The Color Out of Space is so bright, you’ve got to wear shades

colorWell ain’t that weird, this one’s a tricky one- I actually quite liked Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space a wee teeny bit, but I’m hard pressed to explain why. Maybe its the fairly poor track record for films based on H P Lovecraft’s horror fiction; its highly likely that the best Lovecraft films are not actually based on any of his stories at all- thinking of Alien and Annihilation here- and its pretty clear that when film-makers try to bring actual HPL stories to the screen it never really ends well. Ironically, while HPL’s own prose is very serious and thoughtful archaically elegant, most films seem to swap tension for laughs, as if the tales are just so ridiculous you have to wink at the audience rather than yell “boo!” which is something that has endlessly irritated me, a trend set way back by 1985’s Re-Animator. If I had to name my favourite ‘proper’ Lovecraft film, it would probably be the late Stuart Gordon’s Dagon from 2001, and that was far from perfect. Or maybe the 2005 Call of Cthulhu produced by H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, although I’d contend that was more a ‘fan film’ than a genuine full-fledged motion picture. What I’m saying is, as far as Lovecraft films are concerned, the bar’s set pretty low. 

Maybe if Guillermo del Toro had managed to shoot his At the Mountains of Madness film ten years ago, things would be much different. That film possibly ranks among the great films never made, one of those lingering ‘what-ifs’ that film buffs can wax lyrical over whilst sharing drinks on a cold and stormy night. By all accounts, that film might finally have been Lovecraft done right, with a huge budget, visionary director and a great cast. 

Lets get the elephant out of the room straight away- I’m no fan at all of Nicolas Cage and he is perfectly hideous in this. Although one can argue the slippery slope his career has been on has been a long and steep one (if Hollywood had a Mariana Trench, you’d find Nic halfway down it), in recent years particularly he has essentially become a parody of himself. Here in The Color Out of Space he is absolutely, horrifyingly, mind-bogglingly terrible- I’ve seen him phone in some nonsense before, but he seems to think he can justify his casting in this film by having a wild tantrum in the kitchen. Maybe there is some level of meta-horror here in his casting that escapes me, some level of terror that his performance graces this film with that elevates it to some other subconscious territory of horror – God knows when I think back upon his performance it evokes something of a shudder.  

Its clear that  The Color Out of Space suffers by being made after the fantastic Annihilation, a film that, sharing so many of the themes and ideas of Lovecraft’s original story,  visually pre-empted many of the visual flourishes that Richard Stanley uses here- the twisted, richly-coloured vegetation and strange alien creatures used to express the sense of unknowable, alien nature. Indeed some viewers could be forgiven, in fact, for mistakenly thinking its based on the same source material or is indeed a sequel, both films after all concerned with an alien rock falling to Earth and transforming the land around its crash site, and ultimately warping reality. The world within the Shimmer of Annihilation has a profound strangeness, of normality slipping into alien nightmare, and Stanley uses similar art direction to same effect with this film. But Alex Garland’s film is far, far superior, with a better cast and script, and Stanley of course sadly has to contend with dear Nic. In any case, with the nagging feel of the familiar hanging so obviously over Stanley’s film, it loses any sense of originality that might have otherwise excited attention. 

But all that being said, how bad Cage is and how much the film suffers in comparison to Alex Garland’s film, I have to admit I still found it worthwhile. Maybe it was just refreshing to see someone trying to make something decent while at the same time making a HPL film: its heart was in the right place, you know? You gotta love a trier, especially if you’re a fan of this Lovecraft stuff, as I am.

Yet again though, here’s a horror film that makes the unforgivable sin of not really being scary, but that’s something I can say of most horror films of late so its perhaps not fair to slap the film with that one. Perhaps its the limitations of the budget, or the cast (the lack of chemistry between Cage and his onscreen wife Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, is deplorable, albeit quite funny in their awkward romantic moments, which had me wondering if it was a clever reference to Lovecraft’s real-life antipathy towards women, as if Stanley was weaving some complex meta-story). One of my chief issues turned out to be that perennial favourite of HPL movies:  with it showing flower-child daughter Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) messing around with amateur black magic at the start, the film establishes a silly fairy-tale-like milieu from the start that undermines any attempt to make anything afterwards feel as real or involving as the events, of, say, Annihilation.  And that’s before the pattern of nuttiness that rolls in when Nic appears, leaving Stanley nowhere to go but a kookier colour Purple than even Prince could have ever imagined. This, in a film which I’ve praised for being a serious take on Lovecraft. If nothing else, that surely indicates how low the bar has fallen with all these Lovecraft adaptations.  

At the Lighthouse of Madness

lighthouseActually, just typing that title makes me think that a film of H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness might benefit by taking a similar approach to this film -black and white, obtuse to the point of impenetrable plot (if there even is one)- but I have to confess it just annoyed the hell out of me in this film. On the one hand, sure, I could admire the gritty, atmospheric b&w cinematography, the unnerving sound design, but as a piece of storytelling it just felt broken. 

Which was very disappointing, because I really enjoyed being intrigued and horrified  by Robert Eggers’ earlier film, The Witch, from 2015. The Lighthouse shared that film’s sense of dread and welcome tendency to undermine traditional horror tropes, but The Lighthouse just goes too far into delirium, frankly, as if Eggers just lost control and succumbed to his own temporary madness making it.

Or maybe I’m not giving the film sufficient credit for successfully delving into madness as the subject matter of a film. Sadly the irony is that it doesn’t really function as a film at all. Its perhaps more of a tone poem than a story, the plot being two lighthouse keepers on a New England island in the 1890s don’t really get along and promptly lose their shit. I mean that’s about it, really. Eggers throws in some vague references to scary mermaids and Lovecraftian Cthuloid horror but that’s one of the characters minds succumbing to the Lighthouse of Madness. I think I would have preferred it to be literal; you know, there really is something Lovecraftian going on at this strange, remote island on the edge of 19th century civilization. Its not that the madness of it all is actually anything wrong, its just that it robs the film of what might have been a genuinely chilling story. 

Maybe I was just in the mood for an old-fashioned horror tale rather than a cerebral art-house tale. Yes the two leads are really very good – I don’t think I’ve seen William Dafoe as good as this in many years, and Pattinson might actually turn out to be an intriguing Batman after all-  but I think their efforts are wasted in an ironically empty-headed and pointless film. Its frustrating because otherwise, it is such a brilliantly made period piece- the acting, art direction, atmosphere, dialogue all lending it a wonderfully convincing  sense of time and place, that if it really had genuine horrors under the surface (sic), it might have been a genuine horror classic and up there with The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, frankly. 

Or maybe I just missed the point. I have this same issue with some of David Lynch’s films and others of that ilk, where being obtuse almost for the sake of it just strikes me as lazy and frustrating, undermining what should be ‘proper’ storytelling. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I do think it needs a proper framework.

Dagon wakes: Underwater (2020)

underw1I’ll be honest, I was predisposed to enjoy this film just because of the setting, and the surprising nods to Lovecraft only sealed the deal, so this possibly isn’t the most even-minded, judgemental of reviews. We’re just predisposed to like certain films, I guess.  James Cameron’s The Abyss, for all its faults, is one of my favourite films, and William Eubank’s somewhat ill-fated Underwater (what, not even a DVD release over here?) is like some kind of sequel or perhaps more precisely an  ‘anti-The Abyss’. In Cameron’s film our bold aquanauts meet Spielbergian good-guy aliens who just want us to play nice on the surface, whereas in Underwater our aquanauts meet up with beasties who want us to frak off and die horribly, but both films share the same blue-collar workers in the depths/gritty hardware/grungy reality tropes which nod back to Ridley Scott’s truckers-in-space Alien. The hardware is great in Underwater, particularly the deep-sea suits that they have to wear in order to survive the pressures of the depths and trek across the desolate ocean floor- they are hugely impressive and convincing.  

Underwater initially unfolds like an Irwin Allen disaster movie, with a bunch of survivors trapped in a stricken deep-sea mining platform trying to get back to the surface. The setting is well realised -if vaguely uninspiring/overly familiar, in a Deepcore/Nostromo kind of way- and the characters reasonably defined, our angst-ridden, moody heroine Norah (Kirstin Stewart) surprisingly androgynous as far as traditional heroines go. She manages to find some survivors in the ruins -Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and wise-cracking comic relief Paul (T J Miller) and after a finely directed claustrophobic crawl-through-the -wreckage sequence they hook up with station commander Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) who has managed to see off the last of the crew in twenty-two surviving life-pods. Lucien and two other crew -Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) and Emily (Jessica Yu Li Henwick)- having now run out of lifepods are trying to find some other way off the station, and Norah and her bunch join the effort.  

underw2My biggest gripe regards the film is that it has clearly been edited down to its bare-bones: it literally starts with a bang, with the drilling station stricken by disaster. It’d be like starting The Abyss with the Deepcore rig being dragged to the edge of the, er, abyss, or Alien starting with the Nostromo landing on the planetoid.  We are not given any time as viewers to acclimatise ourselves with the setting or the premise or the characters, we are just thrown into it and the pace never really lets up over its slim 95-minute running time. The only real information about where we are and whats going on is given during the title sequence in the form of text/news cuttings, and that’s it- clearly this is a deliberate info-dump device which is bookended at the end, too.

This obviously betrays the film as a film of its time, as attention-deficit disorder viewers obviously have very valuable time that they don’t want to waste with movies establishing characterisation and drama in the old-fashioned ways, they just want to get to the action and then go out for a drink and pizza. Very often this kind of thing is done in films to disguise plot holes and bad logic- JJ Abrams is a master of this and Rise of Skywalker possibly the most heinous culprit of late- and its a pity, because Underwater doesn’t really have too many plot-holes it needs to hide away and it could have done with more running-time to establish its characters in more, er, depth (sic). Its hard to care for characters if you don’t know them, and while the film does manage to clearly define them as individuals it only does so by making them unfortunately very simplistic and one-dimensional. The brevity also damages the atmosphere of the film, lacking the time to deepen the mood and tension. Like many-if not all- modern films, Underwater lacks a really good score too: its score by genre veteran Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts is functional at best, and lacks the cloying, disturbing atmosphere, of say Elliot Goldenthal’s similarly-themed Sphere soundtrack.

So while I thoroughly enjoyed Underwater for what it is, there is always a frustrating sense that it could have been more, and that it betrays itself as a possibly troubled production (it was apparently finished in 2018 but left on the shelf for a few years waiting release). While I suppose I’m fooling myself to think there’s possibly a longer, superior extended Directors Cut out there that we’ll never see, I think I’d be right in thinking that if this film had been made in the 1970s or even 1980s, it would be two hours long and better-paced with proper character beats and an improved sense of tension. Like many modern films, this film in its final guise almost feels like a highlights reel, and its likely inevitable that if a studio starts cutting a two-hour movie to ninety minutes, it’ll keep the expensive effects sequences and cut the character stuff.

As it is, after a very limited cinema release earlier this year, Underwater has been dumped on digital rental services here in the UK, without even a DVD or Blu-ray release (never mind 4K UHD). Hey, its not exactly a genre classic but it deserves better. A film like Underwater, as dark as it is, can be particularly hurt by compression issues when streaming it, and to be frank it looked pretty horrible in some of the more frantic murky sequences on the Amazon stream I watched it on. Just another reason to bemoan the move away from physical formats- what a brave new world we have to look forward to, film fans. 

  

Happy Birthday, Robert E Howard

bobToday I shall have a drink to the memory of one my heroes, the great Texan author Robert E Howard, who was born today in 1906, in Peaster, Texas. A master storyteller, author and poet, his words have inspired, excited and scared me for most of my life. Probably most famous today for his sword and sorcery yarns featuring Conan the Barbarian, he wrote Boxing stories, Westerns, Historical fiction, even a few Detective tales. His poetry is particularly notable, his word-craft quite extraordinary and vivid.

They say never meet your heroes- well of course I never had a chance with Bob, as he died some sixty years before I was born. I have often wondered what it would be like, though, to sit a share a cold beer with him, and wonder if we would get along in conversation. Meeting Lovecraft, say, would be pretty horrific I expect, but I have always had the suspicion that meeting Bob would be a much more positive experience. Mind, although I often had the hope that he would be a kindred spirit, that’s possibly more than wishful thinking on my part. Bob was a complex man who lived in a very different world and his mental health has often been debated by readers over the decades.

I once had an incredibly vivid dream of walking to his house in June of 1936, and dissuading him from his act of suicide. It possibly says more about me, that I can dream of Time Travel and of going back to that one day, and try to stop that one event, instead of, say, dreaming of Dinosaurs or Rome. But we are all  full of weird tales that way, and our dreams often seem to follow a whim all their own.

Anyway, here’s a beer to you, Bob.

 

The Endless (2017)

endl1Actors/writers/directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson return to the setting of their earlier sci-fi/horror jewel Resolution with another finely crafted tale that perhaps doesn’t really benefit from its larger budget/scale and cast as much as one would think. The strength, for me, of the earlier Resolution was its enforced small-scale; its intimacy and almost claustrophobic sense of remote horror. The Endless opens things up and widens the original’s perimeters and to me it loses something along the way.

Others, though, may have been frustrated by the limitations of Resolution and in particular its ending, and therefore will find The Endless a much more rewarding experience. Certainly there’s a bigger scope, and more ambitious visuals.

Two brothers, Justin and Aaron (played by the film-makers themselves albeit exchanging names) are escapees from a UFO doomsday cult out in the desert- ten years have passed and while Justin has adjusted to living in the ‘normal’ outside world, Aaron has his doubts and is missing his extended family of cultist friends. When a videotape arrives from the cult, seemingly stating that a fabled ‘Ascension’ has either happened or is imminent, Aaron convinces his brother that they should return to the cult just for one day. Hoping what they find will finally make Aaron realise they are better off well away from the cult, and achieve some sense of closure, Justin agrees.

endl2What they find back at the camp where the cultists live on the Indian reservation is at first bewildering, almost comforting (for Aaron at least) but there is, always, a sense of unease (particularly for the doubtful Justin) at the apparent idyll and hints of something being terribly wrong.

The return of Michael (Peter Cilella) and Chris (Vinny Curran) from the earlier film is a very welcome surprise, albeit rather bittersweet. I must confess I always felt a deeper emotional connection with these two compared to the two brothers Justin and Aaron, and the return of the protagonists from Resolution for me only intensified some of my issues with The Endless, but it was certainly very welcome (if disturbing) to learn of their fate after the closing moments of the earlier film.

At any rate, whilst I’m not at all convinced that The Endless was as satisfying as Resolution, it remains an impressive and satisfying low-budget sci-fi/horror with much to recommend it. Arrow’s Blu-ray release that currently (in a limited edition) contains both films is a great package not to be missed, with multiple commentary tracks on both films and various featurettes/interviews that I have yet to delve into.

Resolution (2012)

res1.pngResolution, a low-budget indie sci-fi/horror film with allusions to Lovecraft and others, features as an ‘extra’ on Arrows excellent recent Blu-ray release of The Endless (2017). As the two films are linked by location/themes/characters I watched Resolution prior to the main feature.

Its quite true of the horror genre that low budgets can be a great asset- necessity, it is often said, is the mother of invention, and this film is a clear example of when film-makers make such a lot of so little. Structured rather like a play its mainly a character piece, with a limited cast (essentially just two actors dominate the whole thing) its a psychological horror which starts fairly normal but then slowly starts to suggest all sorts of strange and horrifying possibilities about the nature of reality. I’d take films like this over the standard Hollywood nonsense of horny teens caught in the woods being preyed upon some monster, any day of the week.

Set on a remote Indian reservation, Resolution tells the story of two old freinds, Michael (Peter Cilella) and Chris (Vinny Curran) who reunite in a remote half-completed lodge- Chris is a drug addict well on the way to killing himself and Michael is making one last try at getting Chris clean, taking the opportunity of their isolation to force him to go ‘cold turkey’ over a week. A UFO doomsday-cult nearby suggests that there may be weird things going on in the area, and Michael begins to stumble on strange discoveries and occurrences.  As Chris starts to become more lucid and free of his drugs influence they both begin to realise that they are being watched by something unseen that somehow communicates by offering them ‘found footage’ video etc from what appears to be their future- or indeed, alternate futures. As the mystery unfolds it becomes clear that their lodge, the cult and environs have a darker, stranger history than they can imagine.

To say any more would do the film a disservice, as its a great little movie with some big ideas and on the whole it is executed extremely well that belies its budget and scale. I guess you’d call this ‘intellectual horror’ rather than ‘graphic horror’, and it certainly reminds me of good old ghost stories that suggested more than they showed.

There is a great sense of the cosmic unknown of Lovecraft’s better work and the leads are just simply brilliant, frankly, really doing well with the material. There is a warmth and familiarity between the two leads that convinces of the bond from their shared past, and the strangeness of their isolated location is conveyed well. A few other minor characters make some telling impact, too, making it a rather perfect little horror movie. I liked it very much- it keeps the viewer guessing right to the end and is only slightly marred by a wtf ending that benefits, in hindsight, by having  the latter movie The Endless allow the story to follow on some years later with a largely new cast of characters and some kind of, pardon the pun, actual resolution.

One of the genuine surprises of the year.

I Am Providence by S.T. Joshi

prov1I’m currently reading S.T.Joshi’s mammoth biography of H.P.Lovecraft, I Am Providence. ‘Mammoth’ indeed- I’m just 130 pages into volume one;  a two-volume work, the whole thing totals over a thousand pages across the two books. Its a sizeable undertaking just reading the thing, the amount of work writing it must have been formidable. While I read all of Lovecraft’s fiction in the mid-eighties (having at that point read most of Robert E Howard’s fiction) I have never really read much about the author himself or ever really been inclined to do so, hearing things from my friend Andy who was more obsessed by HPL than I that ‘filled the blanks’ as it were.

It has always been clear to me that Lovecraft was a decidedly odd fellow. Is that even a surprise, considering some of the stories that he wrote? My fascination  with Lovecraft is that his stories have haunted me for years and you see so much of his work in modern-day films and fiction- even if not in ‘straight’ adaptations, so much in the media has ‘Lovecraftian’ undertones (my first brush with such was Alien from 1979, clearly a Lovecraftian horror and indeed one of the very best). It is as if, after his death, he has gradually and increasingly infected the cultural zeitgeist in a similar way to how Philip K Dick did post-Blade Runner. Alan Moore recently wrote a brilliant horror comic-book/graphic novel, Providence, which had this ‘Lovecraftian infestation’ as its main theme and was particularly horrific for it.

Yet while I rather adore his best stories, Lovecraft has never struck me as someone I would actually like, were I to somehow meet him. Genius begats strangeness sometimes and like fellow Weird Tales writer Robert E Howard, Lovecraft was surely a little peculiar and outside of ‘normal’ society. Although I freely admit I’m likely fooling myself,  I always feel like I could have had a beer with Bob Howard and would have liked him, and would love to jump into a time machine and meet him (I once had an incredibly vivid dream in which I did just that, and stopped him from his suicide). As far as Lovecraft is concerned though, I doubt any meeting between us would have gone very well, but hopefully this book will allow me to understand him and his worldviews and his writing more.

Initially the book was rather a struggle, to be honest, with a dry, rather academic summary of the history of Lovecraft’s paternal and maternal family backgrounds up to his birth and the place where he lived. Joshi spares no detail in his account. Indeed, at the point I am at now some 130 pages in,  Lovecraft is still just 14 or so, some years away from any of his weird writing that I am familiar with. Instead the book has been concerned with his spoiled, insular childhood- the precocious, albeit over-sensitive, very intelligent young boy and the depressed recluse he became following his fourth and most traumatic ‘breakdown’ (which is what I am up to).

It has been fascinating, considering my knowledge of Lovecraft’s genuine strangeness and his racist views, to see where it possibly all arose. His racism, abhorrent as it is, is a tricky subject. I would never, to be honest, wholly condemn Lovecraft  for his racism as it was as much a product of the times he lived in, and the place he lived in, and while yes, he should have known better it can be perhaps understood if not forgiven. People are simply of their time and it’s wrong I think to view him wholly negatively from the enlightened perspective of today. The fact that his childhood was rather dysfunctional explains a great deal the man he would become. His maternal grandfather becoming his father figure after his actual father wound up in a mental asylum, and his mother, with her own increasingly fragile mental state, describing her teenage son as ‘hideous’ indicating she treated him with love and hate in equal measure (and I thought Bob Howard has mother issues, go figure). A solitary child, Lovecraft’s best freinds were his family’s library of books  that he simply devoured, enjoying intellectual interests rather than the usual childish playful ones of his peers. Not that any of this excuses his worldviews, but they do perhaps allow us to understand them

Perhaps I shall write more about these two books and any revelations in the weeks to come. I’m definitely enjoying it and looking forward to the later sections dealing with all those weird horror stories I am so familiar with.

 

Bride of Re-Animator (1989)

bride1.png2016.32: Bride of Re-Animator (Blu-ray)

Disappointing. It has to be said. For all the nods to humour this film is vastly inferior to the anarchic comedy of Dan O’Bannon’s wonderful zombie-fest The Return Of The Living Dead, and as an horror film, well, its an awful excuse for Lovecraftian horror (much prefer Dagon, for instance). Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood? I think for these horror/comedies, mood might be everything.

Well, to be fair I have always had a love/hate thing for these Lovecraft films anyway. I mean, you have to ignore the name Lovecraft and his stories immediately- the very last thing you could say of Lovecraft is that his stories were funny. These films really just use his name as a hook and selling-point. This failure to be sincere to Lovecraft is also true of the first Re-Animator film and From Beyond, but both films are much better than this film, if only because they seem more balanced, confident in what they are.

I’m not sure what Bride of Re-Animator was exactly aiming at. Partly it’s a direct follow-on from the first film, and seems to actually feature content from a few chapters of Lovecrafts Herbert West story,  but beyond that it seems to be more a nod towards Hammer’s Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing and also the William Castle and Roger Corman horror pictures. Is it, after all, more a Frankenstein film than a Re-Animator?

I think it ultimately spreads itself too thin and tries to be too many things- certainly there seems to be several plots running through the film either leaving it confused or deliriously wild, depending on your point of view. Personally I’m of the former opinion. There’s just too many threads running- at least The Return Of The LIving Dead knew what story it was telling and stuck to it with its core characters.

Maybe the problem making a second Re-Animator film was deciding what it was that made the first film so popular. Was it the gore? The humour? The OTT characters? Maybe they just weren’t certain which approach to take and sort of tried to do everything. Certainly the gore-hounds are well served here; some of the stuff is beyond graphic.

I suppose some of the problem is the low budget, as it obviously curtails what can be done and the acting talent available (some of the acting is beyond terrible, although Jeffrey Combs is as usual in fine form). The make-up effects work is very good though, and there is an obvious ambition here to raise these effects above the norm. The titular bride may be somewhat wasted but her design and execution is excellent- if only she could have appeared in one of those Hammer films, at least they were horror films, for all their own inherent flaws.

I’m sure this film has its fans though. Maybe I will warm to its gory low-budget ‘eighties charms on subsequent viewings. But right now I’d much rather rewatch Return Of The Living Dead.

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…