The Quay Brothers' Maska plus film without images - HP Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror

This article is from 2010

The Quay Brothers' Maska plus film without images - HP Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror

Still from Maska, by The Quay Brothers

Edinburgh International Film Festival Blog

Wednesday 23rd June

While EIFF’s programme focuses mainly on conventional feature-films, there are several one-off events scattered throughout the Festival’s 10 days, so I decided to investigate a couple of the more adventurous ones. The first was a screening and interview event with the influential animators The Quay Brothers. They were billed in the programme as The Brothers Quay (it’s pronounced Kway, by the way), but said they’d recently changed it round as they feel it makes them sound too much like a circus act. After meeting them, I’m not so sure that that would be such a misrepresentation; the brothers, Stephen and Timothy, come across like characters from a different world. They’re virtually identical in appearance, both looking (and sometimes sounding) like Richard E Grant in an unruly grey fright wig, both utterly eccentric in their ways of interpreting questions and expressing themselves, and each able to finish the other’s thought for them, like some mad professor versions of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that they are actually the same person, strangely manifested in two distinct bodies by some curious biological occurrence.

Despite the Brothers being born and raised in Philadelphia, their work is completely devoid of American influences, instead referring to traditions of European and Scandinavian surreal animation. Their personas seem to have taken on these influences too, as they both speak with Scandinavian inflections and you would never guess they were born in America. We were shown three of their short films; Inventorium of Traces, a kind-of documentary about a Polish museum, In Absentia, a story about a woman in an asylum and their newest film, Maska, a science fiction based on a short story by Solaris writer Stanislaw Lem. These descriptions don’t do any kind of justice to what the films actually are though. Surreal is the key word; I couldn’t tell you what a single frame of any of their films meant, but I can tell you that it was freaking scary. Their skill at combining music and images to achieve intensely powerful effects is incredible, although three of their films back-to-back in the cinema is perhaps the limit that one should watch in one sitting, for the sake of both sanity and peace of mind!

The second event I was intrigued by was HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, an adaptation of the classic horror book with a vital difference to most movies; it’s an entirely audio experience. I met the director, Colin Edwards, and the film’s narrator, Chewin’ The Fat’s Greg Hemphill, in the Filmhouse Café yesterday afternoon to find out more, and began by asking Edwards if this actually qualified as a film: ‘I would say that it’s not a film, because it doesn’t have any moving images’, he said, ‘but it is an explicitly cinematic experience. Some people have asked if it’s not just like a radio play, but no it’s not; I’ve written a lot for radio and I went about this in a totally different way, because I knew it was going to be experienced in a cinema; it was mixed specifically to be heard in a cinema. For example, there were certain scenes where we knew the audience would be completely surrounded by sound, so we can totally immerse people in a certain situation. So you can be much more subtle about the kind of information you give people and take much more risks, open the world out a lot more and just throw people into it.’

Hemphill, who got involved purely on the basis of being a huge horror fan, even though he couldn’t imagine what an ‘audio horror film’ might be like, said Edwards’ idea struck him as being ‘perfect for horror, because most of it comes from your own interpretation of the literature. So by not putting up any images you’re basically saying to the audience “you do that”. And in terms of cinema, the horror audiences are amongst the most intelligent, the most imaginative, so it’s a perfect fit. And it’s closer to the experience of reading a book than watching a movie, and in that sense it’s very cunning, because most fans of any book are disappointed with the film adaptation. This is a way of sidestepping that; if you’re disappointed with this adaptation you only have yourself to blame!’

I suggested to Edwards that this choice to cut images completely from the cinema experience runs particularly counter to the current Hollywood trend, with filmmakers increasingly banking on developments in imagery, particularly 3D, to attract cinema audiences. ‘I’ve seen a couple of 3D movies’, he said, ‘and I don’t find it an immersive experience, it actually takes me out of the movie, and I do feel it’s a little bit gimmicky. The problem with a lot of visual special effects is that they can date very quickly, so you go to see a film, and unless it’s really well made and the effects are so well-suited that they retain a sense of charm, you watch it in five years time and the effects look hokey. But sound doesn’t date. The recording techniques, and some of the references and the way we listen certainly does date, but the great thing about doing special effects in audio is that you don’t have to worry about people thinking a particular bit was CG or didn’t fit with the context. If James Cameron had gone with audio he could have saved himself $350million!’ Hemphill agreed, saying ‘film as spectacle has really come at the detriment of storytelling, and this exercise goes back to basics; we’re not relying on anything other than the strength of the story’.

HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror played to its first public audience in the Filmhouse last night, and while I wasn’t able to experience it myself, I had a man on the inside, Glasgow Evening Times’s movie critic Paul Greenwood. His verdict was that it was a strange and unique experience, perhaps not quite as scary as he would have liked, but definitely worth going to the cinema for. There’s another chance to check it out for yourself as it’s playing again as part of the Best of the Fest line-up on Sunday, so if you get the chance to experience it I’d be curious to know what you think – add your reviews below!