Perhaps it’s no real surprise that when given the chance to shepherd an anthology series on Neflix, Guillermo Del Toro took this as an opportunity to make the majority of the episodes heavy with the spirit of impossibly influential horror author (and full time bastard) H.P. Lovecraft, with three of the four entries so far being awash with the writer’s signature style. However, with the fifth episode, Pickman’s Model, the show cuts out the middleman and goes straight for the source, choosing to directly adapt one of Lovecraft tales for the small screen. However, this comes with it’s own set of issues; you see, whenever the author would have one of his characters run up against some kind of unspeakable evil which is so disturbing it causes the sanity to collapse into jelly, he would simply just not describe it, decrying it as… well… indescribable. However, seeing as television is something of a visual medium, it’s not really a trick you can get away with – so how to you show insanity causing evil without it seeming…. silly?
Will Thurber is an art student whose eye for the rebellious is caught with the arrival of the pale, wild-eyed Richard Pickman, an artist who favours the dark and macabre, even when sketching a life model. Fascinated by his fellow student, Thurman finds that exposure to his grim pieces of art have something of a hallucinatory effect on him and he starts having horrific visions and dreams of the twisted beings and subjects of Pickman’s paints crawling their way before his very eyes. While this causes understandable tension between Thurman and his wealthy girlfriend Rebecca, the art student is relieved when Pickman mysteriously up and vanishes.
Years later, with all that nastiness behind him, Thurber is now a successful museum curator and he and Rebecca have a son, James, but the cycle of weirdness is due to start all over again when Pickman, now a successful artist, resurfaces and hops to reconnect with his former friend, but when young James catches a glimpse of one of the artist’s disturbing pieces and suffers nightmares as a result, Thurber feels like he has to act.
However, Pickman’s art has never actually come from his imagination and his searing images of malformed creatures, cannibalistic witches and brutal mutilation come from things he’s actually seen as he has a rare connection to other worlds filled with unspeakable horrors and gigantic eldritch gods who have a growing hunger for humanity. Seeing a fraction of what Pickman has witnessed with his own eyes, Thurber returns to his museum to find there’s a new gallery of work being hung up – and guess who the artist is?
Presumably also a loose basis for John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness – think horror literature in place of paintings – Pickman’s Model sees director Keith Thomas (The Virgil and the Firestarter remake) trying to wrestle Lovecraft’s wild tale into a filmable state with mixed results. Once again we’re taking the dark period piece route with plenty of haunting visions and gooey beasties to go around, but the story doesn’t really move at a pace that suggests that Ben Barnes’ Thurman has to hurry in order to preserve his sanity. It also doesn’t help that the lead isn’t really much more than a vanilla guide into Pickman’s world, barely feeling like a fully formed, three dimensional character even when he’s settled down with a family in latter half of the episode or when it hints at his issues with alcoholism (the concept that its darkness that might explain his receptive nature to Pickman’s art simply isn’t explored). However, if Barnes isn’t given much more than a moustache, flop-sweat and a profound sense of curiosity to work with, co-star Crispin Glover maybe has too much, taking his tormented introvert and making him a shifty-eyed sence of the flamboyant as the notoriously odd thespian chooses to mangle his Boston accent beyond almost all recognition which proves to be more than a little distracting. Still, I can at least see what he’s trying for, even if it’s noticably heavy handed; but considering we see him at one point sitting in a graveyard, using a dead cat as his questionable muse, maybe a lighter touch wouldn’t belabour the point so much – we get it, he’s weird.
However, contrasting performances and extreme accents aside, Pickman’s Model also has the noticable problem that its story doesn’t really flow particularly well, chucking in a random vision whenever the pace starts to slacken and matters are made even more jarring by the time jump mid-episode.
Of course, this may all be part of the show; an effort by the filmmakers to keep you on edge and off balance by deliberately punching holes in the story, but the horrible visions Thurber suffers just aren’t really that insanity inducing.
Oh they’re nasty, that’s for sure, with one such vision having our hero wander into a gathering of Pickman’s witchy relative who fed her husband to her coven being crammed full of appropriately icky details and another has the curator have a nightmare that his head is messily sawn off as he lay tied to a bed. The thing is, while the hallucinations are certainly imaginative and nicely gross (a grown man suckling at hairy breasts is especially memorable) they don’t really feel like the sort of thing to drive you out of your mind.
The delve into Lovecraftian mythology is welcome with various name checks to the God-like, Great Old Ones being included in chants on the soundtrack and a testicle-chinned beastie (mostly practical and proudly designed by Del Toro himself) that drags itself onscreen near the end. It’s not a bad episode by any means, but when compared to some of the other episodes in the series so far its definately lacking despite the high production values the season has been enjoying.
However, what saves matters is a truly nasty ending that cruelly delivers a twist ending that delivers a sizable punch as the episode closes out with the Pickman’s painting’s starting to affect others who gaze upon their nightmarish images. Leaving you with one character minus their eyes and another hanging ten in the oven, it’s a shocking downer to leave us on which actually redeems much of the episode, but if you want better examples of Guillermo Del Toro’s COC (Now there’s an acronym I’ll never use again), there’s plenty of others around.