In the four years since writer-producer-director-cinematographer Charlie Steeds made The Barge People – his last showing at FrightFest – he’s been very busy, with The House of Violent Desire, Winterskin, An English Haunting, Death Ranch, Vampire Virus, A Werewolf in England, Werewolf Castle and The Haunting of the Tower of London. Steeds has a small, talented repertory company and an admirable commitment to classic-style horror, albeit often with a grimy, downbeat, British sensibility.
This riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – presumably influenced also by The Thing, The Terror and Shackleton – has the good ship Innsmouth, captained by barrel-chested Roland Mortimer (Rory Wilton), trapped in the Arctic ice, just a hike across the floes from the mountain cave where Sir William Streiner (Tim Cartwright), sole survivor of the expedition Mortimer hopes to rescue, has gone mad and is communing with recently-awakened ichthyoids – a word I used in my FF notes on The Barge People – who worship a cyclopean obelisk which is actually a graffiti-covered column of rock. There are characters in huffing conflict – a sidekick (Johnny Vivash) who realises the captain is going mad, a well-connected coward (David Lenik), a weedy artist (Jake Watkins), a vengeance-seeking stowaway (Beatrice Barrila) and a troublemaking asshole (Ricardo Freitas). There are presumably a lot more in the crew, but they get killed offscreen by a monster attack. The survivors make it across the ice to the caves, and bad things happen – though this is low budget enough to shy away from too much destruction, which sometimes gives the film an oddly incomplete feel.
While Lovecraft is the touchstone for the film, this also comes across a lot like 1960s/70s Doctor Who – a small group of characters whittled down by man-in-a-suit monsters, amphibious ancients reawakened to claim the Earth, mad commanders, wandering around caves. The BBC’s educational remit wouldn’t have squared with the oddly ahistorical past setting – 18th/early 19th century costumes, long-barreled muskets, a turntable gramophone playing mild jazz (the ichthyoids are soothed by our music even though they’re bent on wiping out the rest of our civilisation), someone humming ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1901). The monster suits are excellent and the icthyoids do some fine lurking, but most of their horrific deeds are left to the imagination when a little more explicit nastiness – or even explicit alienness – would have built them up as more menacing. It might be a budgetary necessity rather than thematic, but here the regular people – all variously unsympathetic and ruthless, even the notional heroine – seem worse than the creatures.