Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Call of Cthulhu

2005
Dir. Andrew Leman

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." H.P. Lovecraft

First published in Weird Tales in 1922, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu concerns Francis Wayland Thurston, a young man who is attempting to piece together the circumstances of his great-uncle's death. While looking through the dead man’s possessions he finds a weird manuscript pertaining to an ancient and alien slumbering deity and the despicable acts of its human followers. He soon becomes obsessed with the Cult of Cthulhu and unveiling its mysteries. The fragmented narrative comprises of newspaper stories, diary entries and eye-witness accounts, including those of Inspector Legrasse, who has encountered sinister cult activity and human sacrifice in the swamps outside New Orleans, and Gustaf Johansen, a sailor who died shortly after discovering an uncharted island and encountering something utterly abominable and unspeakable which claimed the lives of his crew.

While only a short story, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has an epic scope, detailing all manner of bizarre global occurrences – the discovery of strange artefacts and bas-reliefs, mass mental illness and suicide, outbreaks of collective mania, mob riots in New York, ritualistic sacrifices in Greenland and Louisiana, the revelation of esoteric cults awaiting “glorious fulfilment” in California, and myriad mysterious deaths; all pointing to the impending awakening of Cthulhu. The tale culminates in the discovery of a mysterious island – as described in Johansen’s diary – and the awakening of the gargantuan Cthulhu, who had been ‘dead but dreaming’ before it lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway. Further descriptions reveal a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. The sailors who didn’t die immediately after encountering its massive, writhing form, soon went insane.



Oftentimes the difficulty in adapting Lovecraft’s horrific visions from page to screen stems from their inherently psychological nature; much of the narrative is taken up by descriptions of the psychological impact mind-shattering discoveries of ultimate knowledge, weird cults and monstrous alien deities has on dry, scholarly narrators. His protagonists ensconce themselves in diabolical experiments and investigations, delving into wormy tomes, corresponding with equally scholarly and anti-social experts, and gradually unearthing dark truths about the utterly incomprehensible nature of our universe and the horrors that lurk at its periphery. His grand themes of cosmological horror have proved difficult to capture in film form, and certainly, The Call of Cthulhu has often been cited as being one of his most ‘unfilmable’ works. This adaptation, by none other than the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (a clue you're in good hands), proves that imagination, determination and passion can accomplish more than a big budget ever could.



Leman constructs his film, complete with disjointed structure made up of narratives within narratives, using an amalgamation of vintage and contemporary filming techniques. The result is a visually striking and richly atmospheric mood-piece that not only successfully evokes a bygone age of horror cinema, but Lovecraft’s own nightmarish visions. Unspooling in the style of a 1930s silent film, complete with title cards, studio-bound locations, stop motion monsters, exaggerated performances, and oceans made of billowing fabric, The Call of Cthulhu echoes classic German Expressionist titles such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Unusual production design and arresting lighting provide some beautifully surreal moments, such as the exploration of the drowned city of R’lyeh and the dreams of deranged artist Henry Anthony Wilcox – who, much like Pickman, the painter in Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, paints and sculpts indescribable horrors from otherworldly things he has encountered not only in prophetic dreams, but first hand… That the film was produced on a meagre budget is also testament to the ingenuity and creative prowess of its makers. Sean Branney’s lean script never deviates from the source material and the brief running time (just under an hour) confirms a lack of padding. This is a pure, undiluted adaptation, not only in terms of story and structure, but tone and pace. That it is also a beautiful homage to silent-era horror is an irresistible bonus.

The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the Stairs is an atmospheric and tightly coiled horror film with themes that remain relevant and a dark sense of unease that is still incredibly palpable, unravelling as a compendium of recurring themes and motifs that run throughout much of Wes Craven’s work; race, class, familial strife, generational conflict and the idea of man-made monsters all swirl together in an unhinged and feverishly claustrophobic tale.

With its myriad allusions to the likes of “Hansel and Gretel”, the film unfurls as a nightmarish urban fairytale complete with mutilated innocents imprisoned by wicked parental figures...

To read my full review, and for a chance to win a copy of the film on Blu-ray, head over to Exquisite Terror.

While you’re there, why not pick up an issue or two of Exquisite Terror the periodical. It’s really rather good.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Resurrected

Guest post by Christine Hadden

One of the biggest issues that H.P. Lovecraft fans have is the lack of acceptable translation to film of his work. Many films teeter on the edge of the dark precipice of his brilliant stories, but fail to capture the weird yet exceptional storytelling and sinister themes the author is so famous for. The Resurrected (1992), aka Shatterbrain, while certainly not a celebrated film, is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Lovecraft story. Based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, this low-budget, direct-to-video release has the distinction of being directed by the late, great Dan O'Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) and though apparently it got edited without O'Bannon, it still remains a relatively close conversion from story to film.

Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon, reason enough to see the film) has alienated his new wife by occupying his time first in the family's carriage house, and then an old family estate well removed from the bustlings of town. After discovering an old trunk, Ward has become obsessed with the life work of his ancestor, Joseph Curwen (also Sarandon), an occultist from the days of the Salem witch trials. He becomes exceedingly evasive and consumed with finding out more about what Curwen was trying to achieve.

Curwen's mysterious experiments lead Charles to set up a laboratory in his ancestral farmhouse, rarely speaking to his wife and fixated on the ramblings of a mad man. This prompts his wife Claire (Jane Sibbet) to hire a private detective to try to uncover just what Charles is working on that has him forgetting his marriage and becoming increasingly deceptive - enough that he has moved into said farmhouse to focus on his important work. In Lovecraft's story, the Ward family physician is tasked with investigating Charles' odd behavior. Here, the change to a detective perhaps suits the time period better, as well as the legalities of a formal inquest.



When detective John Marsh (John Terry) enters the picture, he and Claire eventually uncover the horrifying truth after they discover an old journal of Curwen's, which paints an unforgivable portrait of a man gone completely mad with the idea that he can raise the dead. And now it seems that not only has Charles become engrossed with the same idea, but upon visiting Ward at the farmhouse, it appears he may have even been doing some experimentation himself. In the dank, cavernous basement catacombs they find a pit of "mistakes" - Ward's failures in his occult practices - that are as morbid and frightening as anything in film. Necromancy is rarely pretty.

Lovecraft quite frequently incorporated themes of Promethean ideas - the thought that man could create matter and manipulate life, no matter how macabre the challenge became. Many of his characters struggled to find the so-called forbidden knowledge that would change everything, including the dreadful thought of re-animation. The Resurrected grapples with this twisted and awful idea, producing some hair-raising moments of truly aberrant horror.



The special effects here are practical and yet still hold up fairly well to this day. The transformation that Ward goes through - both mental and physical - as he channels his dead ancestor, is impressive, as is Sarandon's acting. The rest of the cast is practically throw-away but the story itself makes up for any acting flaws. There are a few other changes from the original story but nothing that alters the hideous and lurid feel that Lovecraft achieved. As hard as it is to translate Lovecraft to film, The Resurrected does an admirable job with the source material and has enough grisly effects and horrifying subject matter to satisfy any fan of both Lovecraft and horror.


Christine blogs over at Fascination with Fear. She also contributes to Fangoria and Paracinema. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Re-Animator

1985
Dir. Stuart Gordon

When the eccentric Herbert West arrives at Miskatonic University, Arkham, he and a fellow medical student become embroiled in strange experiments to reanimate dead tissue. With horrific consequences. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Reanimator, Stuart Gordon’s film is perhaps one of the most successful adaptations of the author’s work, and it triggered a resurgence of cinematic interest in the work of Lovecraft throughout the 80s and 90s. The film is an outrageous blend of splattery special effects, pseudo-sci-fi concepts, comic violence, pitch black humour and vivid horror. At times it boasts a similar madcap tone to Sam Raimi’s earlier splat-stick classic, Evil Dead, as Dr West’s (a manic Jeffrey Combs) increasingly desperate and ludicrous attempts to reanimate corpses reach feverish intensity.

The idea to make Re-Animator stemmed from Gordon’s belief that there were not enough Frankensteinian stories. He believed pop-culture had become saturated with vampire tales and Dracula adaptations. He was contemplating revisiting Mary Shelley’s classic when a friend recommended he check out Lovecraft’s creepy tale of the reanimated dead. A huge fan of Lovecraft, Gordon initially planned to adapt the story for stage, but was eventually persuaded by writers Dennis Paoli and William Norris to produce it as a television pilot. He was later introduced to producer Brian Yuzna, who in turn persuaded the director to adapt it as a feature film, as he believed horror films were more sellable at the time than TV shows. Together they decided to introduce elements of comedy into the script as it may otherwise have been too dark and violent to get past the censors. Indeed it is the comedic aspects of Re-Animator and its hysterical tone that sets it apart from Lovecraft’s deadly serious and grim source material, which was serialised in six instalments for publication in Home Brew in 1922. Herbert West serves as one of the first examples of the reanimated dead (that’s zombies to you and I) as cannibalistic ghouls with fiendishly violent temperaments. Lovecraft later voiced his dissatisfaction with the tale, claiming he only wrote it for the money. Indeed, Lovecraft scholar and expert ST Joshi suggests Herbert West is “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft's poorest work.” That said, it’s still a lot of fun and exhibits a pulpy enthusiasm for the macabre, plus the various references to Coleridge and Shelley remind us of its Gothic heritage.



Gordon and co focused mainly on the first two instalments – From the Dark and The Plague Daemon – which focused on West’s ghastly exploits as a student at the Miskatonic University, incorporating a few details from the other instalments, such as the character and fate of the sinister Dr Hill (a WW1 pilot in the short story). Yuzna would later use material from the last two episodes – The Horror from the Shadows and The Tomb Legions – when he was concocting the sequel, Bride of Re-Animator. Lovecraft’s story spanned decades and continents and retained a vaguely epic scope, whereas Gordon reins it all in, letting it unfurl predominantly in the labs and morgues of the university and the basements of the main characters. The director leaves nothing to the imagination as limbs are lobbed off, innards sloshed across the screen, heads severed and, in one particularly memorable moment, the reanimated corpse of Dr Hill straps Meg (lovely, lovely Barbara Crampton) to a gurney and slowly forces his decapitated head on her to perform cunnilingus.



The more riotous the violent set pieces become, the more grotesque the comedy that ensues. The cast all have a ball, particularly Jeffrey Combs as the dastardly Herbert West. Some of the best moments occur during the scathing exchanges between him and his arch nemesis Dr Hill. As the straight-laced accomplice Dan Cain, Bruce Abbott acts as a foil to West’s erratic experiments, and he provides, or tries to provide, a voice a reason throughout the increasingly chaotic carnage. The romance between Dan and Meg was included by Gordon as a way to flesh out the characters and help make them more sympathetic – there are no such romantic notions in Lovecraft’s work, and female characters are rare. Richard Band’s inspired score perfectly captures and enhances the mischievous and maniacal tone, famously riffing on Bernard Hermann’s classic score for Psycho; all stabbing strings, rumbling bass and giddy intensity.

Re-Animator is now, rightly, considered a cult classic. Its deranged sense of humour and innovative special effects mark it as one of the most inspired horror comedies of the Eighties and made a cult icon of its star Jeffrey Combs. As interesting as much of Gordon’s subsequent work is, it rarely reaches the sordid heights of this lurid maelstrom of a movie.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Cool Air

Guest post by Aaron Duenas

It should be said that I'm not an expert on H.P. Lovecraft by any means, but, like every horror buff, I know of, enjoy, and appreciate his work for being so far ahead of its time, and essentially paving the way for many horror authors whose works have affected pop culture, literature, and cinema. I went into this film, and I'm approaching this review, mainly as a fan of director Albert Pyun, who recently retired due to health problems. He's a filmmaker who's primarily worked in the straight-to-video market. Some of his more notable films include Cyborg (a favorite of mine), The Sword and the Sorcerer, and Vicious Lips. So when I found out that Pyun directed a Lovecraft adaptation, to say that I was curious would be an understatement.

Cool Air, which was apparently produced back in 2006 but sat on the shelf for seven years before being released in 2013, is based on Lovecraft's short story of the same name. There have been other adaptations of this particular story in cinema and television, but this one is Albert Pyun's. Which isn't really saying much. Pyun isn't someone I (or anyone else for that matter) would call an auteur, so, unless you already go into a movie knowing he directed it, there's really no way to tell you're watching a Pyun joint. That said, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The fact that it's been shelved for so long isn't exactly indicative of a good movie (unless that movie is All The Boys Love Mandy Lane), so I approached this one with caution and low expectations. Turns out Cool Air is pretty faithful to the source material, but with a few tweaks. A nameless, jaded writer in New York encounters an eccentric doctor. The doctor lives in isolation and needs his surroundings to be at an extremely low temperature in order to survive. The writer suffers a sudden heart attack and is forced to seek out the help of the doctor, who saves his life. They form an unexpected friendship, but it isn't long before the writer makes a shocking discovery regarding the doctor's identity and whatnot.



The above is a brief synopsis of Lovecraft's original story, but you could also apply it to the film. The only thing you'd change is the location. Instead of being set in New York, Cool Air takes place in Malibu and revolves around a writer named Charlie Baxter (Morgan Weisser), who rents out a room in an old, palatial home. Baxter is a screenwriter suffering from writer's block. As he settles into the home and is shown around by the landlady, he meets the other residents and what follows is a story that's pretty much directly based on the source material. Like the narrator in Lovecraft's short story, the lead character in this is also repulsed by cool air for reasons that are later explained. It should be said that the film makes a drastic change to the character of the doctor, but only on a surface level, and not enough to significantly affect the context of the story - aside from some undertones in the relationship between the two central characters. Oh, and there's also a supernatural element established at the beginning that tries to add some depth to the doctor, which is one of the film's awful bookends.

In the spirit of the source material, there's a lot of narration in the film. More narration than actual dialogue as a matter of fact. Some of the narration is quoted verbatim from the source, but it's safe to assume that lines like "Autistic hottie" were written for the movie. That much narration works as long as the visuals are interesting enough to keep your attention and guide you along, but unfortunately it's not the case here. Cool Air looks and feels incredibly low-budget, with very few cinematic flourishes aside from a heavy use of Dutch angles. In its defence, I assume Pyun and his crew were trying to be as economical as possible, and if there's one thing Pyun knows how to do, it's stretch a dollar. In that respect (and keeping in mind the year it was produced), it's a serviceable indie movie, but there's always room for improvement. And there's no excuse for the visible microphone that was right up to the lead actor's face in a shot where he had NO DIALOGUE.



Aside from an embarrassing and borderline offensive portrayal of an Autistic character, the acting is pretty solid, which is surprising considering how low-quality everything else is. You'd typically associate terrible acting with a seemingly no-budget movie of this type, but at the very least we get some decent performances here. Also noteworthy is the use of CGI. Again, Pyun wasn't exactly working with a James Cameron budget, and the special effects are certainly reflective of that. However, despite being very noticeable, the use of CGI made for some interesting visuals. Interesting for the wrong reasons? Perhaps, but I think it worked within the context of the film, essentially shown through the eyes of the lead character. With Cool Air there are enough changes and tweaks to make it unique, but it relies too much on the source material to stand on its own, if that makes any sense. And the timing for its release is interesting when you keep Albert Pyun's health issues in mind. There's a great deal of focus on mortality in Cool Air, and I'm sure this is something that's unfortunately became more relevant in Pyun's life than it's ever been. As flawed as this film is, its loyalty (for the most part) to H.P. Lovecraft's short story made it inherently tolerable, and I'd be curious to know what Lovecraft enthusiasts think of it.


Aaron blogs over at The Death Rattle and contributes to The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema. Check out his podcast, The Mill Creeps, for reviews and appreciations of all things Cult Cinema.  

My Amityville Horror

The terrifying paranormal events that allegedly took place in 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, inspired Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror: A True Story and the 1979 film The Amityville Horror - and its seemingly unending barrage of sequels and remakes. Over the years the validity of the alleged occurrences has been the centre of intense debate and scrutiny, with the Lutz family branded opportunistic frauds. Prominent figures involved in the investigations, from journalists and parapsychologists, to news producers and psychologists, have since weighed in with their opinions, accusations and theories regarding the family and what they claim happened in the house.

Eric Walter’s recent documentary is interesting because it features a subject who has remained silent about the whole debacle since his involuntary involvement in it as a child. Daniel Lutz was 10 when he moved to 112 Ocean Drive, and what becomes obvious from the outset of My Amityville Horror is that, regardless of what exactly occurred in that house, it has left him psychologically damaged beyond repair.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

While you’re there, why not pick up an issue or two of Exquisite Terror the periodical.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Lord of Tears

2013
Dir. Lawrie Brewster

After the death of his estranged mother, school teacher James Findlay returns to his childhood home, a lonely mansion in the Scottish Highlands, in an attempt to lay the ghosts of his past to rest. Tormented since a boy by dreams of a strange and terrifying entity – a figure dressed in Victorian attire, with elongated limbs, sharp talons and an owl head - James faces a descent into madness and his only hope is to banish the evil presence that haunts him. With the help of a mysterious young woman he begins to uncover the chilling truth behind his immortal stalker…

Set in the remote Highlands of Scotland, and inspired by the unsettling and bleak tales of H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and the creepy Slender Man mythology, Lord of Tears is a gothic chiller that slowly unfurls in an immensely atmospheric and nightmarish manner. Writer Sarah Daly and director Brewster seamlessly fuse together an array of influences – the aforementioned Lovecraftian mythos and Slender Man-like lore, as well as the likes of classic M.R. James style ghost stories, contemporary J-Horror imagery (most evident in some of the later scenes), old folktales and myths, ancient gods and legendary monsters, to create a film that feels wholly original and striking in its scope. Throughout is the unshakable notion that we are somehow witnessing the exhumation of some secret, ancient and dreadful thing, so detailed and authentic feeling is the mythology woven about it. Shades of folk horror abound as James learns that the land around his childhood home is notorious for its tragic and disturbing history, steeped in bygone Scottish lore and pagan ritual. No good can come of him staying there again.

Brewster adopts an effective slow-burn approach, teasing us with glimpses of James’s spectral stalker. As his nightmares intensify, and with them the closing in of a familiar, watching presence, the director creates some truly creepy imagery. The figure of the Owl Man is a deeply sinister one and, much in the same way John Carpenter revealed the presence of Michael Myers throughout Halloween – standing in the distance or on the periphery of the screen (and the glimpses of the Slender Man in online photos) he is so effective because of his stillness; and the patient, dark and quietly encroaching intent this stillness suggests. When he speaks it is through James’s dreams, and his voice is provided by David Schofield (An American Werewolf in London, F) who intones all manner of apocalyptic threats through darkly eloquent verse.



Lord of Tears takes its time to establish its characters and their complex dynamics. James (Euan Douglas) is a man haunted by events in his childhood, racing towards a doomful inevitability evoked through a chilling atmosphere, moody location and a script that reveals its horrors slowly, assuredly and provocatively. Much like the protagonists in the work of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, he is a scholarly loner who buries himself in research and academia. Before long, a strong emotional core becomes evident in his relationship with Eve (Lexy Hulme), a similarly lonely and haunted American woman who has strange ties with his ancestral home. Both struggle to reconcile themselves with their pasts and their tentative interactions provide a little warmth in an otherwise desolate landscape.



Enhancing the shivery atmosphere is the impeccable sound design which heightens every creaking floorboard and draughty hallway, and the beautiful cinematography which perfectly captures the lonely, bleak beauty of the Scottish Highlands. The score features dark and foreboding soundscapes full of abstract threat, rubbing shoulders with mournful violin solos and moody piano pieces, underpinning the tragedy encircling the protagonists, like vultures around carrion.

Lord of Tears is a truly haunting work and one that marks Brewster and co as filmmakers to keep an eye out for. With its striking imagery, spooky Gaelic-gothic atmosphere, intriguing folklore and creepy-as-hell antagonist, it's a rich and full-blooded ghost story perfect for the dark winter nights ahead.

Also worth mentioning is the packaging and presentation of the film; it comes in a collector’s edition CD-sized digipak brimming with bonus features, including a soundtrack CD and a booklet which provides more background on the vivid mythology of the Owl Man. This is all carefully wrapped in black crepe paper and sealed with an owl's feather. If that wasn’t enough, there is also a downloadable 440 page PDF booklet which covers all aspects of the production. The care and attention to detail that has gone into creating this package speaks of the dedication of the filmmakers to making Lord of Tears a truly unique film experience.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Haunted Palace

1963
Dir. Roger Corman

While it takes its name from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, The Haunted Palace is actually an adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It’s still regarded as one of the titles in Corman’s Poe cycle, not only because of its title, but because of its shared aesthetic; a gloomily literate script, unyieldingly grim atmosphere, preoccupation with death and mourning, and a household plagued by its dark secrets. There is also the presence of one Vincent Price, a stalwart of Corman’s Poe adaptations. While the director had actually been keen to move away from Poe adaptations, he was persuaded not to buck the trend by producers, as their Poe films had been immensely successful. A compromise was reached - the film would be an adaptation of Lovecraft, but would take its title from a poem by Poe. It successfully entwines the themes and sensibilities of both writers and emerges as one of the best horror films made by Corman at this time.

Lovecraft’s story concerns the titular character’s growing obsession with his wizard ancestor Joseph Curwan, who he not only physically resembles, but after a while, begins to act like, too. Finally locating his ancestor’s remains, Ward resurrects Curwan through the use of weird alchemical practices. Turns out Curwan is a necromancy practising serial killer with vampiric tendencies who resumes his rein of evil and eventually murders Ward and assumes his identity in order to continue his ghastly research…



The script by Charles Beaumont (The Masque of the Red Death, The Premature Burial) retains the essence of Lovecraft’s novella and incorporates certain elements of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Thing on the Doorstep. It features Mr Price as Charles Dexter Ward who, upon returning to his ancestral castle home in order to sell it, becomes possessed by the wicked spirit of his great great grandfather, Joseph Curwan, who was burned as a warlock by the townsfolk of Arkham for his dalliances in the dark arts. But not before he placed a curse on them, dooming their ancestors to all manner of grisly fates… His oppressive will and influence enables him to inhabit Ward’s body (reminiscent of events in Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep) and continue his macabre intentions to connect with the Old Ones - a frenzied pantheon of sinister, life-extinguishing entities from the outer reaches of space. They once ruled the earth, but now lay dormant – ‘dead but dreaming’ – waiting for a time when ‘the stars are right’ to return and eradicate human existence.



Typical of Corman’s Poe Cycle, The Haunted Palace was shot on a fairly restrictive budget using sets from other productions. Corman’s direction is stately and sombre and his camera sweeps gracefully through dark, cobweb adorned hallways, misty village streets and dank, shadowy dungeons. The production design courtesy of Daniel Haller (who would go on to direct adaptations of The Colour Out of Space and The Dunwich Horror) is typically elegant and helps to elevate the film to a much grander, opulent seeming scale. The studio bound sets lend proceedings an almost otherworldly atmosphere as Corman ups the Gothicism, with blue-lit fog swirling around ancient gravestones, crashing thunderstorms in the night, and terrified maidens tip-toeing wide-eyed through darkened rooms. A gloomy atmosphere presides over everything and memorably macabre moments are laced throughout, such as the scene where Ward and his wife are slowly surrounded by the deformed townsfolk - revealing the terrible fate that Ward’s ancestor condemned them to. This moment seems to be inspired more by The Shadow Over Innsmouth than anything in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, as the former featured a town peopled by monstrous hybrids, the result of mating between humans and creepy deities.



The cast includes a few recognisable faces from the genre, such as Lon Chaney Junior, who has a small but memorable role as one of Curwan’s necromantic accomplices and whose introduction serves as a particularly effective jump scare, Debra Paget (Tales of Terror) and Elisha Cook (Rosemary’s Baby, House on Haunted Hill). Vincent Price carries the film in the duel role of Ward/Curwan, delivering distinct performances for both. He deftly conveys the psychological battle which rages full force behind his eyes as Curwan seeks to usurp Ward and use his body to continue his evil practices. As Ward he is gentle and mild mannered, but when he flashes a sly, side-long glance full of malice and spite, we know that Curwan is on the prowl.

The Haunted Palace retains much of Lovecraft’s characteristic pessimism and bleak outlook, with poor Ward eventually loosing his internal battle with Curwan and disappearing forever. Elsewhere, Lovecraftian themes of tainted ancestry and the sins of the fathers take centre stage, and things culminate in an attempted ritualistic sacrifice in the dungeon of the castle, which affords us a glimpse of a tentacled monster emerging from a well...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dagon

2001
Dir. Stuart Gordon

Despite its title, Gordon’s film is not an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story of the same name. While it certainly borrows elements and themes from it, Dagon is an adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s 1936 novella which tells of a Miskatonic University student’s fateful visit to the titular dilapidated coastal town to study the architecture and weird folklore. While there, he encounters hostility from the bizarre locals who are revealed to be amphibious mutants; the result of an ancient pact between the towns forefathers and a race of sea dwelling creatures known as the Deep Ones…

Gordon had planned to direct an adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth back in the 80s, but funding constantly evaded him. When his friend and collaborator Brian Yuzna founded the Spanish production company Fantastic Factory in the early 2000s, Gordon was finally able to realise his project. Dagon is a no nonsense, old-fashioned feeling horror flick that hits the ground running and rarely pauses for breath. With its atmospheric locations, creepy set pieces and grotesque monsters, it remains relatively faithful to the source material, with Gordon conjuring an air of foreboding dread and tension Lovecraft would be proud of. His assured direction and brisk pace help maintain suspense as events consistently go from bad to worse for our hapless protagonists; fresh-faced businessman Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño). Once they are stranded on the island of Imboca after their yacht runs into a reef during a storm, the film gradually becomes one long chase scene, building in tension and atmosphere as they discover the islanders plan to sacrifice them to an ancient ocean dwelling deity called Dagon.



The locals illicit a strange combination of pity and repulsion; hobbling around with their deformed bodies they seem ill at ease on land. It’s revealed they are the result of years of mating between their forefathers and the Deep Ones. The make-up effects are strikingly effective and all the webbed extremities, tentacles and bloated, pulsating gills help establish the queasy look of the creatures as described by Lovecraft. Some of 'em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain't quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst - fact is, I don't believe I've ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Animals hate 'em - they used to have lots of horse trouble before the autos came in. Some critics have suggested that Lovecraft’s handling of the morbid unions between different species in Innsmouth reflected his own not very nice opinions on interracial marriage.



CGI is used sparingly, and while some of it has dated, the practical make-up effects still stand up. The rain-soaked location also enhances the weird atmosphere, as Paul attempts to take cover in various half-submerged and dripping shacks, town houses and abandoned churches. As Yuzna’s production company was based in Spain, the action is shifted from Lovecraft’s preferred New England setting to the island of Imboca off the coast of Spain. Gordon really taps into the same putrid feelings of unease and disgust Lovecraft evoked through his presentation of the locals and their ungodly cross-breeding, but he goes a step further with some of the violence. Don’t forget, this is the man who brought us the splat-fest that is Reanimator. He can do gore. Characters are flayed, stabbed, immolated, ritualistically sacrificed to a giant sea-beast and forced to procreate with the amphibious denizens of the island. Icky stuff.

Ezra Godden is perfect as the reluctant hero who gradually discovers he shares an ancestry with the residents of the island. Mild mannered, clumsy and at times really rather cowardly; he is often thwarted by his own inadequacies and a few moments of dark humour are drawn from his desperation. Godden ensures he’s still a very likable character, and one we root for. At times he resembles a young Jeffrey Combs; he can certainly muster the same zany charisma of that particular Gordon/Lovecraft stalwart. He is ably supported by a cast of mainly Spanish actors, including Luis Buñuel favourite Francisco Rabal as Ezequiel, the town’s resident drunk and last remaining human who reveals the sordid history of the place to Paul.



Gordon also incorporates elements of Lovecraft’s short story Dagon, a little slice of terror detailing the nightmarish encounter a sailor has when he is marooned on a landmass revealed to be part of the ocean floor, mysteriously risen to the surface. While exploring its fetid environs he spies a number of carved pillars and something unspeakable that crawls out of the dark sea to straddle them in an ungodly act of worship. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by descriptions of the landscape, atmosphere and feelings of terror they instil in the narrator. It all culminates in psychological meltdown and a haunting finale.

Kudos must go to Gordon for retaining much of Lovecraft’s characteristic hopelessness. His tales usually don’t end well for his protagonists, and while Dagon could arguably be described as having a ‘happy ending’ (Paul’s creepy underwater dreams foreshadow his fate and ties with the fishy residents of Imboca), it’s a fitting end that hinges on one of Lovecraft’s major preoccupations: tainted ancestry.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Dunwich Horror

1970
Dir. Daniel Haller

When she becomes acquainted with softly spoken oddball Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), little does perky student Nancy Wagner realise that he plans to use her in a ghastly ritual to summon forth the Old Ones; ancient entities slumbering in another dimension, waiting until the stars are right so they can return to earth. And mate.

Based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name (written in 1928, published in 1929), this was Daniel Haller’s second adaption of the author’s work, following on from Die Monster Die. Lovecraft’s story concerns Wilbur Whateley, the son of a half-witted albino mother and ‘unknown father’ and the strange events that surround his hometown of Dunwich. Wilbur is instructed in the ways of the occult by his fiendish grandfather and eventually attempts to acquire a copy of The Necronomicon to help him summon the Old Ones. Cattle, and people, go missing in the surrounding area and there’s talk of something hiding in the Whateley house, growing so big it occupies the entire interior. When Wilbur is killed trying to steal a copy of The Necronomicon, the bulging and entirely invisible entity living in the house bursts out and wrecks destruction throughout the surrounding countryside. Various professors of arcane literature from Miskatonic University are summoned to help destroy the rampaging thing; eventually revealed to be Wilbur's twin brother, though it "looked more like the father than Wilbur did." The opening descriptions of the landscapes and countryside around Arkham are amongst Lovecraft’s most atmospheric, desolate and dense, and his descriptions of the vast and writhing ‘Horror’ (all tentacles and bulging, unblinking eyes) is pretty creepy stuff.



While Haller’s take on the story sticks closely enough to the basic plot, it differs with the inclusion of Sandra Dee as Wilbur’s love interest, Nancy. There are actually very few female characters in Lovecraft’s work, let alone female characters who act as love interests for the male protagonists – Lovecraft’s leading men were austere and scholarly and had no time for such dalliances. As mentioned, the basic elements remain intact, such as the revelation that both Wilbur and his brother (the titular Horror) had been born from a ritualistic encounter between their mother and something not quite human, and Wilbur’s attempts to gain The Necronomicon and use it in a ritual to summon the Old Ones, only to be stopped by scholars from Miskatonic University. At times the film possesses a Corman-esque quality (not surprising, he produced it), particularly in the interiors of the Whateley house and the matte painting of the cliff top temple, which bears a resemblance to imagery glimpsed in a few of Corman’s Poe films. The inclusion of the idea of whippoorwills as soul collectors, their chirping coinciding with souls departing from mortal bodies, seems thrown in for the hell of it, whereas in Lovecraft’s story, the presence of these birds was a reminder of the weird atmosphere abounding throughout the lands around the Whateley house.



Haller does muster a wonderful Lovecraftian atmosphere at times – indeed, the ingenious opening title animation perfectly captures the Lovecraftian notion of some vast, unknowable entity rising up out of what we perceive to be normal and devouring us, as the landscape two silhouetted figures climb across reveals itself to be a living thing. Some of Lovecraft’s occult ritualism is successfully evoked in the third act, as Wilbur reads from The Necronomicon and prepares Sandra for a mating ritual with whatever unspeakable terror he calls forth. Elsewhere the pacing and tone are uneven and there are moments of utterly turgid dialogue – case in point “Why don’t you take this copy of The Necronomicon and return it to the library, hmm?” There are also 'far out' dream sequences in which Nancy is menaced by frolicking hippies on a giant bed in a field, filmed through weird filters. The conviction of Stockwell et al manages to maintain a sense of intrigue though, as does the lurid promise of the revelation of what is hiding in the attic room of the Whateley residence… Much like certain scenes in Die Monster Die, Haller piles on the trippy visuals and psychedelic effects when the Horror is finally revealed. Dean Stockwell’s performance is strangely mesmerising; half tongue-in-cheek, half deadly serious, he does sinister-suave very well. His incarnation of Wilbur Whateley is nothing like that as envisioned by Lovecraft though; in the short story Wilbur was a socially-inept in-bred mutant who just about got away with venturing into the town of Dunwich, striking fear and repulsion into those who cast eyes on him.


Lovecraft was deeply inspired by the Welsh author and mystic, Arthur Machan, when penning The Dunwich Horror. Machan’s weird tales - including The Great God Pan, The Novel of the Black Seal and The White People – often featured the revelation that a strange central character was not of human parentage. Lovecraft actually came under fire from critics at the time who viewed the uncharacteristic ending of the tale – good defeating evil – as a sell-out. Others claim The Dunwich Horror is intended as a pastiche of the weird tales of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, indeed, of his own work.

Castle Freak

1992
Dir. Stuart Gordon

Not so much loosely based on HP Lovecraft’s The Outsider (written in 1921, published in 1926) as it is deeply inspired by it, Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak tells of troubled couple John and Susan (Jeffrey Combs! Barbara Crampton!) and their blind daughter who travel to Italy to sell off an ancient castle John inherited from his aunt. Not long after they arrive, things start to go bump in the night and strange events occur, not least the daughter's claims that she is visited in the night by a stealthy prowler. When the mutilated bodies of the housekeeper and a local prostitute are discovered it becomes clear that the castle houses a secret inhabitant…

Stuart Gordon is no stranger to the macabre visions of Lovecraft having adapted Herbert West – Reanimator, From Beyond, Dreams in the Witch House and The Shadow Over Innsmouth for the screen. With Castle Freak he didn’t so much adapt The Outsider as take its central themes – and one specific moment – to flesh out a moody Gothic yarn with heaps of atmosphere, food for thought and a cast of cult favourites. Lovecraft’s tale, relayed in a first-person narrative, concerns a mysterious individual who has been living alone in the dank crypt of a castle for as long as he can remember. He articulates his need for human contact and decides to break free from his dark domain. Climbing up, and up, and up, and eventually out of the darkness, he discovers another castle in which a large party is in full swing. When his presence is noted by the guests, they flee in abject terror, making him believe he has been followed by some hideous monster. Staggering around in search of his stalker he catches a glimpse of something not of this world – or no longer of this world – yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty of the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more. Almost fainting he falls towards it and feels nothing but the cold and unyielding surface of polished glass: a mirror.



Critics have claimed that The Outsider is one of Lovecraft’s most autobiographical tales, with its strange narrator haunted by his outward appearance, shunned and feared by all who encounter him. Lovecraft expert ST Joshi suggests this is also Lovecraft’s ode to the work of Poe and sure enough, the Gothic influence of Poe has rarely been more pronounced as it is in The Outsider. The entire narrative and core motif of the short story is conveyed in one scene in Castle Freak, where the pitiful creature eventually escapes its shackles in the dungeon and tentatively ventures up into the castle above, moving along a dark hallway with a mirror at the end of it, to eventually catch a glimpse of itself and despair at its own hideous reflection. It’s a moment tinged with horror and sadness, perfectly conveying the monster’s pathetic, pitiable plight. It’s revealed that the creature is man-made – the result of tyrannical parentage and child abuse, locked away in a dungeon for years, only to escape when a new family takes up residence. Lovecraft’s own mother was reputed to have commented on her son’s ‘hideous face’ on more than one occasion…



Gordon injects Castle Freak with the Lovecraftian theme of the past returning to haunt the present, with an ancestral home revealing dark family secrets (as in The Festival and The Rats in the Walls to name but two) and a central character becoming embroiled by horrors from his family’s past. Indeed, John’s own dark past and complicated back-story is deftly revealed in a dream sequence depicting the car crash that killed his son. Links between John and the cellar-dwelling creature are also made clear in a moment, dripping with notions of Freud’s ‘primal scene’, when John discovers the family crypt and sees a photo of the monster as a child and bearing an uncanny resemblance to his own dead son. Unbeknownst to him, the monster is watching him from the shadows, seeing him as a father figure. When John hits the bottle again he brings home a prostitute, and later, when the monster mimics what he saw John doing to her, things take a turn for the bloody. The image of the monster, swathed in a white bed sheet soiled with blood, childishly prodding at the prostitute is a haunting one.


Gordon carefully fleshes out the characters, which are further bolstered by decent performances from Combs and Crampton. Even the minor stock characters such as the housekeeper and the hooker aren’t your usual stereotypes. Elements of The Shining also trickle throughout proceedings; a highly dysfunctional family (alcoholic father, confused mother, incapacitated and vulnerable youngster) moving to a vast and sprawling location only to encounter horror there, not only at the hands of one another, but from something that has resided there long before they arrived… The third act is essentially compromised of a prolonged and taut chase sequence through the spooky castle, as lighting flashes, thunder crashes and rain lashes.

Castle Freak is the stuff of high gothic horror and yet, typical of Gordon, manages to be fun and deceptively thoughtful, as it brims with subtext concerning the horror of child abuse, familial strife and the violent legacy it can perpetuate.