Dir. Daniel Haller
Written by Curtis Hanson (?!) and Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky
Starring Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Sandra Dee, Talia Shire
Loosely based on the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name, this schlocky 70s Roger Corman / Arkoff/Nicholson production finds a young Dean Stockwell as a strange young man who is a little too interested in getting his hands on the unabridged copy of the nefarious Necronomicon that the local college conveniently stocks.
If there ever has been a film adaptation that truly lived up to Lovecraft’s talents, I’ve never seen it. Stuart Gordon has had some good attempts, and of course there’s that NECRONOMICON anthology I watched earlier this month, but to really capture that epic, almost philosophical horror that makes Lovecraft unique is a hard thing to do, in the same way it’s so difficult to capture that romantic melancholy which has thwarted so many who try to adapt the works of Poe. Corman tried both many times, and I’ve never seen one which I thought really succeeded. Director Daniel Haller is not the guy to beat the odds, but he does bring some nice touches which ensure that this one isn’t a total wash.
|A nice spot for a romantic picnic/sacrifice/demon impregnation|
For one thing, even though the adaptation is loose most of Lovecraft’s fundamental ideas are still pretty well represented. You still got Stockwell name-dropping Yog-Sothoth, still got the insane mom impregnated by an extradimensional demon, still got an aspiring young hellraiser seeking out the Necronomicon in search of the the secret recipe for cooking up the return of an Elder God. The details are there, and I think it was a genuinely earnest attempt to adapt Lovecraft’s world to film (its biggest alteration is its decided non-Lovecraftian tendency to remember that women exist). But really, more of it’s DNA comes from its Corman/Arkoff/Nicholson production than from the land of Cthulu. That means pretensions of gothy atmosphere mixed with swinging 70’s psychedelia and amateurish production elements. That can sometimes be a fun time on it’s own, but mostly it means inert productions which mostly consist of iffy acting in overlit but impressively constructed castle sets. Which is the case here.
Stockwell, actually, is quite good as the not-quite human Wilbur Whateley, bringing a sort of understated anger masked by softness to the role. Problem is, he’s kind of a cypher and usually up to no good, but there’s not really any other character for the viewer to identify with. Ed Begley (in his last role!) crops up from time to time and ultimately has to save the day, but really he mostly just delivers exposition and sits around. Sandra “Gidget” Dee falls under Whateley’s spell early on and spends most of the rest of the film in an undressed stupor. Talia Shire is her friend who briefly seems like she’s going to try to put a stop to the madness, but it’s Talia Shire so we're not entirely shocked to see her raped to (spoiler) death by a many-(spoiler)tentacled (end spoiler) monster. I mean, I guess we’re a little shocked. Maybe the fact that it’s shot in alternative negative gradients to show us how Ca-raaaazy it is helps soften the blow. Which ultimately leaves us with just Stockwell, far and away the only compelling character anywhere in sight. We even kind of understand why he wants to destroy mankind when we see how fucked up the local Christian villagers treat him (they even interrupt his impromptu funeral for his own grandfather to tell him he can’t bury the old guy in a “Christian Cemetery”). But we’re not supposed to be rooting for this guy, are we?
|Isn't technology amazing. This is where Stanley Kubrick got the idea for 2001, no question about it.|
Ironically, my fellow horror-marathoner Dan P. thought it unraveled at the end, whereas I though it actually picked up some steam. After a grueling expository slog* of mildy entertaining but overlong psychedelic mumbo jumbo which is only occasionally weird enough to be interesting, the end seems to get a little bit of life as the editing quickens, the photography gets more focused, the monsters get loose, and people start getting eaten and/or raped to death. For a second, it seems kind of like Stockwell may pull it off and you start to get a little excited to see where this is going. Unfortunately, the whole thing gets defused so easily it ends up feeling a little disappointing. How do you defeat a half-demon madman summoning an elder god into Gidget’s womb? You just yell some nonsense at him, and that takes care of that. Oh, I guess we needn’t have worried.
PS: I do like it’s Saul Bass-inspired credits sequence, however, which plays like a mix between the opening credits to VERTIGO and THE PINK PANTHER. If the rest of the movie had been that stylish and playful, we might really have had something
See Dan P's take here, as Abbot and Costello do something with something else etc..
*Most of the movie, by the way, is spent gradually discovering the “secret” which was the movie’s tagline. Not a great move.