Two and a half years back, I wrote that Jeremiah Kipp was working on a new feature length film from a script by Jerry Janda that would venture into the territory of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. I was curious to see how Kipp would navigate the territory of Cthulhu, Dagon and Yog Sothoth, and last week, I finally got to watch a screener of BLACK WAKE and now have the answer.
BLACK WAKE starts with discussion of a number of murders on the U.S. eastern seaboard. Victims have parts of their skulls missing, and no one can figure out who or what is killing them. When scientist Luiza Moreira comes across video of a student documentary about a homeless man who has something strange and lethal in a jar, she believes his notebook may hold the key to her mystery. What she discovers, she may not like, as it leads to cult worship of an Elder God, and other undesirable, unsettling things that may lead to the end of the world.
BLACK WAKE is a wild mix of a number of different things. It’s got elements of a 1950s programmer, with scientists tucked in a lab trying to sort out what alien phenomenon is at work; a zombie flick, with infected shamblers attacking victims en masse; a mystery, asking the audience to figure out who the homeless man is, how he ties into the murders, and what he may bring about; a police drama, with a hardnosed cop; an infection flick, with creepy insects crawling into and bursting out of people’s skulls; and a healthy dose of Lovecraftian Elder Gods, with worship of a seafaring goliath who’s returned from a time before man. Kipp uses the techniques of a found footage film, pulling clips from surveillance cameras, a student documentary, and special agent eye glasses, among other sources. I’m not a fan of found footage flicks. Neither is Kipp from what I’ve read, so it’s odd that he’d take a rare leap into feature length film to tell the tale in this format. Perhaps this is why BLACK WAKE doesn’t have the feel of his other works I’ve viewed.
It’s also got more of a straight narrative than Kipp usually goes for. Much of his work relies more on atmosphere than story, but BLACK WAKE adheres more to structure, with a three-act plot: something is going on, there’s a push to find out exactly what, and then everything is wrapped up in a bleak coda. I’ve always been a devotee to story over tone poem, but I break that rule every time when it comes to Jeremiah’s work, because he’s such a compelling filmmaker. So I was challenged in a different way from how I’m normally challenged by his work.
It’s also got some name actors, with Eric Roberts, Vincent Pastore and Tom Sizemore. I don’t buy Pastore as the head scientist running a think tank, but Roberts holds up nicely in a brief role as the guy in charge of the facility, and it’s nice to see the talented Sizemore in a part with some meat to it. But Kipp regular Kelly Rae LeGault steals the show as The Specimen, a whacked out zomboid victim who manages to be alluring, scary and downright sexy all in one package. Her wild eyes sell fear and confusion, and I wouldn’t want her smashing my head into a table, as she does to one unobservant scientist. LeGault is a rare talent, and Kipp takes her to some wild places, getting the best out of her along the way. This actress deserves bigger breaks, which she once again proves in BLACK WAKE.
As for the movie’s lead, actress Nana Gouvea is saddled with lots of heavy dialogue, much of which is of the variety of “this is what happened here,” “this is how it may lead to this,” and “this is what I discovered next.” Storytelling works better when it’s show-don’t-tell, and I figured very early on that English is not her first language (she’s originally from Brazil). I wish the movie would’ve offered her more to do as a lead, as she really only gets involved in the action in the latter frames. The film as a whole is a little too talky for me, but Lovecraft himself was never exactly economical with words, to be fair.
BLACK WAKE works best when it taps into our universal fears. When it focuses on fear of infection, parasites and individuality vs. the hive culture, it’s making statements about the human condition that go back tens of thousands of years, straight back to the dawn of man (if not as far back as those Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s). We don’t want to lose our bodies to outside invaders, or our minds to some collective god or government. When our bodies and minds are under siege, we will fight back. Devastatingly, we may ultimately be sporting a losing war. Kipp’s works always explore the darker sides of reality, and kudos to him for doing so again in BLACK WAKE.
After two-plus years, I have my answer to what Jeremiah Kipp would do with a Lovecraft-inspired tale. As Lovecraft himself wrote, “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.” Like one of the author’s mad visionaries, Kipp has awoken a Great Old One from its millennia-long slumber in BLACK WAKE. Cthulhu himself should take notice.