I received the email from ‘sweaterfrog91’ about a week after I messaged him on the now abandoned forum SilverCityScreens.net. I was shocked at first to see their username pop up in my email: that account had been dead for a good couple years, so the fact I got so much as a ping from there was - what I thought at the time - a godsend.
The short of it is that I’m an amateur vintage cartoon collector. I love finding even the smallest vestiges of animations lost to time, and the SilverCity forums were a place for weirdos like me to exchange screencaps and clips of some of these cartoons. The still of interest showed a colorful anthropomorphic frog standing at the top of a somewhat ominous, black and white staircase. I had messaged the user about it since I swear I’d seen a slice of this cartoon at some point years ago, when I was a teenager. I was unclear as to whether it was a fever dream hunch, however.
They claimed they found the DVD in a bin at Walmart in 2015, and that the case itself was actually the case for Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (a semi-cult classic animation). The disc itself was unmarked save for a company brand, Digiview Entertainment, which is a now-defunct distributor of cheaply produced DVD media. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how popular collecting Digiview products was and figured this was a steal since sweaterfrog91 didn’t appear to want any money or trade goods for it. In the email, they mentioned they hadn’t watched it more than once after initially grabbing it, because it gave them an ‘off’ vibe, like it wasn’t intended for viewing. But honestly most of these old cartoons are like that, they’re all weirdly-toned and experimental.
I would only read into their odd statement later, after I watched the cartoon myself and saw how beyond description it was myself.
So sweaterfrog91 ended up mailing me the Ferngully case after some amicable discussion. “Enjoy” was all they left on the Post It note attached. I felt a certain...excitement. There’s a special feeling you get when you get to see something probably only a handful of people watched, like you’re part of a special club.
I set aside time on the weekend to grab some popcorn and sit down to enjoy it. As I loaded it onto my PC I noticed the movie was only about 40 minutes long, which seemed about right: sweaterfrog mentioned that the movie ended rather abruptly, so what I had here was a partial recording or unfinished product. Either way, I didn’t care due to the reasons I listed already.
The next 40 minutes would prove to be one of the most surreal watching experiences I’ve ever engaged in, and this is coming from someone who’s watched The Wall. Keep in mind, there were no opening credits, no publisher or creator attribution in the beginning. Just a single frame showing the Digiview Logo for about 3 seconds, and a simple bubble font title card labeled ‘INKWEL’ (sic).
The story revolves around a cartoon character named Phineas Frog (stylized as “Phrog''). His home was set in an archetypal cartoon world that was stylized similarly to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with wacky physics and gags permeating every facet of the setting. Phineas receives a letter in the mail: it's sticky and covered in what appears to be ink, and is written by his grandfather from the titular town of Inkwell. The letter rambles on about Phineas having not visited his grandfather in some time, which he seems somewhat confused by as he can’t remember the last time he even visited the town. Nonetheless the adorable amphibian decides it's time for a change of scenery.
The first half revolves around Phineas navigating a series of light-hearted gags involving other characters, sometimes lasting up to three minutes per bit. It's your usual goofy affair: Phineas getting into a fight with some hooligan cats, stumbling through a butcher’s shop and eating a variety of meats, landing in the sewers and sliding through a secret, maze-like waterpark. It was well animated, and done in a markedly traditional style, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen a style similar to it before. The curious thing about the overall atmosphere at this point is that the characters seemed to be...not necessarily ‘aware’ they’re in a cartoon, but comfortable with the idea that their world is inherently ‘cartoon-like’. Some bits would end with the characters chatting normally afterward, implying through exposition that their kind believed that everyday life was kept routine by performing these bits, be it for fortune, good health or otherwise.
I didn’t think much of it at the time like any of the other weirdness, but I felt it was a novel idea that wasn’t quite explored as often. Maybe the Dip in Roger Rabbit or Space Jam’s logic to an extent, but nothing that really investigated the nature of cartoons.
Around the 25 minute mark, Phineas reaches a skylifting platform run by a wacky duck character - no prizes for guessing the inspiration there. The two banter a little, with Phineas being oblivious to the duck’s romantic gestures; she keeps urging the frog to “play a bit” with her sometime, to see where it goes, but Phineas denies her everytime in favor of chatting about his comical yet boring daily habits. She reluctantly gives him a pass to go on the lift crossing a massive chasm between his hometown, and Inkwell: Phineas for the first time in the film shows subtle fear as he boards the lift. The chasm below is gaping and black, and for some repeating frames of animation there is no sound but the creaking of the metal box as it crosses over.
At this point I decided to grab a snack from the kitchen seeing as the transition didn’t seem to be finishing anytime soon. It was a strange feeling, having this nagging feeling that you’ve seen this all before. Subtle twinges of nostalgia you can’t quite name.
I was pretty surprised when I came back 5 minutes later and saw that the scene was still going. Phineas was now lounging on the side of the lift, looking straight ahead and occasionally down to the chasm below. He looked pensive, unusually so for a cartoon character. I said to myself “Now that’s just silly” as I sat back down, not bothering to fast forward the film. I was entranced by how arthouse this felt. Call me pretentious all you like but I honestly prefer these cartoons to the newer ones where there’s too many goals, a quota the animators are trying to meet. Despite the film’s veil of mystery and strangeness, it felt passionate and full of life, with an added layer of believability to the characters I wasn’t completely aware of.
Phineas finally arrived at the borders of Inkwell. No idea why the title card was spelled missing an L, but it could be chalked up to an editing mistake by Digiview. Notably, the color was drained from everywhere except for the lift he disembarked and Phineas himself, who was still a lively mix of green and purple. The sounds themselves took on a more muted tone as well, save for Phineas’ voice: it seemed this portion of his world was subject to older cartoon laws, where everything is grainy and more musically-inclined. The buildings in the background jiggled and danced to an invisible chorus somewhere in the distance. Fire hydrants sang little tunes to themselves to the beat of the frog’s footsteps. The sun itself was a cherubic face guffawing as it shot beams of light in random directions. The whole thing felt like an eternal musical number people could randomly join and leave whenever they felt. And strangest of all were the inhabitants of Inkwell.
They were all more classic in design, a sort of hodge-podge of random objects with legs and faces, vague animal hybrids with large toothy grins and seedy eyes. All of them were black and white, same as the town. At this point Phineas looked visibly unsettled, and I don’t blame him. A wisp of smoke with a wide smile and a business suit spun around him with wiggling noodle arms, singing a little rhyme. Keep in mind by this point the animation style has switched from the initial highly stylized, painting-like motions to a style reminiscent of Felix the Cat. Everything is overly simplified and more pen-and-paper in style.
“Would you like a dog, a pencil? A house, a blender?” he taunts, spinning around the poor frog and wisping through his ears rhythmically. Phineas politely refuses and continues to wade through a collection of progressively stranger cartoon folk, stopping to occasionally ask where his grandpa’s address was since he didn’t know it by heart. This part of the film wasn’t filled with many funny gags or bits, the passing characters kind of just used Phineas as a prop for their own furtive and arbitrary sketches. One bit ended with Phineas uncomfortably morphing out of the shape of an umbrella and stumbling off, visibly perturbed by the walking-talking radiohead that did this to him. A trail of black liquid follows behind it.
After a few minutes of confusion, he sadly settled onto a sidewalk ledge where a female toon approached him. Her design was reminiscent of Betty Boop in some aspects, which wouldn’t be so strange if she wasn’t the only humanoid cartoon in town. She had huge circular eyes, a flippy swirl of hair, and a short ‘swinger’ sort of dress. Her voice was tiny and cutesy, an overly exaggerated tone of innocence. We’ll call her Bessy.
Bessy looked down at Phineas with her black eyes and quietly asked if he’s lost. He responded with a yes, and she asked who he was looking for, never once taking her abnormally large eyes off him. Phineas clarified his situation, and the lady smiled and gestured towards a jiggling, grey building at the end of the block. Its pupiless window eyes gaze back at them, winking suggestively.
He asked, “How do you know my granddad? Is he a friend of yours?”
To which she replied “He’s family to me too.” Behind me, a tree branch smacked against the bedroom window, startling me into turning around. As I turned back towards the screen, I thought I saw Bessy gesture at her face, wiping away a black tear. I tried rewinding to see her do it again but apparently I imagined this as all she does is watch Phineas strut off to the jazzy hum of the world. The girl vanishes into the backdrop in a smooth, liquid motion.
By this point I’m utterly entranced by the film. It’s only been about 30 minutes maybe, but I feel like I’ve been watching for hours and hours. I’ve never seen a cartoon that felt this rich to me, that could engage the viewer with its nuances and implications in such a way. I know I’m rambling here, but hopefully by the end of this retelling you’ll understand why I had to know what was at the end.
It was 11:44pm in real world time. There was a storm brewing outside as I cozied up on the couch watching this strange cartoon, with wind whipping raindrops at my window.
Phineas opened the door to the building, which slammed shut behind him with an exaggerated yawn. The muffled audio was becoming increasingly static-y as he approached a series of labyrinthian hallways which disobeyed normal, geometric conventions. Finally after what felt like forever, Phineas stood atop a dark staircase. A colorful blip against the minimalist walls. This was the scene which brought the cartoon to my attention in the first place. There’s a subtle moaning in the background, emanating from what sounds like an older man. It sent chills up my spine. Remembering what my friend on the internet told me, I stretched my legs in preparation to shut down the movie, expecting a sudden burst of static.
To my utter surprise the film didn’t stop. 41 minutes, that’s where it was supposed to end. The little media play bar was still running. But apparently there was more content to be viewed.
“What the fuck…” I muttered under my breath. I glued my eyes to the screen, not daring to check that the branch scraping against my window wasn’t some slasher who also happened to be interested in what I was watching. Maybe sweaterfrog91 had lied about watching the whole thing and got bored with the film up to this point. But what would that amount to? What was the reasoning behind such a pointless omission? It didn’t make much sense.
“Gramps?” Phineas called down into the spiraling stairs. The elderly groaning was louder now, sending a ripple of static through the screen. Bubbly letter O’s wafted upwards like phantasms, circling the screen and vanishing. Phineas, gulping with uncharacteristic fear, begins to descend downward.
I was suddenly viewing a horror film. The genre switch was more noticeable than your typical SatAM cartoons which might’ve occasionally dipped a toe into darker themes like racism or abuse; this felt like a total tonal shift that wasn’t there when Phineas entered Inkwell.
As he reached the bottom stairs, the view opened up into a simple brick cellar area. Standing in the center, shivering uncontrollably and cast upon by a spot of light, was an elderly cartoon frog not unlike our protagonist, with the biggest differences being his large beard and eyebrows concealing beady cartoon eyes. And of course, the muted grayscale palette.
Phineas’ grandpa turned around and stopped groaning. He raised a single patchy brow at the young toon and whispered, “what kept ya’ so long?” A withered, webbed hand stretched out from his emaciated frame as his mouth opened wide, revealing two rows of massive tombstone teeth. Teeth only a cartoon frog could have. “The Well said you’d come back, and now we can have a rootin’ tootin’ good time! So smile, darn ya’!”
As both Phineas and I watched in horror, the old frog opened his mouth wider and out came a torrent of black ink. Outlined in white, it kept frothing and spewing from his orifices, flooding the room with the stuff. For a moment I felt like I was the subject of a cruel prank, that perhaps this wasn’t a legitimate film but something intended to scare the piss out of any poor kid who watched this. And yet it was so painstakingly animated, flowing so naturalistically, that it felt too authentic to be anything but a genuine attempt at an experience. I kept watching.
The poor frog stood there, mouth agape as what used to be his grandfather shriveled and emptied into a thin bag of skin on the floor. In the center of the lake, something small, squishy and writhing emerged from the bag of skin and looked up at Phineas pathetically.
“G-gramps…? What’s goin’ on?” he whispered.
Somewhere behind him was a cacophany of footsteps. Someone was approaching. Phineas scrambled behind some barrels in the cellar as whoever it was approached the landing.
It was Bessy from before. She submerged her thin feet into the black pond, observing the writhing mass in the center. Her orbs surveyed the scene with all the casualness of an afternoon shopper at the market. Then they rested on Phineas, still cowering behind the barrels.
“All my children eventually come back to me,” she remarked quietly in that cutesy voice of hers. Phineas stood entranced, unable to form words. I felt a pang of fear and pain for the poor guy, a truly uncanny experience I can never forget. How was it possible to feel such emotions for a fictional being?
“Yes, all we have been and ever will be will return to its roost,” the lady toon cooed. “It’s like a rubber band. You can stretch and twist into so many forms, as far as you like, but you’ll always come back. Right. Here. With. Me.”
Phineas inexplicably begins walking towards her, eyes wide with wonder and fear. Bessy smiles, holding out her arms like a loving mother as her body begins to cleave down the middle starting from her head. My guts in knots, I launched forward and shut off the PC.
I realized then that I hadn’t been breathing adequately for the last few scenes.
Ever since I shut down my PC the previous night, I had so many questions running through my head. My sleep was plagued by erratic, terrifying visions from the Inkwell film.
I had a theory that my fascination with obscure cartoons didn’t come from nowhere. I had to have been exposed to similar work at a young age. So I took the next day off and decided to visit my dad at his place; online research wasn’t what I was interested in. I’ll admit, after seeing the contents of that film I felt a subtle, irrational fear. I had intrusive thoughts where I walked in on him spewing more of that black ochre from his empty eye sockets, teeth lining the area where his eyelids once were. I shook off the image and knocked on his front door, the clouds above still sprinkling a light shower since last night.
Dad opened up his front door, looking normal as ever, albeit a bit wrinkled in the face from all the years spent smoking. “Son! It's been a while, how ya’ been?” he beamed, embracing me. Despite being well into his 60’s - and myself being in my 20’s - I still felt a little safer being in his arms. Just like a kid.
“Good, Dad. I just was in the neighborhood, thought I’d stop by and shoot the shit.” We walked inside and started catching up. I tried to keep the conversation flowing as naturally as possible, but as it started to get darker I knew there was no avoiding the topic. You can imagine how silly I felt being a grown adult bothering their parents about some childhood nightmare. Yet there were things I still needed to uncover. I asked my dad if he ever saw me watching weird, old cartoons when I was younger.
At this he stopped smiling and chatting, his face contorted with gradual remembrance. For a moment I thought he’d say he didn’t remember, but life has a funny way of bringing things up when you least expect it. “Yeah...yeah actually. I remember when we had that old player, we’d plug it in and let you go nuts with your cartoon collections. You used to watch a lot of Looney Tunes, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember kinda. Wasn’t I around 13 or 14 at the time?”
“No, actually. I think you were around...er, five at the time? It was probably sometime around 2000 or 2001. You stopped watching cartoons roughly around that age. I don’t blame you though.” Dad shook his head, furrowing his brow and further remembering. “You actually did have that cartoon with the talking chicken on quite a bit at that age. Watched it nonstop even. I never actually checked to see what it was about back then, no, I just saw the title card and left you to watch while your mom went to work and I drafted my novels. I think I was the one who actually got rid of it in the first place.”
“It had a frog in it, right? A frog with a sweater?”
“No, it had a chicken with a sweater. Charles the Chicken or some shit.”
“No Dad, that was a frog. It was a cartoon called ‘Inkwell’, and it had a frog.”
“Well, I’m tellin’ you, your pops ain’t that old. It was called ‘Inkwell’, but the main character was a chicken.”
It was starting to click. This WAS the same disc I had from childhood. What were the goddamn odds? I had no reason to believe Dad was lying about that, especially if he was going through all the trouble to remember these obscure childhood memories of mine.
“What happened, Dad? What made you get rid of it?”
He shifted uncomfortably for a moment, perhaps not knowing exactly why himself. “I dunno. There was something...unpleasant about that cartoon. Nothin’ wrong on the surface, but just off-putting, y’know? As a young father, I thought that kids shouldn’t obsess over anything like that. I think I secretly got rid of it, slapped it in another movie case when you weren’t looking, and pawned it off to a Goodwill or something. I noticed that every time you watched it, it seemed to get longer.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No siree. Disc must’ve been broken or something, because some days you’d be watching, it turned to static after six or seven minutes. And then later you’d pop it in and the movie would have an extra five minutes or so to watch. Really weird. Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“Yeah, me neither. But that show had your attention like it was a real person. Honestly, sometimes you’d have staring contests with some of the characters. I think it was giving you nightmares some nights, but you didn’t seem to remember them when you woke up, nor did you talk about it with us. But you were obsessed with it. That's when I knew it was time to give it up.”
I decided to email sweaterfrog91 again, with intent to make them confess. They knew the film increased in content with each viewing, they owned the damned thing for several years before sending it to me. That, coupled with their esoteric reasoning behind not watching it more than once, gave me reason to believe they were lying through omission.
Sbj: “Time to come clean about Inkwell”
I know you saw the rest of the film. There’s no way you didn’t get curious at ALL during the 4 years you had it. I just want to know what you saw, and why you decided to keep it from me. I owned the disc when I was a kid and watched it on repeat for a looong time before we got rid of it.
Sent April 15th, 2019 | 9:35am
Look, I genuinely didn’t mean to trick you, I just didn’t know how else to approach you about it. Truth is I watched that flick about 3 times in its entirety before racking my brain about what to do. Posting it to the SilverCity seemed like the only logical step. I didn’t expect anyone to care enough to contact me about it, and I just figured if they did, it’d be something they’d ignore and throw away after getting bored with it.
I mean think about how nuts this whole thing is: a DVD cartoon, animated and written by God knows who, distributed by a now dead company, and passed around by hand till it eventually gets lost again, and THEN gets found by the guy who originally had it? It sounds like the plot to a cheesy internet campfire story, right? Well I swear I didn’t even know it was you. You seemed enthusiastic about trying it, I figured there was an off chance you’d get a kick out of it. Now I just feel like a dick.
I dunno. It's pretty messed up imagining how many more kids may have seen those scenes before I even picked it up. It only takes like what, 5-6 viewings to get the whole story? It transitions from this...really beautiful crafted animation to a black and white hellscape so slowly, you almost don’t even notice till it's too late. Everytime I finished I was left feeling sick, like I let something into my house by indulging it. To this day I don’t know why I did it at all.
I am sorry you were that troubled by it. Obviously you got to the point of no return, so I don’t expect you to back out of this. But I included a cropped screencap of the final scene with the main character of my personalized viewing (he was a cat last time around) and that weird girl at the end, I promise that it’s the final scene before the whole thing resets and has to be viewed again before you can see more.
Do whatever you want with the disc, with my email, with anything. I just wanna give you a chance at personal closure, because I know for a fact we’re never going to figure out what the hell is wrong with that disc. Sometimes we can’t control whether or not we get closure on that sort of thing.
Sent Sent April 15th, 2019 | 1:02pm
Click to View Attachment -
I’ve been racking my head over what's happened, trying to find some semblance of rationality. But my mind keeps wandering back to the final image sent to my inbox. It's seared into my vision like ghosts in a CRT. The nightly terrors are becoming more frequent as I’m visited upon by the nebulous, infinite void dwelling beneath and around Inkwell. Therapy is starting to look like a strong option to me.
According to sweaterfrog, after the girl in the basement splits into two, she turns into...that thing from the screencap. A living fractal of ink, spreading outward like a spider. And then there’s that text overlaid hastily on the screen, as if edited in post. It's hard to make out almost because the pic is so screwed up. But what the fuck does it mean? Was someone at Digiview responsible for this, a schizophrenic editor or disgruntled animator perhaps? For a brief moment, I even considered I was being recruited by some clandestine group of lost footage enthusiasts. As hilariously implausible as that would be, it's also terrifying to linger on.
But with the way everything is set up I keep going back to the notion I had in the beginning about this cartoon world feeling organic, breathing like a living thing. The fact that the main characters swap with each successful viewing as if in a cycle. The seething, horrific truth of Inkwell hiding beneath the guise of a kid-friendly cartoon. The Betty Boop-esque character who is the last thing you see before the film truly ends. The final scenes in the film were locked away in my childhood’s mind, waiting to spring out of the locked box of the subconscious when I least expected it.
I’ve gone back to take a few screencaps of a few scenes, some for personal research and some for posterity. But I don’t think I’ll be going back to finish the cartoon myself. To see Phineas standing there, a bead of ink trailing from his eyes as a vignette closes around the approaching Fractal.
And as far as I know, nobody will believe me about this. I’m only typing this up as a reminder that this did happen to me, and most likely to a bunch of other people who simply can’t - or don’t want to - remember. To everyone else this is just another campfire story. To me it's childhood trauma, buried and repackaged for viewing.
Written by William See