Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Mother of Toads

For a number of years now I have been planning to return to the chair as a director of genre cinema. Since relocating my headquarters to the isolated Cathar enclave of Montsegur in the French Pyrenees I have dreamed of capturing this magical world on camera and bringing the technological expertise of 21st century film making to bear on the wealth of local mythology that colours our day to day lives here in the Zone.

I could never have guessed quite how swiftly those dreams would be realized...

( 1 ) Morrocco – March 2010

Miss Scarlett and myself had flown south to the whispering sands of the wide Sahara to escape the worst of the European winter. After a series of misadventures we found ourselves in Fez, holed up in a vast, abandonned Moorish mansion while a fierce storm closed in on the ancient, mud walled medina. As the wind grew steadily stronger, howling and worrying at the shutters we withdrew deeper into the rambling, tenebrous household. We kindled candles and flambeaux, creating a warm, inner sanctum in the eye of the storm and bade our fixer, a handsome, wily youth who went by the name of 'Skilful', not to admit any visitors other than those hands required to keep up the steady flow of subtly spiced Morroccan dishes and sugared dainties required to refresh, replenish and reinspire us as we set about our latest writing project.

We had recently purchased a glow in the dark ouja board and swiftly made contact with a disincarnate entity that claimed to be my guardian daemon, Moag – my invisible playmate and boon companion since childhood. In point of fact I don't normally place much store in 'channelling' but we had time on our hands and I was game for a laugh. After exchanging a few questions to establish that the daemon was indeed who he claimed to be we turned to the matter at hand, asking his advice on which project to focus on. We had been toying with several ideas for new screenplays all of which the daemon promptly rejected out of hand. Much to my surprise Moag asked us instead if we were familiar with a short story by Clark Ashton Smith entitled 'The Mother of Toads.'

Above: The daemon Moag

I had read plenty of weird fiction in my time but this obscure yarn had hitherto escaped my attention. 'The Mother of Toads' ( henceforth referred to as 'M.O.T' for expediency's sake ) first appeared in 'Weird Tales' in July 1938 and having long since passed into the public domain is now widely available to casual readers over the internet. ( ) This cruel, erotic fable, running to little more than three pages, is set in medieval France in Smith's fictional woodland kingdom of Averoigne and concerns a young apothecary's apprentice who falls under the seductive spell of a venomous shape shifting witch named Mere Antoinette. Our disincarnate advisor was adamant that rather than mounting a direct adaptation we should use the original tale as the the jumping off point for a modern day homage to both Smith and the immortal H.P. Lovecraft, issuing us with a series of very direct instructions as to how to go about writing the screenplay.

The daemon insisted that the new scenario should open with two American tourists, a young anthropology student named Martin and his leggy girlfriend Karina, buying a pair of eldritch earrings in the market place at Mirepoix. Having moved with the times Smith's titular sorceress now suppliments her income by selling bizarre hand crafted jewellery based on designs drawn directly from the 'Necronomicon', Lovecraft's mythical grande grimoire. Intrigued by her claim that the book not only really exists but has been handed down through Mere Antoinette's family for untold generations Martin visits her cottage, setting in motion a series of events that ultimately places both him and his partner in mortal jeopardy.

The finished screenplay ran to roughly fifteen pages intended to evoke of the pulp fiction and EC and Warren comics of my youth, specifically the work of 'Ghastly' Graham Ingels and Berni Wrightson as viewed through the distorted visual aesthetic of those masters of European gothic cinema – Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. In short the finished piece was a sort of love letter to the genre that had nourished my creative roots but quite how we would go about realizing the beast remained a mystery to us at the time of writing.

( ii ) Occitania – May 2010

On our return to Europe we recruited the aid of our friend Emilio Ranzani(above) whose similarly Lovecraftian short 'Langliena' had been attracting good notices on the festival circuit. Emiliano further honed what we had come up with in Fez, adding baroque curlicues to the gore scenes and enthusiatically encouraging us to take the whole, beserk endevour to the next logical level. Initially we had intended to shoot the thing in our own back yard using available materials, being well aware that finding funds or any form of distribution for a short subject of this nature would, under any sane or normal circumstances, be highly unlikely if not downright impossible. What we hadn't reckoned on, of course, was that this particular short was demonaically inspired and hence apparently exempt from the normal dreary rules of cause and effect.

Within 24 hours of finishing the screenplay we heard that David Gregory at Severin Films ( who had recently distributed my earlier flick 'HARDWARE' on DVD in the States ) was preparing a new anthology film entitled 'THE THEATRE BIZARRE' based on Oscar Méténier's Le Theatre du Grand Guignol ( literally the 'Theatre of the Big Puppet' ) which was founded in 1897 in an old chapel in the Pigalle area of Paris with the intention of producing graphic, naturalistic horror shows, a form of provocative amoral entertainment, literally the forerunner of today's splatter films. We figured that 'M.O.T' might well fit the bill and sent David a copy of the script. His enthusiastic response caught us off guard. I was used to people passing on my material, usually without even bothering to read it. By contrast the speed with which the pieces fell into place on 'M.O.T' proved rather bracing. David was at the Cannes film festival so Miss Scarlett and myself bundled into the Shadow Theatre interceptor and high tailed it down to Montpellier where we rendezvoused at the railway station to clinch the deal. And so, without further ado, the project slid effortlessly into preproduction.

David had put together an impressive roster of directorial talent with Tom Savini, Buddy Giovinazzo, Doug Buck, Karim Hussain and Jeremy Kasten lined up to shoot the other segments and the linking scenes that would ultimately feature Udo Kier as the show's beserk automaton M.C. We knew the budget wouldn't be able to stretch to much more than a five day shooting schedule and would require a huge amount of unpaid elbow grease but the challenge was irresistible. We hoped we might supliment our meager funds by getting the Pyrenean Film Commission on side and would have to find a French production company to hold the pieces together and assemble the key personnel.

Doug and Karim had previously dealings with a young producer named Fabrice Lambot whose production company Metaluna films was based in Paris. After some preliminary negotiation by cell and e-mail Fabrice agreed to hop a flight to Toulouse and rendezvous with us to tour the locations before drawing up a final budget and schedule for submission to the film commission. Of course that meant a suitable location would have to be found for him to tour.

As above, so below: The Metarie Blanche

The derelect stone building known as the 'Metarie Blanche' that squats astride a densely wooded hill near La Serpent had always been at the back of my mind as a potential location for the witch's cottage in 'M.O.T'. The house had a curious history, having been built some forty years ago by one of our friends, Celia Brooke, the flamboyant grand daughter of Sultan Brooke, the white rajah of Sarawak. ( pictured below with myself and a portrait of her illustrious grand father )

Celia and her husband, the leader of the international Sufi Movement, had purchased the property after a man she described as 'Hitler's clairvoyant' had accurately described it to her following a chance meeting at a party in swinging 70's London. The ageing German psychic had prophecied that she would one day find treasure there but after Celia and her first husband went their separate ways the property had fallen into disrepair. Celia moved out of the Metairie following a traumatic series of events in the early nineties ( * detailed in my previous blog – 'The Immortal's Feast' ) and the building's most recent tenant, the Sufi sheik, dolphin communication and zero point energy expert, the enigmatic Dr. Adam Truimbul had since upped stakes and relocated to Hawai. After several decades of legal manouevering the issue of who actually owned the property remained crucially unclear.

The Metairie's melancholic, gothic ambience was further enhanced by its location, a stone's throw from Rennes les Château and what our sorcerer friend, Uranie the hermit of the River of Colours, believed to be one of the seven dreaded gateways to Hell, the perfect setting for 'M.O.T's twisted tale of gloom and perdition. As long term followers of this blog are doubtless already aware Uranie is not only an accomplished geomancer but a huge fan of the genre, possessed of an encyclopaedic knowlege of early 80's Spaghetti horror. In fact I half suspected Uranie of having used his sorcerous powers to help bring the production together.

Among the installation art and Voodoo shrines surrounding his cottage I had come across subtly modified box covers for Lucio Fulci's 'Gates of Hell' and the 'The Beyond', a film whose plot hinged around another one of Clark Ashton Smith's creations, a black tome of eldritch lore referred to as the 'Book of Eibon'. Uranie claimed he had pinned the box covers to his fence in an effort to warn casual bypassers of their proximity to the infernal portal although I couldn't help but feel he had left them out as bait.

We had come across a copy of my earlier film 'Dust Devil' inside a box cover for Charle's Band's 'Tourist Trap' and noticed a unused ticket for Karim Hussain's 'La Belle Bette' ( 'The Beautiful Beast' - 2006 ) among the other mondo bizarro souvenirs propped on Uranie's mantelpiece. ( * see 'The Mark of the Beast' ) Karim had already volunteered to serve as 'M.O.T's director of phorography and regardless of whether or not some form of spaghetti voodoo was at work it seemed to make perfect sense to cold call the star of 'The Beyond', Catriona McColl, and ask her if she were willing to essay the pivotal rôle of Mere Antoinette, the dreaded mother of toads herself.

As above, so below: The Recce - Assistant director Lauri Loytokoski, Richard and Karim Hussain

( iv ) Extracts from the weblog of Scarlett Amaris

La Serpent – July 2010

It was nearing dusk when we made it up to what is left of the Metarie Blanche. Celia wandered around showing us where different gardens had once been planted and I got the sense of how much love and hard work had gone into building the place. It all seemed so far away now as we seated ourselves on the hillside to share a bottle of white wine. The rest of the crew still buzzed around the property, taking pictures and measurements and I was watching with one expectant eye as Richard took a phone call from Catriona MacColl. He paced back and forth at the top of the ridge. I could catch a word here and there, enough to tell that all was going well. Then I heard a car drive up and some kind of loud ruckus going on where we had parked the vehicles. Celia and I watched as a couple got out with an evil looking doberman snarling and straining at its leash as it's masters shouted for everyone to get off the property. “It's my property,” Celia was watching indifferently, “Don't get up.” We watched for a couple of minutes and it was clear that the situation was escalating. “We're going to have to do something.” I said casually as I took another sip of wine. “I know, dear, but these situations are always so boring...” Celia started to rise and I followed closely behind her. She opened out her arms dramatically wide as she neared the raised voices, “I'm Celia. How may I help you? Welcome to my house...” If looks could kill then Celia would have been a cinder, but I her grandiose entrance seemed to shock the screaming couple into submission. Everyone looked a little taken aback as phone numbers were quickly exchanged and the couple got in their car with the dog and burned rubber down the gravel road.

“Do you think it was something that I said?” Celia gave me a knowing half-smile. “We left that half drunk bottle back on the ridge...”

“Say no more” And we wandered back in the midst of the confusion to finish it off. Richard had been on the phone the entire time trying to shield out the screaming match. He looked half-pleased and utterly terrified at the same time as he walked over to the rest of the group where everyone was worked up into a tail spin. The story of who really owned that property will never be figured out, so many deals and double deals, forged papers, etc. Somehow I knew that we would get the place as a location and another part of me just wanted to leave it alone. That beautiful place had caused so much misery already. We packed everyone back into the cars and headed back to Rennes. “Just like Rennes” I thought, “nothing is ever a straight shot, nothing is ever straight forward.” We bid goodbye to Celia who told us not to worry about 'those nasty people', she would make sure that everything worked out.

Next stop was Uranie's cottage to tell him what was going on and to talk over some of the symbols that we might need for the shoot if we ended up using the Metarie Blanche. Uranie looked wide eyed when we told him what had happened and said that the place had 'a very bad past.” Then he consulted a pantheon of different esoteric charts and decided the day and time that would be best to have him come and bless the house. He didn't feel that it would be safe to shoot there otherwise and I had to agree with him. There was a sadness and a malevolence that seemed somehow cemeted into the very fabric that was still holding up those walls.

There was no time to ponder these thoughts as our friend Alain, the dancing faun, came singing up the road. Alain has the most amazing ability to just show up, like he knows exactly where everyone is the moment that they step onto the plateau. He took an immediate shine to our producer Fabrice and while trying to concentrate on the different sigils that Uranie was explaining to me, I could hear Alain exuberantly telling Fabrice about the four different portals to the other world that existed in the area. 'One in Bezu, one in Bugarach, one in Rennes and one in Montsegur'. He took Fabrice outside to show him the four directions of the portals and having just met Fabrice and him just meeting us, I thought it might be a little much to take onboard. But, hey, it's the Zone and it's got a high weirdness factor. Better to have it all out in the open. Uranie, Richard and I finished up a magical plan of attack and went outside where Fabrice and Alain were having a friendly, animated discussion. As we walked back towards the car Fabrice was shaking his head, “that guy is amazing. You should definitely interview him. You wouldn't believe the things he had to say...” We both smiled having heard Alain's speil before and partly in relief that Fabrice was taking it all in stride. Things looked good for MOT. Catriona MacColl was on board, the resident sorcerer Uranie was on the case and it felt like all the pieces were starting to fall into place.

Above: Richard with MOT producer Fabrice Lambot at La Serpent

Approximately a week later we returned to the Metairie to meet with Dr. Truimbul's partner and close the deal. Nancy was one of the strangest looking women that I had ever seen. Obviously American and dressed in a high end, sporty kind of way, her face was so perfectly smooth that it was impossible to tell her age and she just looked perpetually surprised. I'm not sure that those heavily botoxed muscles even functioned anymore. Her handlers hovered about her, seemingly terrified that she was talking with us and yet afraid of her at the same time. Richard told her the whole synposis of Mother of Toads and what we were planning on shooting in the house. She listened attentively although there was no way to read if anything registered with her. At the end she blinked and then started outside as we followed her. She turned to face us both, “Mere Anoinette should drink green drinks.'

I was utterly confused. “You mean like energy drinks?” I ventured.

“Green drinks with flies.” she answered.

“Ohh...” we both laughed, “that could be a very fun idea.”

“Yes, it could be. But people do eat flies. I had a friend once who grew his own flies that he ate for protein.”

“Did he live around here?” I couldn't help but ask.

“No. He lived underground. He was an alien, but he's dead now which is probably a good thing.” Rarely are we silenced but neither of us could figure out what to say to her. She went on like we were all the best of friends. “We're going to dinner after this with some friends at the bottom of the road. Real peasants, real salt of the earth people. Their mother goes wandering from time to time. A couple of times they've found her up here. But now they tie her to a chair at night so she doesn't get out as much.” I had to close my jaw that had hit the ground and without missing a beat, Nancy walked over to the stone bench and sat down on it. “Have you sat on this bench yet?” She asked Richard without waiting for an answer. “You should make sure that it is in your movie.” “Why?” asked Richard. “Did something special happen here?” For a second I saw an actual emotion try to pass across her face, but I'll be damned if I know what it was. “It's a secret...” she giggled and then wandered off to her handlers. End of interview and so typically Rennes.

We started whispering as soon as she was out of ear shot.

“Did she really say that the 'peasants' down the road tie their mother to a chair?”


“And her fly eating friend was an alien?”

“Yes. Like I told you the rich are different.”

“That would be an understatement...”

As above, so below: Mother of Toads concept art by Ivan de Castries

( v ) Extracts from Richard Stanley's journal

Montsegur – Morenci – Mirepoix – October 2010

The period leading up to the commencement of principal photography on ' M.O.T' was a strange and arduous one. The principal toad monster was designed and redesigned as we struggled to find a way of achieving the beast on the funds and materials available and Karim scuffled to pull together an effective camera and lighting package. At length it was decided to bring in a top of the range Sony Red Mysterium X from Belgium for the principal photography while Emiliano would take care of the second unit photography using a Canon 5D.

Above: Mother of Toads D.P. Karim Hussain with friend

The highly professional crew, approximately 35 people in all, were assembled out of Paris and Toulouse and housed at Madame Couquet's auberge in Montsegur while the principal cast, rounded out by an easy going young Texan named Shane Woodward in the rôle of the doomed anthropolgy student and Argentinian soap opera star Victorian Maurette as his girlfriend Karina were billeted in a hotel in the neighbouring village. Coming up with the army of gigantic toads called for by our somewhat gonzo screenplay proved to be a rather more difficult matter.

As above, so below: Storyboard images by yours truly for 'The Mother of Toads'

It was perilously late in the season and we had been forced to pull the dates of the shoot to accommodate the toad's life cycle in the hope of completing the necessary sequences before the beasts went into hibernation for the winter. By the time the first day of principal photography rolled around however we still had only one rather small and decidedly sleepy looking toad at our disposal.

As is so often the case when you try to shoot anything the weather took a turn for the worse with a ferocious storm blowing in as Day One approached. Fortunately the driving rain and coiling, etherial mist that shrouded the treetops played in our favor, enhancing the sepulchral ambience and bringing out the toads in force.

We rode out the worst of the tempest by shooting the spa scenes with Victoria Maurette up front, knowing full well that all the rain in the world wouldn't matter one jot so long as we were safely shooting indoors or underwater in a heated swimming pool.

As above, so below: Scenes from the shoot - Shane Woodward and Victoria Maurette go eyeball to eyeball with the Morenci cross.

The Morenci cross scenes on the morning of Day Two proved a little more problematic and we all came away with damp socks although judicious framing and post-production magic managed to successfully disguise the fact that the entire crossroads sequence had been lensed in the pouring rain.

Above: Karim shoulders the camera for a 'toad vision' shot at the Morenci cross

After completing our work at Morenci we repaired to Mirepoix where we managed to complete the scene in which the young leads buy the earrings from Mere Antoinette in a covered section of the market. Other than a weird, random encounter with a self-proclaimed 'psychic' who spotted us shooting and butted in to make a series of strident prophecies things went pretty much according to plan with the crew working smoothly together despite the language barrier and Catriona effortlessly stealing the show with her portrayal of Mere Antoinette. She had taken the opportunity to observe Madame Couquet's mannerisms during rehearsal and had picked up a tune she had heard her humming as she built the fire at the auberge the day before, a tune Catriona now repeated to suitably eerie effect in an improvised moment at the end of the scene.

By nightfall the rain had begun to slacken off and I started to believe that we might be able get this beast safely in the can after all.

( vi ) Montsegur – Day Three

'I like metal', muttered Eric the toad wrangler.

'Yeah...uhm...I'm sure you do.' Karim nodded, doing his best to humour him. Eric was one of our neighbours, a fellow Montsegurian with a penchant for collecting reptiles, spiders and amphibious critters of varying descriptions but right now he was four sheets to the wind which made his rambling monologue somewhat harder to follow than usual.

'I like to kill with metal.'


'I hunt pigs for my dogs. I like to kill pigs'.

Karim nodded again, more slowly this time.

'I like to bathe in the blood of the pigs. I bathe in the blood of the pigs for my dogs. I love my dogs...'.

Karim turned, desperately looking to us for rescue. Eric had been hanging about our improvised production headquarters all evening but he had every right to celebrate having successfully delivered thirty more enormous Pyrenean toads that he had collected off the road after the storm. They would all be kept safe and handled literally with kid gloves on account of the psychedelic toxins secreted by their skin, before being turned loose after the shoot on the Montagne de la Frau ( Occitan for 'Mountain of Fear' ) on the other side of the river.

Toads have been associated with witchcraft in this part of the world since time out of mind, viewed in popular mythology as familiars or intermediaries between mankind and the 'otherworld' of faeries, elves and woodland elementals. Consequently it was of the utmost importance that the critters be treated with the care and respect. If the spirits of this place were to turn against us we wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of completing the remaining scenes on schedule, certainly not without the benefit of a weather cover set or any other form of insurance. Right now we were flying without a safety net and needed all the luck we could get.

'That man's a lunatic!' whispered Karim as soon as Eric was out of earshot.

'I know.' Miss Scarlett smiled. 'He says those sort of things all the time.'

'But you don't understand! How can you be so relaxed about letting him into your house? I mean he's quite obviously a psychopath!'

' I guess you could put it that way' I watched as Miss Scarlett and Emiliano gently loaded the toads into the tanks that would serve as their temporary habitats. 'But right now we need him'

As above, so below: Could this be a major milestone in toad cinema?

Our schedule had gone into nights, shooting for two consecutive evenings in the woods at the base of the 'Mountain of Fear'. The Pyrenean Film Comission had sent a camera crew down from Toulouse to document the shoot and Fabrice was walking on eggs, trying to make certain that all concerned were on their best behaviour. Most of the crew had been instructed not to talk to the Toulousians for fear they might get wind of some of the more outlandish aspects of the production.

I had prepared a piece to deliver on camera about how we were trying to create work opportunities for the locals and attract international investment to the area and had just finished my spiel without a hitch when Uranie showed up. He had driven over from Rennes les Château to watch the scenes with the toad monster which would be shot later that night and was dressed to the nines in a white frock and flamboyant eye make up. I winced as the Toulousian crew took an instant interest in him. Rising to the occassion Uranie fixed the televsion camera with his gaze as the generator whirred into life behind him. Karim's lights turned the woods into a shifting, phantasmal maze of light and shadow while Uranie launched into an animated address concerning the mythical 'white lady' of Montsegur, Esclarmonde de Foix, the castle's immortal chatelaine and the various other spirits that inhabitted the place, insisting that it was possible to capture the images of these disincarnate entities on film if you knew where to look for them. Deliberately turning a deaf ear I pretended to busy myself with setting up the next shot, leaving Fabrice to deal with the situation.

Above: Victoria Maurette in jeopardy. Below: Shane Woodward makes a shocking discovery.

It was a long, strange night and we were racing against the clock but we aquitted ourselves as well as could be expected and the mountain allowed us to get away with it, only raining on us a little during the lunch break. I know this place like the back of my hand, well enough to be fully aware that if the weather had turned on us it could have closed us down in seconds but remarkably the mountain's unseen guardians seemed to be strangely tolerant of our efforts.

As above, so below: Shane Woodward and Victoria Maurette meet the Mother of Toads

At the end of the evening the Toulousian camera crew came to say goodbye and I realized my earlier fears had been unfounded. Thanking me for allowing them to sit in on the shoot their director told me 'I named my daughter Esclarmonde'. Placing his palms together before him he bowed and his crew did likewise before turning and starting back towards their car. Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise to learn that the good folk from the Film Commission were Cathars – or at least Cathar sympathizers – but it explained a lot, namely why they had bothered backing our efforts to begin with.

Above: Scarlett Amaris on location in the 'otherworld'.

Extracts from the weblog of Scarlett Amaris – October 2010

By the end of the night I was feeling none too well after inadvertently absorbing a liberal amount of toad venom from doing the closeups with Emiliano and Laurie, even though we had all carefully worn gloves. Emiliano had managed to get it in his eyes and was looking kind of sorry. The toads, of course, were the stars of the show and when they were all done, we walked them up to the base of the mountain and set them free. They were none the worse for wear and even hung around for a minute or two before taking off into the underbrush.

I was still sick and Richard was exhausted by the time we made it back to the house. Then I found a 12 inch worm sitting in a plastic bag on the kitchen table and I just sort of lost it.

“Lets get out of here”

We both went storming into the night, marching blindly down the winding pavement of the D-9 until suddenly we realized how far we had gone. Neither of us spoke a word as we stopped, recognizing that we were close to the neighboring village of Serre Longue. Utterly fatigued Richard lay down in the middle of the road to look at the stars and I went and sat quietly on the hillside rolling up a cigarette. Suddenly, I heard a strange crashing noise come out of the forest and then what sounded like running hooves. A dark shape came careening down the road heading straight for where Richard was lying. I thought about warning him, but then wondered if the animal really would run over him. Besides, didn't he hear it running straight at his head? At the last second the wild boar veered to the right nearly brushing him and went crashing back into the forest. Richard sat up quickly.

What the hell was that?”I didn't have time to answer because a second huge boar had emerged from the forest on the same exact trajectory as the first. Richard froze as his eyes met the animal's, who seemed more than a little surprised, swerving at the last second and following in the footsteps of his buddy.

I think you were nearly mowed down by a sanglier, my dear”

Christ that was close!

But the moment was so surreal and had such a Monty Pythoneque quality to it that the tension was broken and all we could do was laugh as we dusted ourselves off and headed back home to get some shut eye before another long day of shooting.

( vii ) La Serpent – The last days

The next morning the clouds parted and we saw the sun again. The crew's spirits rose as they relocated to their new accomodation in the tiny village of Fa, within easy striking distance of the Metarie where we were to shoot the remaining scenes.

'We've finally gone too Fa!' grinned Miss Scarlett as the interceptor barreled between the rolling, autumnal hills. The end of the shoot was in sight and like a team of horses that scents the stables the crew were pulling harder, anxious to get the film in the can and return to their lives and families back in the so-called 'real' world..

My old friend, the composer Simon Boswell ( above left ) had flown in to Carcassonne after completing work on a new musical project for the Pope, commuting from the Vatican to the heretical heart of old Occitania, literally travelling from one spiritual pole to another. He wanted to familiarize himself with the regional folk music that would form a key element in his score for 'MOT' – a rich fusion of Occitan vocals and traditional giallo motifs evocative of the late seventies/early eighties Italian gothic thrillers that we sought to emulate.

Having arranged to meet us at the house Simon picked up a car at the airport and wended his way through the narrowing back roads to La Serpent where Uranie had completed his exorcism of the building, daubing complex blood red symbols on the walls drawn from the George Hay 'hoax' Necronomicon – a book believed by many students of the dark arts ( especially here in the South!) to have been partially based on an earlier work analogous to the mythical Cathar grande grimoire known as the 'Book of the Seven Seals'.

As above: 12th century bas relief in Belpech, south of France - a disfigured inverted cross forms the centrepiece. In the right hand corner of the cross can be seen the 'seal of Eibon' familiar to fans of Clark Ashton Smith and aficionados of Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' - proof perhaps of the mythical grand grimoire's reality?

So below: Catriona Mac Coll, star of 'The Beyond' explains the true facts of life to Shane Woodward

A fire smouldered on the broad hearth where no fire had burned in all too many years and the interior of the building had been redressed by the art department into the murky sorceresses lair envisaged in our storyboards. Catriona, a consumate professional who had wanted to play a witch all her life effortlessly took command of the material, bringing Mere Antoinette to vivid life in a haunting performance that would seem to demand further exploration in some future extrapolation on 'M.O.T's central themes.

As we filmed the scenes in which Mere Antoinette explained the meaning of the grotesque images portrayed in the grimoire to Shane Woodward's increasingly nervous anthropologist Catriona's voice fell to a chill, sibilent whisper and there was not one of us in the room that didn't feel a shiver running down our collective spines. Shane, a younger, less experienced actor was trained in the Meisner technique hence serving as the perfect naturalistic foil for Catriona's larger than life characterization leaving me in no doubt that their scenes together at the Metairie would form the core of our story, the dramatic spine around which the other events in the short subject would revolve.

As above: Catriona Mc Coll is the Mother of Toads. So Below: I prepare to shoot my first 'love' scene in 18 years.

Shane had been extremely supportive throughout the shoot, performing above and beyond the call of duty, helping carry equipment between takes and even doing double duty as a toad wrangler during the night scenes in the forest. Now he faced his biggest challenge, stripping off for the film's central, slime laden love scene.

Our script called for Mere Antoinette to metamorphose back into her younger self after slipping a magic potion to the doomed scholar. Fabrice had succeeded in corralling one of France's most renowned porn stars, the notorious Lisa Crawford to play the rôle of the voracious succubus that enthralls and dominates Shane's hapless character. Emiliano had suggested the notion of her body secreting psychedlic toxins in a similar manner to her battrachian familiars. To this effect Miss Crawford's skin was liberally basted with a form of synthetic edible slime which poor Shane was forced to lick off on camera while his demonic seductress sat astride him, riding him like a mustang. None of us envied Shane in this supremely icky task but once again the young Texan acquitted himself admirably and the crew happily retired to their quarters for a good night's sleep before the final days shooting. To save time and avoid having to pull the set-up Miss Scarlett and myself opted to remain on set and guard the equipment as the budget had not been able to stretch to a night watchman. We endevoured to make ourselves as comfortable as possible in two arm chairs positioned beside the hearth and at length slipped into an uneasy slumber.

I vaguely recall dreaming of how the Metairie was in byegone times, before it had fallen into disrepair and awoke in the early hours of the morning, tired and stiff to find myself alone.

Above: Scarlett Amaris and Catriona Mc Coll

Extracts from the weblog of Scarlett Amaris

By this point I had gone way beyond too far, having not slept for quite a few days. I was in that twilight state between awake and dreaming sitting in the chair in front of the dying fire in the spooky and chilly Metarie Blanche. Maybe I did fall asleep for a while, but the next thing that I knew I was walking down a misty path as the sun was just breaking through the clouds. I could hear a horse neighing in the distance as my feet walked as if by rote, taking me closer to the noise.

A large white horse came trotting up out of the mists and whinnied in greeting like he had known me all of his life when he caught sight of me. I stood there scratching his muzzle and ears while he rubbed affectionately against me. “Am I dreaming?” I wondered. “Is this really happening? I don't remember there being any horses around here. This is like something out of a David Lynch movie and any second the red curtains will come down and a dwarf will start dancing backwards and. then I'll be confonted by giant rabbits and ..”

In my half concious state I wasn't sure whether what was happening was real or not, but as I turned I spied the Metarie in the distance. As if reading my confused mind the horse suddenly wheeled and galloped away. I decided to walk back to the house to awaken Richard and make him be my witness that the horse was real and that I hadn't completely lost my mind. Richard was waiting on the doorstep when I arrived wondering where I had been. “I need you to come and take a look at something for me...” The horse was there, although he was housed in a distant pasture and was now grazing obliviously, uninterested in our presence. “Whew”, I thought. A night mare or ghost horse would have been a little much on the last day of shooting.

Extracts from Richard Stanley's journal

As the crew came back on and dixie cups of luke warm coffee were passed around word began to filter back to me, via Romain Basset the first A.D, that Lisa Crawford had had a pretty bad night. After completing her scenes the evening before she had been tormented by a vivid nightmare in which she dreamed she had awoken in her hotel room to find herself menaced by a mysterious nocturnal visitant. It sounded like a classic case of what psychologists refer to as the 'old hag' or 'nocturnal sleep paralysis', a fairly common albeit extremely unpleasant hypnogogic state but Uranie took the news very seriously indeed, especially when Lisa claimed the incubus had been an individual named 'Mario'. According to our nervous unit sorceror Mario Wolf was a rival black magician who had perfected the power of astral projection and was now up to his old tricks, stealing into other people's dreams to batten on their vital energy. Our activities in the Metairie Blanche had apparently caused a tremor in the telluric web and drawn him out of hiding, forcing Uranie to take various protective measures to make certain the cast and crew were fully protected and the shoot could be completed without any further interference from the 'otherworld'.

Uranie told me that Mario drew his powers from a magic crystal named 'Arki' that had been brought over from Glastonbury to the Rennes area at the time of the Rainbow Gathering in 1998. The stone had been magically charged by various neo-Druidic prayers and sorceries before falling into Mario's hands. Since then the black magician had bent the crystal to his own evil ends, using it to capture the souls of young women that were secretly harvested while they slept. I admit I didn't pay much attention to this yarn at the time although Uranie insisted that any number of innocent people in the area had already lost their minds as a result of Mario's morbid geomantic practises. The crystal was 'out of control' he said and even Mario had begun to grow afraid of it.

Above: M.O.T - Scene 10: Take 3 the final set up

I had enough on my mind, completing the concluding scenes in which Shane's character struggles in vain to escape the eldritch enchantment woven about him. It was only later after the film was safely wrapped that I finally caught up with the rest of Uranie's story and pieced together what had really happened.

Not that I really cared at the time 'MOT' was finally in the can and all that remained was a raucous wrap party at the auberge in Fa where the cast and crew danced the night away. Personally I was feeling too dog tired to make more than a token attempt at shaking my hooves. All I could think of by then was getting safely back to Montsegur where my bed awaited me and a deep, hard earned sleep untroubled by marauding incubi.

I gave Uranie a hug, kissing him on both cheeks.Then taking off my hat I waved goodbye as the sorceror clambered into his beaten up car, Melanie, and started back towards his lonely cottage at the base of the Rennes plateau, somewhere just south of the gates of Hell.

Later I learned that Uranie and his associates had set out to break the spell by destroying 'Arki' once and for all. Somehow they managed to track down the magic crystal which Uranie told me had cracked as a result of the spiritual abuse it had suffered at Mario's hands and was audibly weeping. Uranie's friends had taken the magic stone to the summit of Mount Canigou where they had rigged up an improvised lightning conductor from a statue of Saint Michael to shatter the crystal and free the curdled souls trapped within.

After that the damaged power object apparently vanished. At least I doubt I will ever know what really became of it or the mysterious owners of that cursed house atop the hill at La Serpent. It was a pretty unlikely story by any normal standards but then there's nothing particularly normal about this neck of the woods. I'm sure there are a million other stories exactly like it drifting through the Zone. Drifting through eternity...

Above: Uranie meets the Mother of Toads

Above: From left to right: Scarlett Amaris, Richard Stanley, Doug Buck, Catriona Mc Coll, Buddy Giovinazzo and David Gregory outside the Theatre du Grande Guignol in Pigalle

'THE THEATRE BIZARRE' the anthology film in which 'THE MOTHER OF TOADS' forms the opening segment premiered at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal in July 2011 to a rapturous reception from the audience and good reviews in the trades.

'The Theatre Bizarre' will be coming soon to a number of festivals across Europe before receiving a limited theatrical release Stateside;

Sept 15th&17th Oldenburg Film Festival - Germany

Sept 16th Festival Europeen du Film Fantastique de Strasbourg, France

Sept 18th Lund International Film Festival, Sweden

October 7th and 9th Sitges, Spain

October 21st Celluloid Screams, Sheffield, United Kingdom

October 22th Mayhem Festival, Nottingham, United Kingdom

October 23rd Toronto After Dark

October 29th Lincoln Centre, New York

November 20th Extreme Cinema, Toulouse, France

Perhaps we'll see you there...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ghosts of the New South Africa

The Karoo – summer 2011

'When I first caught sight of him through my binoculars he was standing right over there - next to that bush.' Hannes November indicated a scrubby stand of cactus on the far side of the road that ran along the base of the koppie. It looked like barely a smudge in the moonlight, hardly the sort of hiding place one might expect for a mythical demon that I had been tracking since childhood.

'What did he look like?

'He was wearing a long white coat and black trousers. He stood still with both hands behind his back whenever cars or people approached. Then he picked up a white sack and took blankets over to the bushes like he was trying to make a bed.'

'And how did you know he wasn't just an ordinary man? A vagrant looking for someplace to sleep.'

Hannes gave me a silent, long suffering look and for a moment I thought my question was too stupid or impertinent to warrant an answer.

'Because he didn't belong there. What he was doing didn't make any sense.'

'What do you mean? What didn't make sense?'

'He turned into a dog.'

'You saw him turn into a dog?'

Hannes November fell silent, shifting from foot to foot as he fingered his harpoon, a double bladed implement fashioned from sharpened sheep shears that he had devised in order to hunt the shapeshifter that he insisted had been prowling the settlement. At length he allowed his buddy, Luzuko, to speak for him.'I first saw him on my way home. He only looked like a dog from a distance. Up close it looked like something I had never seen before. It was so fucking lelik* I hit him with my beer bottle.' ( *ugly )

'Then what happened?'

''I chased after it but it grew wings and flew away!'

I nodded, realizing there was no point in asking any further questions.

Reports like this had been coming in from folk in Steytlerville and the neighbouring towns of Klipplaat and Willowmore for some months now. No-one seemed to be able to agree on exactly what the creature looked like other than the fact that it was reputed to be a black magician' or 'nagloper' – something that 'didn't belong' in any sane or normal world. I had heard tales of these xenomorphic spirits before in both the Karoo and Southern Namibia, indeed had based my second feature film 'Dust Devil' on the myth which in many respects parrallels the European vampire tradition. The 'night walker's were said to be of either gender and roamed the veldt in the company of baboons and owls, often gathering at appointed spots like witches meeting at a coven. Sometimes they were said to strip themselves of all clothing or to adorn their heads with human finger or toe bones before entering the huts of their prey, often walking backwards so their footprints would be pointing away from their destination. The occupants, even the dogs, would fall into a death like stupor so that the night walker's could batten on their life force. These wandering nocturnal spirits could be halted however and even destroyed by the use of a magic kerrie, a carved wooden baton analogous to the sharpened stake favored by Western vampire hunters. If the nagloper could be tricked into stepping across the kerrie which was often left lying across the doorways of huts as a form of protection, he could be rooted to the spot and stripped of its power in the same manner that one might imagine a lightning conductor is used to earth static electricity and hence draw the teeth from a storm.

Above: Image from 'Dust Devil' (1992)

Tales of the nagloper had fascinated me as a boy and perhaps it should have come as little surprise to find that the faceless beast was still stalking the back roads of 21st century Africa. If the demon were really only a myth then it remained a very powerful one, a legend capable of endlessly reinventing itself, changing its colours and details to suit the times. The last thing I had expected was to find myself hot on the trail of the dust devil once more but despite the chaotic and far fetched nature of the first hand reports I'd hoovered up on my way across the Eastern Cape there was no escaping the unpleasant realization that here in Steytlerville the townsfolk were quite literally living in fear of something they could scarcely describe, let alone comprehend.

American's have their 'bigfoot' and Australians their 'bunyip' but despite sharing this neck of the bush with a burdgeoning population of baboons and other primates the South African's evidently felt no need to conjure up their own sasquatch, the more conventional furry humanoid, skin walker or yeti commonly reported abroad. The nagloper is an altogether more protean being, capable of defying the folklorist's attempts to readily contain, categorize or otherwise pigeonhole it's hallucinatory characteristics. While human in at least one of its facets the nagloper seems to be able to transform at will. Others hold that it may be the victim of a curse or even a resurrected corpse transformed by an evil witchdoctor into a bestial familiar sent forth to do his or her nocturnal bidding. All that anyone can agree on is that these beings seem drawn to towns like this one, sniffing out their fears and frustrations from a thousand miles away as a shark scents blood.

At face value Steytlerville is like any other one horse karoo town, with its dusty high street dominated by a white washed church and a central bar/hotel. This sleepy community was founded in 1786 by the Reverend Steytler and now stands at the centre of the Eastern Cape's wool and mohair industry.

Above: The Royal Hotel - Steytlerville
Below: St Paul's church - the oldest building in Steytlerville. The tumbleweed hanging from the ceiling has been placed there to deter bats.

To all intents and purposes the place should serve as a model of secure conservative values and Anglican rectitude were it not for the fact that the settlement stands at the very edge of baviaanskloof, the single largest remaining wilderness area on the subcontinent where previously unknown archaelogical remains and bushman sacred sites, not to mention whole new species of flora and fauna are still turning up on a daily basis.

In the summer of 2010-11 something else, something unimaginable crawled out of the African night to invade the town's collective consciousness.

Hefting his double edged harpoon like some sort of latter day Ahab, Hannes November started warily down the barren slope towards the stand of cactus. Under normal circumstances Hannes ran the local 'gaming store', what amounted to two ratty looking pool tables and a collection of aging video machines that occupied one half of the narrow concrete shed he called home. Hannes, like the other denizens of the sorry looking grey walled settlement that had sprung up on the outskirts of Steytlerville, was the victim of a peculiar sort of post-liberation apartheid. In a fumbling attempt at land reform the African National Congress had passed a plethora of new laws, ensuring that any family that lived in one particular premises for more than three generations would have a legitimate claim to the property. Fearing a situation similar to the one in Zimbabwe where a great many farmers had seen their homesteads confiscated by their labourers the land owners had responded by summarily moving the workers off their property, shunting them into vast, hastily built settlements such as this one. Accordingly the farm labourers were obliged to commute to work by bus, a grinding journey of many dusty miles while their families were forced to live in a squalour every bit as bad as the conditions experienced by previous generations under apartheid rule.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that the sleep of reason had once again given birth to monsters...

"As above, so below: Two fanciful artist's impressions of the 'Steytlerville Monster' currently circulating on the net.

While the white farmers and townsfolk evidently believed in the shapeshifting demon that their Xhosa labourers referred to as 'Bawokazi' ( literally 'father's brother' or 'paternal uncle' – another word for 'big brother' one might say ) it was clear that they still felt reasonably secure behind the ramparts of their Dutch Reformed faith, white washed picket fences and broad, electrified streets. While the owner/manager of the Royal Hotel declined any comment on the affair he did make it clear that a guest at the only other hotel in town, the Theatrical Hotel on the outskirts of town, had seen the beast only a few days ago. He preferred not to think about such things and seemed of a mind to evict me from my room for having the temerity to mention them on his property. Here in the mean, lightless alleyways of the township sandwiched between the freeway and the open desert the dust devil was a living, breathing reality and grown men lay awake in their beds at night for fear of the nameless emanation from out of the wild that stalked their dreams and threatened their sanity.

There was no doubt that Hannes was crazy, of course, at least by any conventional definition of the term - one look in his eyes could tell you that immediately. The locals refered to him by his nickname, 'Bosvark' ( literally 'bush pig' ) and were evidently divided over what had really happened here but I couldn't help asking myself what it was about this stocky, bullet headed, God fearing man that had forced him to make a stand against the nameless nemesis that he believed had infiltrated and infected his impoverished settlement. When I asked him what had driven him to hunt the dust devil all Hannes could tell me was that he had been guided by the power of the Lord – 'die heerde' – to defend the community and his way of life.

'Two of my friends came with me. We came to within 25 metres of the monster,' muttered Hannes, slowing as we warily approached the scene of his previous encounter with the beast.

'Did you challenge it or try to communicate with it?'

'That's when I took my spear and told it 'Jy for my, ek vir jou'*!'

( * literally 'You for me, me for you' – a challenge to one on one combat )

Hannes gestured fiercely at the cactus with his harpoon, speaking the words by rote as if he were recounting something seen in a movie. I surmised that he had told the story so many times to his family, friends, police and local journalists that it had already lost any sense of objective reality to him.

'And that's when you saw him turn into a dog?'

He nodded slowly. 'It was a black dog with white legs. But it didn't bark. It didn't make a sound.'

'Then he ran away. And all the lights in the houses went out as he passed,' added Luzuko, making a sweeping motion with his hand. Behind him Hannes began to poke at an old sack lying at the base of the cactus, cautiously lifting it with the tip of his harpoon. 'That's what he was using to try and make a bed.'

I glanced at the sack disinterestedly. I think Hannes wanted me to take a photograph of it but quite frankly there didn't seem to be any point. There was something faintly pathetic about the idea of this immortal demon searching for nothing more than a quiet place to lay its head and get some rest.

'Do you think he's still around some place?'

Hannes looked past me for a moment, gazing out at the silent veldt.

'I heard he was in Klipplaat. Or maybe Willowmore. We hasn't come back here again.'

On the westernmost horizon a waxing crescent moon hovered above the dusty flatlands like a pair of huge crimson horns while above us the Milky Way shone with shocking clarity as if its stars were bright diamonds spread against the black velvet viewing board of the night.

'You scared him off, huh?'

'It wasn't me. It was the power of the Lord.'

'If you say so.' Reaching for my tobacco pouch I started back towards the dirt road where we had left the car. Beneath that scintillating cosmic panorama the tiny town of Steytlerville looked very small indeed, and not a little vulnerable.

After Hannes's stand off with the demon the police had vigorously searched the surrounding area. While no trace of the elusive 'Bawokazi' could be found Warrant Officer Zandisile Nelani had decided not to take any chances and officially opened a file on the sightings, urging residents who saw the beast to try and get some photographs next time. Thus far no snapshots or any other material evidence to support the 'Steytlerville Monster's physical existence have been forthcoming, suggesting that the answer to what really took place here might be found buried deep within the community's unconscious, in the socio-political tensions that haunted the new South Africa rather than within the realms of cryptozoology. Yet how many identical files lie gathering dust in the charge offices of small towns like this one spread out across the Great Karoo, Namaqua land and Southern Namibia? A great many, I suspect – their details oftimes curiously familiar, the paper trail of the dust devil, the undying shape shifter who will continue to walk these roads until the stars grow dim and the sun grows cold

To be continued....