blogger

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