H.P. Lovecraft is a name nearly synonymous with horror and fantasy. The immense, fantastical worlds that H.P. spun from his vocabulary have only grown with time, inspiring countless works of art in his wake. Most recently, the late author has found himself at the center of a major controversy that has somewhat divided the greater horror/fantasy community. It’s no secret that H.P. was an open racist, and while one can argue about changing views over the course of his life — or a difference of time periods, etc — there has been a vocal crowd looking to diminish the continual pedestal that Lovecraft is placed upon. However, while changing busts, statues, and signifiers of certain awards could be perceived as a step in the right direction — or pure blasphemy for a certain not-to-be-named scholar who rests his laurels of the continued appraisal of Lovecraft — the most stimulating form of denunciation of Lovecraft’s lesser traits comes in the form of revision. This is exactly what the Boston-based filmmaker Izzy Lee does with her latest short film, Innsmouth, the result of which is a wickedly fun and shocking piece of cinema.
Innsmouth’s spin on Lovecraft was no accident, as Lee describes to Diabolique, “Innsmouth was created to make [Lovecraft] roll over in his grave a little by having the cast 98% female and switching the gender roles.” But it is not just Lovecraft that Lee is questioning, “there’s also a ton of light being shed on how film excludes central female characters. I wanted to create a film where women call the shots onscreen, in nearly every role.” Despite her films tending to be wildly different in terms of style and approach, this is the common thread in which most of Lee’s films are stitched. Her last two efforts, A Favor and Postpartum couldn’t be more different in terms of approach but both films’ interest in depictions of femininity unify them. Innsmouth takes that approach and turns it on full blast.
To date, Innsmouth is Lee’s most daring venture, one that shows the filmmaker really coming into her own. The story revolves around Detective Olmstead (played by Lee-regular Diana Porter), who after discovering a mysterious egg sac on a dead body finds herself en route to the strange, small town of Innsmouth in order to investigate the case. Once she arrives, Olmstead becomes involved with the alluring and seductive Alice Marsh (Tristan Risk), a woman who is concealing a big secret…
Those familiar with Lovecraft will already begin to see the ways that the film is twisting his original narrative to fit Lee’s new mold. Detective Olmstead is an allusion to Robert Olmstead, the narrator of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and Alice Marsh is a clear cinematic and literal descendent of Obed Marsh. But, while Innsmouth is working in Lovecraft’s big shadow, it is more than just a revision or regurgitation; it is a strong piece that stands on its own merits.
Tristan Risk emerges as the film’s shining star, able to capture a sense of appeal and intrigue with ease. For her efforts, she was just awarded the Best Supporting Actress award at the Vancouver Badass Short Film Festival. Like many of her roles, Risk plays on the campy aspects while still grounding her performance in enough realism to keep it from feeling farcical. Without spoiling the ending (and what an ending it is), let’s just say that Risk’s performance in Innsmouth is courageous and potentially the most revealing of her career. In addition, Porter puts in a solid turn in the lead role. Porter has typically found herself at the heart of Lee’s films and the two clearly have a strong chemistry that can be seen on screen, with Porter’s serious performance helping to ground the film.
Like A Favor’s gentle take on gender (read more here), Innsmouth takes on a great deal of cinematic female archetypes — most prominently ‘the vamp’ — in a way that neither feels forced or contrived. Marsh is an unabashed villain and her flipside, Detective Olmstead, is the typical hero, but we can relate to both. Further, Marsh does not have to be punished for her wickedness. Like life, Lee’s film allows for a dynamic range of character types for her mostly female cast, and the film does not seem interested in parsing out the benefits of a either wholly virtuous or villainous but rather has fun playing with the archetypes and subverting expectations.
Technically speaking, Innsmouth is also Lee’s most striking work. While she has collaborated with cinematographer Bryan McKay before, Innsmouth is by far and away their best joint effort. They make the best of a few of their more sparse locations but the final few scenes inside of Marsh’s Innsmouth homestead reveal the pairing’s strong visual eyes. Additionally, the synth score by Timothy Fife is a real treat. Never exhaustive or showy, Fife helps to set the creepy mood of the film without having to call attention to itself — a characteristic that, in the face of the whole synth-revival movement, goes a long way.
What should be appreciated about all of Lee’s shorts, but certainly present here, is that the director never tries to shoehorn in a terribly complex plot into a ten-minute narrative. Her films are succinct and never overstay their welcome. This is something the filmmaker is hyper-aware of, stating that, “short films represent an incredible way to tell a concise story in a small amount of time. It’s a lot of fun to be held in a challenge like that.” For Lee, short films also represent a way for her to explore new boundaries without feeling trapped by them, continuing, “just like a short story, you can sample many different flavors, and if you don’t like one, you might like another. It’s also far less a financial risk but the downside of that is that you also don’t reap any financial rewards. However, it’s a good way to develop your skills without the pressure of a feature, as well as a way to get your name out there. I love shorts.”
As a final remark, Lee had only this to say: “Innsmouth is best described as ‘full-frontal WTF by way of Lovecraft.’ It’s gotten a lot of eyes on it, so to speak. [laughs].” To find out exactly what she means and what kind of eyes are on, you can try and catch the film for yourself as it continues its festival run. It is certainly one you won’t be soon to forget.
Innsmouth will be screening March 26 at the Boston Underground Film festival. For more information on upcoming screenings please visit Nihil Noctem’s page here. Additionally, Innsmouth has been nominated for a Rondo Award for best short film, view that nomination and find out how to vote here