There has always been a macabre side to the art of puppetry, going back to the commedia dell’arte roots of Punch and Judy. We sort of lost sight of it because of the Muppets, but it would occasionally manifest itself in ambitious Henson projects like The Dark Crystal. However, Kevin McTurk raises old school rod puppetry to new gothic heights in his visually arresting short film The Mill at Calder’s End (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Philip K. Dick Film Festival in New York.
After a long absence, Nicholas Grimshaw is returning to Calder’s End to claim his inheritance. It is a lonely drive, but his destination is even drearier. His family estate is a shunned place in the Lovecraftian sense. He would gladly relinquish all his claims to it, but an ancient Faustian bargain binds his family to the evil force centered in the ominous looking mill.
Of course, everything in Calder’s End looks ominous, even including Grimshaw’s late but still accursed father, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to the great Peter Cushing, which has to be one of the coolest cinematic hat tips ever. It is altogether fitting too, since the influence of Hammer Horror and the Corman Poe films is evident in the wonderfully rich and atmospheric production and art design. As if that were not enough fan service, Barbara Steele, the Giallo legend and a semi-regular Corman repertory player gives voice to the malevolent Apparition of the Mill.
The story of Calder’s End would still be a satisfying little gothic hair-raiser had it been a conventional live action drama, but as a piece of puppet theater, it is kind of stunning. McTurk (whose technical credits include films like Iron Man, Hugo, and Pacific Rim) and his accomplished team have done some of the best special effects, set construction, and costuming you will see in a film of any length, with any sort of cast.