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31 Days of Halloween: The Yellow Sign

Published Tuesday, October 12, 2021 at 9:46pm

Why is it so hard for filmmakers to do a faithful adaptation? How often have I seen filmmakers confidently express their love for source material and promise to a book-accurate movie, only to deliver a product that bears only vague resemblence to its inspiration? We just roll our eyes when Big Hollywood does this, but when there's ample evidence that the director (or producer or whomever) is an actual fan whose been invested in the material since adolescence, it's kind of a head-scratcher.

Anyway, Aaron Vanek's The Yellow Sign, based loosely on the short story of the same name from Robert W. Chambers' anthology, The King in Yellow: what the hell happened? Mr. Vanek is is a name that I've been seeing in connection with Lovecraft fandom for, jeez, about twenty years. He makes films, writes books, and designs role playing games, and a little research will reveal that he Knows His Stuff.

I think I became aware of Vanek in or around 2001 because of The Yellow Sign which must have been playing at film festivals but was as-yet unavailable to the general public. At the time, I was keeping tabs on a lot of creators whose work I was interested in, even if it was unlikely that I'd ever get to experience it. A lot of that stuff never came to fruition. Eventually it came out on DVD, which is how I saw it. I viewed it at least once after buying it and didn't hate it, but I can't remember exactly when I last watched it; it's been at least 12 years.

I didn't hate it this time around either, but the experience was also hindered by a couple of factors. First, the audio—as was often the case with low-budget films until fairly recently—is murky and the addition of artificial echoes and other effects makes it really tough to hear a lot of the dialogue. Second (and this is why I took a hiatus from 31 Days of Halloween a few years ago), I have two kids. Watching a movie while they're awake is impossible on most days, but I try to fit my viewing into the two hours between their bedtime and mine. Usually I manage, but tonight it took me about two hours to watch this 45-minute film because neither kid could get to sleep, and breaking it into many pieces didn't do it any favors.

So, gallery owner Tess Reardon has been having weird dream. Recounting them to one of her employees, she learns that some of the images she's seeing are reminiscent of the work of Aubrey Scott, a brilliant but reclusive artist whose work hasn't been seen in ten years. She tracks Scott down to a dilapidated hotel, and his paintings are indeed horrific and exactly the images of her dreams. Scott is apprehensive, but eventually agrees to an exhibition of his work on the condition that Tess pose for her. No, it's not that kind of arrangement. Tess returns to pose for Scott, but the whole experience makes her uncomfortable. It's not the posing that's the problem; it's the conversation.

This, unfortunately, is where the bad sound and the constant interruptions conspired to ruin my night. I think that Scott needles Tess into describing her dreams and her childhood fantasies. It turns out that he already knows a lot about them, and she knows a lot about him, too. How is this possible? He sends her home with a copy of the play The King in Yellow, telling her that she must read it.

The play is disturbing because it shares characters and plot elements with Tess's dreams. The camera focuses on bits and pieces of the text without ever giving us a full picture of what it's about. Back in Scott's studio, the two of them discuss the play, the secret nature of the imaginary (?) double lives they've created for themselves, and a mysterious and very real figure known as The Watchman who has been uh, watching them both. What plans has the watchmen in store for them? They'll find out soon.

None of this happens in the short story. Well, Tess does pose for Scott, but he's not a creep or a recluse. Otherwise, there's little resemblence between the two. I understand that, to a certain degree; some horror stories are hard to execute onscreen and a literal version of Chambers' The Yellow Sign would be confusing and boring. I'm sure that Vanek probably acknowledged this around the time his film came out, but I still wish this was Aaron Vanek presents Robert W. Chambers' The Yellow Sign rather than Aaron Vanek's The Yellow Sign, and I have a hard time giving it a fair shake because of that.

I guess my verdict is that it's effective enough as a standalone film, but it's a lousy adaptation. People online call it "Lynchian", and it's hard not to see the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks when Scott's paintings (overwhelmingly red) are onscreen. I don't think Vanek's being derivative, though; it doesn't feel like Lynch.

It doesn't feel like Chambers either, but it does feel right at home with the mountains of professionally-published Chambers fanfic, including that wonderful first season of True Detective. I guess I'm not upset about that; people like what they like, and Chambers fans (who are all also Lovecraftians, as far as I can tell) were pleased with it. Hell, I'm pleased with it. I just wish that just once we'd get a good, faithful adaptation of The King in Yellow.

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