Using bunraku puppets and in-camera effects, director Kevin McTurk has crafted two short supernatural horror films that are marvelously rendered and meticulously detailed. These first two installments in his The Spirit Cabinet series are imbued with a sense of old-school wonder, traditional special effects, and classic storytelling, and at the same time, they also feel fresh and exciting. Whether you are a fan of old-fashioned ghost stories, are looking for something decidedly different from the norm in recent horror films, love practical effects, or any combination thereof, these films should delight you.
The Narrative of Victor Karloch (2012) tells the tale of a ghostly undersea experience while setting the stage for a much larger ongoing saga. The Mill at Calder’s End (2015) is a self-contained story about a cursed lineage of men in a family and one member’s attempts to put an end to the terror. Both shorts have won numerous awards on the film festival circuit, and deservedly so.
Kevin McTurk has more than 20 years of experience working in the effects industry in Hollywood and for New Zealand’s WETA Workshop as a creature effects artist, cinematographer, model maker, and puppeteer, and his experience is on vibrant display as director of these shorts. Both screenplays are written by Ryan Murphy from stories by Murphy and McTurk. The first-person narration by each film’s main characters and the dialog are enthralling, and all of the voice actors give impeccable performances.
The Narrative of Victor Karloch (2014)
Victor Karloch (the voice of Christopher Lloyd), scholar of the unknown, calls together a group of like-minded colleagues to tell them the tale of William Merriwether (the voice of Elijah Wood), apprentice cartographer for the Royal Naval Academy. As the narrative begins, Merriwether is sailing aboard the cargo freighter Cassiopea with professor Gregor Marley (the voice of Maurice LaMarche). The pair plan to test Marley’s Copernicus Mark 1 diving sphere 800 nautical miles from southern Ireland in a stretch of ocean called The Witch’s Cauldron, where hundreds of vessels have gone missing. On its maiden dive, the Copernicus is destroyed by a large sea creature and Merriweather is knocked unconscious. He awakens in his diving suit and helmet, in a graveyard of ships, ” . . . No place for mortal men; this was a city of the dead.” Eerie and frightening things happen to him during this time that I will leave for future viewers to discover for themselves, but it is important to note that Merriwether comes across a spear inscribed with “We await the once and future king”; this relic could hold the key to “an unspeakable evil [being] unleashed on all mankind.”
The attention to detail in The Narrative of Victor Karloch is magnificent. Karloch’s study is filled with esoteric imagery, unusual animal skeletons, and human skulls. The wrecked ships have rotting ropes and decayed wooden planks. The puppets, whose mouths do not move, still give off an uncanny realism and their stern facial expressions are amazingly lifelike. The sound design by Eric Skodis is an important part of the proceedings and adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. Though there are too many names to mention in this review, Kevin McTurk’s crew – which includes 11 puppeteers, 4 music composers, director of photography Wyatt Garfield and his team, additional voice actor Piotr Walczuk, the production design crew and art department, designers, model makers, and sculptors – are all to be commended on breathing life into this project.
As I mentioned earlier, The Narrative of Victor Karloch alludes to being the beginning of a much larger narrative; I hope to see more of Karloch’s story unfold in future films by Kevin McTurk.
The Mill at Calder’s End (2015)
Rich in atmosphere and genuinely creepy with a sense of dread throughout, The Mill at Calder’s End is reminiscent of Hammer Film Production’s finer fare. As captivating in story and gorgeous to behold as The Narrative of Victor Karloch is, The Mill at Calder’s End is even more phenomenal. I consider it a masterpiece.
Calder’s End is a village surrounded by foggy marshes, muddy roads, and gnarled trees. We meet Nicholas Grimshaw (voice of Jason Flemyng) as he traverses those roads, heading back to his father’s home. He has just learned that his father Harrison (voice of Piotr Michael) has gone missing, and Nicholas therefore inherits his family estate, along with a mysterious box unearthed by his grandfather. The box contains “an ancient parchment . . . a contract of . . . dark obligations, scrawled in some arcane script which had bound our ancestors to Calder’s end for generations and had finally driven them all to madness.”
Intent on destroying whatever evil it is that lurks inside the mill, Nicholas finds himself descending into a hellish world beneath the mill. These stone-and-wood catacombs are meticulously constructed by the film’s design and art staff. Death and madness lie within the tunnels. Nicholas sees his father uncovering something in a wall but he is helpless to stop the horrors that befall the elder Grimshaw. Barbara Steele also adds her voice talents to the proceedings but to tell exactly how would be to enter spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that she adds further chills to the goings-on.
Director of photography Kenton Drew Johnson captures the action splendidly, and visual effects supervisor Adam C. Sager and his VFX artist staff give Johnson plenty of incredible imagery to work with. Eric Skodis again serves as sound designer and does another brilliant job, assisted by a haunting score from Meredith Yayanos and Will Thomas. Guy Davis’s creature design is terrific. As I mentioned for The Narrative of Victor Karloch, the number of people deserving praise for their efforts is too long to list here, but The Mill at Calder’s End production design crew and art department, puppeteers, designers, model makers, sculptors, and all others involved did splendid work here, as well.
Kevin McTurk is currently at work on the third film in his Spirit Cabinet series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store. For more information or to purchase these first two short films in the series, visit http://www.thespiritcabinet.com/#thespiritcabinet.
The Narrative of Victor Karloch: (4.5 / 5)
The Mill at Calder’s End: (5 / 5)