Bleeders (1997) aka Hemoglobin aka Dark Harbour aka The Descendant
Dir. Peter Svatek
Written by Charles Adair, Roland Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, based on the story by H. P. Lovecraft
Ah, the age old question: “How have I never heard of this before? How could it possibly not be great?!” Those words strike fear into the heart of every true horror fan. Because they know, in their heart of hearts, that there’s a way. “John Boorman directs EXORCIST II, and James Earl Jones wears a Locust hat? There’s no way that’s not amazing!” or “Vampires fight werewolves with high powered weaponry, and Bill Nighy is the villain? It’s literally impossible that I won’t like this movie!” and of course, “Dario Argento’s directing a movie actually called GIALLO? And it stars Adrian Brody in a NUTTY PROFESSOR style double role? I already know this is the greatest movie in history, now I just need to see it.” I think we all know how badly each one of those scenarios turned out for mankind, against all possible odds. So if you’re a horror fan and you see some inexplicably obscure old movie with a great premise and top talent and yet you’ve never heard of it, it’s probably time to let that hope die, there’s almost certainly a good reason for that. You don’t, of course. You still go in hoping against hope that it was the world that got it wrong, that this was a misunderstood classic waiting to be rediscovered. Only to be disappointed again, and again, and again. To that sad list of shattered dreams we can now add, “A Lovecraft adaptation (co)written by Dan O’Bannon and Roland Shusett (ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL)? And starring Rutger Hauer? I think I may just have stumbled onto the King Tut’s Tomb of horror.”
Let’s not mince words: this movie is terrible. But I can kind of see what they were going for. They just didn’t get there. At all. Instead this limp, unpleasant creature feature based loosely on Lovecraft’s 1922 serial The Lurking Fear wastes what might on paper seem like an acceptable script on rambling time-wasting nonsense, broad, inept performances, and, most damningly, dishearteningly shitty creature design. I mean, you read my review of ROCK N ROLL NIGHTMARE, you know how easy it is to charm me even with some unbelievably low-rent monster muppets. The fact that the whole end of this movie is one long ugly puppet scene and even I found it a complete wasteland of entertainment should tell you pretty succinctly just how lazy all this is.
|I believe that all alien autopsies should be performed with an old man drinking beer from an armchair in the corner. It's how I roll, it's what I feel in my heart.|
Like all movies based on Lovecraft (and this is the third adaptation of this very story, following 1989’s DARK HERITAGE and 1994’s THE LURKING FEAR) there is a germ of a good idea here. Smug sunglass-sporting Eurotrash beefcake John (Roy Dupuis… holy cow, he was in MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT?) is suffering from some sort of rare genetic disorder, and he and his unbelievably accommodating wife Kathleen (Kristin Lehman, WAY OF THE GUN) are travelling back to a vaguely defined East Coast (of Canada) seaside town from whence John’s ancestors are reputed to have come, in the hopes of finding more information on his illness. What they discover about those ancestors will shock no one, but at least the movie keeps some of the more prurient aspects of Lovecraft’s dark imagination. The idea of searching for a disturbing ancestry is a good one; unfortunately in this case it only results in more lame ass muppets, and so there’s really nothing much to see here.
There are some piecemeal elements which might have added up to a better film at one point. A lot of it is shot on location in what appears to genuinely be a wind-swept coastal village lingering under an ominous iron sky (not the kind that has Nazis, don’t get excited). That means that despite the ugly cloths, this one is mostly free of the soul-deadeningly unappealing sitcom lighting and production design which ruined most of the horror movies of this period. Babyfaced hardbody Dupuis is ludicrously miscast as the wan, sickly John (it’s a part tailor-made for a Lovecraft look-alike, you morons) but he’s a decent actor and tries his best. Lehman does an admirable job in her underwritten wife role. And Rutger Hauer (HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA 3D) as a helpful local doctor can’t exactly be said to be working at the top of his game, but even phoning it in he’s easily the best thing in the movie, plus he has a sweet mustache. The script, written by Charles Adair (nothing, absolutely zero. Possible pen name for director Svatek?) and O’Bannon/Shusett has a sprinkling of interesting and disturbing ideas, unfortunately none of which are terribly well realized on screen. And there’s a pretty intense sex scene towards the end, appealingly coming right on the heels of a delightful scene where a major character eats a pickled baby.
|The face of failure.|
So there are some elements that could have been cobbled together into a decent Lovecraft flick (not that it would have a lot of competition in that department). The fact that they so unambiguously did not needs to be laid squarely at the feet of director Peter Svatek (Canadian TV movies), who finds almost nothing of potential interest in this whole endeavor that he cannot bungle. Acting is all over the place, mixing intense performances from Dupuis and Lehman with over-the-top, broad ones from other actors and dull nonacting from still others. The film is disastrously paced, with multiple extraneous characters running around with nothing to do besides sapping any hint of tension or build from the only story that actually matters. As befits its 90’s pedigree, it is utterly without atmosphere; that’s already a disaster for a Lovecraft story (which get most of their milage from implied menace), but it also makes the long wait before we see any monsters almost unbearably dull. Indifferent framings, poor sound, a score composed entirely on a keyboard which would stand out as laughable in a Full Moon Videos release, and --it bears repeating-- those pathetic blotches of sour mashed potatoes trying in vain to pass themselves off as Lovecraftian horrors… all movie-killing missteps which could have been avoided by anyone with even a passing working knowledge of cinema.
|Here, have this body. I don't want it anyway.|
One weird and unexpected side effect of this movie is that it made me actually appreciate CG effects. As you’re no doubt aware, I’m usually a practical effects hardliner, and I think most horror fans feel the same way. CG just makes things feel weightless and insubstantial, shiny and clean, and somehow seems to encourage boring, generic, or simply unappealing, overcomplicated monster designs with a million moving parts and zero personality. But this movie is a good reminder of the problems you can have with practical effects, too. Nevermind that the design here is just unforgivably shitty; you simply can’t believe these plodding, hairless blobs could genuinely pose a threat to anyone. It’s literally impossible to take them seriously as a threat. If you, a group of well-armed humans taking refuge in a lighthouse, can actually be endangered by a half-dozen legless dwarfs --who are, for god’s sake afraid of light!-- hobbling slowly along the ground towards you, frankly, you probably deserve what you get. Making them CG wouldn’t have helped the ugly design, but at least it might have made them look like they can do more than wobble towards you pulled along by strings or whatever. Puppets are a hard thing to make physically threatening, so if you’ve got absolutely no atmosphere or suspense built up by your story, you’ve really got nothing. Might as well at least make them look strong. If they end up looking weightless and shiny… well, at least they don’t look like total chumps.
Anyway, not even remotely close to a good movie here. This is not only a shame because it wastes yet another perfectly good opportunity to finally adapt a Lovecraft story into an actual half-decent movie, but because it ends with “in loving memory of [hair stylist and makeup artist] Henri Khouzam.” Uh, thanks guys, but I’m not sure this is the way he’d want to be remembered. It’s like how STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS ends with a dedication to the post-9/11 US Veterans. Geez, haven’t they suffered enough already? Hopefully ol’ Henri Khouzam also has a nice tombstone or something somewhere, just in case this movie doesn’t have the staying power they might have assumed when they put in the credits. The hair and makeup here look pretty good, though, so at least he’s got that.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Kind Adbullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. We miss ya, Abby.