It was one of Vincent Price’s most popular roles in the early 1950s, but he only performed it on radio. At the height of its fame, French author George G. Toudouze’s Esquire-published short story failed to make the transition to film or television, probably because the hordes of killer rats were too difficult to render properly on screen. However, Andrew Hamer proves it can be done in 2017. There will be rats in his short film, Three Skeleton Key (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival.
The remote lighthouse is literally welded to a narrow key that becomes entirely submerged in water during high tide. The surrounding waters are shark infested and the supply boat only comes once every three weeks. Its sole purpose is to keep boats off the rocks, but most vessels have the good sense to avoid the rugged stretch of coastline. However, nobody is navigating the derelict craft about to founder on the reef—for good reason. It has been commandeered by throngs of flesh-eating rats.
These are ships rats, the kind that do not drown. Having reached the rocky outcroppings, they will swarm onto the key and over the sealed lighthouse. With no relief scheduled to arrive for weeks, the weary light-keepers must hope and pray the door and windows will hold up against the scurrying masses.
Hamer’s film basically teases what presumably could become a full feature film treatment. Logically, he does not give away the store when it comes to swarming rats, but he still shows how realistic and scary they can look. He also makes a few changes from the original story and radio plays. Instead of the French Guyana coast, it is now set along a desolate stretch of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, which probably gives it more commercial appeal, but it makes it harder to accept the lighthouse’s extreme isolation.
What does work is complicated friendship between the white Terry Driscoll and the much-abused African American Andre Rolle, the two laborers on the lighthouse crew (memorably played by Robert Fleet and Dan White, respectively). It is definitely not a simplistic buddy relationship, but they are the kind of salt of the earth who will presumably rise to the occasion when the tower is overrun with vermin.
Hamer’s Key is loaded with atmosphere and first-rate period details. In a mere ten minutes, he rather impressively establishes a claustrophobic vibe and an ominous sense of foreboding. It is definitely Poe-like in that respect, but fans of the Vincent Price productions will miss the taciturn Basque boss Louis, and the high-strung Auguste, whose self-destruction was predetermined by their respective character flaws.
Although Toudouze’s 1937 story is still used as an example of a suspenseful tale in primary English classes here and there, it has largely receded from the popular consciousness, which is why it is so cool to see Hamer revive it. It would be great if the short led to a full feature adaptation. Regardless, the short film version we have now gives viewers a good taste of mid-Twentieth Century macabre. Recommended for horror fans, Three Skeleton Key screens this Saturday (12/9) as part of the Under World Shorts—Evil This Side of the Door programming block at this year’s Other Worlds Austin.