H.P. Lovecraft

The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller)

There’s a handful of good things about The Dunwich Horror. They can’t overcome the bad things, but they’re still pretty neat. The script, at least for a while, is fairly nimble. There’s a lot of bad exposition from old dudes Ed Begley and Lloyd Bochner, but the younger folks do quite a bit better. See, Dunwich ought to be hip, but it’s not. The script knows it needs to be hip; director Haller can’t do it. And even if he could do it, cinematographer Richard C. Glouner couldn’t do it. Editor Christopher Holmes tries to be hip with his cutting. He doesn’t do a good job of it and the film’s poorly edited, but he is at least on the same page as the script as far as tone.

Because it’s Dean Stockwell as this smarmy geek who manages to seduce little Sandra Dee away from college with promises of hippie orgies and such. It’s a great idea for a smart genre picture. And Haller butchers every minute of it. There’s some solid dialogue from Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky. There’s good characterization of Donna Baccala as Dee’s concerned friend. There’s nothing to be done about Begley and Bochner however. They both refuse to chew at the scenery. They just look miserable instead.

The sets are fairly awful. They’re poorly lit, but they’d still be pretty bad. Dunwich is never pragmatic when it needs to be, except with some of the special effects.

And here’s the other big bad in Dunwich. The last third of the movie when Haller’s trying to do monster suspense. He butchers it, over and over and over and over and over again. Every time it seems like something might actually be creepy or scary, he screws it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch, just because there’s never anything going for it and it’s all Haller’s fault.

I mean, even the perv shots of Dee’s body double writhing in Cthulic anticipation get cut with some kookiness from Stockwell. He goes nuts for the part while still maintaining this creepy sweet guy thing. It’s an awesome performance. Not good, just extremely entertaining. In terms of actual acting, Baccala and Talia Shire are the best. Dee’s okay but she eventually becomes, well, a human sacrifice.

Finally, the music. Les Baxter’s score is hip, romantic, lush, subdued and a dozen other things. It doesn’t always get cut right–because Holmes is bad at the editing thing–but it’s always kind of amazing. It’s a delight in an almost delightful mess. But Haller and Glouner just tank it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Daniel Haller; screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Richard C. Glouner; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Les Baxter; produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Sandra Dee (Nancy Wagner), Ed Begley (Dr. Henry Armitage), Donna Baccala (Elizabeth Hamilton), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Cory), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), Talia Shire (Nurse Cora) and Joanne Moore Jordan (Lavinia Whateley).


From Beyond (1986, Stuart Gordon), the director’s cut

I’m having a hard time with this one. The From Beyond movie poster and VHS box scared the crap out of me as a kid. Even now, having seen the movie and knowing there’s nothing as visually creepy in the film itself, the imagery disturbs me. Villain Ted Sorel apparently having his face melted off. Only he’s not. He’s growing into a huge flesh monster. The film goes all out with Sorel’s flesh monster, while admirably executed, it’s not convincingly executed. From Beyond can’t do with its budget what it wants to do with its special effects and director Gordon doesn’t quite know how to compensate.

Turning Barbara Crampton into an uncontrollable nymphomaniac for a fourth or fifth of the runtime is one of screenwriter Dennis Paoli’s solutions. It’s not a successful solution, it’s an unfortunate one. Crampton plays a compassionless psychiatrist charged with figuring out if crazy man Jeffrey Combs (who’s pretty darn good) is really crazy or if he and Sorel did figure out a way to activate the sixth sense.

From Beyond has a lot of neat ideas but Gordon and Paoli don’t translate them into any good ideas for the film. Even after it promises Crampton, Combs and a wonderfully affable Ken Foree in a haunted mansion, it doesn’t deliver. Crampton and Combs have no romantic chemistry, which gets to be a problem. Especially since–even though Combs can imply a creepy romantic chemistry–all Crampton is doing is a nymphomaniac trope. Sure, she’s being influenced by an enlarged pineal gland but it’s awful. It’s not disturbing because the special effects aren’t good enough. And, like I said before, Gordon doesn’t know how to compensate.

Good supporting performance from Carolyn Purdy-Gordon.

There’s a lot of good technical work on From Beyond. Editor Lee Percy does a fantastic job. Mac Ahlberg’s photography provides a visual continuity Gordon’s direction does not. Richard Band’s music is good. Even Gordon does well, just not when he’s doing the haunted mansion sci-fi stuff. He seems to be banking on the appeal of the cheesy special effects; From Beyond is supposed to be absurdly funny and Gordon just tries too hard to get there. In the end, it’s not absurd, it’s not funny, it’s just exasperating. And with a less than ninety minute runtime, exasperating is a terrible quality. Especially since there’s so much energy and enthusiasm (in so many bad directions).

Hell, I’m exasperated just trying to talk about it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Gordon; screenplay by Dennis Paoli, based on an adaptation by Brian Yuzna, Paoli and Gordon of the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Lee Percy; music by Richard Band; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; produced by Yuzna; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Combs (Crawford Tillinghast), Barbara Crampton (Dr. Katherine McMichaels), Ted Sorel (Dr. Edward Pretorius), Ken Foree (Bubba Brownlee), Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Dr. Bloch), Bruce McGuire (Jordan Fields) and Bunny Summers (Neighbor Lady).


Re-Animator (1985, Stuart Gordon)

Re-Animator. A romantic comedy about wacky med students who contend with vindictive deans, lecherous professors and student loans. With some good, old-fashioned decapitation thrown in.

No. That description is way too reductive. Even though it’s technically correct.

Director Gordon recognizes that camp possibility for the film, but he never lets the camp overwhelm the characters. No matter how loony its characters get, Re-Animator never plays them for laughs. And Gordon’s got Jeffrey Combs in one of the great comedic performances (undoubtedly so, as Jim Carrey aped Combs in most of his films to box office success) but he’s also got a very difficult role for David Gale. As the aforementioned lech, Gale’s got to make his not-so-brilliant, but way too ambitious surgeon believable through a rather extraordinary character arc. Gale, Gordon–and Gordon’s co-screenwriters, Dennis Paoli and William Norris–make it work, with Gale’s character revealing important ground situation details late in the film. They planted the seeds to these details early and then, to continue the metaphor, watered them discreetly.

If it weren’t for Combs’s awesomeness, Gale would give the film’s best performance.

But Gordon doesn’t have any weak performances in Re-Animator. Lead Bruce Abbott, the straight-edge preppy med student, gets a great arc thanks to his serendipitous introduction to Combs. And he gets that romantic comedy subplot with Barbara Crampton. It’s set in a med school, so she’s dean Robert Sampson’s daughter and he doesn’t approve. But most med school romantic comedies don’t involve getting your girlfriend’s father killed and then reanimating his corpse.

Re-Animator certainly has one up on the rest of the genre there.

Abbott and Crampton are both good. Abbott’s able to sell a somewhat complicated arc. Crampton’s just a damsel in distress but she’s still good.

Some excellent photography from Mac Ahlberg and Robert Ebinger–Gordon plays with depth a lot, to great effect–and the cinematography’s essential. Same with Lee Percy’s editing, especially in Combs’s scenes. Speedily cut scenes always have these wonderful punctuation shots with Combs.

And Richard Band’s music is awesome. Playful, mischievous, saccharine.

Re-Animator is an elegant film. With some great, gross special effects.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Gordon; screenplay by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Gordon, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; directors of photography, Robert Ebinger and Mac Ahlberg; edited by Lee Percy; music by Richard Band; produced by Brian Yuzna; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West), Bruce Abbott (Dan Cain), Barbara Crampton (Megan Halsey), David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill), Robert Sampson (Dean Halsey), Gerry Black (Mace) and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Dr. Harrod).

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, Sean Branney)

Given the filmmakers are members of an organization dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft stuff, I’m going to assume the plot problems with The Whisperer in Darkness are from the source material. As in, the stupid stuff is in the original and they just left it in. Maybe they thought it was good, maybe they thought it was bad, regardless, Whisperer is pretty dumb.

Worse, it’s a mess as a film. It’s in black and white, but it’s shot on DV and DV is unforgiving. Why have CG monsters and electrical effects if you’ve got paper macho sets? It creates a disjointed visual experience and it is often jarring.

Speaking of jarring, it’s also disconcerting when director Branney doesn’t use a low angle shot or pan. He loves low angle shots and he loves panning. Whisperer‘s direction is tiresome.

Maybe if the film had been made as a comedy, it might’ve worked. But it’s serious and, sadly, it’s not even good at being serious. The silly visualization of disembodied heads, apparently in an attempt to fit in a forties style (along with the black and white), don’t match with the surprisingly good CG aliens.

Lead Matt Foyer is quite good. He wouldn’t have been able to sell it as a gag. Matt Lagan is also good. Actually, none of the performances are bad.

Also, Vermont hicks aren’t a scary villain group. It’s not Deliverance country… it’s Ben & Jerry’s country.

While interesting in its failures, Whisperer is a complete waste of time.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sean Branney; screenplay by Andrew Leman and Branney, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, David Robertson; edited and produced by Robertson; music by Troy Sterling Nies; production designer, Leman.

Starring Matt Foyer (Albert Wilmarth), Matt Lagan (Nathaniel Ward), Daniel Kaemon (P.F. Noyes), Stephen Blackehart (Charlie Tower), Autumn Wendel (Hannah Masterson), Caspar Marsh (Will Masterson), Barry Lynch (Henry Akeley), Joe Sofranko (George Akeley) and Andrew Leman (Charles Fort).


Die, Monster, Die! (1965, Daniel Haller)

For the first three quarters of Die, Monster, Die!, the biggest mystery in the film is how wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff gets around so well. The lifts become visible in the last act.

Karloff’s British upper crust whose family name has fallen on hard times thanks to an embarrassing father. Satanic ritual embarrassing, not hounding the ladies embarrassing. He’s also stupid. Karloff has a really hard time with that part of the role. He’s not convincingly dumb… or dangerous for that matter.

Still, he does better than Nick Adams. Adams is the young American courting Karloff’s daughter. Adams’s hair is Monster‘s second great mystery. Why aren’t there any scenes of him pomading it? Especially since he has an indoor style and an outdoor one.

When Monster is good–and Adams’s investigation of the creepy goings-on often aren’t bad–Adams is serviceable. Sadly he’s never convincing as Suzan Farmer’s suitor. He comes off like a protective younger bother (I forgot to mention, Adams looks like he’s twelve).

Farmer is quite good, even if Jerry Sohl’s script seems to give her good material by accident. As her ailing mother, Freda Jackson is excellent.

Director Haller does a great job fifty percent of the time. He’ll fully utilize the wide screen one shot, then do something lame the next. It’s frustrating, especially since he’s got fine photography from Paul Beeson. Alfred Cox’s editing, however, is a disaster.

While the multiple (weak) endings hurt the picture, there’s definitely some good stuff to it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Daniel Haller; screenplay by Jerry Sohl, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Alfred Cox; music by Don Banks; produced by Pat Green; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Nahum Witley), Nick Adams (Stephen Reinhart), Freda Jackson (Letitia Witley), Suzan Farmer (Susan Witley), Terence de Marney (Merwyn) and Patrick Magee (Dr. Henderson).


The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Andrew Leman)

Here’s an interesting one. A modern silent drama. When I saw Gance’s Napoleon at Northwestern, someone besides a film professor introduced it. I can’t remember what he did, but he was just a big fan of silent films. In his brief introduction, he talked about how silent films and talkies vary not just by the audio, but by the storytelling methods. The Call of Cthulhu is a silent drama. The goal of the filmmakers (the H.P. Lovecraft historical society) was to adapt the 1920s story in that time period’s film medium. From the language of the title cards to the expressions and make-up of the actors, they succeed.

The silent drama is more of a visual storytelling medium than the talkie. Through the 1930s, when people were getting used to talkies, you still had some of these visuals–communicating information to the audience through a means outside the characters’ experience. A reasonable modern example is the maps (the moving dots) in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not a precise example, but it’s a similar method. While these visuals do not currently “work” in film, in The Call of Cthulhu, they’re brilliant. The original story–I’ve never read any Lovecraft and don’t necessarily plan to do so, but he’s got a lot of great fans (John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro)–is multi-layered, four or five story timelines going on at once, and the visual storytelling allows easy understanding for the audience.

The film’s official website attests there’s no CG, but some of the direction is obviously influenced by post-1920s work. It’s not disconcerting at all and I only noticed the shots because I watched the film with such mad love. With many of the “location” sequences, there’s raw, brilliant filmmaking innovation. CG has all but done destroyed that sort of innovation (to the point it’s surprising to find out something is not CG), and The Call of Cthulhu certainly shows film needs that innovation–needs that struggle–to achieve. This particular film achieves a whole lot through such innovation.

Though the film is out on DVD and has been reviewed at many mainstream DVD websites, Netflix isn’t carrying it, so it’s $20 from the official website. (You can also get it at Amazon). It’s well-worth the price.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Leman; adaptation and screenplay by Sean Brannery, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, David Robertson; edited by Robertson; music by Chad Fifer, Ben Holbrook, Troy Sterling Nies, Nicholas Pavkovic; produced by Brannery and Leman; released by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Starring Chad Fifer (Henry Wilcox), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Matt Foyer (The Man) and John Bolen (The Listener).


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