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The condemned: Howard Lovecraft And The Frozen Kingdom (2016)

The plot: It’s arguable that through the simple process of animation, you can turn just about any fearsome monster into an appealingly adorable moppet ready for Saturday morning cartoons and plush doll sales. That, at least, appears to be the thought process behind Howard Lovecraft And The Frozen Kingdom. H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, a horror visionary whose grandiloquent imaginings of an entire mythos and monster-based cosmology birthed everything from the Necronomicon to would-be Guillermo del Toro blockbusters. His adjective-heavy logorrhea inspired writers from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates, and set the template for cosmic horror in the ensuing decades. So naturally, what better way to turn the youths on to his work than by neutering it in the clunkiest way possible?

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the film follows a pre-teen Howard Lovecraft on the very oddly specific day of October 26, 1897, as he prepares to go with his mother to visit his father, Winfield, in Arkham Sanitarium—a plot point that actually semi-mirrors the actual Lovecraft’s childhood. (Winfield was committed to a facility after a psychotic episode in 1893, and died in the institution five years later.) After his father yells at him to “Not listen to the words!” and offers young Howard some strange rambling warnings about destroying the Necronomicon and preventing Cthulhu from awakening (cool visit with dad!), his mother decides a good way to raise her son’s spirits is by... giving him his father’s journal, full of the written version of his rants.

After reading a spell, Howard is transported through a portal into the frozen kingdom of R’lyeh, where he ends up bonding with an elephant-sized creature named Thu Thu Hmong, a name Howard tries and fails to pronounce, instead calling his new friend “Spot.” Together, the pair travel across the land, encountering a friendly family of human-ish kids, playing in the snow, and generally doing the usual “a boy and his X” adventures. Eventually they arrive at a castle and meet Algid, the current ruler of R’lyeh, who promises to help Howard get home if he’ll recover a stolen book containing the magic necessary to free R’yleh from its frozen state. Howard is forced to venture deep underground and confront a Shuggoth, steal back the book it turns out was penned by his father long ago during the patriarch’s own visit to R’yleh, and deliver it to Algid, in hopes that she’ll send him home after breaking the demonic city free from its imprisonment. If you’re thinking that maybe rescuing an accursed place that had been overrun by evil Elder Gods from the very thing that banished them from the realm isn’t the best idea in the world, congratulations, you are smarter than Howard Lovecraft.

Over-the-top box copy: Nothing on the front, but the back of the Blu-ray case bears the groan-worthy pun, “For Howard, things are about to get R’lyeh crazy!”

The descent: Like a lot of socially inept nerds, I was a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft from a young age. The way in for me was through The Call Of Cthulhu, the role-playing game that transplanted Lovecraft’s elaborate horror mythology into a D&D-like adventure where you and your fellow explorers investigate some strange goings-on, only to stumble into a house of worshipers of Nyarlathotep, or deep-sea denizens from Innsmouth, or any number of eldritch horrors derived from his voluminous works. While I enjoyed playing the game, I liked merely reading the scenarios and devouring the ornate backstories of the mythology more, so once I realized I could just bypass the game and go straight to the source material, I was hooked. Lovecraft’s writings describe the world as a strange and forbidding place, full of unspoken rules and social codes that you fail to grasp at your own peril. Needless to say, there’s a reason it speaks to young outcasts.

So I was genuinely curious to see what an animated film would do with the raw materials of Lovecraft’s work. At best, I figured there would be a loose adaptation of one of his stories, albeit with the addition of a young Lovecraft as the protagonist to give the presumable target audience of young children an audience surrogate. Oh, simple, foolish Alex from a week ago, how I wish I could dispel your naive fantasies.

It turns out the graphic novel source material is more about completely altering the tenor and tone of Lovecraft’s work, making a kid-friendly hash of the author’s painstakingly detailed mythos and reimagining the whole thing as a sort of quasi-Narnia, with Lovecraft’s fiercest creatures twisted into petting-zoo animals. As the author Bruce Brown puts it when describing Howard’s friend Spot, “Cthulhu is a malevolent god who lay in slumber in the undersea world of R’lyeh. The return of Cthulhu strikes terror in the hearts and minds of mankind. He is worshiped by evil cults and undersea creatures known as Deep Ones. So, it made me laugh to make Spot incredibly charming and adorable. Ha!”

The theoretically heavenly talent: Here’s a weird triptych of names to put above the title: Christopher Plummer, Jane Curtin, and Ron Perlman. Given that Plummer’s and Perlman’s roles amount to little more than a single monologue and/or brief exposition, they were presumably in and out of the recording booth in just enough time to have it count as a full hour of studio rental. Curtin’s role is slightly larger, in that her performance as Algid means she’s at least in more than two scenes. The appearance by Plummer is the weirdest, given his role is that of the psychiatrist at Winfield Lovecraft’s sanitarium, and does little more than deliver aphorisms and observations to Howard that no sane doctor would ever utter. (On Howard having to witness up close and personal Winfield’s steady progression from inventing fantastic stories to total madness: “I hear a lot of writers are made that way, in fact.” This movie is nothing if not rotten at shoehorning in allusions to H.P. Lovecraft’s life.) The other odd voice talent is Doug Bradley, a.k.a. Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies, who similarly pops in for a couple of scenes of little more than exposition dumps that do little to move the story forward, and certainly don’t give his character any depth.

The execution: Before we even get into the execution of the film (spoiler alert: it is not very good!), there’s a pressing issue that needs discussing. Remember back at the very start of this piece, when I made the comment about how you can turn even the most nightmare-inducing demonic creature cute and cuddly by transforming it into a smiling animated buddy? I wasn’t just referring to the cosmic horrors dreamed up by Lovecraft that populate his stories. I was talking about H.P. Lovecraft himself.

See, it’s not always that hard to love the art, hate the artist. When they’ve been dead for more than half a century, it makes it fairly easy to ignore the fact they may have been a fairly noxious person in real life, and simply focus on their creative output. I haven’t read bios of all the great impressionist painters or surrealists whose work I’ve admired over the years, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess some of them were pretty terrible people! They’re long dead, so frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference any more, except in a socio-historical way, if you were trying to trace the cultural lineage of cruelty or oppression or what have you. You don’t have to feel bad about liking good art made by those bad guys; they’re dead! Unlike how, for example, buying a copy of one of Bill O’Reilly’s childish and wildly inaccurate history books directly puts money in the hands of a serial sexual harasser, picking up a copy of The Dunwich Horror And Others doesn’t put cash in the pockets of anyone but Arkham House Publishing.

But there’s a difference between admiring the works of a long-dead writer, and resuscitating him as an endearing and likable protagonist of a series of animated children’s movies. The latter rewrites history, by turning an actual historical figure into a harmless fiction—and worse, intentionally transforms the person to make them seem not only not so bad but also downright likable. “Howard Lovecraft: What a wonderful, imaginative guy!” this movie exclaims. As a counterpoint, allow me to cite a passage from one of Lovecraft’s letters to a friend, the horror author Belknap Long, in which he describes living in New York City and having to encounter the immigrant population passing him in the streets:

The organic things—Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid—inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguley moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnameabilities.

What a cool guy! Definitely someone worthy of being turned into the star of a 21st-century version of Mr. Peabody And Sherman! It turns out the reason Lovecraft didn’t have to look far to describe the monsters in his writing was because he used the exact same language to describe people of a different racial background. As Michel Houellebecq points out in his biography/assessment of Lovecraft, the author’s “descriptions of the nightmare entities that populate the Cthulhu cycle spring directly from this hallucinatory vision.” In short, his racial hatred went hand-in-hand with his imagination. So just as it would probably be unwise to launch a series of animated films called Little David Duke And The Truth Behind Reconstruction, maybe we don’t want to be making Howard Phillips Lovecraft the poster boy for our Funtime Adventures In Monsterland.

Happily, there’s very little in this movie to suggest it will draw much of a fanbase outside of... honestly, I’m not sure who would dig this. The Lovecraft family? Howard Lovecraft And The Frozen Kingdom is composed of the most bargain-basement in contemporary 3D animation, like a rough cut for a Laika film before they decided to get serious, or a cheapie Saturday morning cartoon. It’s not unlike those late-night ads you’ll see for colleges offering degrees in animation or digital design, or who only had a week to put it together. The dialogue is as halting and awkward as the animation. Contractions apparently don’t exist in the world of Howard Lovecraft (though abrupt Canadian accents sure do), yet the opportunity for random people to speak like one of Lovecraft’s engagingly overstuffed paragraphs of description is seemingly omnipresent. Also, even for a cartoon, the scale of Lovecraft’s head to his body is unwieldy. Those neck muscles are working overtime.

Unfortunately, even when the movie remembers it’s an animated film geared toward kids, the “jokes” don’t really land so much as they fall to the ground, flop around like a fish out of water, and die a slow, painful death. Here’s Howard trying to pronounce the name “Thu Thu Hmong” (i.e., Cthulhu as a cuddly pet) and failing, so instead he tosses out a Phil Collins reference from the early ’80s. You know, for the kids.

Part of the problem is that this movie—and its source material—was obviously made by people who love Lovecraft, and wanted to try and cram in as many references to the Cthulhu mythos as possible, regardless of how little sense it made, or the confusion it could add to an already-shaky storyline. Hence, when Howard meets a family of quasi-human kids, one of them pipes up, “Are you father Dagon?” This is not explained or elaborated upon, meaning it has zero purpose other than to cite the name of a creature from Lovecraft’s writings, and presumably require kids to turn to their parents and say, “Wait, what? Did I miss something?”

Similarly, the story can’t quite make up its mind about the denizens of R’lyeh. Are they monsters, good guys, or something in between? The whole “city got frozen to banish the evil” should imply those remaining have allegiance to either good or evil, but it’s just a mishmash of ambiguities. The tentacled kids’ dinner prayer thanks “the dark ones” but then asks for protection against “evil” creatures. So the dark ones are good, then? Howard Lovecraft And The Frozen Kingdom has no fucking clue. On the plus side, after bonding with these little mutant moppets, when it comes time to say farewell, they offer hearty expressions of goodwill, and Howard just walks away. Like, fuck you, kids. Whether this is the fault of a bad script or animation that didn’t do what they wanted, the result is unintentionally funny.

Even at a mere 83 minutes, this film is padded to the rafters to try and justify its running time. There’s a “Howard and Spot play in the snow” sequence around the halfway mark that feels interminable. Yes, Howard and the evil entity known as Cthulhu, world-destroyer of Lovecraftian legend, build a snowman. They play hide-and-seek. They have a snowball fight, complete with a spoof of the gunfight showdown in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly that goes on seemingly as long as the original. I’m sure the young people love that bit. Oh, and it’s followed immediately by a Matrix bullet-time parody, another timely reference that never gets old.

Eventually they get to the castle, where the drawbridge is lowered, and Spot/Cthulhu says, “Welcome!”—to himself.

Queen Algid tasks Howard with recovering a book that turns out to be the same one his mother gave him in the “real” world, in order to save the kingdom from the Narnia rip-off of an endless winter. To do so, however, Howard will have to free the book from the clutches of a Shoggoth, a fierce demonic evil with a gelatinous body that bubbles endless sets of opening and closing eyes. It sounds menacing, and when Howard comes face to face with the creature, it is indeed imposing. And then it opens its mouth to bellow the horrific sound of its ungodly voice, and—well, listen for yourself.

It’s not just that the Shoggoth sounds like a totally normal dude that makes it so funny, and so jarring. It’s that this is the film’s other big get, voice-talent-wise—it’s Ron Perlman doing the talking. He comes in for this one scene, delivers a bunch of Lovecraft references and an exposition dump about Howard’s father visiting him years ago, and then gets killed by Spot right before he can eat Howard. I’m guessing his name on the project helped secure some distribution, because there is absolutely no reason to bring him on board for something this silly and fleeting. On the plus side, it does give you a chance to hear how weak and underwhelming Howard tends to sound, even in a life-or-death situation. Here he is, moments from annihilation, when Spot appears to rescue him.

From there, the wholly predictable twist arrives: Algid was actually the evil King Abdul Alhazred, tricking Howard into returning chaos to R’lyeh. Luckily, Howard pulls a deus ex machina out of his pocket and uses a sort of ray-gun blast to vaporize the evil creatures and save the day. Before leaving the kingdom, he says his goodbyes, and even gives Cthulhu an “I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow!” moment for good measure, just to amp up the silliness.

The denouement is downright bizarre. Howard has his mom take him back to their father in the sanitarium, where he gives him the book and lets him know he saved the day. (Actually, the dad somehow intuits all this, not that anything should obey the laws of logic at this point.) But after making his manic, gibbering father happy, the psychiatrist at the sanitarium gives Howard an inexplicable blessing: “Actually Howard, your journey has just begun.” What? You treat his father for mental illness. What are you talking about, voice of Christopher Plummer? To make it extra inexplicable, it ends with this quote from Lovecraft:

I have been wracking my brain, trying to understand why that quote was chosen. Is it a guarantee that the little kid we’ve just spent the past hour-plus with is going to go insane? Also, in the “Jarring Transition Hall Of Fame,” here’s a mid-credits scene that goes from darkly bombastic to flippant so fast it causes whiplash:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Here’s an unsettling fact: There are already two sequels to this film, Howard Lovecraft And The Undersea Kingdom and Howard Lovecraft And The Kingdom Of Madness. Given the quick turnaround time, they were likely produced back to back, each one based upon the preceding graphic novel trilogy. You can also buy to the soundtrack to this film on CD, for reasons passing understanding. Mark Hamill joins the voice cast for the next two films, Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard for the third. I’m absolutely flummoxed. Warn your curious children away, and just give them the actual Lovecraft stories instead; either they like scary tales, or they don’t. This is the worst of both worlds.

Damnable commentary track or special features? There is one milquetoast making-of featurette, which features “early” animated schematics, looking sadly close to the final version. As far as I can tell from the audio commentary, this was a labor of love from one man—or rather, one family. Writer-director Sean Patrick O’Reilly doesn’t just voice Spot/Cthulhu; he’s also the man behind Arcana Studios, the production house that developed these films. And while he’s made a career of churning out low-budget films and TV series animation via his shingle, his family plays a big part of this film: His wife produced it and voiced Howard’s mother, and between them and four other O’Reillys (his kids, presumably), the clan takes on seven of the 14 total speaking roles. I get the impression that he’s a happy guy doing what he loves, so far be it from me to be churlish about his output, other than to say I don’t think it’s very good. Still, I’m glad he’s having fun.

But I do love that the distributor, Shout! Factory, has exactly one comment listed on the webpage to purchase Howard Lovecraft And The Frozen Kingdom, and it’s this:

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