Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities
1×05: “Pickman’s Model”
Directed by Keith Thomas
Based on a Short Story by H.P. Lovecraft
Written by Lee Patterson
* For a recap & review of 1×04, click here.
* For a recap & review of 1×06, click here.
1909. Arkham, Massachusetts. William Thurber (Ben Barnes) is drawing a woman called Rebecca (Oriana Leman) naked when her father arrives unexpectedly, forcing him to rush out the window and take off on his bicycle before the man finds him. He’s a painter who attends Miskatonic University. There’s a student art prize coming up and the winner will be displayed at the Arkham gallery. Last year, Thurber won it. This year they also have a new student in the class, a man called Richard Upton Pickman (Crispin Glover), who’s a bit older than most of the others. “Draw what you see,” Professor Bosworth (Thom Marriott) tells his students as they all start drawing a male model. Thurber notices that Pickman is furiously sketching and he gets a look, noticing a haunting drawing with what looks of blood pouring from a wound. He’s caught by Pickman and the professor, so he goes back to his work but he’s fascinated.
Thurber and his friends from class have a drink together later. They all chat about Pickman, who comes from “old New England money.” Apparently Pickman’s mother killed herself and his father went mad. Nobody thinks he’s fit for Miskatonic because he doesn’t draw what’s in front of him, but rather macabre fantasies. Seems that Pickman sketches in the graveyard at night. So Thurber goes to see Pickman, who’s sitting by a grave near a mangled animal corpse. He does most of the talking since Pickman doesn’t say much, though the latter does show off more of his strange, fantastical sketches. Pickman believes “suffering is living” and that the world’s darkness must be indulged in order to understand the truths of the world. He says that truth lies “where fear lives.”
The art prize contest is on and things have taken a turn. Professor Bosworth and the committee storm out of the room leaving Pickman behind. Looks like they weren’t impressed. It actually looks more like they were angry. Pickman isn’t pleased. Thurber invites Pickman out for a ritual the lads have developed after receiving a “brutal critique,” though first he’s also invited back to take a look at Pickman’s paintings.
At home, Pickman’s got all sorts of terrifying works, many of which he bases on “family stories” that go back in Arkham to before the Salem Witch Trials. They had a witch in the family, Lavania, and she did horrible things. A painting of Lavania has an awful grip on Thurber when he sees it and he runs out of Pickman’s place, vomiting in the streets. The artist sees a man with a head wound in a carriage sucking on a woman’s nipple. The carriage stops and a creepy hand beckons from inside, calling Thurber to it. Inside is a ghastly vision; because it’s merely a nightmare.
Or is it?
Thurber wakes in the afternoon and arrives late to a party with Rebecca. He tries to act like a proper party guest, but he sees a strange figure in a black veil creeping at the periphery. He then meets Rebecca’s father, the man with the head wound he saw in the carriage the night prior. Again, the black-veiled figure frightens him, though he causes a scene this time. Not a great first impression with Rebecca’s family. And Rebecca isn’t impressed with Thurber’s behaviour one bit.
With only the painting on Thurber’s mind, he goes looking for Pickman and finds the man’s apartment completely empty, like there was nobody ever there, except for eerie sketches on the wall.
1926. Thurber discusses modern art and tradition with friends. When he gets home to Rebecca and their son, it’s clear that his life has turned out pretty well. We see Thurber get out of bed and he finds people downstairs in the dining room at the table. There’s a feast of seafood and human meat for supper. Lavania and her people are enjoying themselves. Again, it’s another nightmare. Thurber wakes up for real this time and remembers a painting wrapped up downstairs in the foyer. He goes down to look at it, discovering another Pickman work that nearly makes him stab himself in the brain before Rebecca interrupts him. Their son, unbeknown to them, also sneaks a look at the painting.
Thurber’s insistent on getting the Pickman painting out of his home. He’s arranged to have it sent back, along with a cheque. He’s back with his friends at the committee in the gallery. Then he’s shocked when Joe Minot (Seamus Patterson), one of the Miskatonic alum, brings Pickman in to show off a bunch of work for consideration. And so Pickman leads the committee out to the gallery. Thurber tries to warn Joe, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Thurber starts to see horrific things in the night, like some creature lurking in the shadows when he walks home.
When Thurber gets home he discovers Pickman waiting with the family. The Thurbers have Pickman over for supper, as he rants about his art concerning “the ancient.” Rebecca mentions doing seances and other things while at university, too. When supper’s over, Pickman leaves and invites Thurber again to his new place to see more work. Afterwards, Rebecca confronts her husband about his behaviour lately and at dinner. She thinks he’s fading away. She wonders if he’s off the wagon. He says it’s Pickman’s work, it makes him feel dark. “Life can‘t always be beautiful,” Rebecca says.
In the night, Thurber wakes tied to his bed. He sees people over him, including Lavania, who starts to saw his throat open and cut off his head. Another nightmare, of course. But then Thurber and Rebecca hear their son James screaming and strange noises coming from the boy’s room. They find the boy mumbling and the window open. Thurber grabs a pistol from his dresser and heads out.
At dawn, Thurber finds Pickman in a graveyard. He asks what the other painter said to James. He warns Pickman to stay away from the family. But Pickman only wants Thurber’s opinions on his work, claiming he’s not doing anything to them. He offers to get out of Thurber’s life forever if the latter will come to his place and look at more paintings.
Back at a dilapidated mansion, the two artists go inside, through a shadowy corridor plastered with sketches everywhere. Pickman goes through a door by himself, then there’s a bunch of noise, so Thurber goes on looking for him. He sees all sorts of other drawings of awful things. He starts trying to destroy all the sketches and paintings. “It‘s only art,” Pickman says. But Thurber blames the bad in his life on those paintings. Pickman goes to pull something out and show it off, only for Thurber to shoot him. Thurber then picks up a sketch of that very moment, through Pickman’s unique vision. He tosses a lantern into the sketches to burn it all. Then, one of Pickman’s monstrous creatures comes out and pulls the artist down below with it. Thurber leaves before the fire grows too hot.
Life moves on. Thurber takes his family to the gallery, and he finds that Joe’s been there all night putting up Pickman paintings to exhibit. He finds Joe staring at a painting he thought burned. Joe’s chanting something strange, mesmerised by the painting. He’s also covered in blood, one of his eyes nearly out of his head. Thurber finds Rebecca and James looking at a painting, stopping them before anything else happens. He rushes them out and tells his colleague to get Pickman’s paintings out while he takes Joe to get medical attention. He warns: “Do not look at them.”
At home, things go back somewhat to normal. Thurber finds Rebecca in the kitchen making supper and he apologises for how things have been. He knows things will be better now. Yet when Rebecca turns around she has no eyes, she’s covered in blood, and she tells him: “I know where fear lives.” Thurber apologises repeatedly to his wife. But then he sees what his wife’s been cooking: their son’s head.