Blade Runner: It’s supposed to be cult, not popular…

P1070640Well, I’m back from my holiday up in sunny (yes, really) Scotland and I’ve got my tickets booked for Blade Runner 2049 Thursday night. I was intending to wait until the following week (and I NEVER go to the cinema weekday evenings anymore) but what the hell, it’s been 35 years since Blade Runner first crossed my path, and while I’ve been avoiding reviews I have seen all those Twitter feeds last week with the hugely positive opinions of the movie. Words like ‘masterpiece’ and ‘superb’ and ‘modern sci-fi classic’ and even a few citing it as superior to the original (nonsense, obviously). So how can I possibly wait and risk spoiler apocalypse? Expect a review late Friday or Saturday, work permitting (maybe a sentence or two Thursday night).

I recall my postings on this blog back when the new film was first announced. Here we are, it is here. This is the week.

I must say, it has been a very strange past few months leading up to this week, as the film’s marketing campaign has geared up. Those three prequel shorts were a nice touch, teasing but not revealing very much. How strange it was, particularly, to see that anime short directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe. Seeing those visuals so tightly entwined with those of Blade Runner, all these years later. There’s a sense of unreality to all this. I can remember late in 1982 when Blade Runner was like every sci-fi geek’s best-kept secret, and god knows back then plenty of geeks hated the film too- it really was the very definition of cult for the first few years back then. Here we are now, and we are revisiting that  future-noir world again. There’s a sense of unreality to all this that is hard to quantify. I mean, this is Blade Runner. I remember back when no-one ever seemed to know of it. Now it’s this huge new movie that everyone is raving about. Someone’s Twitter feed even suggested possible Best Picture nods come Oscar time. Heresy, surely- Blade Runner is supposed to be cult, not popular- something’s gone terribly wrong. Goodness knows how I’ll feel if this film proves a box-office hit and spawns a (horrors!) trilogy or, (even more horrific!) a franchise of prequels/sequels.

So this week, probably tomorrow or Tuesday evening, I’ll be rewatching Blade Runner again, one last time before having any further viewing shadowed by the Blade Runner 2049 experience. Good or bad, in small or significant ways, the new film is surely going to impact any future viewing experience of the 1982 film. How can it not? Shades of those Engineers spoiling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the Space Jockeys in Alien is the most obvious and worrying comparison. For the last few decades, Blade Runner‘s story has always ended with those lift-doors closing on Deckard and Rachel. After this week, we’ll always know what happened next, for good or ill.

I’ll admit to being nervous. And excited. I mean, it does sound good. At least it isn’t some pg-13, noisy, dumb cgi action-fest, and it’s clear already that this film was sincerely made, even if it fails to be great. God knows it could have been a hell of a lot worse. But  all this positive word of mouth and (apparently) glowing five-star reviews that surfaced Friday and Saturday leaves me troubled.

While I admit that there is every chance the film is indeed a better film than Blade Runner, well, a better film doesn’t necessarily mean a better Blade Runner. For me, many peoples issues with the original -the darkness, the pacing, the lack of action, even the 80s synth-drenched soundtrack- that as a film it could be criticized for actually make the film more special for me. Its this weird, blockbuster arthouse movie, a techno-noir ambient chamber piece. It isn’t supposed to be a box-office success nor a Best Picture contender.

Anyway, I’ll know on Thursday: I’m going to see the sequel to Blade Runner, more than 35 years after I first saw the original. Pinch me.

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Alien: Covenant… Frankenstein meets Giger

2017.25: Alien: Covenant (CInema)

I usually avoid too many spoilers with cinema reviews, so I’ll warn now that spoilers lie ahead this time. There’s simply no other way of writing a review of this latest Alien film.

cov1

The importance of, and reliance on, the San Diego Comic-Con and other similar Cons all over the world, is a modern calamity and something that I consider with despair. The pandering to the tastes of geeks by Studios and film-makers and television producers is, frankly, a terrible mistake. Associated with this is the power of social media and the internet in sharing and disseminating opinions and observations. Why on Earth a professional film director or producer with years of experience and training suddenly has to pander to the opinions of a snotty twelve-year-old from the middle of Nowheresville to validate a multi-million dollar project created by hundreds or thousands of craftsman and technicians is a mystery to me.  I would include this blog in this horror but I know it has such limited visibility that this blog’s effect on the world is utterly inconsequential (so I consider myself not guilty, thanks).

I’ve mentioned this before- that the geeks have inherited the Earth, and we have all these bad genre movies now to thank for it.

First things first- I did not hate Alien: Covenant. I really quite enjoyed it. I found it disturbing and horrific and fascinating. And yes, frustrating too, which I’ll come to soon enough. Its clearly a better film than Prometheus, but what bugs me now is that it is clearly a lesser film than it might have been, because Ridley Scott, post-Prometheus, seems to have reconsidered his new Alien film projects largely due to the outraged geeks who criticised Prometheus for not having Giger’s alien in it. Simply put, with Alien: Covenant Ridley is giving the geeks what they want. The irony is, that might not be enough for them- or they may have gotten too much of what they asked for.

Yeah, I’m going to blame those geeks as much as Ridley for what Alien: Covenant is, and I’m going to be mighty pissed reading and hearing from all those angry geeks complaining that they have seen all this alien action before. They bloody demanded it, and now they have got it. Which raises issues regards movie ownership, and the influence of fandom on genre films and franchises today. The blame for Prometheus‘ faults lie wholly with Ridley, but I’m not so sure regards the faults in Alien: Covenant.

Back when Prometheus was released, Ridley was quoted, alluding to why that film was devoid of Giger’s creature, that he felt the alien was done, the creature exhausted by over exposure in the sequels to the original film (and of course those terrible AvP films too). It seemed a strange thing to say, but you know, Ridley was probably right. Prometheus has its problems, but the lack of Giger’s Alien isn’t really the worst of them.

cov3So Alien: Covenant has lots of alien action- Neomorphs, Xenomorphs, Alien eggs, Facehuggers, Chestbursters… its like Ridley is checking off a geek’s Christmas wishlist. And yes, he does so with considerable style and skill. The backburster/chestburster are beautifully and convincingly staged way beyond what the 1979 film could have managed. The Alien (or an evolutionary pre-version of the 1979 creature) is more mobile and convincing than previously depicted on film. Even the Facehugger manages to swiftly leap and creep around better than before. But they also seem the most disinteresting moments of this film, even if the sheer amount of gore and brutality tellingly inform the changes in films since 1979 (and yet, just as in 1979, it is the inferred horrors that are most effective here). The familiarity is this films biggest weakness. This is perhaps inadvertently reinforced by the soundtrack using so much of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score. At least Prometheus, with its original score, had its own identity. Alien: Covenant rather lacks this, and frequently hearing Goldsmith’s score doesn’t help matters- instead it just increases that sense of familiarity and reminders of the (superior) original. Its inevitable, I guess, that familiarity with the franchise impacts on successive entries- at its worst, Alien: Covenant feels like another reboot, like those awful Star Trek films or The Force Awakens.

This film improves whenever it deviates from this Alien heritage. At its best, this film is Prometheus 1.5 as it continues the story of the synth David and Elizabeth Shaw from the ending of Prometheus, and their quest to the Engineer homeworld. Seeded within it are fascinating glimpses of what Ridley perhaps originally intended to be Prometheus 2- but you always have the feeling that this is not the film that Ridley originally intended to follow Prometheus.

(Then again, I still remember my surprise that Prometheus was getting a sequel at all, and feel pretty lucky to have Alien: Covenant; at the very least we get a continuation from Prometheus‘ frustratingly open-ended conclusion).

Just as he was in Prometheus, the highlight of Alien: Covenant is Michael Fassbender and his deranged synth David, whose God-complex issues are further amplified by too much time on the Juggernaut contemplating the mysteries of the Engineers. Just as he has found humanity wanting, so too has he found the Engineers wanting. In a moment of truly apocalyptic  horror he dispatches an entire world of its life, bombarding the Engineer homeworld with the juggernaut’s payload of Black Death. Also, David’s search for perfection and desire/need to create life has resulted in Elizabeth Shaw suffering a truly horrific fate (for Prometheus fans, her fate must be as ill-met as the fates of Hicks and Newt in Alien 3, and there’s certainly an interesting symmetry there, one that raises its head for Daniels, too, at the very end of Covenant- what is it with the Alien franchise punishing viewer’s investment into its characters?).

This is the really interesting stuff to me. Ridley seems to have turned the Lovecraftian horrors of Alien into a modern re-working of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which tellingly itself had the subtitle The Modern Prometheus). Okay, none of its particularly subtle. David’s chamber of horrors, in which he stores/analyses his monster creations (including the awful cadaver of Shaw), is one of the finest creations of the Alien series. Its truly horrific and is enough to give one nightmares. Ridley seems to be saying that David is the real monster of the Alien films, and Fassbender is brilliant. In hindsight, maybe the android Ash in the original Alien was an indication of how the Alien series would become centered on artificial intelligence and its dangers for mankind?  2001‘s themes of alien intelligence and its part in the creation and evolution of man (a preoccupation of Prometheus) seems to have mutated into this Heavy Metal-styled Frankenstein abomination of xenomorphs, body horror and worldwide mass destruction.  Its heady, fascinating stuff.

cov4The corporate paranoia seems to have been noticeably dialed down, but a prologue with cold-hearted creator Peter Weyland clearly suggests and maintains his part in David’s deranged sense of superiority over all things and the responsibility Weyland has for all that ensues. Just as the Engineer’s Black Goo creation destroyed them, will artificial intelligence destroy man?

Alien: Covenant brings Walter, an ‘improved’ model of David, again played by Fassbender, into the story as a counter-balance to David’s (insane? corrupted?) programing. Lacking the feeling and emotion of David, Walter is governed by a sense of duty and responsibility and lacks David’s creative instinct. Perhaps Weyland Industries realised their initial mistake, but is it too late with David running amok in the heavens? One of Alien: Covenants worst offences is the poor ‘twist’ near the end involving ‘Walters’ real identity, which seemingly seal’s Daniels to Shaw’s earlier fate. Had it been better handled, it might have ensured one of the most brutally downbeat endings of the franchise. Intellectually it’s still fascinating but it lacks the punch that it deserved.

These new Alien films may be frustrating but they are also oddly interesting and I really hope that Ridley gets to make his intended next Alien film. Now that the geeks have had their fill of Giger’s creations perhaps Ridley will be able to further exploit the Frankenstein themes that interest him so much. What will David do next? What horrors will Daniels and Tennessee be forced to endure? Will the Engineers return, or some Space God that created them? Is the fate of all civilizations their own destruction at the hands of what they create as they achieve God-like technologies?

People forget, perhaps, how execrable Alien: Resurrection was or those AvP films- compared to them, these new films are almost high art. Maybe, Xenomorph aside, these new films aren’t really Alien movies but that doesn’t make them redundant.  For all the faults of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, Ridley has at least for me made the Alien franchise interesting again.

If nothing else, I’ll always remember Alien:Covenant for putting a huge guilty smile on my face with the line “That’s the spirit!”  Ha ha. Priceless. And was that nail that Shaw keeps another reference to Batty, or some reference to the crucifixion (re: my Prometheus theory raised in yesterdays post)? Or am I over thinking things? Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, its only a movie, as John Brosnan used to say.

Prometheus Bound

The night before watching Alien: Covenant, I gave Prometheus another spin.

Here’s my thoughts.

prom1Somewhere in Prometheus there is a great movie, but we’ll never see it. Its lost somewhere in the jumble of hints and mysteries and confused logic, in the unfocused script that doesn’t know if it’s more interested in Space Gods and mythology than aliens and corporate monsters. Its no disaster, but it is a frustrating mess.

It doesn’t lack for ambition. Essentially it shares the same story as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you don’t get more ambitious than that.  The fact that it feels wrong to mention 2001 and Prometheus in the same sentence speaks volumes. 2001 had Monoliths shaping and influencing human evolution (and perhaps, although its never shown, even humanity’s creation). Prometheus has humanoid aliens, the Engineers, doing it. The paintings on cave walls indicating a star atlas serves the same purpose as burying a monolith on the moon; its a test to establish a civilization’s technological ability. As usual though, the logic of Prometheus breaks down- sure, show a map for the Engineer’s homeworld, in order for humanity to meet its creator, but instead it turns out it is a map to the Engineers military installation where they create/store weapons of mass destruction; the logic simply doesn’t follow through, and this occurs time and again.

But anyway, we’ll cut Prometheus some slack for asking the Big Questions.  So Engineers use the Black Goo to shape human creation and through repeated visits over millennia shape our evolution, visiting primitive cultures and indicating where they come from. It might strike some as a leap of logic to assume all this is some invitation- perhaps if it had been described as a ‘test’ it might have been more plausible/interesting to the plot.

It might be worthwhile to mention the Prometheus timeline here as I think that might solve one of the films many mysteries/confusions. Ridley Scott suggested during the press for Prometheus that Jesus might have been an Engineer. I think that may have been more than an offhand remark- it may actually be a clue. The expedition exploring the Engineer’s base soon find the corpse of an Engineer which is carbon-dated to over two thousand years old- a holographic recording indicates he was killed during some moment of panic in which several engineers were fleeing some danger. We later see the hapless Fifield and Millburn stumble upon a pile of dead Engineers, having suffered some violent calamity likely linked to those fleeing engineers. Later, David reviews a holographic recording on the Juggernaut’s bridge in which the engineers access a star map and set their destination as Earth- these Engineers seem calm and to not be in immediate danger, so I would suggest this scene predates the earlier one.

So I would suggest this. Two thousand years ago, the Engineers revisit Earth to see how things have progressed. One of them is who we know now as Jesus, who teaches some words of wisdom to the primitive Terrans. Some of it gets lost in translation. Jesus the Engineer gets crucified, begs forgiveness of ‘God’ for this sin. But the Engineers are not so forgiving and decide this particular evolutionary experiment is at an end. So back at the military installation it is decided to send a juggernaut to Earth and bomb it with its vases of Black Goo, wipe out all life and start the experiment all over again. Hence the scene of the star map and the Engineers planning the route. However, things go awry loading up the vases of death and there is a breakout of the Black Goo, resulting in all the dead corpses, the hologram of the fleeing Engineers and the abandoned state of the installation. The last surviving Engineer puts himself into suspended animation to await rescue, which apparently never comes.

Fast forward just over two thousand years, and guess who shows up? Our heroes of the Prometheus. The Engineer is understandably pissed off at his very target waking him up. He kills them for this affront and decides there is no further time to waste,  activating the ship and setting off to bomb Earth all by himself.

You know… it sort of makes sense. And usually I love this kind of stuff; films that foster all kinds of thinking and theorising. 2001 itself was the master of this- people still debate that film today. But Prometheus is no 2001, and the film’s mysteries seem more from ill-judgement and confused storytelling than any deliberate master plan.  Instead it spends too much time getting audiences side-tracked with superfluous nonsense:

prom2You find the head of an alien being and take it back to your ship. Its the biggest discovery in all of history. Instead of quarantining it or starting labwork, you go all Frankenstein and start trying to reanimate it, after its been dead for two thousand years, somehow causing it to explode. What the hell is all that about? What do they expect it to do- wake up and start chatting with them?

Expedition lead Meredith Vickers tries her hardest to be an utter corporate bitch. She shares few scenes and little empathy with ship captain Janek. Then all of a sudden she turns up at the bridge flirting with him and they go off for casual sex. It doesn’t add anything to the plot; the ensuing relationship has no impact on what happens later. What’s it doing in this movie?

A little earlier, Janek has spotted life signs from one of the robot scanners mapping the alien installation. Signs of life! Set the alert sirens! This is the biggest discovery ever! Instead, he shrugs it off and doesn’t tell anyone, thinking that maybe the scanner is faulty (I think it’s actually picking up the intermittent/cryogenic signs of the sleeping Engineer but that’s never explained either). Janek instead rings up Fifield and Millburn who you remember got lost and are still back in the installation, to tip them off. One of them – I think it’s Millburn- actually checks his map on his forearm and reports his location to Janek. But hang on, I thought they were lost. They’ve got a map all this time and know where they are? My brain hurts. Nothing is making sense.

Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, our star-crossed lovers/archeologists (thats star-crossed lovers with zero screen chemistry- there is some terrible casting in Prometheus). Charlie is pretty upbeat, wildly ecstatic even, at what they have discovered and realises the magnitude of what they have found on the planet. But something in the alien decor doesn’t appeal to him and he suddenly decides it’s ‘just a tomb’ and his mood goes a complete 180 and he hits the bottle and acts like a complete jerk. What? Later he comments about giving life and Shaw pouts that she cannot have kids and boom with the subtlety of a xenomorph crashing into the room its set up for Shaw to get impossibly pregnant from Holloway’s Black Goo-infested sperm.

No, subtlety is not Prometheus‘ strong point. Which is infuriating, really, because it’s trying to be a science fiction film of Big Ideas instead of just another bug hunt, and it looks utterly gorgeous. Advance word on Alien: Covenant seems to indicate that Ridley has second-thought things and is heading back to familiar bug-hunt territory, which might cheer Alien/Aliens fans but actually has me rather uneasy. In just the same way as I really like the film noir/doomladen nightmare of Alien 3,  I quite like Prometheus going  somewhere else, into Space Gods territory-  it is just so annoying how clumsy and stupid and, yes, bad it is at the same time. Maybe going back to Alien basics is the right way to go.

I suppose there is a line of thought that Prometheus only really goes wrong when it is trying to wrap itself around the whole Alien mythology. Certainly the Engineers being the Space Jockey’s of the original, dispelling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the 1979 film, is a major misstep which threatens to derail the whole franchise. I sincerely wish someone had found some other way of linking Prometheus with Alien, if even just that the hunt for the Engineers would eventually lead humanity into deep space and the signal that the Nostromo was sent to investigate-  leading to it instead of the Engineers being the architects of it. Indeed, perhaps the Engineers having fallen foul of it themselves. You go find the Engineers homeworld and they are all dead. You investigate the horror that overcame them and stumble on a derelict and some eggs. Something as simple as that, while developing all sorts of Space Gods stuff about creation and evolution.

The funny thing is, for a pretty frustrating movie, I’ve rewatched it several times now and its generated all sorts of writing here on my blog and elsewhere on the internet. So while it did many things wrong, it must have done something right, to generate so much attention and thinking? Will Alien: Covenant, I wonder?

I still wonder if Ridley has a Prometheus: Director’s Cut or Prometheus Unbound somewhere that, while it cannot possibly fix it, might actually be a better movie.

 

The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

hp1One thing can be said of Vincent Price -and its a trait shared by the great Peter Cushing, too- is that he acted in his horror b-movies as if he was performing in a classic Shakespeare play. Its one of the reasons I love his movies so much- no matter how cheesy and dated they might seem now, at their beating, bloody heart is Price, a huge presence on the screen exuding the aura of a mighty thespian reciting Hamlet. Horror fans just love their sneered at, b-movie genre treated seriously by anyone, especially back prior to when The Exorcist made horror movies respectable. Price, like Cushing in his many Hammer pictures on the other side of the pond, makes the films worthwhile all by himself, made a pleasure just by his presence- Price had such charm and wit and conviction in what he was doing. One of the greats.

So The Haunted Palace. This one’s a strange one, as its not Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace at all- its really H P Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Roger Corman was well into his cycle of Poe films at the time for AIP and here tried to branch out a little, but it was ultimately felt that the film masquerading as a Poe film would make it an easier sell, so the film is bookended by Price reciting lines from a Poe poem entitled The Haunted Palace and… well, there you go, another Poe movie.

hp3In some ways this is no bad thing. Much of Lovecrafts original story (one of my personal favourites of HPL, even though the author himself thought little of it) is lost in the adaptation, the film-makers clearly leaning towards the safety-net of their earlier stylistic Poe adaptations, so calling it The Haunted Palace seems fair enough. There is, however, just enough Lovecraft to make the whole thing worthwhile with quite a bit of the original stories unnerving horror proving effective. I have always thought The Case of Charles Dexter Ward would make a fantastic horror film if treated with the reverence it really demands and Palace rather proves it. Some of the references and hints towards the girls of the village being bred with whatever creature crawls up out of the subterranean pit are quite disturbing. Its also nice, frankly, to see a serious Lovecraft adaptation, after being assaulted by all those horror-comedies like Reanimator and The Beyond, which threw in humour and shovels of gore replacing the psychological horror of the original stories. At least in Palace, diluted by the censorship of the time as it is, the real horror of Lovecraft yet lingers and is given serious attention. This is a horror film without the laughs or OTT gore, and on the whole it works very well indeed. I also got a kick out of the characters having names from the original Lovecraft story- I know it might seem dumb, but hearing names like Joseph Curwen and Charles Ward and Dr Willet bandied about was a genuine thrill.

hp2The sets and general production values look far more impressive than the films actual basement-level cost, and really holds up very well- even when the sets at times reveal their true nature by looking somewhat ‘fake’ it gives the film a strangely dreamlike quality that only increases its effectiveness. The dungeon with its wooden staircase and its pyramid-like pit, however, is a triumph and is really effective.

The films prologue details a village uprising in Arkham, that results in the burning of evil Warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), who has been taking village girls into his lair and subjecting them to blasphemous ordeals. Just before Curwen perishes in the flames, he curses Arkham and promises them that their descendants will yet suffer his wrath. 110 years later, Curwen’s great-great grandson Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in Arkham, oblivious to his ancestors dark deeds, and takes up residence in the mansion that overlooks the town. Ward and his wife (an excellent Debra Paget in her last film prior to her retirement) are shunned by the town folk, except for the town’s physician, Dr Willet, who tells them that the horribly disfigured people that they have seen amongst the townsfolk are considered part of Curwen’s curse on Arkham.

The mansion seems to hold a particular hold over Ward- particularly the fireside portrait of Joseph Curwen that reveals an uncanny likeness to Ward. It soon becomes evident that the evil spirit of Curwen yet lingers in the mansion, slowly but surely taking hold of Ward’s psyche until the innocent Ward is utterly overcome. Wards wife is horrified but powerless as Ward begins to resume his ancestors evil work, including resurrecting Curwen’s own long-dead wife and offering Ward’s wife to the demonic creature of the pit. Price is of course marvellous in the dual role, at times shifting from innocent to pure evil in the blink of an eye. He seems to be relishing the part- well, of course he is. He’s treating it like one of the greatest roles ever written, as he always seemed to.

The Haunted Palace is a very effective and enjoyable old-style horror film. Fans of Lovecraft will particularly enjoy picking out the Lovecraftian elements from the original story, but on the whole it works simply as a very good horror film, certainly on a par with much of Hammer’s output. This is clearly a contender for my choice of this years Halloween viewing come October…

 

Re-Animator (1985)

hpl1Always had a problem with Re-Animator. So many critics raved about it, but I rather detested it, alongside so many other films based on Lovecraft’s fiction made around that time. They transposed the stories to the present day and seemed (horror of horrors!) to play them more for laughs than scares.

Back in the mid-eighties, I was at college, and I remember spending one long glorious summer simply devouring the stories of H P Lovecraft. British paperback imprint Voyager had launched a three-volume omnibus collection; I bought all three and commenced reading them throughout. It was glorious indeed, I can hardly describe how care-free and innocent all that was, young and with loads of free time, soaking up all those stories- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Festival, The Tree, The Rats, The Tomb, Dreams in the Witch-House… so many amazing tales. Whenever I think back to those days I can hardly believe I had so few cares in the world and so much free time (these days I hardly seem to have any time at all to read, currently slogging over a period of months through the Games of Thrones books).

But anyway, I grew very attached to Lovecraft’s stories. Many might consider them dated and stilted but I lapped them up, savouring their 1920s settings and the dark charms of Lovecraft’s chaotic uncaring universe of horror; “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 the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” 

So imagine my chagrin when Hollywood turned to Lovecraft’s stories and turned them into modern comedies. Well, that’s how it seemed to me, and I responded with disgust. I still maintain that serious period movies based on some of HPL’s work -I’m thinking The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but we came close a few years ago with At The Mountains of Madness- could be remarkable. Lovecraft’s vision is of its time, and the stories being moved to the present day just don’t, for me, work.

reanimatorBut anyway, years pass and my grudge against those 1980s films that betrayed my beloved Lovecraft has lessened somewhat. I guess time heals all wounds. I re-watched Re-Animator the other day on Blu-ray and quite enjoyed it. It isn’t really Lovecraft at all (which diffuses my hatred somewhat), and I guess it would make a remarkable double-bill with Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead on a boozy night in (the possibilities of drinking games watching those two together just makes my head spin). Now that the excesses of gore have somewhat been tamed by time and ever-gorier movies that followed, what really shines are the acting turns of  Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, chewing up the scenery in fine style. I remember being horrified (in the wrong way) by the distinctly Psycho-like score by Richard Band that really annoyed me (a homage, a rip-off? back in the day I was certain of the latter) but its so dated now in execution with ‘eighties keyboards etc that it almost has a charm of its own. So for me, in a funny way, Re-Animator has improved with time- perhaps I’ve mellowed with age. Its a fine horror-comedy (a tricky thing to pull off) and not a Lovecraft film at all. No, really- it has some crazy dude named Herbert West but that’s not the Herbert West of my beloved Lovecraft; he fools around with a hobby deserved of Frankenstein but that’s also nothing at all to so with the Lovecraft stories, no,  not at all. Just don’t tell me different. And be sure to keep a few pints near me whenever I watch it- the booze dulls my senses and I can let the injustices pass.

 

 

From Beyond (1986)

I have only seen From Beyond once before- back in the ‘eighties on VHS rental. At that time, I didn’t care for it at all- back then I was in the midst of devouring pretty much of all of Lovecraft’s tales, having brought them in paperback omnibus form, and the 1920 tale From Beyond was instantly one of my favourites. It’s a very short tale, hardly eight pages, but I’ll never forget putting it down after finishing it and looking around me with fresh, cautious eyes. I remember back then I used to sit down after midnight when everyone else in the house and gone to bed, I have an hour reading whatever book I was reading at the time, which, at that time, would likely be a Robert E Howard story or H P Lovecraft story.  The lonely silence in which I turned the pages of those magnificent stories is something I recall fondly, and the very nature and subject of From Beyond lent its finale a haunting quality as I sat alone in the silence, looking at the room around me differently. I’ll never forget that.

There is something quite unique and rather disturbing about much of Lovecraft’s best work, but there was something about transferring the period tales to the  modern-day to serve the demands of cinema audiences (for both Re-Animator and From Beyond and pretty much every other film adaptation since) that really struck me as just plain wrong. I think this was mostly because, at that time,  I was still reading them all, was still stuck in that 1920s/1930s world of horror  (and indeed to this day I think that the only ‘proper’ way to make a definitive and honest Lovecraft film is to keep it in the period of the original stories), but I have mellowed regards the budget and marketing difficulties inherent in such an approach. I quite enjoyed Dagon, for example, and would cite that as one of the best film adaptations of Lovecraft, even though like so many others it takes some particular liberties transferring the tales to the modern world. But anyway, what I’m saying is that, if I had watched Dagon back when I first saw Re-Animator and The Beyond, I’d have hated that too.

The fact is, Lovecraft’s work, the whole  science-fiction/gothic horror hybrid only really works when its set in the time and world in which the stories were created. It’s a black and white, film-noir world, one without mobile phones or the  internet. Its a nightmare world quite alien to what we live in now. Characters behave in a different way to how contemporary characters would; they believe in different things, society is different, and the world in which they inhabit is a world is still unknown and strange. They have not seen the Earth from space, its furthest corners and nooks mapped and photographed. Lost alien mountain cities could still be buried under Antarctic ice or hidden beneath the waves.

So a film set in modern times has to be rather loosely based on a Lovecraft tale as opposed to being utterly faithful. In that respect it has to be considered a largely pointless endeavour.  Anyway, that said, I guess there is no way a modern-day big-budget A’list director will ever be able to make a period-set faithful horror film based on a HPL story. So we are where we are.

FrombeyondFrom Beyond has just been re-released in uncut form on Blu-ray, and watching it again I have to say I rather enjoyed it. I must be mellowing in my middle age, or setting my expectations lower than I used to. But it was actually quite fun.  There isn’t much of the original story here (it generally tells the Lovecraft story in a pre-credit sequence) as in order to stretch the 8-page tale into an eighty-minute movie demands liberties regards going off on its own journey. But there is plenty going for it, mostly in how much the film reflects its own period of ‘manufacture’; you know, the whole ‘eighties horror thing with physical effects and gore and everything. Its as much a child of its time as the HPL tale was of the early 20th Century. It harks back to the gruesome charms of Carpenter’s The Thing, and of b-movie actors and video-nasties. It isn’t at all scary, but it is strangely fun, and every frame screams ‘Cult’ at you- Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are magnificent b-movie actors in b-movie sets, with Richard Band’s synth score evoking the age just as much as the hokey matt shots. How many adolescent males got their minds fevered by the shots of Barbara Crampton suffering sexual degradation at the gooey fingers of it’s twisted deviant monster?

From Beyond is nasty. It’s messy. It’s The Thing mixed up with Videodrome, but not as intense as either. Deformed body parts twisting and contorting into horrible parodies of nature, buried in gore and slime. The main monster is bad enough, but when another starts eating victims brains -usually by sucking them out through the victims eye socket- well the film reaches for levels of grossness that is fairly hardcore. The price of all this OTT visual depravity is a lack of genuine horror or scares, something that is a betrayal, frankly, of the source material. But nonetheless it is a fascinating combination of horror and science fiction unique to Lovecraft and has to be commended for that. Certainly a better film than I had remembered it.

HPLHS’ The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

dart-cdw-CoverFresh from the wonderful H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society comes their latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre offering, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. These Dark Adventure Radio Theatre works are made in the style of period radio shows,  mock radio dramatisations of Lovecraft stories that are more faithful and authentic than any film likely could be. Being an audio drama the huge scale afforded by the listener’s imagination presents something only a hugely budgeted film could manage- and obviously no big- budget movie would ever be so faithful to the source. So in many ways these are the nearest thing to the ‘real deal’. I only wish someone in REH fandom could work on such radio dramas of some of Howard’s classics, because these HPL dramas are really something special.

The HPLHS have created six radio dramas so far, this latest one being their most ambitious yet. The earlier stories adapted were At The Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Out of Time and The Call of Cthulhu. I believe Herbert West -Reanimator will be next, and I sincerely hope that others will follow beyond that. They are available as mp3 downloads or on CD for us older folks from the HPLHS website (although mp3 may be the smarter option, as my CD package got the attention of Customs which landed me with an extra bill to pay this time around). The advantage of going the CD route is that they have great artwork and superbly-crafted ‘props’ to accompany each story, usually letters or newspaper clippings.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is possibly my personal favourite Lovecraft tale so this offering is wonderful stuff- spread across two CDs it runs for nearly two and a half hours in order to properly tell what was, if I recall correctly, Lovecraft’s longest story. Strangely, Lovecraft didn’t rate the story at all and I don’t believe it was even ever published during his lifetime, but to me it is the definitive Lovecraft tale and would surely make a fantastic film if only someone could do it justice as a serious movie. Its a thrilling mystery with truly chilling moments of horror, in which Charles Dexter Ward, a character closely modelled on Lovecraft himself, becomes consumed by the dark horror hidden in his family history.  You can see a trailer for the drama here-