H.P. Lovecraft is a, shall we say, divisive literary figure. Largely a shut-in during his life, he harbored deep xenophobia and racist beliefs that couldn’t help but work their way into his writing. Because he was terrifying of everything, he pioneered a kind of all-encompassing horror that many, including me, find undeniably fascinating. Guillermo del Toro is a similar Lovecraft enthusiast and in his anthology series Cabinet of Curiosities, he’s given us two adaptations. While Catherine Hardwicke’s “Dreams in the Witch House” is a suitably macabre affair, it’s Keith Thomas’ “Pickman’s Model” that stood out the most. It is one of the very best Lovecraft adaptations I’ve ever seen.
The thing about Lovecraft and his fiction is that it’s easy to focus only on the giant tentacled monsters aspect. They’re giant and have tentacles; it’s easy to get distracted. But the crux of his version of horror is not that there are massive, incomprehensible monsters, it’s what knowing the truth would do to the puny human mind. What is the implication that hideous eldritch abominations lurk just outside of our field of perception? Knowledge isn’t power; it’s debilitating terror.
The episode—based on Lovecraft’s 1926 story of the same name—follows Thurber (Ben Barnes), a collegiate art student and well-to-do chap whose life and sanity find themselves on the rocks after meeting Richard Upton Pickman (Crispin Glover). Pickman is an artist of rare skill but whose works seemingly horrible nightmarish fantasy creatures and events. Macabre, gory, generally upsetting. To most in the realism-focused art world of the 1920s, the paintings are flights of dark fancy. To Thurber, they are profoundly upsetting.
Pickman recognizes Thurber’s keen eye and wishes for his “friend”‘s opinion. Pickman tells us that his many-times-great grandmother was a witch who died of hanging in Salem during the trials. His portrait of her “last supper” is particularly gruesome. Thurber then experiences terrible dreams and visions. From the very first time Thurber sees Pickman’s “stronger work,” it’s as though a veil lifts and he sees the darker aspects of the world. Thurber sees a man (whom he later learns is his fiancée’s father) in a carriage with a woman. The woman’s chest is covered in black veins while a mysterious gash bleeds from the back of the man’s head. Thurber can no longer pretend not to see the rot just underneath the pleasant surface of the world.
Years go by and Pickman turns about in Thurber’s life again. This time, Pickman is even more determined for Thurber to come see his new paintings. He even makes a surprise appearance at Thurber’s house, talking to his wife and son. Thurber, of course, knows Pickman’s art is cancerous, but little does he know how much. Eventually, Thurber goes to Pickman’s house and enters his cellar to find a well in the floor. From the well, the creatures Pickman painted actually appear. They signify a new dawning, Pickman says. They are his family. Pickman’s model is a real creature.
This revelation is one of Lovecraft’s best, up there with the endings of “The Outsider” and “The Rats in the Walls.” The horrible creatures aren’t imaginary. Pickman’s power as an artist is that he can perfectly depict reality, the rot and horror underneath the veneer of modernity. The more he hones his craft, the closer he gets to absolutely reality. Pickman thinks Thurber will understand, but obviously he does not. Or maybe he does too well. Either way, Thurber shoots Pickman.
This doesn’t end the horror, of course. The episode’s grand finale is that it continues on just a little bit more than the written story does. Thurber’s colleague has gone mad staring at Pickman’s art and, very soon after, so does Thurber’s wife. She gouges her own eyes out and cooks their son in the oven. It’s a truly disturbing final act, and proof that the art (in this case, depicting eldritch horrors beneath the surface) doesn’t die with the artist. Thurber could withstand this truth; others not so much.
It’s this that really makes this version of “Pickman’s Model” so powerful. The truth of these horrible creatures and their eventual rise is there, whether Pickman paints them or not. Unlike what G.I. Joe used to say, knowing is not half the battle. Knowing either brings madness or despair. Cosmic horror at its very finest.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is streaming on Netflix.