[Contains mild spoilers]
In the closing days of 2020, Butcher Bird Studios surprised the world with the premiere of their 10-minute short film, In a Foreign Town. Based on the horror fiction of Thomas Ligotti, the short had been circulating at festivals and conventions since 2018, winning several awards, but the general public had never gotten a chance to see what all the buzz was about. That changed last month, and In a Foreign Town has proven itself well worth the wait.
Ligotti’s work is notoriously unique among modern horror writers, and In a Foreign Town faithfully reflects its source material. Subtle and atmospheric, the film has no jump-scares or gory tableaus; only a sense of creeping wrongness that pervades every frame, lingering long after the credits roll. Its plot follows the mysterious Mr. Hatcher (Yuri Lowenthal), a patient in a mental hospital, as he is drugged and interrogated by the faintly sinister Doctor Groddeck (Tony Amendola.) Under this treatment, he recalls a long-suppressed childhood memory – his encounter with the Showman, a figure who haunts his dreams to this day.
In the wrong hands, this material could prove disastrously hard to adapt. The film world has, after all, had trouble understanding H.P. Lovecraft, and Ligotti’s thoughtful, philosophical brand of horror is even more abstract. Thankfully, director Michael Shlain shows a real aptitude for his task. In a Foreign Town never tries to be a mass-market horror film, and it works all the better for it. Rather, Shlain does a masterful job of capturing what Ligotti calls “skeleton towns”- crumbling, dilapidated ruins of urban life that mirror the disturbed mental landscapes of their inhabitants. The world onscreen is one haunted by tattered carnival posters, grimy industrial buildings, and long-neglected alleyways, all of which contribute to an oppressive atmosphere of despair and unease. For viewers who have never encountered Ligotti before, the visuals are a fitting introduction to the tone and spirit of his work.
For the most part, the film is not interested in explaining itself, operating more on a hazy dream-logic than any straightforward narrative. In one memorable scene, a young Hatcher (Jack McGraw) sees his father carefully check his wristwatch, only to realize that it has no hands. Later, there is a weird ritual quality to the run-down theater they visit, where the stage manager is seemingly expecting their arrival – but this scene, too, remains inscrutable. The most obvious comparison here would be to David Lynch, but this feels like a disservice; Shlain’s direction has a flavor all its own, more akin to the nightmare sequences of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal than anything at the box office in recent memory. At every turn, In a Foreign Town knows exactly how much to reveal, leaving the viewer with an impression of glimpsing something they were never meant to see at all.
In particular, the Showman is an unnerving creation, and a great example of the film’s approach. It’s not clear who, or what, the Showman actually is, nor should it be – it simply appears, a hunched and twisted vaudevillian figure that compulsively hides its face from the audience. In his performance, actor and contortionist Strange Dave conveys an uncanny sense of menace, reminiscent of his work in 2015’s The Smiling Man. Like with many of Ligotti’s monsters, the effect is more symbolic and philosophical than immediate. The real horror is not just the presence of something monstrous – but the fact that the universe is a meaningless chaos, with absolutely nothing to prevent such monstrosity.
All of this is enhanced greatly by the film’s score, which fits seamlessly within its overall production. Crafted by longtime Ligotti collaborator David Tibet and his band Current 93, the soundtrack for In a Foreign Town began its life as an accompanying CD for the original stories’ hardcover release in 1997. As such, the music makes the jump to film beautifully, with the ambient selections from “His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher Place” and “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing” being particularly effective.
Most intriguingly of all, In a Foreign Town is intended as the start of something much larger. According to its press materials, Butcher Bird Studios has optioned several Ligotti stories, and is currently developing an “anthology series” based on the author’s work.
Clearly Michael Shlain has both a deep knowledge and a real love for the material, with several hidden references in the set-dressing of In a Foreign Town that may hint towards future installments. (Keen-eyed viewers may spot, for example, a poster bearing the dread names of Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech in one scene.) If this creative group is successful in getting a series picked up, any future Ligottian efforts will be something special to look forward to.
In a Foreign Town is available now from Film Shortage.
Alex Skopic is a recent graduate in English Literature and Political Science from the dark corners of Pennsylvania. In his spare time, he writes various types of strange and unsettling stories and articles. His work has appeared in Rock and a Hard Place Magazine and The New Accelerator, among other places.