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Road to L., The (2006)

Road to L. reviewStarring Ruberto Purvis, Fausto Maria Sciarappa, and Simonetta Solder

Directed by Frederico Greco, Fabrizio LoPalombra


Deciding on what to say when one begins discussing the idea of a mockumentary within the horror genre is a difficult task. When such a discussion is given birth, obligatory points relating to The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast, Legend of Boggy Creek, and recently even the entertaining nudge-nudge, wink-wink antics of Incident at Loch Ness are all brought up with regal relevance to the subject at hand. All of these films have made a significant impact on blurring the lines that separate reality and fiction.

The fact that the faked documentary has languished for long periods of time between moments of brilliance is another interesting tangent of discussion for the subgenre at hand. Yet even more compelling are the instances when these films or experiences have an effect on the audience that transcends what a normal movie is able to do. People living in Britain may attest to this with the entire Ghostwatch debacle. Ghostwatch was lightning in a bottle of Ether. The resulting explosion was as impressive as it was devastating.

Ghostwatch promised a live investigation into a real live haunted house by well known news celebrities. The events were held live for all of the audience to see as well as being broadcast on Halloween. What the folk at home did not know was that the show was prerecorded in spots to allow for special effects and sight gags to be added into the mix. The problem was that the resulting product was so effective that it scared the hell out of the duped audience. People thought that their televisions were opening portals to hell and that mass chaos was erupting all over the Queen’s land.

The Road to L. is a film built on a similar premise. It takes something that we know did not, or could not, have happened, turns it on its ear, and pokes so many holes in it that one cannot help but begin to question things a bit. Just like Ghostwatch threw England into a paranormal tizzy, The Road to L. has the ability to shape reality to fit its own needs. This is a dangerous power, one that if not wielded carefully can cause problems for those not ready to handle the implications.

This movie fucked me up.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is evolving in modern days. Less and less is the name of Poe invoked by those wicked students who want to dabble on the darker side of literature, and in its stead the initials HPL are taking a long overdue stand. Once dismissed as a simple pulp fiction scribe, Lovecraft has changed to become one of the most influential authors in the 21st century. His name no longer lingers off in the sideshow, but is now the marquee used to draw in those wanting a taste of something unknown, something forbidden. Lovecraft has the pull of the prohibited. Linked to such damnable ideas and texts as blasphemous gods and forgotten manuscripts, the author’s canon, a wide ranging and palpable mythology, is the study on how to blur the lines between that which fills dreams and that which we know of the waking world.

As he becomes more prominent, two differing things will happen: 1. Lovecraft’s work will be bastardized to fit into sanitized versions applicable to mass media, and 2. Lovecraft’s work will be worked into differing narrative filters. By placing the well explored ideas and defined lines of Lovecraft’s work into these alternative machines, we open ourselves to a whole new world of potentials. Some of which will eventually fall into the former mentioned category above, The Road to L. falls into the latter in the purest sense possible.

I have always understood that, if nothing else, H.P. Lovecraft was a xenophobe. Even in light of his own family being comprised of direct immigrants, Lovecraft was uncomfortable with people who represented areas foreign to him. Some circles see this as a form of bigotry, and H.P. has occasionally been branded a racist. I see these aspects in his writings as less of a hatred of the different races of man, but that of sheer apprehension. His xenophobia played out to hyperbole in the tales of cosmic horror, where interlopers from “other realms” come to threaten the order we all take for granted. Lovecraft was very well studied in what constituted fear, in numerous letters and other writings he goes on to define not only fear, but that which the deepest fears stem from: The Unknown.

Let it be also known that Lovecraft was a very prolific letter writer. Over 90 thousand letters believe to have originated in his hand. It is very likely that there may even be more to this impressive and widespread oeuvre of work. This being said, it is not hard to imagine that such a prodigious correspondent would have a letter discovered after all of this time, locked away within an old book in a long lost section of a library somewhere. Sleeping forever in time, waiting to be discovered…

The Road to L. centers around a letter of unknown origins. During the run of the film, several scholars examine the writing style, the wording, and even the ink and make-up of the paper. They conclude that it is quite possibly the work of H.P. Lovecraft. The problem lies not within the letter but where it is found, and what it details.

It is widely known and accepted that H.P. Lovecraft was not a physically strong person, and that this general lack of health, along with the previously mentioned lack of interest in foreign areas, was one of the reasons why he never left the United States during his short lifetime.

The letter in The Road to L., dated to 1926, recalls a trip to a region in Italy known as the Po Delta. The writer of the manuscript goes on to detail all sorts of details about the areas, animals, libraries, and most importantly; the folk tales from the Polesine region, known as Filo` tales. The Po delta is rich with oral history, and the Filo` tales are as intrinsic to the record of the region as blood is to a man.

The captivating argument here is that if Lovecraft had gone to Italy and if he had come into contact with the Filo` tales, could they have been the basis for some of his most celebrated and influential works?

The film centers around a trio of actors who are hired to take the viewers on a whirlwind tour of the Italian countryside as they seek answers to these questions. Leading the group is David (Ruberto Purvis), an American actor with an all too convenient and fluent gasp of the Italian dialect. David is a pushy, boisterous American, a person who is more likely to be at odds with those around him then not. Watching him, I see a stereotype. I remember watching Cannibal Holocaust and seeing the grey areas fade to stark night and day. Holocaust had no ambiguity between good and evil, and here there is no such gradient within David. He is a man who is either all for or all against. There is no middle ground here with him. Filling the voice of reason is his compatriots: Fausto Maria Sciarappa and Simonetta Solder. Again, these two are a bit too at home in the Italian countryside for me to swallow the idea of them as true Americans. Yet, as unbelievable as they are as tourists, they are realistically solid as the voice of reason and dissent to David’s incessant demands. For better or worse, this trio serve as the faces of the project and are accompanied by a camera man (Co-Director Fabrizio LoPalombra) and the director of the project (co-director Frederico Greco). The quintet is forced to quietly quest for answers to the quarry of questions posited by the very existence of the letter.

Driving this trek is the search for proof that Lovecraft was actually in Italy during the summer months, May to July, of 1926. In order to answer this, the crew travel to numerous locations in Italy, one of the destinations being the Montecatini Library that the manuscript was discovered in. Brimming with old tomes and books of a forgotten nature, the crew is dead on when they ascertain that it truly would have been a place with a powerful draw to Lovecraft.

During the different encounter with scholars and historians, the narration by the crew invoke the name of Lovecraft endlessly, but in a hollow manner that either presupposes that the people watching the film will have been familiar with the author, or, in a different tone, makes them seem like they have a shallow grasp on the connotation of the name of the author. Personally, when I was watching the film, their use of the name began to feel like they were wielding it in the same manner that Tom Cruise’s character flashed his doctor status in Eyes Wide Shut. During that film, the character is presented with an array of situations, and when his credentials are called into question, he just flashed his ID and said “I am a doctor” and people were willing to allow him to do audacious things just because of it. Here the film makers do the same thing; they brandish the name about like they are holding their father’s pistol without his permission, unaware of its truer meaning.

Continuing on the journey, we enter towns where the people are not so willing to talk to outsiders and are prone to dismissing or ignoring them. There is a frenetic chase through the catacombs in a small town, where the end is vague but unsettling nonetheless. A missing documentarian adds a new level of intrigue to the mix, and then there is the slow, foreboding build up to the town of Loreo, known simply as “L.” in the recovered manuscript.

Loreo lies within the Po delta region. Here more is made of the Filo` tales and their possible connection to Lovecraftian works that came after 1926, namely “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Both of these stories have an eerie coincidence between them and the Filo` oral histories from the Po region. Intrinsic to the stories are tales of strange men who emerge from the waters of the Po. These beings are described in various ways, some of them paint extraterrestrial images and other descriptions create a feeling of something far more biological, earthen, and organic. Either way it is impossible to dismiss the clear connection between the Po delta stories and the fish-men of Lovecraft’s later works.

Both “Cthulhu” and “Innsmouth” utilize humans who take on icthyological traits. From the Marsh family tree to the ever devolving townsfolk and fishermen, Lovecraft has used this imagery to unsettle the minds of readers. While Lovecraft had dabbled in aquatic menaces in the earlier tale in 1917’s “Dagon”, where a creature from the deep was revered as a god, this earlier story did not have the depth or influence that either of the latter stories would have. “Innsmouth” is considered one of the author’s strongest works, with its blending of New England environs with the cosmic horror Lovecraft is celebrated for perfecting.

Cosmic horror does evolve into its ultimate form in “The Call of Cthulhu”, which is can be viewed as a reworking of “Dagon’s” story. Written when Lovecraft returned to Providence between August and September of 1926, a perfect interlock to the timeline presented within Road to L., the story of Cthulhu has vast implications on modern literature and anything that can add to the understanding to the muse which gave birth to the idea within Lovecraft’s mind is, for us scholars of the scribe, a tantalizing look in the most unreachable of areas.

Unfortunately, those of us who are avid students are able to uncover such details as the plotting of “Cthulhu” in a diary entry from August 12-13, 1925 (Joshi). Likewise, “Innsmouth” recalls a recent visit to a New England village of Newburyport, Mass during the preceding Autumn of 1931, and also appears to be a reworking of a plot device used in 1920’s “The Facts Concerning Arthur Jermyn and His Family” to which ideas garnered from several authors were seeded and used to round out the story. (Joshi)

Upon examination of these historical dates and events, it is easy to debunk the idea of Lovecraft getting inspiration for these works from anywhere but his own dreams and beloved New England countryside. It is well known that Lovecraft was enamored with the land which he grew up in; even the sunset city of Kadath is a mystic reference to a vision of his childhood. Lovecraft had no desire to see the world. Lovecraft drew his imagination from the world around him, and in the banalities of everyday life. It is easy to see why some would want to lay claim to having a hand in the birth of such a mind, but in the end The Road to L.’s argument falls on deaf ears.

Or does it?

This is an effectively creepy film. From the interviews with locals over their encounters with fish men to houses with music erupting from them when no good soul lie alive in any direction for miles, to a final scene that for all true fans of subtlety is a goose bump summoning mind fuck.

Where Road to L. fails with its factual arguments, it succeeds on all levels cinematically. Looking past the stereotypes and botched arguments, we have a simple descent into madness that holds its own in the catacombs of cosmic creepiness. There are scenes that invoke such dread with images as simple as fish or even people just talking around a camp fire. The directors of the film have etched the feeling of dread into every frame. We are on a journey that should not exist. We should not be going to where it is taking us. There are warning everywhere, but we do not heed them. The people on the screen do not heed them, and together we wander blindly into the unknown.

I watched this film repeatedly. I returned to books, read through the footnotes, and dug deep into annotations. It messed with me, made me, even if for a second, rethink some of what I had come to accept as unshakable truth. The Road to L. may be a hoax, but it is one with an unflinching eye. There is no moment where we are left off the hook. No, like other powerhouses within the mockumentary subgenre, it keeps its poker face stoic all the way till the nerve shattering end.

Now, I dare you to look.

3 1/2 out of 5

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