Keeping things ‘real’ on film is an overrated objective. Often, the result is shoddy camerawork, shaky and badly framed, creating a situation that’s hard to watch and the combination of this plus haphazard sound and poor acting can turn it into something truly unbearable. The Blair Witch Project (1999) stands as the starting point for a lot of the ‘real life’ found-footage horror movies that have come since, although its mainly descended from the 1970s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. The premise is simple enough. Get a small bunch of young filmmakers together, each of varying degrees of obnoxiousness, and get them lost in a hostile landscape which they originally thought was beneath them or at least ordinary. Film every step and stand back to enjoy the results. The Road to L’s decision to translate this to the H P Lovecraft Mythos caught my attention at once.
The setuo is typical of this little subgenre – the film crew have arrived in Italy to investigate rumour s that HP Lovecraft, who supposedly never left the United States, came to Italy in 1926 and was inspired by what he found to write his more notable scary stories. The concept seemed to be reaching, frankly, but the Italian angle made a nice twist on the usual Cthulhu tale setup, and the trailer on youtube honestly made the film appear to be worth a look.
Well, I’ve looked. Stuart Gordon has very little to worry about. The guys behind Cloverfield should just, like, get on with a decent sequel already, And what are those Blair Witch guys doing now (or the Blair With herself, for that matter?) Where Road to L slips up is that we have no one we like, no one to follow, it’s embarassingly amateur. It doesn’t have the authentic punch of Blair Witch, where the actors were honestly scared out of their minds. Stuart Gordon gets Lovecraft whilst being deliciously irreverant, ensuring a modern kick to his films that keep them weird but amusing. Cloverfield made amateur look easy, with a realistic, colossal beast rampaging past screaming New Yorkers. To paraphrase Dolly Parton – it takes a lot of work to look that cheap. Or a helluva lot more work not to.
Road to L, unfortunately, is just a slog through some backwaters of Italy, and to give it its due, there are points where it started to get very creepy. This just makes it’s failure more frustrating. There’s a scene where the increasingly upset, confused and bored filmmakers wander around some abandoned buildings, and there’s a HUGE argument about who goes into the building to find where the weird singing is coming from, and eventually ‘Roberto’ the whiny leader, wanders into it and then….nothing happens, they do something else, it’s literally as though they skipped a scene. Similarly, an earlier sequence where all of them wander down into a tunnel where they find dead fish and hear a scuffling noise end with them running way and that’s it. OK, is wasn’t exactly expecting The Descent (OK, I totally was, it’s a much better Lovecraftian-style film), but there’s a sense of these great setups just being wasted, there’s no build up, no wow factor, to any of it.
Cutting away from the nasty at the last minute works when reading Lovercraft because those were the times, and his writing is superbly chilling. It’s also occasionally overwrought, but that’s sort of the point. The reason this ‘shy’ approach generally fails in modern films is that we want to see SOMETHING when we’re led towards it. This is not a hard and fast rule, but in this case – I was watching with no desire to see any of them survive, frankly – I think a little carnage towards the end might have helped enormously!
What we get, after an hour and twenty minutes of putting up with these morons, is this:
OK, it could easily be one of the fish-people that the film pretends inspired Lovecraft’s writing. It appears at the very end in the video footage of a missing – presumed dead (or now a fish) student’s videotape, and the film makers find it just as they’re totally lost, isolated and woried they might never leave the Italian wetlands. But going ‘OMFG, there really ARE fish people’, which seemed pretty clear from the start, and hinting that there could be one out there….isn’t enough. Not when the film is presented by the guy IN the film, for a starter, so he didn’t die. Not when there’s no footage of anything else happening. All threat and no fish men, and Buffy Did it Better in Go Fish, in 1998! And these ones just seem to want to be left in peace anyway!
So, the potential was there, and it has some very beautiful filmography. The Italian countryside looks incredible, desolate and isolated but oddly serene and sinister.
Of course it’s impossible to make Venice look bad (well, except for in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adaptation, perhaps…) and the scenes in Venice at first made me think this was worth sticking with. I mean, at least it looks a damn sight better than Diary of the Dead, which sucked from the first minute. I’m annoyed, then, that Road to L had a lot of potential, but if you don’t care, you don’t care. And I really didn’t. It tried, but you’re better off re-reading Shadow over Innsmouth, or watching the magnificent ‘Dagon‘, by Lovecraft adapatation genius Stuart Gordon, or playing ‘Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth‘ which has the added bonus of being interactive and very fucking scary.
And HP Lovecraft was always, without a doubt, very fucking scary.