Roads Past Uncertainty: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2021

Here I am at the Etheria Film Festival, in spirit again. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the Festival was forced to move from its physical Theatre viewing locations in the United States onto the online platform of Shudder. These have been uncertain times, and I didn’t know if I would ever cover — or even see — a similar event again.

But if I were to say that the Etheria Film Shorts of 2021 have a unifying theme or motif, it would be uncertainty: of being lost, or remaining in transition, and trying to find your way off a familiar path. 

So let’s get into it. Heidi Honeycutt, the founder and Director of Programming of Etheria introduces this round of female-directed short films across genres, and then introduces the 2021 Etheria Inspiration Award. It is presented to The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang by the legendary film and television producer Gale Anne Hurd: who herself had actually won the Award in 2019. One thing that Hurd mentions with regards to Kang’s work is that she is excellent at telling character-driven stories: which is fitting given how most of the cinematic stories in this current anthology are, by necessity, directed by the trajectory of their protagonists wherever they might go. 

Our viewing night begins with Kelsey Bollig’s The Fourth Wall: a film about a resentful actress who has to essentially share her next big theatre production with three other idiots while suffering from what seems to be a series of seizures, or the beginning of a nervous breakdown. The director’s statement on the Etheria website, which I’d suggest you check out as some of them provide a bit of background for their films, explains that she wanted to take the story back to the origins of cinema, and perhaps even cinematic or theatrical experimentation: which she identifies as France. As the protagonist’s nose bleeds, and her hallucinations with regards to her resentment over her peers continues, you wonder where this will go. And I have to say, when she makes her decision, when she lashes out, it is satisfying. It’s a tame Grand Guignol — a naturalistic, graphic, amoral horror show where gruesome acts like murder seem so real — within a flimsy production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I have to add that there is something truly great about what she does to the American actress who is only there because her father is the director, and she doesn’t bother to learn how to speak passable French beforehand: expecting others to accommodate her. Essentially, I love the fact that the Etheria Film Festival starts itself off with a foreign language film and, after dealing with reading about several film viewers subtitles and wanting to hear English dubs — it feels like a tremendous “fuck you” to that contingent that I greatly respect. I also want to add that I appreciate the fact that English captions do not interfere with foreign subtitles on Shudder: at least for how the Etheria Film Festival is formatted. 

So we break The Fourth Wall with a commentary on Murder being the tenth muse, and wondering what the protagonist will do next after her moment of transgressive narrative effulgence is over, to find someone on another Narrow path as directed by Anna Chazelle. Like The Fourth Wall, I didn’t know what was going on at first. Is the protagonist being haunted by ghosts? Is this a dystopian death match? Will leaving the path of dirt and gravel which she can’t step around lead to the ghosts of her victims getting her? It is fairly clear that she is terrified of leaving that trail, even ignoring screams of agony and pleading. She’s surviving, and you can tell that she’s been doing this for a while. I didn’t know that this was a post-apocalyptic story, even after watching it, though Chazelle identifying it in the lens of personal stories told in after such world-ending events — about individual lives trying to make sense of a now senseless world in line with what Hurd says about Kang’s work at the introduction to the Festival. At the end though, despite all that effort, the main character has to make a choice: one that tests her faith, or her certainty. It’s like Orpheus, except there is no Eurydice, and you have to wonder if it is the promise that makes her decision: or simply being so tired of this constricting road of life? There is a reason why it turns to night when she leaves, however — into darkness — and as a viewer you are left in this haunting meditation of that fact.

Narrow isn’t the only film with a character that steps off her path. In fact, I would venture to say that so far two protagonists have done this: one ending in glorious murder, and the other being consumed by the roars of the night. You Will Never Be Back is almost an answer to the end of Narrow, but unlike its predecessor it isn’t an ending. That would be too merciful. Mónica Mateo presents us with another foreign-language film, this time in Spanish, in which her protagonist Ana leaves her partner David to go to an event, only to find a small portal in the hallway of their apartment. It only takes one moment for everything Ana knows to be stolen from her, to have never happened to begin with, and to know — as only the mentally-challenged or dying are aware of who she is — that she will never escape this place: this dim, floral, Mobius strip forever trapping her in a temporal purgatory. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there is something even more sinister when you consider how mundane and everyday this story begins, and due to one small decision everything in one person’s life — and their relationships — is over, and they are lost. It’s … especially timely given the current climate.

And it really doesn’t end there, does it? We come to Katy Erin’s Bootstrapped. A casual movie night between two lesbian partners turns weird when one of the partners, a physicist, comes back from the future begging her partner not to break up with her. As she explains to her partner, it is because she broke up with her this particular night that made her obsessed with her work, and discover time travel. The problem is that corporations and the rich took advantage of her work and abused this power, leaving masses of people in war and fear in order to colonize the future: where they wouldn’t have to deal with any of it. It’s only she apparently learned that she could travel to the past. Of course, the reason the breakup happens is revealed by this future incarnation, and it makes it happen. It figures that the end of the human species would be the result of a failed relationship, although you realize just how self-serving the time-traveler had really been. Hell, the other protagonist even asks her why she wouldn’t talk with her past self, and seems like less an issue of paradox, and more the fact that she is afraid of “affecting her own memory.” So perhaps the end of human civilization, or existence is more of the result of human pettiness and selfishness more than anything. It’s funny too, as I just rediscovered Jeremy Lalonde’s James Vs. His Future Self, in which this film is a nice counterpoint. I guess the traveler, in this case, bootstrapped herself, in more ways than one. 

And then, we go from supreme selfishness to the opposite in a serious situation. In Ciani Rey Walker’s Misfits, it is 1960s America and we find ourselves in a chapter house of the Black Panthers. Everyone there seems to be Black university students and activists. There are two leaders: a young woman who studies law, or a book of law, and another who understands that sometimes you have to take physical action in order to do what needs to be done. We have scenes of comradery. There is even a White student who is friends with this chapter. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know, or I wasn’t sure that the Black Panthers had white allies though I know the Freedom Rides definitely had Black and White participants. But the scene starts off, not with mobilizing, but just young people surviving daily life, and kidding around with each other until the news comes on: Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. 

Misfits is a film that can, and should, have an entire article or review dedicated to it. Suffice to say, the chapter house organizes to protest, but one of their own gets beaten nearly to death by a police officer: who is shot by the White student. And then, these Black students and activists, they have to make a choice in a system that would destroy — and has destroyed — them. There is so much I want to say about this film. It is easily, along with last year’s Conversion Therapy one of my favourites, and it is unfortunately timely. The fact that the movie begins with a young woman attempting to memorize a legal text, and ends with another holding the barrel of a gun says a lot and what might be criminal to one person, at one time in history — or just — is explored here. And the film ends with a list of names “In Loving Memory:” Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black lives taken by police brutality. It is a powerful, sombre ending to a film that takes place in the 1960s, but whose violence and injustice it depicts continues to this very day.

Myra Aquino’s The Gray also has a police officer, or at least a former one. And he is also dead. However, this former officer is in Purgatory: in an office place processing people to Heaven, and Hell based on his own black and white ideals. He’s been there for a while, and his contemporaries are attempting to get him to retire: to choose where he needs to pass on. This character is different in a lot of ways from the wounded cop in Misfits. He has a strong sense of justice and morality, to a point where it ruled both his life and his afterlife. He had also been in a mixed race relationship with his Filipino wife before his death. And, up until the events of this madcap weird fantasy afterlife comedy, he’s never compromised: until he sees his son in Purgatory. I’d like to think that, based on what happens and the decisions he makes, that God or whatever powers exist in that afterlife arranged a situation that challenges this man’s thinking — and he finally decides to truly let go of the rules to do what he thinks in his heart is right. It’s both a light-hearted, and moving film as the former officer seems to sacrifice himself to hell in order to give his son another chance to live, and take care of his mother. And while we don’t need the clarification of what happens from Aquino, it is nice to have it nonetheless. Also, can I say that the threat of the bureaucracy taking away the protagonist’s “subtitle privileges” reminds me of The Fourth Wall, feels like another hilarious jibe at subtitle haters?

While love helps someone leave their narrow path of bureaucratic certainty to make their own “leap of faith” such as it is, another protagonist finds it — or the beginning of loneliness’ end — in Silvia Conesa’s Spanish language film POLVOTRON 500. A man in the future attempts to sleep in an old automated sex booth, but accidentally activates one of its sapient hologram sex workers. And while he first wants nothing to do with her, and she just desires to provide her function, they actually begin a conversation together and he realizes that they both have something in common: they are both lonely, and they want company. It could have easily ended in a cynical transactional manner, or something saccharine but I like the fact that she is still a sex worker artificial intelligence, and he is a paying credits-customer, but that human connection between them outside the beaten path feels incredibly real in a time of great disconnection.

I’d like to say that Aislinn Clarke’s Eye Exam is the weird film of the nine. It is essentially about a protagonist who goes to an optometrist who is looking for … eyes. She ends up lying in her exam, just to get away, like a man before her who runs out of the room, and the building. It’s hard for me to fit this into the thematic structure I’m identifying. Perhaps, in that dark room the danger is staying the course and telling the truth so that the monstrous voice and Cyclopean visions around the protagonist can get her eyes, as they tried to with the man before her, and it’s only through looking away, through lying, through deciding to veer away from this path, that she can save herself. It is a counterpoint to POLVOTRON 500 for sure in that holograms are visual constructs, and while the protagonist attempts to also ignore what he sees, to wait it out, or eventually leave, he accepts the more positive situation. The character in Eye Exam, however, seems to have dodged being taken by something worse in deciding not to accept it.

And this brings us to the final film in the Etheria Film Festival: Astrid Thorvaldsen’s Who Goes There. I’m almost surprised that the Festival ended with this movie. This isn’t because it is a bad film: far from it. Three Norwegian sisters live in a remote cabin on the American frontier. Their parents seem to have died of a fever, while one of the sisters is slowly being consumed by it. Then, a mysterious man finds them, and after Ingrid — the oldest sister — saves him from dying of thirst, he offers his services as a doctor for their dying sister: for a price. It is a film about survival, being afraid of death and possible treachery, of caution, and the price of letting something in: be it having a prayer answered, or simply opening a door. In the end, unlike the protagonist from Eye Exam, someone gets what she prayed for, another gets what she asks, others die, and perhaps it’s survival — and living — that is the final punishment. When I think about it, perhaps Who Goes There is appropriate in that it ends off with an uncertainty of both identity, and of what the future holds. 

It is my opinion that it is no coincidence that the Etheria Film Festival of 2021 ends with a film that tangentially deals with sickness, but also infection of a more infernal kind. I always wondered, when thinking about many other events such as the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, if a group of judges had already chosen a few film entries before the Pandemic. And while the After Dark might not have had the opportunity, I feel like the Etheria Film Festival might have had all of their entries, and chosen them accordingly. At the Film Festival’s introduction, we are told — half-jokingly — that nine great films had been chosen but didn’t make it due to “distribution problems” or something to that effect. While last year’s Etheria theme, to me, was about interconnection is a disconnected world, I feel like this year’s verges from going behind the scenes of a trite situation, to teetering off a slim line of reality and getting lost in time, sabotaging yourself and others in a cycle, to hard choices in impossible, enclosed situations, to selfishness and selflessness, and knowing when to run, or let something inside.

As of right now, even though I know Etheria is publishing their past films through Amazon in its own series, I don’t know if — even in a year — we will see this Festival online anymore. That is a path branching from uncertainty as well. It is a new time, beginning, and while it is still dangerous, the potential is there too, and I’m glad that whatever else happens, I got to see one more Etheria Film Festival.

And please check out the Etheria Film Festival website. There are more Director’s Statements there, and they are worth checking out: as is this event, which ends on July 25, 2021. 

Farewell to the World

Dedicated to Fred M. Wilcox, Scott Derrickson, and Harry Bates.

“My poor Krell. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.”
— Dr. Edward Morbius

“Commander Adams. Ms. Morbius. Do you understand why you have been brought here?”

“Actually, Mr. Carpenter.” The young woman, small and diminutive next to John J. Adams. “It’s Mrs. Adams now.”

“Oh. I see.” Klaatu notes their body language, their closeness, and the band on the woman’s hand Even after all this time, he has to catch himself before missing any Earth customs. Perhaps it’s that cultural disconnect, or maybe his people did not reconstruct his brainwaves as well as they had hoped. Nevertheless, considering the circumstances, it is a swift development. “My apologies, and my congratulations.”  

“Thank you, sir.” Commander Adams nods. They sit in the briefing room, just the three and two other occupants. The dark-haired man is polite, in full dress uniform. He knows this is a briefing. The young woman is in a smart dark conservative business suit, complete with a short skirt. Humans have always had a strange perspective on both modesty and exposure. Mrs. Adams looks awkward in the fashion, almost as much as Klaatu once did in the suit he was forced to borrow from what seemed to be an eternity ago. Now he sees the ring on the Commander’s finger as well. “The nature of this inquiry, Mr. Carpenter. It is about Altair IV.”

“To the point.” Klaatu allows a small smile. “Yes, Commander. That is the nature of this debriefing. The United Planets has been clear on this matter.”

“With all due respect, sir.” The way Commander Adams says it, his words still formal, still manages to convey anything but irritation and perhaps an element of protective fear as he seems to sidle physically closer to his wife. “The C-57D has already filed its report.”

“Yes. I know.” Klaatu looks down at the papers, something this species still continues to utilize as documentation while others have already long since moved onto electronics. “Your investigation into the radio silence of the Altair IV Expedition, and the Bellerophon concluded that they were both destroyed by psychic phenomena on the surface of the planet, the same force that took the lives of Lieutenants Ostrow and Farman, Chief Quinn, and …” He looks up, feeling his sympathy written on his face. “Dr. Morbius.” 

Klaatu almost expects Mrs. Adams to look away. As it is, it’s Commander Adams’ brow that furrows: in sadness, or anger, or perhaps both. Mrs. Adams puts a hand on his, and keeps Klaatu’s gaze. He knows he must look strange to her. For all their species look alike, he is well acquainted with the human discomfort with his high cheekbones, and the overall asymmetrical physiognomy of his face. For some reason, however, despite her timidness there is a clear look in her eyes. For a few moments, he recalls his … he still thinks they are his … memories of Helen Benson, of her fear of the unknown being overcome by her determination to do the right thing. 

“My mother and father were the sole survivors of the expedition.” She says, her eyes level with his. “My mother, as you know, died of natural causes. My father was assaulted … by the phenomenon before we escaped the planet.” She sighs. “The power of the Krell was too much for him. It destroyed the mind of the Bellerophon‘s skipper, from what he told me, told … us.”

“And poor ‘Doc.'” Commander Adams rubs one thumb over Mrs. Adams’ hand as both an acknowledgement of her comfort, and his returning of it. “And Dr. Morbius. After we realized the nature of the phenomenon that destroyed the colony and the Bellerophon twenty years ago, Dr. Morbius faced his … Monster of the Id. He stopped it, but it cost him his life. He was mule-headed. Stubborn. Too smart for his own good, probably even before that ‘plastic educator.’ But he was a good man, and he died a good man.”

“And he detonated the 9,200 thermonuclear tandem reactors in the Krell underground complex, destroying the entire planet.” Klaatu confirms, shifting the papers, and putting them aside. 

“After his intelligence was augmented,” Mrs. Adams says, “My father couldn’t risk anyone, or anything, else potentially activating that power, releasing their … manifestations …”

“Yes.” Klaatu replies, looking down for a few moments. “The Krell civilization, in addition to creating a device that measured and augmented the intelligence of their young through mental exercise, also constructed machinery that could molecularly reproduce any material of which they have a sample.” Klaatu knows this, the rest of their confederation utilizing similar technology in more limited and controlled ways. “Your … friend over there is an example of some of this knowhow.”

“Robby.” Mrs. Adams smiles, looking up at the clunky, glittering automaton at her side. “My father made him after his own ‘education.’ He always said he tinkered him together with pre-made Krell technology. He always downplayed what he could do.”

“Your father was a modest man.” Klaatu says, not missing the look on Commander Adams’ face as he says it, remembering full well the report of the Doctor’s lack of cooperation, and the fear of what he learned being misused by any humans aside from himself, a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Pardon, but your name is Robby, yes?”

There is a series of clacks and the intense working of transparent circuitry as a voice booms in the room, reverberating. “Affirmative, Mr. Carpenter.”

“My apologizes again, Robby.” Klaatu smiles. “We, of course, have taken your testimony into account as well.”

“There is no need, Mr. Carpenter.” The whirl and clicks of the robot continue. “I simply reiterated the words and recordings of everything that had transpired, and what I had been monitored to explain during our previous briefing.” 

Monitored. A fascinating choice of word, in Klaatu’s mind. Perhaps “seen to” is the right use of that specific designation. “Yes, there is much we can learn from you. Our confederation, the United Planets and the homeworlds have a version of your replication process, but is it true that you truly duplicated — from one sample — an alcoholic beverage from one …”

“I replicated 60 gallons of rocket bourbon, simple alcoholic molecules with traces of diesel fuel.”

“It was … for Cook, ship’s mess.” Despite the situation, Commander Adams’ manages to have a combination of chagrin and amusement on his face. “Apparently he put the bottle in a slot. The robot … burped?”

Klaatu smiles. “Really?” He tries to think about Gort imitating the sound of biological flatulence, and fails. “Is this true?”

There is more clacking and seeing Robby’s dome move back and forth. “Morbius programmed some mannerisms into me. He had a … sense of humour.” 

Klaatu notes the humans in the room smiling, Commander Adams trying to hide it under one hand, and Mrs. Adams’ filled with a certain reminiscence. “He even duplicated the bottles for him.”

“That is impressive.” Klaatu leans forward. “I’ve read the reports. I suspect that Robby is capable of doing a great deal.”

“Well.” Mrs. Adams tries not to look nervously to Klaatu’s side. “He isn’t as advanced as other robots I’ve seen.”

Ah yes. Klaatu’s smile becomes tinged with a bit of sadness. That is why she has been focusing some much on him. As otherworldly as his appearance may be, though he hasn’t announced himself as “alien” by their standards, even though as far as Earth is concerned Klaatu died over three centuries ago after a “temporary revival” — and perhaps he had — he must be more reassuring than his constant companion. The poor woman had been on a world without any other people aside from her father and then the crew of the C-57D. And Robby the Robot had been something of overgrown toy, with slinky arms, bright lights in a glass dome, tottering steps, turning gears and wheels, and clamp hands. He is almost comical. But Gort …

Gort stands at Klaatu’s side. Commander Adams as seen Gort’s kind before, tall, silvered, silent, visored most times, and hoping that the visor would remain closed besides. There is nothing playful or amusing about him, even though Klaatu is used to him, and his general passive benevolence. But he is imposing, and by design. Gort remains by his side as every member of his “race” does with any high-ranking United Planets dignitary. And Klaatu knows that he himself has more notoriety among the homeworlds than most given the relatively recent — and controversial — inclusion of the human species into the confederation. He’d been the first injured — and even killed — for their message in centuries. He doesn’t like that distinction. It’s unseemly to gain renown from another younger species’ fear and ignorance. Frankly, it’s distasteful to him, as distasteful as … 

Klaatu has a mandate. And he needs to get to it. The sooner, the better. “Forgive me for being blunt,” he says, and immediately regrets it as they mirror his words from three hundred years ago. “But this is all information that we are aware, Robby’s sound effects not withstanding.”

“Right.” Commander Adams stares at him, and gives Gort a side glance. “Forgive me, sir.” He says, respecting the chain of command even in the relative peace-time in which this whole galaxy should be. “But why exactly are we here?”

“You already know about the power of the Krell.” Klaatu says, his smile gone, leaning forward intently. “They created a machine that could manifest any matter from thought, a vast underground planetary network that scanned the synapses of its inhabitants — already accustomed to replicating anything they desired from even a single molecule — to make creation beyond a sample, or a template.”

“Limitless power.” Mrs. Adams says, though her words sound like someone else’s, like her father’s.

“Yes.” Commander Adams affirms it, but his tone is impatient. “We recorded all of this in our report.” 

“We did not acquire this information in our report.” Klaatu sighs. “Our confederation already knew about the Krell, and their achievement.”

The two humans say nothing, but their faces express everything. It’s as Klaatu expected when his superiors gave him this authorization, and order. Shock on the young woman’s face, and the Commander’s but also a wariness to the latter, and a grim set to his gaze. His face becomes stone. “You knew … about the Krell.”

“Yes.” Klaatu says, knowing now that there is no turning back, wondering if the United Planets would always make him a messenger of ominous tidings. “We were there. When it happened.”

*

20,000 Years Ago

He can only watch, helplessly, as the glass spires melt in front of him. Winding stair cases, floating steps fall with their travelers still on them. The sight, from their ship, is unimaginable as vessels are disintegrated, and lives wiped out in a myriad of instants. 

And they are the fortunate ones. 

Klaatu sees the Krell below. He sees them staggering through their wide archways, trying to get away from crackling, hoarse apparitions of pure energy. They are screaming. Crying. The event, Klaatu’s readouts tell him and the others, is localized to the planet itself. The Krell had done it. They’d completed their engine, and the vast machinery, all over their world.

This was the beginning of a new dawn. The long legged, broad, Krell with their magnificent tails, are … they have been, they had been, an inspiration to the confederation of worlds. They traveled the galaxy, perhaps even the universe, when the confederation was young, when they were just different planets slowly exploring the stars. Their automatons were legendary, wondrous, their offspring constructing them for just a lark out of single building blocks. Klaatu’s people, and the others, they made their police — their race of robots — used Krell design, among others, as inspiration while the Krell themselves had no need for them at all, striding peacefully among the stars, brining samples of life back to their homeworld, reconstructing them, hoping to show others what they have achieved through example. 

Klaatu watches as the arches fall on the Krell, burying them alive. They tried to help. They tried to warn them, to slow down. But they had achieved much in their millions of years of evolution. This had been inevitable. This final step. To make manifest their dreams. 

But what they didn’t count on, was their nightmares. 

As another shimmering spire falls, and all Klaatu can hear is screams, he senses Gort coming behind him. He and Gort exchange a look … and Klaatu steps aside. 

Klaatu knows that each species sees Gort, and his “race” differently. He is even known in different languages. Here, he is Gnut. Klaatu can see it, almost. A tall, angular green-tinged figure with a loin cloth — perhaps like the humanoids they liked to interact with, as they had apparently with Klaatu’s ancestors — with visible muscles. He moves seamlessly to the Krell, who see perfection in everything. He wonders, in their mindless terror, if they can see the beauty in their own destruction in this moment. Gort’s face, is this form, is usually sullen, or brooding. This is what Klaatu was told, and what he can even see through the art of the Krell … and their minds. But right now, as Gort observes the carnage, as a nightmare creature grabs a Krell by the tail and rips it off them, flinging them wailing into the sky, all Klaatu can see on Gort’s metal-muscled face — made clearer by the manifestation engine on the planet causing all of this chaos — is sadness. 

Then, his eyes open. Usually, Klaatu’s species among others, would see a beam of shimmering light from a visor. Here, they are just red eyes. But they glow. 

With fire. 

Klaatu watches. He makes himself watch. There is no way to help them. The nightmare manifestations will tear them apart, piece by piece. Their own fear and hate torturing them. There is no language — no conception — to even explain to the Krell what is happening to them. And the terror in their offspring’s eyes is too much for him. And possibly for Gort. 

It doesn’t take long, but it takes too long. Gort’s metal-muscles flex almost artistically around his neck and shoulders as his eyes continue to burn. Klaatu tried to disable the electronics on the planet, but their reactors are too advanced and deep, too synchronized to turn off the effect now. It is all up to Gort now. Gort and his grim sense of duty. 

“Gort.” Klaatu whispers, after a time, “Gort. Baringa.” 

By the time it is over, Gort closes his visor. The manifestation of Gnut, the familiar Krell depiction of him, is gone from Klaatu’s perception. He is a tall, metallic construct again. Gigantic. Expressionless. Faceless. Inscrutable. They are above the world, their synapses away from any field of energy that should remain. The planet’s demoniac nightmares have died with the last Krell. 

Klaatu’s will continue for the rest of his lifespan. 

*

“The Bellerophon had a mission two decades back.” Klaatu explains, meeting their eyes. It is the least he can do considering the circumstances. “As you know, the confederation allowed Earth to keep its weapons, and maintain colonies provided that no atomics or any other weapons of destruction — or acts of hostility — would be brought to any member world. Altair IV was to be a colony.” 

“Bellerophon.” Mrs. Adams’ tone is as faraway as her gaze. “He was the hero that tamed Pegasus, with a bridle he gained from Athena herself. Father told me that story. He rode Pegasus.”

“Yes.” Klaatu admits. “I recall that story.”

“Well, if you do.” Her voice becomes cold. “Then you will know that he tried to fly Pegasus to Olympus, only for the gods to take his steed away, and leave him to fall to the earth, in brambles, blinded, and dying.”

Commander Adams follows up on his wife’s words. “I’ve never heard that story, so you have me at another disadvantage.” The barb is clear, just shy of insubordination. “I know the one about Prometheus, though. And Icarus.” His eyes narrow. “You sent them there.”

“Yes.” Klaatu says. “Earth already found the planet. It was an Expedition sent to … find what might remain. We suspected that there were Krell archaeological remains. The Bellerophon was informed, and consented to excavating what they could find. Unfortunately …”

“They didn’t know that the machine was still active.” 

“I don’t understand.” Mrs. Adams turns, almost pleadingly to Robby. “Robby, why didn’t Father tell us any of this?”

The calculation circuits in Robby’s dome click hard, and fast. “Unknown, Miss Alta. My hypothesis is that he wished to have the perception of a space for you and himself. He did not wish to worry you about outside affairs.”

“Yes, Alta.” Commander Adams grips her hands gently. “Your Father sheltered you. He didn’t want you to know about …” He glares at Klaatu and Gort. “All of this.” And, somehow, his eyes narrow further. “Wait. You know, this whole time, about the planet.”

Klaatu closes his eyes. He knew how terrible an idea, this whole situation, had been. He told them, his superiors. But they didn’t listen. It seems to be a constant on every world in, or out of the United Planets, that one’s superiors don’t listen. “Yes.”

“Then that means.” And Klaatu can almost see the gears in Commander Adams’ mind turning as transparently as those in Robby’s cranium. “You had a ship nearby. With one of those.” He inclines his head at Gort.

Klaatu doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. 

Commander Adams’ bares his teeth. “All those lives. You sacrificed all those people for what? To get that power for yourselves? To use us to do it? Are you still sore at us after three hundred years? Didn’t we pay enough? That was supposed to be our colony! Our territory! Are we just expendable to you?”

“Commander …” 

“No. I get it now. You incredible hypocrites.” Commander Adams shakes his head. “You condemned us for the atomics we were making. You barely begrudged us our weapons: pistols and laser cannons, nothing to you. Nothing to you, and that tin can. And you put us on a planet where our worst nightmares would come true! Where we’d spread it to the universe! What did you think, Mister! That you could control what the Krell failed to do? That we –“

“In all honesty.” Klaatu feels the disgust in his mouth as he speaks the words. “Your minds, even augmented, are nowhere near those of the Krell. You, and your nightmares, would never have gotten off the planet without our police force neutralizing you.” 

“You know my Father had augmented himself.” Mrs. Adams murmurs. 

“Yes.” Klaatu says. “It was … a remarkable achievement. He accomplished much. You said it yourself, Commander.” He turns to the fuming man. “He will be remembered. I won’t …” He tries to find the words. “I won’t pretend to know, or even agree with the decisions of my superiors, but something has to come from this tragedy. From several millennia of tragedy. And it has.”

It takes them a moment. “Robby.” Mrs. Adams replies. “You think Robby can help you with your research.”

“He can.” Klaatu turns to the automaton. “Robby, is it true that Dr. Morbius recorded inside of you all of his research on the Krell?”

“Robby?” Mrs. Adams’ eyes widen. “Is … is that true?”

“I am not monitored to grant that information.”

“Robby.” Mrs. Adams’ voice becomes flat.

“I am not monitored to …”

“Dammit, Robby!” Mrs. Adams’ face turns red. “Archimedes!

“Alta, what in god’s name has gotten into –” Commander Adams grabs her arm, but immediately lets go as he realizes, it is all out in the open now. All too late.

The robot pauses for a moment as everyone looks at him expectantly. His globe glows temporarily with expended energy. 

“Affirmative.”

Klaatu nods, slowly. “We thought as much. Robby is integral in our research of the Krell, and their sciences. In using their science and technology responsibly. But he is not the only one we need.” 

“No.” Commander Adams gets up from his seat.

“Commander Adams.” Klaatu says. There is only so long this insubordination, even though completely understood, can be tolerated. “You need to remember yourself.”

“Are you threatening me, sir?” 

“No.” Klaatu looks at Gort, who still hasn’t moved. “I am warning you.” 

“I don’t care. You are not taking her. Her, or Robby. I am tired of this –“

“You have no choice, Commander.” Klaatu says. “You will, of course, accompany them, with a promotion –“

Suddenly, before Klaatu can react, he sees Commander Adams throw himself across the table. For the first time in hundreds of years, Klaatu finds himself rough-handled again, the Commander’s hands bunching up his uniform. “Like hell we’re going anywhere!”

“Stay back, Miss Alta.”

“Robby, stop!”

Klaatu feels his airway blocked by the human Commander’s hands. He wonders, briefly, if they can retrieve enough of him again from the audio tapes. He recalls telling Helen that resurrection was beyond even his species’ — beyond this confederation’s — power. And it technically wasn’t untrue. They can only, at best, make copies with as near perfect memory engrams as they can from sonic impressions. From radio waves. Will Klaatu truly be the one that returns if he dies here because of this entirely unnecessary exercise? This one last waste of life? 

But then he sees Gort step forward. His visor is beginning to lift.

“John, stop!”

“Gort –” Klaatu gasps out. 

Then, Klaatu feels his windpipe fill with air as Gort tears Commander Adams off him. He holds him, in the air, with one arm, as he begins to scan him. As he …

Something knocks into Gort. It doesn’t move him, but it dislodges Commander Adams from his grasp. The Commander falls to the floor, red-faced, shaking, angry or terrified, or both. Robby and Gort wrestle. Sparks, negating energy, comes from Robby’s ridiculous but strong vacuum tube arms. His appendages are pincers. Gort, however, remains still and his eye-slit is burning. It’s crackling with power. 

“Robby. Stand down.”

“Negative, Miss Alta.”

“Robby, that is an order.”

And that is when Klaatu realizes it. The report he read. Robby has been built with a command by Alta’s father, by the late Dr. Morbius. Of course the Robot, if entrusted with the Doctor’s secrets, built with a command not to harm humans, would also have an imperative to protect his only daughter, from any threat, perceived or otherwise. 

Klaatu and Mrs. Adams regard each other. She is at her husband’s side, holding him to her, his arm around her. For a few moments, he sees Helen again, in her expression if not her resemblance. She nods. Slowly. 

“Robby, Archimedes.”

“Gort.” Klaatu rasps, trying not to remember the last time he uttered these words with regards to the Krell. “Baringa.”

Sparks, red hot, purple lightning, forms in the dome of Robby’s head. Then, slowly, the robot lets go off Gort. Gort, for his part, scans everyone in the room. His gaze falls on Klaatu for a second longer, before his visor lowers back onto his eye slit. Klaatu attempts to get onto his feet. Then, he feels someone helping him up. Gort. He always forgets, even after all this time, how fast the automaton can move. He nods at him, thankful. Just how many times has the robot saved his life? Or remained by his side throughout the hardest decisions he’s had to make? He doesn’t know, but he hopes the other knows how grateful he is, how safe he feels with him, this being that could snuff him out like a tiny flame, his age-old protector …

“I apologize, for my part in this getting out of hand.” Klaatu says, finding his voice again, wanting to sit, but remaining standing. “We –“

“We will take this assignment.” Mrs. Adams says. 

“Alta –” Commander Adams says, but she cuts him off. 

“No. My Father … he died for this knowledge. It was his life. And if it can help … can it help others, Mr. Carpenter?”

Klaatu almost forgets his assumed name. He slumps his shoulders. “With time. With self-consciousness. With conscience. What I was going to say … what I should have said, to my shame, is that while the Krell were more advanced than humans, possibly than almost anyone in our confederation, they forgot their baser instincts. Their fears. Their subconscious. We have not. We are not that … elevated. Clearly. And you, humanity, you know yourselves. We were impressed by what Dr. Morbius did, despite …” Shame fills Klaatu again, at what that discovery cost, at what he is forced to condone. What would the late Professor Barnhardt think of this accomplishment? Or Helen? “With time, and perhaps better minds, a better mindset, this could eliminate the need for any violence. Any threat of force.” He looks up at Gort, his face apologetic. “For peace without any fear of ultimate sanction.” 

Gort remains still. Mrs. Adams, for her part, has a thoughtful expression on her face. “Perhaps with a modified plastic educator, that’s how it can start.”

“Alta?” Commander Adams touches her arm.

“Oh, John. We could help people. All of this doesn’t have to be a curse. It –” She turns to Klaatu. “I agree. On a few conditions.”

Klaatu is quiet, taking in the words. The situation. “And those would be?”

“First. We have a station, to ourselves. A space station. You have those?”

“Yes.” Klaatu readjusts his suit. “We do. We have been constructing one, for just such an occasion.” 

“Alta, we don’t have to do this …”

“We do.” A pained expression forms on her face. “And you know it, John. I …” 

Klaatu sees it. She spent her whole life on a small planet, isolated, alone except for a few others. “I …” He says. “I’m sorry for the sacrifice we are asking you to …”

She turns to him. Her eyes are firm. Set. She’s made her mind up. “We will do it. As long as you meet our conditions. We get the station. John gets his promotion. And we set the litmus on the research. We determine what is safe.”

Klaatu’s brow furrows as he watches Commander Adams come to his wife’s side. “You are asking a lot. To trust you, even with the best of intentions, with what you will uncover …”

“Just as you did with a bunch of human colonists that you expected to fail, and have to sterilize?” 

Klaatu doesn’t say anything. His silence says everything. Mrs. Adams shakes her head. “We’re not asking you to not have … one of those, Gort or whatever he is nearby. You’ll do it anyway. But you will defer to our judgment. On what you get. Can you tell your superiors that? Are you authorized to do that, Mr. Carpenter?”

Klaatu takes a moment to consider. They won’t be happy, but their confederation wasn’t made in a day. They had the patience then, to see it through. They can have a little more. “I will tell them. It is the least I can do.”

“Yes. It is.” Mrs. Adams’ eyes soften. “Thank you, Mr. Carpenter.”

“Thank you, for your service Mrs. Adams.” Klaatu turns to the others. “And you, Commander?” Klaatu asks. “And Robby?”

“I will obey Miss Alta.” Robby says, nodding his bulk to her direction once.

“I will go to my post.” Commander Adams replies, his face overtaken by his glower. 

“For what it is worth.” Klaatu says, as they begin to adjourn. “You have …”

“What? Have we passed your test, sir?”

Klaatu nods, knowing he deserves that. “The parameters of the confederation. Of the United Planets. Your probationary period is over. Your world, and colonies — your civilization — will now be an official member of our union, with all of its privileges and responsibilities.”

Commander Adams’ facial expression doesn’t change by a margin. “I’m sure the rest of the brass will be happy. But I’m not doing it for you.” He puts an arm around Mrs. Adams. “This is for my wife.” 

There is nothing more to be said as the arrangements are made, leaving nothing but paperwork and records to be dealt with. As the humans leave, their own robot in tow, Klaatu moves away from the conference table. He goes up to the grey non-descript wall. Slowly, it opens, revealing a night sky filled with stars. Somewhere, out there, Altair IV is still burning, the planet now another star. 

“The Almighty have mercy on us, Gort, old friend.” He says, feeling the robot at his side, as always. “The Almighty forgive us.” 

No More Yielding

Even now, her father’s ghost haunts her. 

The footstep booms through the chamber, on the small space station Eureka. Or perhaps its the strike of a large clawed hand on the doors of the observatory. Alta holds the blaster pistol in her hands. Her husband’s. She’s surprised that her grip is so tight, that it isn’t shaking. 

Boom.

The doors dent, just a bit. Alta breathes out, closing her eyes for a few moments, trying to find that centre. Trying to rediscover that calm. That old happiness. The little wooded brook where she used to bathe. The personal zoo, the little menagerie, her father kept for the two of them. The ornate couch where she studied physics, mathematics, geometry, and the rest of her academic assignments. Her father reading her stories. Her father. Her father …

Dr. Edward Morbius, who rediscovered the Krell of Altair IV.

Boom.

The impression left in the doors is more pronounced. A little more red. 

Alta shakes her head slowly, from side to side. No. That won’t do. All of those memories: her tiger that turned on her, poor Lieutenant Ostrow, or “Doc” dead on the couch, and seeing her father — seeing Dr. Morbius for the first time in her whole life … No. She needs to not think about that. She needs to …

“Miss Alta.”

“Robby.” Her voice is quiet, as she recalls the large robot at her side. He’s so … she’s always thought he was cumbersome, awkward. Like a giant, wind-up children’s toy with helical rubber arms, and spinning, whirring gadgets. It was as though, when her father tinkered around with the knowledge of the Krell, he unconsciously thought of Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz, a children’s book from the beginning of the twentieth century, almost three hundred years ago. He was supposed to have comforted Dorothy as she’d found Oz fallen to ruin and darkness around her. She is so glad that he’s here now, despite this. “We need more …”

Boom. 

 “Those doors are composed of Krell metal.” He reminds her, a chill streaking down her back as she remembers her father saying almost exact same words to John, in an eerily similar situation. “It will not hold.”

“I know.”

“Miss Alta.” The echoing tone, less monotonous despite being recorded on vocal tapes, somehow manages to resemble concern, even if she knows better. 

“It’s all right, Robby.” Alta says, putting her hand on the automaton’s shoulder, her father’s words about him just being an object be damned. “It will buy us some time.”

They’d bought themselves a lot of time, these past couple of years, Alta admits to herself now. After John found them, after they’d left on his ship C-57D to watch Altair IV erupt into a beautiful sphere of blue destruction, they reported to the United Planets: to the interplanetary governing body centered around Earth that Altair IV and its deceased colonists — including her father — were supposed to be a part. Robby, and as it turns out she herself, had much to offer and with John at her side they’d made a life for themselves. 

“Robby.” Alta says. “Is she safe?”

Robby’s censors whir and buzz, the clacking of his internal circuits filling the tenseness of the room as she braces for the percussion on the other side of the doors to continue. “Affirmative, miss.”

“Good.” A part of Alta relaxes, despite the fear, in spite of the grief she hasn’t processed yet. She looks down at her hands, with the pistol, smudged in …

It’d been so quick. The force fields hadn’t stopped it, just as they hadn’t succeeded in doing so six years before. Six years. But it let them see it. It’d been subtle, at first, as it had with the colonists as her father told her, as it did when it attempted to sabotage John’s ship. It resembled a giant behemoth with the face of a gremlin from hell. But before that, it was just a whisper. Just a few coils gone missing. Just an accident in the control room that took a few lives of the skeleton crew they had here. 

That’s not what this is. John told her, as she remembers his strong hands on her shoulders, his square fingers settling in her uniform firmly. She’d come a long way from the girl that wore thin clothing, to conservative dresses. She is a crew member now. She works at the station. It died. He says. It died with your father. 

It did. She remembers. She recalls similar doors bending and burning, liquifying as the presence, the psychic storm of energy of rage made incarnate came for her and the Commander that would take her away from her father. But she sees her father, Dr. Morbius again, in her mind’s eye. His dignified mien, his stern yet gentle face accentuated by his goatee, broken in anguish, distraught, his hair a tangled mess, despair and a fierce protectiveness warring in his eyes. 

And she sees John. She sees John jump in the way. He didn’t even hesitate. She saw his face, with that dark curl of hair, greying a bit, over his blue eyes: his expression every bit as passionate as her father’s, the grim set of his mouth, the love in his gaze towards her. 

When Dr. Morbius, when her father died, she didn’t even have the chance to mourn him. Not the person she realized he hadn’t been, not the being who had so callously dismissed the lives of “Doc” and Farman for his research and his space, not the force that always kept her from going out to Earth to be with other people, to the stars to explore and further expand her mind … and not the human being that sacrificed his life against his literal demons to save her own. She couldn’t even hold him. She’d been too busy clutching John, having John hold her as agony filled her entire being. 

And John … she had even less than that. She grabbed his back, burying her fingers into his uniform, as the … thing ripped and burned him into … 

Into nothing. 

Ashes stain Alta’s hands like the sins of her father revisiting her now. She ran. She and Robby had separated, and for a reason.

Perhaps Robby should have remained on the planet when it detonated. It would have been safer. 

They agreed to help the United Planets reverse-engineer what they could.

“And I have come to the unalterable conclusion that man is unfit, as yet to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” 

She remembers her father’s words, however, even now. Alta agreed to help them on one condition: that she and Robby — and by extension her husband as the commanding officer — would have a scientific space station to slowly, and carefully, unravel some of the secrets of the Krell. That had been her official stance, backed up by John. And they got it. It helped that Robby’s ability to reproduce a sample of any material given him was a microcosm, a sliver of what the Krell had been originally capable. It said a lot about her father’s ego that he considered Robby to be an oddity, a hobby, or a toy that allowed them to make other automatons, smaller ones, drones that could assist in their research and limit the amount of other humans around them. 

And Alta had been to her father’s study. She’d learned some lessons from him. And she was no slouch. She knows she is an intelligent woman. 

“My poor Krell,” her father’s voice laments six years ago from an orbital thermonuclear grave. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.”

Dr. Morbius, the first Dr. Morbius, hadn’t been so fortunate. Neither is the second. 

John hadn’t been either. 

Boom. Hiss. 

The doors are red hot now, with a white heart causing their metallic layers to gradually buckle. She can’t ignore it. It’s staring her right in the face. She can feel it.

At first, she’d been delighted to be on Earth, to be surrounded by so many people, with their customs, their practices, and every kind of endeavour open to her. Her husband had been at her side as well, married at the United Planets Headquarters, grounding her in a living, breathing existence in flux, not the placid, static, dead world left long destroyed behind her. But then, the whispers started. The missing items. The mechanized locks on their home always breaking down as though from the inside. Almost always, they would have to stay elsewhere, and the little incidents would stop. 

For a while. 

If they had been in more superstitious times, the couple might have thought themselves haunted, or cursed by the events on Altair IV. It’d been the impetus to encourage the leadership of the United Planets to let them actually begin their research in a contained setting like the station, though not fully disclosing the true reasons on official channels. Unofficially, they were to monitor the phenomenon. 

Hisssss …

Alta tries not to flinch as the rent in the doors grows. She knows she did good. Between her and Robby, they made miniature versions of the machines that replicated substances on the molecular level. Nothing too complex, nor dangerous. Eventually, they made mechanisms that could generate repair parts and, more importantly, food. No one need ever go hungry again. They were just in the process of finishing their touches on allowing their inventions to create complex medicines, some not even discovered by humanity yet, when … life became complicated again. 

For Alta. For John. For the both of them. 

She wonders, even now, as the creature on the other end of that door comes inexorably towards them how her father — with his intellect vastly increased by the Krell’s “plastic educator” — couldn’t figure out how to save her mother from death, from what he called “natural causes.” Perhaps there had been some complications beyond the skill of the Krell to repair, that even they in their highest state couldn’t save an organism from the cessation of life: from death itself. Certainly, they hadn’t escaped their end. But maybe it had been her father who had failed, who by his own admittance had been the equivalent of a developmentally challenged young Krell. But did he fail? Didn’t Dr. Morbius survive the plastic educator’s rigorous routine? Didn’t he expand his own field of knowledge beyond philology — the study of words and language and their intersection with literature and philosophy — into the hard sciences to make a construct like Robby with the technology he had at his disposal? Didn’t he create her animal friends, including the tiger that she loved, that nearly killed her if not for John? 

Didn’t he always generate a small simulacrum of herself with his mind? Wasn’t she always in his thoughts?

The door and the wall around it rumbles, seemingly shaking the entire station from where Alta stands. She feels the anger fill her veins, sadness turning into rage and fear, her heart beating hard. What if it had all been a lie? What if she had been just another creation of his? Another generation? Another construct? Maybe she never had a mother at all, and somehow she exists beyond even the good Dr. Morbius’ demise. Is she the child of Altair IV in makeup as well as soul? The Eidothea to its Proteus? The Athene to his Zeus? Or perhaps, her mother had existed, and her father and his experiments — his attempts to raise his IQ — had other effects, had become genetic, had … 

He never let her use the machine. It’d been too risky. One look at what happened to “Doc” had been enough to show her that much. And the demon that came after them … She dreamed of it. She dreamed of it killing Farman. Yes, he’d taken liberties with her. She knows that now. John tried not to speak ill of the dead, especially a comrade and a friend, and she knows he wouldn’t have gone too far, if she had said no, but she didn’t know what it was like to be with others, or why her body didn’t react the way she’d read about to those kisses. She’d had so damned few experiences, trapped on that world with her overprotective, brooding, lying overseer of a father …

Hisssss … 

The tear is small, but visible now. 

But Alta doesn’t care. She bares her teeth. She’d enjoyed that freedom. Those embraces. But what she felt with John had been a hundred times that, even though she’d been angry at him, desired him … But he had been all she knew, almost as much as her father. Both meant well … But she wanted to travel. To experience life beyond her books, and data. To live. 

And she saw it. She saw how it pained John to always be around her, all the time. And even more so on the station, virtually isolated. And they still needed that skeleton crew of human beings. Not now. Not anymore. And she saw … she remembers how he looked at those young ladies, recalling what Jerry, poor Jerry said about John’s roving eye and how girls and women shouldn’t be alone with him, even though a part of her even then knew he was just projecting what he was, that John was a fine, upstanding man, firm and loving, but she was keeping him from life … she took his life away from him. 

She’s killed him.

“Miss Alta.”

Alta finds herself blinking back tears, and failing. The hole is larger. Soon, the doors will melt and collapse altogether. She’s seen it before. She’s experienced it. But not from this angle. The terrible truth. She doesn’t need a “plastic educator” to see the greater picture. She understands that the psychic manifestation, the psychokinetic maelstrom, the nightmare made material without the machine or the lost planet of her birth, doesn’t belong to her father or the absent Krell. Not directly. It’s different. She can almost visualize it now. More sinuous than bulky. The foot isn’t a claw or tail, but a head. She hasn’t seen the face, though. She can’t bear to, even now. She wonders, when the Krell’s nightmares destroyed them and their civilization, if their psychic constructs obliterated all physical traces of their species, of their physical likenesses because for all their near-enlightenment, those subconscious impulses, those little resentments and hatreds, they just couldn’t bear to see themselves — their very uglinesses — in the mirror anymore. 

This is why she wanted the skeleton crew phased out, to maintain just the machines like Robby to watch her … just her. And John, John would never leave her. He was always there and she … she … 

And the two of them. 

And the three of them. 

That’s when she remembers. That’s when Altaira Morbius — Alta Adams — recalls what is truly important. 

The door is almost down now. She knows what’s coming. She turns to Robby. Her father was a philologist before being a scientist. He read her just as much poetry as he helped her study organic chemistry. And he loved his stories too. She wonders, looking at Robby, about the early twentieth century again, how Robby wasn’t so much influenced by the word robota, a Czech word for enforced labour, or rab — slave — though that is where the word robot is supposed to have been first derived. That word had been attributed to Karel Čapek, its creator, to his brother Josef, just as the Three Laws of Robotics hadn’t been solely created by Asimov but John W. Campbell. But Asimov had made a “Robbie,” a robot accepted by his assigned family after saving the life of their child. 

Regret with nostalgia mingles in Alta’s heart. “Robby. Remember your orders.” She releases a shaky breath, drawing on her resolve. “Maintain reports to the United Planets. Don’t inform them of what occurred on this station. Continue work on the plastic educator. She will need it. Guide her. Slowly, as I outlined for you. She will … she will need it.”

“Yes, Miss Alta.”

“Thank you, Robby.” She smiles. She turns, and puts the blaster pistol in one hand, wiping at her eyes with the other. “Thank you for everything.” She braces herself. “And now, your final order, Robby.”

The robot doesn’t say anything. 

“Robby.” She says. “Protect her. Protect my daughter. Protect Miranda.

“Archimedes.”

She remembers what John did with the door combination back in the Krell Lab. The two of them had Robby hide their girl. This … thing won’t find her. It might destroy the machines and drones around it, but Alta doesn’t plan for it to go that far. No. This manifestation, this monstrosity. It ends. It ends here.

She looks at Robbie. She recalls looking up at the big machine. It occurs to her that the robot has seen her ever since she was a baby, making food for her, creating emeralds and diamonds for her dresses, at her whim, patiently blasting non-lethal beams to ward away her pets from the fruits on the kitchen table, creating medicine when she was sick, faithfully there for her father … for her. The dials on either side of his cranium almost look like eyes. She wonders if the automaton feels anything. If he is even capable with what her father programmed into him for a lark. 

The sparks in his glass cranium crackle for a time, even with the override. Even as she reaches out her hand. And gives him the pistol. 

“Robby.” She says again, as the creature on the other end of the door screeches and roars out its hatred of a life wasted, of being deprived of its illusions, its comforts, of destroying what it coveted so much. “When it comes through. Only then. I want to look at it. If I can. I want to look it right in the face. And then … kill it. Do you understand?”

“Affirmative.”

Alta gulps, a sense of relief almost overwhelming her. “T-thank you, Robby. You … thank you.”

There is a pause. “Farewell, Alta.”

The door collapses completely as heavy breathing, always in the background, now fills the room. Dr. Alta Adams, nee Altaira Morbius, stands her ground in the observation deck of the Eureka, surrounded by stars. She remembers her father telling her, when he showed her the Krell Lab not to look into the eyes of the Gorgon. But right now, she recalls another myth: of Odysseus tied to his ship as he forced himself to hear the deadly songs of the Sirens as his crew rowed onward. These are her thoughts, thinking about sitting at her father’s knee, at her husband’s side, her daughter on her lap as she faces her darkness in the eye, and doesn’t even hear the quiet hiss of a blaster pistol’s measured violet disintegration discharges. 

Experiences From Beyond

I suppose we’ve been spoiled since Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space when it comes to Lovecraft film adaptations. I don’t think I really have to explain that Lovecraft stories are notoriously hard to turn into cinematic narratives due to the fact that their prose rely on the olfactory sense (smell), and strange, non-Euclidean descriptions combined with things that readers are not allowed to see in their entirety.

So, when I found out that From Beyond had been made into a film, I just had to check it out. From Beyond is a 1986 science-fiction horror film directed by Stuart Gordon, and written by Dennis Paoli one year after Gordon’s other main Mythos movie Re-Animator. It isn’t so much that I wanted to see how the 2019 Stanley film compares to the Gordon 1986 one, even though both are derived from Lovecraft’s science-fiction horror stories and his idea of cosmicism: of a reality where humanity is a small piece of a larger and more uncaring and malicious universe. It’s seeing how those ideas are explored in the 1980s under another director: specifically the one who made Re-Animator that really caught my fancy.

The challenges between the two couldn’t be more different. While “The Colour Out of Space” is a novella, “From Beyond” is a fairly focused and standalone short story about an unnamed narrator who visits his friend Dr. Crawford Tillinghast and not only sees how badly he has physically and mentally degenerated due to his obsession in exploring another dimension, but also encountering the horrors of it himself. So how do you make a film about a fifth or an extra reality around us filled with alien existences that we can’t perceive ordinarily?

Well, while other essays and articles created by genuine horror scholars have gone into it more I’m sure, I think the key here is sex.

In both the short story that is its inspiration, and the film, stimulation of the pineal gland: a gland that creates melatonin that modulates sleep patterns in the brain, and has been historically considered to be a centre of spiritual and metaphysical development. The idea is that in “From Beyond” an electronic device that creates resonance waves can stimulate that gland to allow humans to see different planes of existence of which their usual five senses are not capable. The function of the gland itself is only partially understood even now after all this time.

So Stuart Gordon takes this premise, and realizes that perceiving these other realities, along with the stimulation of a part of the brain in an unusual way, would probably create unusual sensations in those that are exposed to the device that he calls the Resonator.

He takes out the servants that Tillinghast exposes to the machine, placed into the other planes, and left to the auspices of the creatures summoned by it. And he goes further to remove the unnamed narrator, and make three characters take his place: including Tillinghast who is demoted to a protagonist assistant doctor, played by the excellent Jeffrey Combs, to the unstable and eccentric genius Dr. Edward Pretorius — whose name is a reference to the Doctor Pretorius that blackmails and enables Victor Frankenstein to continue his creature-making experiments in James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein — who is played by Ted Sorel, and is the true creator of the Resonator.

Dr. Pretorius is also a major BDSM practitioner in Gordon’s From Beyond: seeking to achieve the ultimate experience in physiological pleasure in creating the Resonator and activating his pineal gland to its nth degree: at least from my understanding. It’s this combination of hubris and addiction to stimuli that creates the Resonator, and its resulting consequences on the protagonists.

The premise isn’t bad. From Beyond is supposed to be all about scraping away the seeming of reality, of appearances, for the planes of experience that truly exist around us. The extra-dimensional creature special effects are all right for the time, and they are not the things that make this film more than a little awkward, and clunky.

The problem, for me, is the narrative itself. H.P. Lovecraft is all about “the fear of the unknown” and considering that there is a strange and unseen alien environment around and within us, should be an utterly terrifying prospect. What Stuart Gordon attempts to do, which he succeeded in with adapting “Herbert West – Reanimator” which had already been created a serialized pulp narrative, falls a little flat in places with “From Beyond.” Gordon’s efforts in adding “what you fear is what you desire” to “a fear of the unknown” and its consequences that lends itself to Re-Animator in the form of gore, black comedy, and spectacle itself, overshadows From Beyond as opposed to accentuating it.

There are gaps in logic and narrative progression. Why would the overly idealistic and obsessive Dr. Katherine McMichaels, played by the legendary Barbara Crampton be allowed to force Dr. Tillinghast into repairing the Resonator, and recreating the experiment that traumatized him? How would this prove his innocence to the authorities who believe he murdered his senior Dr. Pretorius?

Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with these characters. Even Katherine McMichaels, who is stated to have controversial psychological views, is seen as holding sheer curiosity and need to genuinely explore behind the thin veneer of a barely existent professionalism and white lab coat. She seems repulsed by the monitors held in Dr. Pretorius’ BDSM dungeon room with screaming women in leather being flogged, but you can see her intrigue, and her predisposition towards the exploration of that state of mind. Seeing her is reminiscient of a Harleen Quinzel before ever meeting the Joker: a highly controlled but curious mind needing only permission to set her own sensual nature free. And this iteration of Crawford Tillinghast, whom she has more than just an intellectual fascination towards — or something that forms from that intrigue — is both terrified and attracted to the power of the Resonator that brings out something within him that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

I think the film’s issue is that it tries to shame those flirtations with kinks and sexuality, which should be its strength to this regard. Bubba Browns, yes, Ken Foree’s character is called that is an officer assigned to Tillinghast and McMichaels who immediately grabs and shames her once she puts on the leather gear in Pretorius’ room, and berates her: asking her if this is what she wants to be.

Barbara Crampton as Dr. Katherine McMichaels in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond

But what if it is? What if Crampton’s character is now exploring that aspect of herself, away from clinical trappings, and there is actual progression from that point? Instead we have this poltergasmic apparition of Pretorius occasionally manifesting when the machine is turned on as such like of fleshy mutated amalgamation and Jeffrey Combs’ Tillinghast developing an antenna from his pineal gland that requires him to eat human grey matter (because he rarely, if ever plays a character that doesn’t become a monster or antagonist of some kind): including from a particularly dour doctor named Bloch: who is probably named after Lovecraft’s friend and long-time correspondent Robert Bloch who went on to write Psycho.

Do you see what I mean? My tangent aside, and despite the story ending in Lovecraftian horror and madness, the film kind of runs off the rails with the original source material and its theme.

But what if we did something different? Neil Gaiman’s age-old admonition of a story most likely needing rewriting if something is wrong with it, and everyone else pretty much being wrong about how to actually edit aside, let’s do something different. Let’s make another adaptation of From Beyond.

Let’s use Clive Barker as an example of what can be done. I’ve already referenced his “what you fear is what you desire” earlier on in this article. Ironically, he had published The Hellbound Heart, the novella that would become the basis of Hellraiser a year later, in 1986: the same year From Beyond was released. Sexuality, and its obsessive perversion had been applied to Re-Animator, so why not go even further with From Beyond?

Imagine Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is the antagonist as he had been in the short story. Perhaps the story takes place after he’s gone, and Doctors Bloch and … let’s say Katherine Waite, along with a team from the authorities in conjunction with Miskatonic University, are sent in to his building to find out what happened to him, and his research. We see that the house has different rooms within it, almost Jungian-themed, and each chamber has a theme. Tillinghast has left video or recorded journals of himself as he experiments with making the Resonator.

Bloch could have been that friend of Tillinghast’s who had seen his experiments and what they did to him over time. He could be there to help the police find all those missing personnel, including mutual friends of theirs. Waite, because I too love Lovecraftian references, is there to find his research and she has an attraction to this while pretending to be professional. These goals tend to clash with one another as they go on. We see evidence of a sound and idealistic Tillinghast becoming more extreme. There are videos of him in BDSM dynamics with women, or men, or both on video. Bloch sees this as issues with his deteriorating body and mind, while Waite sees it as evidence of an alternative exploration of sensation and experience. She is also highly turned on by this against, perhaps, her own better judgment.

I see Tillinghast as a combination of what Lovecraft intended him to be, though perhaps more of the standard symmetrical handsome man turned into something else, combined with him adopting some charismatic mannerisms not unlike Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook,” or basically the reverse of Suydam to that regard.

The degeneration, or perhaps better yet, the change and evolution of the characters as they discover and repair the Resonator should be gradual as they try to find the missing personnel in this other plane. They begin to transform as they go along. Some of them die. Some are consumed. But the worst are the creatures they encounter. Think of the Resonator as Barker’s Lamentation Configuration, and the extra-dimensional violet entities that bite and consume as Lovecraft’s night-gaunts that arouse every time they touch a human being. Consider these repellent creatures passing through human bodies and arousing them, and mutating them. Add to the sexual tone of the entire thing. Make it uncomfortable and arousing as you see these changes happening to these characters. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows do this, they play with Tillinghast’s creatures as erotic elements between characters in their limited-run Lovecraft Mythos comics series Providence.

Then you can have Bloch transform first as he has been exposed to the Resonator the longest. Perhaps there is mention of his physical and a tumour developing in his pineal gland. Maybe then he develops that antenna that doesn’t look like something from Sega Dreamcast’s Seaman.  Or maybe it does grow that way, and something sexually suggestive happens with it as this film changes from a scientific expedition trope into a surreal LSD horror. I like the idea of Bloch encountering a transformed Tillinghast who has reached the inevitable conclusion of his increasingly amoral and inhuman experiments in another plane, and being consumed by him. Maybe Waite has her encounter with Tillinghast and it goes … badly. So badly, like a terrible hallucinogenic trip that she escapes and just barely destroys the machine … but not before she is left stranded back in reality, partially transformed into something not unlike a Deep One, some retroactive evolution triggered, broken, screaming, and without aftercare: seeing something in reality and herself … beyond her understanding that ruthlessly destroys her, and yet keeps others fascinated in knowing more.

This feeds back not only into the story, but also into the Lovecraft Mythos with other nods and Easter-eggs. Consider this an alternative adaptation, a mutation of how I might have made this story with the right space-time and resources at my disposal. Gordon’s From Beyond has some fascinating ideas, taken from Lovecraft. I think, while the challenge is buttressing a very short tale into a cinematic narrative, there are enough elements there to make it all about the terror of that thin membrane of identity and knowing being torn apart to reveal something else entirely.

But as a false Doctor of Horror, this is just a creative observation and suggestion, not a prognosis

Ephemera of Disconnection, and Moments of Painful Clarity: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020

It’s hard writing about anthologies. And the only film anthologies I’ve ever written about — Tales of Halloween and XX — have been in the auspices of the horror genre. And then, you have an event like the Etheria Film Festival.

This is an unusual situation, I’m given to understand. Usually, the Etheria Film Night Shorts are shown in the Egyptian Theatre, and Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to a live audience. However, due to COVID-19 the film entries for the 2020 Etheria Film Festival are all available on Shudder until July the 20th. These are unfortunate, and unprecedented times, and it’s only fitting that these nine short films possess both unique elements, and misfortune for quite a few of their characters.

Tales of Halloween and XX had framing narratives, a film that basically attempts to bring all of its other cinematic stories together. I know that, in the case of XX — another woman-directed, written, and acted anthology — a unifying theme had developed: that of family. The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020 do not have a framing story woven through them, even though Heidi Honeycutt — the director of programming — introduces the anthology, and then just leaves us to experience the films for ourselves.

The Etheria Film Festival features short science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird films created by female directors, and the 2020 selection is no exception. However, even without an overall narrative, I began to pick out something of a theme due to how each film is curated and ordered one after the other. If I were to really sit down, and think about the themes presented in the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts, I would settle on the danger of a superficial world of disconnect in a time of intense connection.

Many of the films feel like the feminist elements of XX meeting the dystopian banal technological reality of Black Mirror. The shallow, transactional “swipe-left” relationships displayed in “Waffle,” directed by Carlyn Hudson, and written by Katie Marovich and Kerry Barker are in some ways far more terrifying than even a self-entitled psychopath. After all, what is more deadly: a predator that takes advantage of a system, or a system that normalizes such hollow relationships to be exploited? This definitely bleeds — figuratively and literally — into Mia’kate Russell’s film “Maggie May” which focuses on the dangers of self-centredness and that evil doesn’t so much happen when “good men” do nothing, but when banal people only care about themselves, and will do anything to avoid personal responsibility or consequences.

And if “Maggie May” is about a character who ignores what is right in front of her out of convenience despite having so many ways to correct the situation, and claiming to have no impetus to do so, then “Basic Witch” — written by Lauren Cannon and directed by Yoko Okumura — has one character use her power to make another face what he has done to her. It’s so deceptively gentle at first, complete with a sunny background and a latte and what looks like an episode of Charmed that teaches one person — perhaps even both characters — the lessons of consent. In a short period of time, we see a myriad of different thoughts and emotions between the characters and a form of communication that is usually so difficult to express is made manifest through radical empathy. It manages to make fun of parts of itself while also allowing its message to be painfully clear. The nuance and depth and that gradual horror but level ground of understanding in it makes it one of my favourite films in the whole anthology.

My other favourite movie in the Etheria Film Night Shorts is one I’d heard about when this event was being advertised online: “Conversion Therapist.” There are so many ways this short film could have gone, or been introduced, and Bears Rebecca Fonté subverts all of these expectations. Imagine a group of pansexual, polyamorous people utilizing a gruesome yet poetically justified set of techniques against a captive Evangelist conversion therapist. It is dark, what they do, and you can be terrified at their cruelty until you realize they are just using the tools of the oppressor against one of their tormentors. The moment I saw the man with the rainbow coloured T-shirt, I just knew what their prisoner had done, and that he was so utterly fucked. It’s not certain, to me, whether or not he did everything his torturers claim he thinks about or enjoys, but what we know he has done is enough to warrant the vengeance happening to him, and others of his kind. Talk about queer ultra violence.

So, at first you might be forgiven into thinking “Conversion Therapist” breaks the pattern I’m trying to work with, but aside from the fact that it takes what happens in “Basic Witch” to a much darker and more punitive level, it goes back to the hypocritical double-standards of a society or a social system that fails to understand its humanity. “Offbeat,” written by Chiara Aerts and directed by Myrte Ouwerkerk, is the non-English subtitled film in the anthology — made in the Netherlands — which displays just what happens when a dystopian society called the Dome creates the only clean highly technological environment built on conflicting ideals and statistics without humanity, while claiming to embrace diversity. It is here that the protagonist has to face the stigma of labeling while watching other characters like a disabled man, and a transgender woman struggle through tests of admission try to stay true to his own self and basic decency.

And this societal critique of a system that inherently discriminates in a cycle, while pretending at fairness, again literally bleeds over from science-fiction to horror tropes in the form of “The Final Girl Returns.” Alexandria Perez explores the idea of a survivor of a horror serial slasher being condemned to rescue the horror trope’s “final girl” only to have each one die to the murderer from she supposedly escaped each time. I am not entirely sure, but all of the characters seem to be people of colour — just as the protagonist from “Offbeat” is — and the subtext about the authorities never dealing with, or capturing each serial killer in this self-aware horror genre universe speaks very intersectional volumes, and is very timely.

Taryn O’Neill’s “LIVE” is a nice transition considering that each character from the last two films is attempting to survive, but “LIVE” goes back to a similar conceit as “Waffle” in that the world is ruled by social media but in this case the protagonist is forced to engage in something of a fight club for views along with other nearly 24/7 streaming activities just to survive a world where the growth of AI has made most human activity irrelevant. This is a reality where everything is, again, transactional and the only way to stand out is to give up your sense of privacy for spectacle and drama and so many more views.

This lack of privacy seems to be a theme in itself within “Man in the Corner” written by Daniel Ross Noble and Kelli Breslin, the latter of whom is the director. After viewing this short film, I tend to think that it can be a metaphor for “catfishing” — of meeting someone online who is under a false identity, except this is interpreted as physical — or ignoring the red flags of the situation around a hook-up for the physical immediacy of the experience. It is a surreal atmosphere, whose reality is unclear and both the protagonist and the reader wonder if they are involved in a dream, or a nightmare.

But I think the film that took me off guard the most is the last film of the anthology. “Ava in the End,” written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, starts off as a story about another seemingly shallow, hollow science-fiction dystopia — this time with people being able to upload their consciousness into a digital cloud — where a young woman has an interaction with an AI called “Bae,” but as events unfold in such a short period of time you feel for both of them. In fact, I think what makes this film the strongest is that these two characters — who start off in one place — find a commonality, a humanity, an empathy with each other, a sense of connection that can happen in a world that is supposed to be so connected.

That is how the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts end. From superficial rent-a-friend and dysfunctional familial interactions, to revelations of harm caused through a lack of connection, to systems of impossible perfection and literal cycles of horror confronted, and the threat of privacy as an illusion to be preyed upon, it all concludes with two lost souls reaching for each other across the digital darkness to make some meaning — to share some solace — in their terrifying existence. And if the results of what should have been a live showing of the 2020 Etheria Film Festival doesn’t capture this contemporary feeling right now online, where so many of us now live even more so than before, I don’t know what does.