Tuesday, October 2, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (1993) aka Necronomicon: Book of the Dead aka Necronomicon: To Hell and Back
Dir. Christopher Gans, Brian Yuzna, Shusuke Kaneko
Written by Kazunori Ito (GHOST IN THE SHELL), Brian Yunza, Christopher Gans, Brent T. Friedman
Starring Bruce Payne, Richard Lynch, David Warner, Jeffrey Combs

This is another one of those obscure horror movies that the studios renamed and re-postered about a hundred times in an fruitless effort to get some sales, but this is the video box art I remember from my Video Den days, so I'm sticking with it.

This is a scrappy little out-of-print horror anthology based (sometimes loosely) on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who we learn from the wrap-around story got many of his ideas by secretly copying stories out of the Necronomicon (which it turns out is kept closely guarded by a sect of austere monks, who knew? I guess after that whole EVIL DEAD incident they were taking no chances). The wrap-around is not strictly necessary or important, but it does have the welcomed effect of adding that equally unnecessary story-within-a-story thing that Lovecraft’s writing is so full of. The first segment, for instance, finds Jeffrey-Combs-as-Lovecraft reading a story about a realtor telling the story of a guy reading the story of another guy, which may be far enough down the rabbit hole to technically qualify as being in the matrix in the final statistics.

I was actually more interested in this because of Christopher Gans than I was because of Lovecraft. We all know by now that no one is ever going to make a good Lovecraft adaptation, so no point in getting excited about that aspect. Like fans of Philip Dick, Lovecraft fans have had to just come to terms with the idea that the best they’re going to get is Stuart Gordon, who does well-intentioned and watchable betrayals of Lovecraft’s work instead of the cynical and unconscionable ones we usually get. Gans, on the other hand, did the unique and mostly excellent BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF and SILENT HILL, so I thought that this -- his first feature-- would be worth tracking down.

Alas, his is the first of the three stories here, and while it does build to a suitably wild Elder-Godsy climax, it’s a long, convoluted slog to get there. Richard (GOD TOLD ME TO) Lynch is searching for his uncle’s Necronomicon, which he believes he can use to revive his adorable dead family. You can imagine about how well that works out for him. I actually sort of enjoy the way Lovecraft’s stories often utilize a framing device of a-story-told-to-the-author, because it can give them a kind of folkloric --even religious-- feel of antiquity and timelessness. But here on film, crammed into a scant 20 minutes of story, it just weighs things down unnecessarily and keeps the story from building much momentum until the very end. Oh well, it’s imaginatively perverse ending, at least, gets Lovecraft’s delicate mix of epic monsters and emotional horror pretty right. 

This is in there somewhere.

Surprisingly, though, the film gets better from there. Japanese director Shusuke Kaneko, --whose biggest career success so far seems to have been directing the first three GAMERA reboots*-- manages what I think may be the best segment, in which a young woman moves into a building with a mysterious reclusive upstairs neighbor who keeps his A/C running overtime. It helps that the always charmingly villainous David Warner (TIME BANDITS, WAXWORKS, and holy shit, I guess he was Kate Winslet’s asshole fiance’s asshole bodyguard in TITANIC) plays the frosty neighbor, but the whole thing works surprisingly well. For a fellah who made his living filming big guys in rubber suits stomping meticulously detailed miniatures of Tokyo,** Kaneko has a surprisingly subtle grasp on an example of perfect Lovecraftian horror which doesn’t focus on big rubbery monsters. The horror here comes from a very human fear of isolation, loneliness, and the betrayal of the body just as much as it comes from the profoundly icky scenario, and Kaneko pulls it off with a grace that really makes it work (he also manages to make much better use of yet another story-within-a-story setup than Gans does).

Finally, we get Brian Yuzna doing what Brian Yuzna does best: making enthusiastic, slightly unfocused, but ultimately enjoyable 90s horror crap. I think his story is about a cop who runs afoul of a serial killer who is working in collaboration with brain-snatching aliens who resemble those pesky power-cable chewing mynocks from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But I’m not sure, because I think we can agree that it A) doesn’t make a lick of sense and B) I was fairly drunk by this point. It’s colorful and weird and surreal, and even though it’s a pretty far cry from the Lovecraft story it takes some dubious origin in, it fits nicely as a capstone to this anthology which gradually gets weirder and trashier.

Obviously, this isn’t genre-redefining triumph of Lovecraftian insanity that no one expected it to be ever, but it is a pretty solid, honest effort at an anthology film which is by equal measures pulpy fun and classy horror. The film looks great, the special effects are cool and it's all especially impressive considering the whole film only cost 4 mil if wikipedia is to be believed. It’s funny that Gans would go on to bigger and better things while his two co-directors here would gradually decline into obscurity, but I guess that’s the kind of crazy convoluted logic you would expect the Necronomicon to deliver. Here, though, all three of these transcontinental maniacs turn in respectable work which honors, if not exactly matches, the awesome insanity of Lovecraft’s unique imagination. That alone is enough to thank Cthulu for. 

P.S. As this Octhorrorfest continues, check out Dan P's alternate take on the same material!

*Starring noted Steven Seagal daughter and avant-garde novelist Ayako Fujitani.

**That’s not a hurtful stereotype, by the way, that literally describes GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. 


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: Three, of varying faithfulness.
BOOBIES: I think there might be some in the second part, but if so pretty minor.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Some nice de-limbings and meltings.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: High. Ignored at the time, now out-of-print.
MONSTERS: As the day is long. A couple memorably Lovecrafty ones, too.
SATANISTS: Nah, just Elder Gods.
ZOMBIES: Not sure if David Warner is a Zombie or what, I guess not though.
VAMPIRES: Its way too weird for that.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: I believe she did.

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