Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (2005)

Starring the voices of Toren Atkinson, Raymond Beckett, Jason Brooks, Andrew Hamlin

Directed by Edward Martin III

In truth, it has been a while since I had lent my eyes to a reading of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s novella, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” so when the chance came for me to examine a copy the animated feature of the same name, as presented by Guerrilla Productions, I decided to cautiously consume it without a fresh rereading in my head. I watched the interpretation with the hope that something within it would stir my memory; that something of Lovecraft’s original version was left intact. That this time maybe someone took the ideas put forth by H.P., and had remained faithful to the source.

Interpretation is a tricky thing with most H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. Most of his prose does not readily lend itself to the realm of “mainstream” film content. The works are thickly written, with scant amounts of dialogue, tons of details about old places and cities, and little information concerning the real stars of the show, the elder gods, the old ones, and the mythological monsters that fascinate the legions of H.P. Lovecraft disciples. There are few instances of pure human interest, aside from the personal struggles faced by the protagonists of his tales. Love triangles and other Hollywood contrivances have no place in Lovecraftian fare. Unfortunately, with each new cinematic version of a beloved story, Hollywood mentalities seem to focus on these added plot points, and the soul of H.P.’s writing is lost. Too often we are left with the “drama” about a group of clichéd caricatures being harassed by creatures that resemble monsters perhaps described by Lovecraft, but little else remains of the basic key elements of the work. Even in independent film attempts Lovecraft’s work has been met with mixed results. Too often the director or writer of the story wants to put his or her own stamp on the piece, and the delicate tale that was once there is destroyed to make way for something a bit more vain.

Based on a comic series by artist Jason B. Thompson, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath takes us on a journey that is uniquely Lovecraftian. Animated in what appears to be a simple still picture form, the film does not glitz up Lovecraft’s story but instead keeps the promise of Lovecraft’s work with such deep conviction as to be unlike anything I have ever seen before. The premise of Kadath is simple: It is the story of Randolph Carter, who has dreamt of a marvelous city, a beautiful sunset city, and feels a pull to this forbidden place. Even though it is denied to him, Carter is lured to answer the call. His search for the lost city of Kadath is the entire story. The journey he takes is a metaphysical one, via his dreams. He searches in and out of worlds, vast cities, open dark voids, and dark realms of nastiness brimming with weird foul creatures.

What is amazing about The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is the faithfulness in the depiction of this sojourn. The writers don’t try to do any more than what is needed. Edward Martin III and Jason B. Thomson take Lovecraft’s impenetrable prose and convert it into a real workable screen story. Dream-Quest is very much a story without dialogue. This presents a problem cinematically, for as a basis of human interaction dialogue helps the viewer keep a sense of belonging during the tale. Being presented with image after silent image, we lose a connective feeling to the work, and as fantastic as the vistas and views may be, they are cold and off for we have no vested interest in them.

The addition of dialogue and interaction between characters makes the lead character likable to the audience, and we understand what he is seeing, doing, and feeling. There is a greater sense of weight to the story being told. Now, when Randolph Carter sees the forbidden face in the far side of the mountain, we feel his jubilation, and a second later we are able to sense his dread. Wisely, the dialogue is not superfluous; it’s not muddled with information unimportant to the tale. All it does is serve to round out the character of Randolph Carter, the world he lives in, and the perils he faces. In all my years of watching Lovecraft films, I’ve never seen someone get all the ideas so right in a script before and this is why, despite simple designs, the film succeeds on all levels.

Simplicity is key to the description of the style of animation of Dream-Quest. The film is not dynamically animated, but more so plays for most of the film as animated storyboards. Image after image is flashed on the screen. Pieces of images may be closed in upon, or sometimes a bit of slight animation may make a scene move a bit. One does wish that, with as good as the screenplay is, the animation were a bit more fluid. Personally, I found it quite easy to slip into the format presented, if not only because of the story being told whisks you away at breakneck speed, and anything lacking in the animation is quickly forgiven.

Jason B. Thompson’s artwork recalls that of Jeff Smith in regards to the depiction of the lead character, Randolph Carter. Smith’s own series, Bone, is one where a clean contoured figure stands in sharp contrast to richly detailed backgrounds. Randolph Carter’s thumbprint shaped head is equipped with only a line for a mouth and two eyes that express in a style that reminds me of Charles M. Schultz. This allows Carter to be easily read, understood, and does not ask the audience to waste time trying to decipher his reactions to the rapid series of horrors that he faces. Likewise the surrounding characters seem detailed in opposite excess. The supporting characters, those that Carter interacts with and gets information from, are skilled representations. From the different races of peoples to the varying species of creatures encountered, they pop off the screen bathed in glorious detail. The representations given don’t need a lot of movement, so we have more time to enjoy the artistry given to them as they sit motionless, allowing us to study them.

Of the non-human creatures, at times I found myself remembering Sam Keith’s lack of perspective, and flair of ghoulish representations with a mix of detail and shadowed outline. Albeit prone to comparison, like a lot of animation artwork, Thompson’s style does give the movie a distinctive feeling. His hands draw the organic, architectural, and fantastic forms founded by Lovecraft with exceptional quality. Even with the strength of the script, the story needed strong visuals to keep the story alive as well. Thompson, possibly refined from his work on comics, has done this in a superb style.

Fitted along side all of this is the soundtrack by Cyoakha Grace O’Manion, which is a fascinating blend of new age structure and sonic weirdness. The DVD release by Guerrilla Productions allows you to watch the film’s 100 minutes without the voices or sounds, but just awash in the music and images. It’s a surreal experience, distinctly unique, and Lovecraftian to the bone. O’Manion has captured another element so often lost in Lovecraft adaptations: the importance of music. Be it otherworldly in nature, the eerie sounds produced by and for the monsters of the void are finally given a chance to play a part with subtle effectiveness. The sounds are not recognizable, which was one of the stipulations placed upon O’Manion by the director. Within some of the production notes it’s revealed that Edward Martin III told O’Manion he did not want the music to come from any identifiable source or instrument. Again, the understanding of the source material ends up being invaluable, lending heavily to the creation of this animatic world’s believability.

Numerous individuals lent their talents to the voice acting done for the film. Over 20 different individuals were called upon to create a distinct and vast cast of characters, and while a few of them are misplaced, most of the voice work is well done. I particularly like that fact that even the most disgusting ghouls are given a clear human voice. They don’t garble or speak in an overwrought manner. They’re just as human as Carter in this respect, which as the story unfolds helps us to understand them and the sacrifices they and Carter make for each other on the way.

One thing that keeps me thinking after all this is said and done is this: As I read Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath for the first time I got the feeling, as I do with all of Lovecraft’s work, that it was a personal journey, very private and intrinsic to the main character. Lovecraft wrote stories about people who became obsessed with forbidden things, and in their seeking of understanding of these things their minds are exposed to ideas too great for them to understand. Coldly, they would go mad or get dead, but it came across to myself, even in the face of cosmic events, to be of a rather personal nature to the protagonists of the story. Here, Martin and Thompson have Tolkeinized the story for us. Even as I reread the story afterwards, I was amazed at the paradigm shift. This small film took a story that was, for myself, about a man’s journey and made it take a scope that I was missing. The film comes off as vast and epic in a refreshing fashion.

My one wish is that Edward Martin III and Jason B. Thompson don’t give up the quest for transcribing Lovecraft to screen. Any movie studio worth their salt would call these guys and use the ideas on this disc as storyboards for a film. A fantastic film, one that does beg to be made. As satisfying as this experience is, it makes me yearn for that often promised but never yet delivered Lovecraftian Opus that will change the face of horror and film forever.

I am thankful for Guerrilla Productions for releasing this film to the public. It is a must have for all Lovecraft fans. A true work of the master, done by modern masters themselves.

4 1/2 out of 5

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