Sunday, 23 March 2014

Pickman's Muse

Director: Robert Cappelletto
Writer: Robert Cappelletto
Producer: Edward Morillon
Cast: Barret Walz, Maurice McNicholas, Tom Lodewyck
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: screener

Despite the title, this isn’t actually an adaptation of ‘Pickman’s Model’ (which was adapted a couple of years ago as a short by Gary Fiero). Although it borrows some elements from that story – basically an artist named Robert Pickman who paints pictures so unutterably horrible that they create revulsion and horror among those who see them – the film also lifts from the later HPL tale ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ which was likewise about a painter. The DVD sleeve acknowledges ‘Haunter’ as the source material although on-screen the source credit is a rather odd ‘Dedicated to the works of HP Lovecraft.’

Pickman (Barret Walz: Jigsaw) here is a jobbing palette-hack, living in a slightly dingy garret with dripping pipes and an eastern European landlady (Joyce Porter: The Art of Pain) who likes him because he always pays his rent on time. Pickman is depressed and on medication prescribed by Dr Ambrose Dexter (Maurice McNicholas), a minor character in the original story - although it’s not clear whether these drugs are the cause of his morose state or an attempt to cure it.

One night, Pickman is awoken by a bright sunrise above an abandoned church which he can see from his window and, breaking an artistic draught of several weeks, sets to work feverishly banging out dozens of charcoal sketches. When he tries to sell a painting of the church to a local art dealer, Pickman learns that he has somehow unconsciously copied the style and subject of Goodie Hines, a notorious local serial killer, now incarcerated, whom he would have heard of if he wasn’t such a recluse.

Drawn to visit the empty church, he finds an angular box containing a (very briefly glimpsed) glowing sphere; this is straight from the story and is referred to in Lovecraftian literature as the ‘Shining Trapezohedron’. His next canvas is a scene of unspeakable horror and depravity which terrifies his landlady, who wanted Pickman to date her niece but now threatens eviction. While further hideous paintings emerge from Pickman’s subconscious, Dexter takes an interest because he is treating Goodie Hines (Tom Lodewyck: Incest Death Squad, Carnivorous, erm, Incest Death Squad 2) in the local loony-bin. Hines also painted hideous images like Pickman’s just before he went on his killing spree but no-one outside the police and hospital authorities has seen them – so how can Pickman, who had never even heard of Hines, ape his style and subject matter?

Pickman’s Muse is an atmospheric and at times creepy film but I think it’s aimed rather too solidly at the core audience of Lovecraft obsessives who will either have a clearer idea of what precisely is going on or less concern about it. Pickman hears voices but are they in his head or is he actually being spoken to by The Old Ones? Or is that meant to be ambiguous? There also are a few really odd sequences like a scene outside the church where he spots what appears to be a small octopus nailed to a cross.

Walz gives a very impressive performance as Pickman, subtly descending into madness. Unfortunately he is acting opposite McNicholas’ almost cartoonish Dr Dexter, played with a perpetual grimace and bulging veins like the character is on the continual verge of an aneurysm.

The DVD sleeve promises ‘deleted scenes’ and ‘extended scenes’ but on the menu there’s just the former although both are right in a sense. This is a seven-minute sequence of Dexter researching the church’s closure (in 1921 after the discovery that it was being used by an arcane cult) and breaking into Pickman’s apartment, culminating in a scene of Dexter talking with his colleague (Mike Dobray) in a parked car. This last scene is in the finished film but slightly shortened to remove dialogue references to the stuff which no longer immediately precedes it.

And here’s the odd thing; something which I have never experienced before. After watching these extra scenes, I not only understood the film a great deal more, I found that I had enjoyed it more too. For example, the movie as stands has a stand-alone, inexplicable reference to ‘starry wisdom’ which will no doubt have the HPL fanboys wetting their pants but is meaningless to the rest of us; this is expanded upon in the deleted/extended scenes.

Normally deleted scenes have been deleted for a good reason but honestly, these should have been kept in. The film’s only 75 minutes long, it could take another few minutes easily and the suitably enigmatic and unspoken plot would be a bit less enigmatic and a bit more spoken. We still wouldn’t really know what is going on but we would at least have a clue. Some of our unknown unknowns would have become, if not unknown knowns, at least known unknowns.

Writer/director/editor/cinematographer Robert Cappelletto handles both actors and camera well, drenching his interiors in colours which are appropriately painterly and bleaching his exteriors almost to the point of monochrome. The spooky music is by Willy Greer, founder of online radio show Horror Holocaust, who also scored Dan Gildark’s Cthulhu a couple of years ago.

MJS rating: B


  1. IMDB confuses McNicholas' resume, separating his work in a short and a Christian movie, "the First Stone" released by PD bootleggers Synergy into separate entries/people.

  2. McNicholas' only other feature is an odd sounding Errol Flynn fan film.

  3. Joyce Porter was also in Fear of Flying High with Marlon Anthony, Michael Anthony, Ann Anthony and John B Boss.

    1. She was also in the Alley Cat, Bachelors Grove, etc.