Posts Tagged ‘h.p. lovecraft’

Innsmouth (2015)

The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, celebrating women in horror, began yesterday, launching a program that includes some past and present horror shorts by female directors. Today, its Body Horror slate premieres, which includes the Lovecraft riff Innsmouth, from director Izzy Lee.

Innsmouth takes “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” one of H.P. Lovecraft’s more notorious stories, and boils it down to a murder mystery, as Detective Olmstead (Diana Porter) heads to the town of Innsmouth after discovering a woman’s body, murdered and apparently the host to fish eggs. The only clue is a photograph of the dead woman with the name “Innsmouth” written across the back. Not long after Olmstead’s arrival in the sleepy little community, she’s accosted and brought to see Alice Marsh (Tristan Risk), the daughter of Captain Marsh, the founder of Innsmouth.

The film breezily riffs on Lovecraft’s story-and happily avoids the story’s more problematic issues-and seeks to express a new horror all its own. It draws out some of the psycho-sexual undertones of much of Lovecraft while simultaneously manipulating those concepts, placing women and female characters central to the plot and allowing them full scope to possess, and subvert, their own monstrosity. The lead actors are excellent – especially the delightfully bizarre Tristan Risk as Alice Marsh, who fully taps into the gleeful malevolence and sexual threat of her villain.

Coming in at a scant ten minutes, it’s hard not to want the film to be longer and more developed, engaging more profoundly with the weird mythos it plays with and seeks to alter. Innsmouth feels almost unfinished, as though it wanted to do more with the creepy concepts, but didn’t have the time or space. Frankly, I enjoyed what I saw, but I really wanted more.

Innsmouth is showing June 10 at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival as part of their Body Horror shorts program. 

From Beyond (1986)

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It just isn’t Halloween without H.P. Lovecraft. Director Stuart Gordon made his mark with the grossly brilliant Re-Animator, so he got the gang back together for From Beyond, a similarly-toned adaptation of Lovecraft that also succeeds in doing its own, disgusting thing.

From Beyond takes Lovecraft’s short story of the same name and runs with it. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) creates a machine called the Resonator, meant to stimulate the pineal gland and allow people within the machine’s range to experience a new sixth sense. What it does, however, is reveal that the world around us is populated by weird, nasty beings cut off from the human world by a thin veil that the Resonator pierces. Pretorius is murdered and his assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) driven almost mad with terror. But it doesn’t end there: Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) thinks that she can help Tillinghast by forcing him to relive his experience with the Resonator. Katherine, Tillinghast, and police officer Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) hole up in Pretorius’s old house and start the Resonator again. I think you can imagine what happens from there.

From Beyond is less tongue-in-cheek than Re-Animator; where the latter film created humor by going totally over the top, From Beyond is actually quite subdued in the early sections of the film, establishing a tone more realistic than its sister film. Unfortunately, this means that the latter sections, when the body horror really starts getting good, come off as more serious and the film itself more exploitative. Why we need an extended sequence with Barbara Crampton in bondage gear I do not know, but it’s there and it feels more like the director working out his own kinks than a viable addition to the structure of the movie.

That being said, From Beyond is probably one of the best straight adaptations of Lovecraft I’ve seen. The film develops Lovecraft’s underlying despair, the sense that there is a world beyond our own the very glimpse of which could drive people mad. As with Lovecraft, there is no chance for a happy ending here; just the hope that we might be able to close off our minds from the horror.

I wouldn’t suggest From Beyond to anyone not well-versed in Lovecraft lore (itself an acquired taste). But for any Lovecraft fan, it’s quite an experience. Just be sure to pop in your disc of Re-Animator afterwards.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

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The Haunted Palace combines four – FOUR! – of my favorite things: Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price. As such, there’s almost no place that this film can go wrong.

With a title and epigraph lifted from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Haunted Palace is actually based on the Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, about a man possessed by the evil spirit of his long-dead relative (a gross oversimplification of the story, but bear with me). Roger Corman’s adaptation takes a remarkably faithful approach to that story; which, given the serious problems with adapting Lovecraft, is quite impressive for a 1963 film. Vincent Price opens the film as Joseph Curwen, a suspected warlock living in a massive palace above the village of Arkham. Young girls begin vanishing during the night, only to reappear again the next day with no memory of where they’d been. The latest abduction results in the town rising up against Curwen and his unnatural necromantic tendencies. They burn him in his own front yard, but not before he’s placed a curse upon their children and their children’s children, promising to return to wreak terrible vengeance.

Moving forward about a hundred years and Charles Dexter Ward, Curwen’s great-great-grandson, reappears in Arkham to take over the lease on his relative’s estate. Along with his wife Anne (Debra Paget, Ward is met with violent hostility from the townsfolk, all of whom bear remarkable resemblances to their great-great-grandfathers. As explained by the kindly Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell), Curwen’s curse and Ward’s uncanny resemblance to his forebear is just the tip of the eldritch iceberg. Curwen was apparently trying to summon the Elder Gods, his activity taking the form of drawing creatures out of the abyss and mating them with the local girls, resulting in children with bizarre deformities (whose descendants at one point menace Ward and Anne). Now the town fear that Curwen has returned in the form of Ward to take vengeance and begin his work again – a fear eventually realized when Ward moves into the palace and Curwen begins taking over the body of his relative.

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The Haunted Palace follows at least some of the plot of Lovecraft’s novella fairly closely, albeit with some notable changes. The action centers on Curwen’s slow possession of Ward, with the help of his partner-in-necromancy Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.). The film introduces the very Lovecraftian themes of violation, degeneracy, family curses and, of course, the Elder Gods, all mixed together in a hodge-podge of lurid detail. The only truly sympathetic characters in the film are Ward, Anne, and Dr. Willet; the townspeople are venal and cruel, though they might not deserve the fate that Curwen eventually dishes out to them. Under Corman’s direction, The Haunted Palace draws out the sexual underpinnings of the story without veering into exploitation. In a movie that includes roasting people alive and offering women up to creatures from the abyss, the most disturbing scene is Curwen’s attempted rape of Anne while in the body of Ward.

Supported by a uniformly excellent cast, Vincent Price is of course the star of the show – and how he seems to enjoy it! His transformation between Ward and Curwen is effected with minimal make-up, instead relying on Price’s remarkable expressiveness of face and voice. Though Price has often been maligned as a ham actor, his ability to summon sympathy for villains and horror for heroes is a talent that Corman honed in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Here it is on full display, to excellent and chilling effect.

The other actors are almost as enjoyable as Price, although they have considerably less to do. Paget deserves her share of the accolades, playing Anne as a damsel in distress still able to operate on some of her own initiative. There’s a wonderful and heart-breaking pathos to Ward and Anne’s relationship, as Anne is forced to deal with a husband who looks like himself and demonstrably is not. Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. (here billed just as Lon Chaney), whose sad-eyes and sympathetic face conceal a true monster this time around.

The Haunted Palace does exactly what it sets out to do, and is successful as far it goes. While some of the opening sequences drag a little, particularly Ward and Anne’s arrival in the village, the narrative bounces along at a good pace, with little additional flourishes to distract from the central thrust of the story. It’s an early Lovecraft adaptation, but a remarkably successful one. Besides, how often do you get to see Vincent Price psychologically torturing Vincent Price?

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In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

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Leave it to horror master John Carpenter to make a film that is part loving homage to H.P. Lovecraft, part parodic social commentary, and part meta-narrational horror. Seriously. While Wes Craven would attempt a similarly themed narrative with his own meta-horror Scream, Carpenter arguably accomplished something weirder, more genre-defying, and more gleefully enjoyable than anything starring Neve Campbell.

Sam Neill is John Trent, an insurance investigator who starts the film being locked in an asylum as he raves about the end of the world. Interviewed by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), Trent recounts his story. He was hired by a publishing house (run by Charlton Heston, no less) to find the author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a best-selling horror writer whose latest novel In the Mouth of Madness promises to be a ground-breaking work of horror fiction. Accompanied by Cane’s editor Linda (Julie Carmen), Trent embarks on a journey to find Hobb’s End, the supposedly fictional town in New Hampshire where Cane may or may not have disappeared.

Anyone who has read Lovecraft will immediately recognize certain knowing nods and references, from the asylum opening to “Pickman’s Hotel,” from the titles of Sutter Cane’s novel to certain – ahem – old ones. Still, In the Mouth of Madness is by no means strictly for the fans. The story encompasses what it means to love horror, and to indulge in its dark plots of madness and apocalypse. It does this with a strong parodic edge, aware of itself even as it indulges the grotesque and the dark, serious underpinnings of fear. Cane’s novels supposedly drive “susceptible” readers to near frenzy, and Trent is a perfect candidate – a man who doesn’t believe in such things, yet stays up to all hours reading the books. Is the entire story a product of Trent’s madness (remember: he’s telling this from within an insane asylum), or has Cane’s work opened a facet of the human mind and the universe better left closed? As the film develops, layers of fictional and nonfictional worlds begin to overlap, and Trent’s experiences become more and more convoluted.

Neill is an excellent protagonist here: not quite likable, but not inherently unlikable either. Carmen has less to do, and actually gives the impression of being a bit more gone on Cane than she should be. But as with many horror films, the people are really just there to be enacted upon – the real star is horror, and how the film unravels that horror. Making a movie with a Lovecraftian setting is a difficult venture; Lovecraft’s horror usually lies in the unseen and the barely glimpsed. Carpenter manages it, though, giving us just enough fear beyond the realm of conscious thought, interspersed with ghoulish body horror. It’s an effective approximation of Lovecraft’s prose, and a powerful cinematic technique in its own right.

In the Mouth of Madness is like a fever dream, starting out with a certain element of realism and quickly descending into the realms of, well, madness. The conclusion is both chilling and just a little funny, its terror punctuated by a low-level of humor that brings out that fine line between the terrifying and the ridiculous. Carpenter has done right by Lovecraft, and that’s a feat unto itself.

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The Dunwich Horror (1970)

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Adapting the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is a challenge for any screenwriter, or director. Like Poe, much of Lovecraft’s power lies in his verbiage. His horrors are the concealed, obscure terrors of dreams, and his writing chock full of purple prose invoking nameless fears and indescribable stenches from dark Cyclopean caverns. Moving that kind of writing to the big screen is nearly impossible, because Lovecraft trades on things that cannot be seen or, once seen, cannot be described.

The Dunwich Horror makes a good attempt at adapting one of Lovecraft’s better known stories to a visual medium. The film was directed by Daniel Haller from a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to direct L.A. Confidential and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. It was produced for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, which immediately indicates what we can expect from the production.

Following a bizarre birth sequence and some truly epic opening credits, the film properly begins with the introduction of Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell, looking more 70s than I thought was humanly possible). Whateley wants access to the dangerous and forbidden book of black magic, the Necronomicon, stored in the library of Miskatonic University and owned by Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley, in his final film role). To this end, Wilbur hypnotizes one of Armitage’s students Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) into furnishing him with the book. When Armitage appears and refuses to allow Whateley to take the Necronomicon away with him, Whateley puts another plan into action: he has Nancy drive him home to Dunwich, where he lives in a ramshackle old house with his grandfather (Sam Jaffe, having the time of his life) and something vague and rumbly in the attic. It soon becomes clear that the Whateleys are a weird and creepy family (if we didn’t know that already), and Nancy will be their next victim in an arcane ritual designed, as most things are, to bring about the end of the world.Dunwich 05

Anyone who has read the original Lovecraft story will recognize the initial plot about the Whateleys, and also that the whole “sacrifice a virgin to the Old Ones” is nowhere close to that story. The Lovecraft narrative deals more with the birth of Wilbur, his upbringing, and the fear he inspires in the townspeople of Dunwich prior to the arrival of “the horror” in the title. The narrative then shifts to the “Dunwich horror” and how the townspeople discover it and defeat it with the help of Armitage and the local doctor.

The film of The Dunwich Horror ignores most of the first part of the original story and focuses on the underlying theme of sexuality, present in much of Lovecraft’s work. Wilbur’s seduction of Nancy is accomplished through drugging her drink, hypnotizing her, and finally having sex with her on a stone altar – the entire sequence, though not explicit, plays like a soft core porn film that pretty much kills Sandra Dee’s virginal teenage image for good. The point of this part of the plot is unclear, save that the opportunity to show Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee having kinky altar sex was too good to pass up.

Dean Stockwell takes the lead in this film, his fabulous mustache and 70s perm really hammering home the change of time period from Lovecraft’s – although it does match the “decadence” that Lovecraft finds so horrifying. But he’s also that combination of creepy and charming that makes his eventual seduction of Nancy believable, even if we wonder why any sane young woman would agree to get in the same car with a man who looks and talks like a pimp. Sandra Dee gives a perfectly serviceable performance as Nancy, although not much is demanded of her beyond being innocent and then writhing around on an altar. The elder actors are having a lot of fun with their respective roles, especially Sam Jaffe, who wanders around the house making arcane pronouncements and shouting in the face of his grandson.dunwich-1970-2

The problem with The Dunwich Horror is that there’s not much horror to go around. The film spends more time on the inevitable seduction of Nancy than it does on building up the terror surrounding the thing that rattles the attic door. However, I will give the film praise for creating an invisible “lurking terror” which, when it finally breaks loose, does its evil very effectively. The climax of the film does not quite work, however, as we’ve spent far too much watching Nancy become the vessel of the Old Ones and far too little time with reasons why that is a bad thing. I never thought I’d say this, but they needed to inject a little less attempted subtlety and a little more Lovecraft.

At the end of the day, The Dunwich Horror is a good, but not great, B-level Corman production. It’s never dull, and is actually far better than I expected it to be. Still, I wanted a bit more horror to go with my Dunwich.

Re-Animator (1985)

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I’m a big fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so it was with a feeling of shock and shame that I realized that I had not seen what’s often considered the greatest adaptation of a Lovecraft story ever: Re-Animator, from 1985. So I queued up my Netflix, popped my popcorn, and settled down for what was sure to be a 1980s schlock-extravaganza.

What had I done? I’d been warned about the grossness of Re-Animator, but I did not expect…this. Granted that Lovecraft adores indulging in oozing viscosity and putrid terrors from the beyond, I still did not expect to be translated so very literally to the screen. But my word it was! Re-Animator is one of the grosser, funnier horror films I’ve seen, and I enjoyed every overblown, overheated minute of it.

Re-Animator tells the story of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a brilliant but quite insane medical student who has created a serum capable of bringing the dead back to life. The problem is that the serum mostly just brings back the primitive instincts, not the higher brain functions, effectively turning reanimated corpses into hyper-strong atavistic zombies. It’s a combination of Frankenstein and a zombie movie by way of Lovecraft.

West goes to Miskatonic University (the site of most of Lovecraft’s educational based narrative), where he connects with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Halsey). He also runs afoul of Dr. Hill (David Gale), a doctor whose work on brain death West directly challenged. But all the plot machinations are largely excuses for West and Dan to make some zombies, re-animate some corpses, and explode some body parts in a hail of blood and guts.

The first half of Re-Animator plays like a typical camp 80s horror film; the second half is pure insanity. Staff members are murdered, college deans are turned into zombie slaves, Megan (predictably) loses all her clothes, and severed heads return to life in some of the most hilarious, ridiculous and disgusting ways imaginable. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens in Re-Animator without resorting to noises of shock and horror, not to mention insane laughter.

There are moments in Re-Animator that would be offensive if they did not take place in such an insane film to begin with. The lengths the film goes to get Megan naked is quite remarkable, but it never quite crosses the line into offensive exploitation. The whole film is so mad that it would be impossible to claim that any one scene goes too far. Props to actress Barbara Halsey, though, for being willing to go the extra mile for … art, I guess.

Jeffrey Combs is the mad center of this mad film, his Herbert West fascinating and repellant and, by the end of it, strangely likable. He’s Dr. Frankenstein on acid, dedicated to his cause and completely without morals. I loved him.

No everyone will love this film. Many will be repelled by the sheer amount of blood and gore, or the sight of a headless man attempting to fellate a girl tied to a morgue slab. But it is, indeed, one of the best, maddest Lovecraft adaptations ever likely to be made. Mr. Lovecraft would be incredibly proud.