“I will not deny, though my memory is uncertain and indistinct, that this witness of yours may have seen us together as he says, on the Gainesville pike, walking toward Big Cypress Swamp, at half past eleven on that awful night. That we bore electric lanterns, spades, and a curious coil of wire with attached instruments, I will even affirm; for these things all played a part in the single hideous scene which remains burned into my shaken recollection. But of what followed, and of the reason I was found alone and dazed on the edge of the swamp next morning, I must insist that I know nothing save what I have told you over and over again.”
From The Statement of Randolph Carter
This is one of H. P. Lovecraft’s early macabre works, written in 1919. It’s a simple, very short story about two men who visit an abandoned cemetery to open up a crypt in the middle of the night. One goes down inside the crypt for reasons he has not made entirely clear to his companion, who remains above ground. The two continue to communicate via telephone equipment they’ve brought with them, and the man on the surface hears some things that shake his sanity… and leave him with a bizarre explanation about what exactly became of his missing friend.
You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/src.aspx.
The Statement of Randolph Carter was used as the basis for a 50-minute long student film by Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and their Lovecraft-inclined friends in Denver during the late 1980s. (The same time I was at the University of Colorado in Denver. Small world, huh?)
For this film version, the story’s title has been changed to The Testimony of Randolph Carter–a slight but significant difference. A statement in this context is something a witness or other person with important information might provide to the police during an investigation. Testimony is given at a trial, which is where we find Randolph Carter (Darrell Tyler) as the film begins.
Seated under a reddish spotlight in a minimalist courtroom set with the also red-lit figures of a judge, stenographer, witnesses, and lawyers around him, Carter is on trial for the murder of his friend.
“Did you kill Harley Warren?” the prosecution asks him bluntly.
The lawyer for Carter’s defense is quick to point out that there’s no proof that Warren is dead; he encourages Carter to tell his story, which provide a frame of narration for the flashback scenes that follow.
Most of Carter’s testimony is taken from Lovecraft’s text, but there’s a 20-minute section of film that fills out the back-story with additional information first.
Harley Warren (Sean Branney), we are informed by Carter and his lawyer, was a student of “mysteries of antiquity and the occult”. He was forming his own personal theory about necromancy, and his work in that field often involved an element of danger.
Carter’s story begins when his friend receives a mysterious book from India. It’s not the Necronomicon, nor Unaussprechlichen Kulten or a translation of the Pnakotic Manuscripts or any of the other forbidden books the two have discussed. Warren refuses to tell Carter exactly what this book is. He won’t even let Carter look at it–slaps his hand when he tries to touch it.
Randolph Carter seems like a skittish and easily spooked kind of guy, prone to have wild nightmares even before that business at the cemetery, so perhaps this is wise. He sits around Warren’s flat and sulks for days while Warren works to translate the text, but even a hint about the nature of the book’s contents gives the nervous Carter lurid dreams.
The first dream is set in a dark and empty church, where Carter catches glimpses of someone moving in the shadowy aisles. His friend Warren sits on the steps below the altar beckoning to him, but when Carter reaches the altar, Warren’s face and neck are badly clawed; a taloned hand appears over the back of the chair Warren is sitting on. Black-cloaked cultists suddenly stand amid the pews and, when that same clawed hand touches Carter’s shoulder, he wakes with a jolt.
After Carter finally gets a look at a page or two of the book, he has his second, more important dream.
Wandering in a (day-for-night) woods, he discovers Warren seated at his desk in the woods, reading from the book.
When Carter approaches, dream-Warren reveals more about his work than he does when they’re both awake. What he says isn’t entirely coherent, but the gist of it is that some bodies remain “fat and firm” long after death, even for thousands of years, and that “that is not dead which can eternal lie.” He alludes to a Lost Continent and reads off a long spiel in Latin.
“For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
(Actually, this quotation is taken from another Lovecraft story, The Festival.)
Those black-robed cultists appear again. Warren disappears and the top of his desk is covered by a pile of white powder (salt? Essential salts, perhaps?) Carter runs away through the woods until he falls into an open grave. The cultists gather around and Warren shows up with a shovel to bury his friend alive.
There’s some ambiguity about who is having the dream here. We see both young men wake up at the end, as if they’ve shared the same dream and the information Warren provided was real. (The written quote from The Festival does give you some idea of what Warren sees at the end.)
Soon after this, Warren proposes that they visit the crypt of a cult leader who died in the 1600s. “I need to ask him some questions,” he explains rather disturbingly, but not surprisingly, given his interest in necromancy.
Carter doesn’t like the idea of going into graveyards at night to dig up long-dead people and chat with them. He balks.
With his nervous disposition, Carter’s probably not the best choice of person for this kind of job anyway, but there’s more heavy work involved than Warren can do on his own and he doesn’t have very many other friends he can turn to–and none he has such persuasive powers over. Eventually, he talks Carter into it.
“It’s a wonderful mystery, old boy!” Warren concludes enthusiastically. “We’re going to figure it out.”
“It’s not a mystery,” Carter responds, making one last effort to warn his friend. “It’s a secret.”
Warren remains undaunted. “Well, that’s even better then.”
And off they go. Half an hour into the movie, we arrive at the beginning of Lovecraft’s story. The two young men leave their Model A and walk away down the road with their shovels and telephone equipment to open up a crypt.
When they get to the gloomy old graveyard in the dead of night, the crypt they want is sealed by a heavy stone slab, but they’ve also brought along a crowbar and it doesn’t take long for Warren to chip away the concrete. With Carter’s help, he shoves the slab to one side.
Beneath the slab, there is a flight of stairs going down into darkness.
Now, Warren tells Carter that he’s going down into the crypt by himself. Carter simply doesn’t have the iron nerve needed for what comes next. Warren hasn’t even told Carter what he’s planning to do next.
“I don’t want to stay up here,” Carter says plaintively.
“You don’t want to go down there,” Warren replies, but assures his friend that he won’t be alone. They’ll keep in touch using the phone equipment they brought with them.
A century ago, portable phones meant two hand-held receivers and a large box, connected by a length of wire.
“Enough wire here to reach to hell and back,” says Warren. Which turns out to be convenient under the circumstances.
“Carter, it’s terrible—monstrous—unbelievable! … It’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of THIS! … Carter, for the love of God, put back the slab and get out of this if you can! Quick!—leave everything else and make for the outside—it’s your only chance! Do as I say, and don’t ask me to explain!”
Carter protests, asks questions, and generally shilly-shallies until Warren insists:
“Beat it! For God’s sake, put back the slab and beat it, Carter!”
It’s not clear in Lovecraft’s story if Carter does push the heavy slab back into place, but he finally does so here. The phone line is still open, however, and after the crypt stairs and whatever lies at the bottom of them has been blocked off, Carter sits with his telephone and continues to call out his friend’s name and listen anxiously for any response.
At last, there is a response. But it’s not Warren who speaks.
Since this is an extremely low-budget student film, I’m not going to picky about its shortcomings–the poor film quality (was this originally “filmed” on videotape?), overuse of neon-glow lighting, and the occasional stilted line delivery. I’ve seen worse, and can be forgiving of that kind of thing as long as the story entertains me.
This one does.
At its best, it’s a faithful retelling of Lovecraft’s short story. At its worst–which I would place at the first dream sequence–it feels like it’s padded to fill the time out. This scene also puts me in mind of Equinox, another student film that featured a forbidden book and inexplicable scenes with black-robed cultists, and that led to better things for the young men involved. There isn’t anything as silly in this movie as Forest Ranger Asmodeus. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a giant land-squid smashing Fritz Leiber’s cabin either.
There’s some nice period detail especially with the use of the telephones, and I like that they got an actual antique Ford for the scene on the road. The artwork in the nameless book from India that Warren reads is also interesting, and the final scenes in the old cemetery are good both in terms of spooky atmosphere and believable props. It feels like a place you wouldn’t want to go at night, particularly if you are a nervous person like Randolph Carter.