The Music of Erich Zann
A film of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” Directed by Brad Anderson, music by David Tibet

Review by Andrew Albert

Adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” as a Hollywood film might not seem like such a smart move. The story, after all, is a work of cosmic horror that depicts darkness as the ultimate home and form of the supernatural. Its horrors, in other words, are unseen, for the simple reason that there is no illumination by which they can be seen. The most chilling moments in the story are, as expected from the title, mostly aural, though there is one particularly terrifying instance where the sensation is tactile.
It is also a psychological thriller, albeit of a markedly different kind. The main character, whose point of view and descent into dread we are meant to take for our own, is not only unnamed but is likewise unidentified by any distinct character traits. Indeed, part of the story’s unsettling quality is how our only means of grasping the narrative are found in such a non-character. Given film’s tendency to concretize, this again seems to be a point against adapting this story, good though the source may be.
Thankfully, Brad Anderson, as shown in his previous film Session Nine, is able to make the best that he can in dealing with this. While his Lovecraft adaptation may not be flawless, he is nevertheless able to show that, among contemporary filmmakers, he is someone who can play with the abstract for as long as the medium allows him. Indeed, a sublime mix of terror and beauty characterizes the music of Erich Zann, and a similar concession to simultaneous attraction and repulsion to art is at work in Anderson’s film. It is, for this reason, a reflexive work that forgoes the wisecracking of other recent horror films made after the Scream trilogy.
Perhaps a truly effective adaptation would be experimental: one in which the climax will contain no visuals, as the all-encompassing darkness of Lovecraft’s works, here made literal, takes over the narrative. Anderson chooses a strange strobe-like effect, akin to lightning but with neither thunder nor rain accompanying it, for the climactic scene, allowing the darkness to be interrupted by literal flashes of illumination, but of a stark and threatening quality.
In our truly experimental hypothetical film, perhaps there will be only the cacophony that mentioned and not even described in the tale, but is there any music out there, no matter how outré, that can capture that sense of morbid attraction indicated in the story? In interviews, Anderson has claimed that he has always wanted to adapt the text, and one of his initial ideas was to make a silent film, deliberately going against the obvious fixation on sound that the narrative demands.
David Tibet of Current 93 does come up with something strange enough, quite unusual from the dense soundscapes he does with his band, but the very process of making the music specific detracts from the otherworldly quality that Lovecraft cannot even describe in detail in his own story. Still, especially when seen in the context of hiring him to work on a Hollywood film (a weird enough development, to be sure), Tibet’s sparse melodies, coaxed from a viol and subtly manipulated in the studio, works as well as it should, especially with an intricate yet understated sound design—also handled by Tibet—that would not be inappropriate in a David Lynch film.
With a recognizable actor like Ewan McGregor in the main role as the student who stumbles upon the eccentric musician Erich Zann, Anderson perhaps felt that there was little that he can do to keep the character ambiguous. I was initially distracted in fact by the film being set sometime around the fin-de-siècle, with McGregor looking the way he did at the end of Moulin Rouge, haggard and exhausted. The character is now named Christov, a strangely Germanic name that somehow hints at a cultural link between him and Zann. Anderson’s interpretation of Lovecraft’s story apparently is based on the notion of some sort of kinship by blood between the protagonist and the musician whose playing captivates him, in all senses of the term. Of course, Max von Sydow’s face, which has always seemed so exhausted even since The Seventh Seal, works to the advantage of this parallelism as well, unintended or not.
As expected from Session Nine, Anderson works best in creating mood and atmosphere through setting. While the film is not shot in black-and-white, its color schemes are muted enough to evoke a moribund world of ruin and decay. The film also contains little in the way of excessive camera tilts and geometrically-askew production designs, but Anderson’s Erich Zann is nevertheless very much the best contemporary approximation to German Expressionism that we can expect to have.
Although the visual style does not explicitly evoke German Expressionism, the thematic is very much present, especially with how urban decay reflects psychological decay. This, of course, is something that Anderson already accomplished in Session Nine. That we are casually led into realizing that the psychological decay is that of Christov rather than Zann — who is even more of a cipher — is another of Anderson’s achievements; Christov is not the classic unreliable narrator of most weird fiction, but he does keep us on our toes, by being a character who we cannot as comfortably identify with unlike most other Hollywood protagonists.
The Music of Erich Zann will not usher in a new interest in Lovecraftian cinema, partly because, unlike Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos” stories, “The Music of Erich Zann” is abstract and not just less visceral but quite nearly metaphysical. And though the properties of film limit the success of its adaptation — if the story can even be adapted in the first place — it is nevertheless a fine mood piece, where the nearly two-hour running time maintains a unity of atmosphere that Poe and even Lovecraft would be quite proud of.

(Entry by Andrew Albert)