Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Yellow Sign (2001)

Tess Reardon (Shawna Waldron), the owner of an unsuccessful art gallery, needs some sort of monetary success to keep herself afloat. As luck will have it, she has a peculiar dream of herself as a little girl and the paintings of a certain Aubrey Scott.

Tess is quite surprised when her friend Edith (Andrea Gall) explains to her that Aubrey Scott isn't a figment of her sub-conscious mind, but a real painter. For mysterious reasons, Aubrey had only one exhibition a few years ago and disappeared from the eye of the art world directly afterwards. Edith suggest Tess should try and seek out the artist to propose a new exhibition in her gallery.

Seemingly at the end of her rope, Tess agrees. She has no trouble in finding Aubrey (Dale Snowberger). He lives in a run-down apartment building full of ghosts (I'm not speaking metaphorically) and is in fact still painting. After some ranting and raving about painting what one sees (which stands in marked contrast to the certainly non-naturalistic art the man produces), Aubrey agrees to an exhibition of his new works. He has one condition, though. He wants Tess to model for him for one last painting before he can sign any agreements with her.

The young woman agrees to the painter's demand. Sitting for Aubrey however, taxes her mind quite a bit. She starts to have strange dreams of a yellow sign and someone she (and Aubrey) call The Watchman (David Reynolds). The words and symbols from her dreams soak into the waking world, until Tess has problems discerning between dream and wakefulness, as well as sanity and insanity. A play (of course The King in Yellow) the painter gives to her which is supposed to explain what his happening to her only lets her drift off even more. Everything she experiences has something to do with strange happenings in her childhood she had mostly repressed. The question is (as it always is), if she has seen the Yellow Sign.

Robert W. Chambers' handful of stories containing elements like the Yellow Sign and the King in Yellow were of course a major influence on the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Later writers in the Cthulhu Mythos started to incorporate Chambers' ideas into the Mythos itself, with The King in Yellow often becoming an avatar of Hastur. The appeal of a Mythos figure which lends itself to use in stories set in decadent and/or experimental artistic circles Lovecraft's antiquarian leanings didn't usually permit him to use should be obvious. The King is often and with panache used in Mythos tales that want to show the effects of Lovecraft's cosmic horror on a more personal or psychological level, reality as we know it slowly being replaced by another reality that follows an alien logic.

RPG writer John Tynes (in the context of the Delta Green setting for the Call of Cthulhu RPG) used Chambers' creations with special verve and creativity, turning the King in Yellow itself (in a stroke of genius) into a meme, a mental entropic virus.

That same John Tynes is also responsible for the script for The Yellow Sign (the sign here always represented in the form Kevin Ross developed for Call of Cthulhu), causing something like an RPG/Mythos-nerdgasm in your easily excitable reviewer. The short film is very much the sort of thing you'd expect Tynes to write when you're familiar with his RPG work. There's a strong and clever sense for creating the unreal out of cheap and simple materials at work, as well as an obvious love for the script's sources.

Tynes' script needs to limit itself to the cheap and easily realizable, because director Aaron Vanek obviously didn't have too much of a budget to work with. We are in the world of independent shoe-string budget filmmaking here, made by creatives straining to make the limited budget work on screen. The Yellow Sign has some of the typical hallmarks of this type of film: the unpleasant look of digital film, the post-production effects made on home-grade equipment aka a middle of the road PC, the actors not quite on the level (although they certainly aren't bad), the pseudo-string synthie score.

Vanek (and the script) does however manage to work around these problems very well. It is quite clear that everyone involved in the production is trying very hard to make a film that is as good as possible, and actually knows what "good" in the context of the film they are producing means.

What distinguishes The Yellow Sign from your typical backyard horror film is that it works. The film sets out to produce a feeling of reality drifting away, and, although you can see and feel how difficult it is to achieve, arrives at that mood. That's truly all I demand of a short film like it, and that's what the film delivers.



AaronJV said...

Cool, thanks!


houseinrlyeh said...

You're welcome!

Jared said...

This movie sounds great - and I'm a massive Robert Chambers fan. Where do I find it?

houseinrlyeh said...

It's the main feature on a DVD called The Weird Tale Collection Volume 1: The Yellow Sign and others that's still available at the DVD vendor of your choice.
The first pressing seems to have had some aspect ration issues, so that's something to watch out for.