The only silver lining to working 70 hr weeks in the film industry is perhaps the discovery of entire films uploaded online, intact, and the freedom to have them rolling in the background while one toils; which lately, has been my only means of keeping a healthy sub-par horror diet.
Hence as a doctor, scholar and zealous delver into all things Lovecraftian, I’ve decided it might be an interesting journey into madness (at least into poor attempts at adapting the madness) to honor Howie Phil’s recently passed birthday and commence a semi-regular cinema review retrospective of films attempting to recapture the great old ones and his “friends”.
To begin with I felt it would be good to kick off with this relic of the nineties:
Released in 1993 and rather than take steps to carefully adapt a singular tale from the Dream Cycles or Cthulhu Mythos, this film is actually a Samuel Hadida produced anthology collection of three short horror films and a wrap-around to bookend them.
The wrap-around sequence, entitled simply ‘The Library’, is lovingly directed by fellow Lovecraft lover, and veteran horror film maker Brian Yuzna (Reanimator, Return of the Living Dead III, Silent Night) who struggles to plod along with thanks to some poor penmanship from screenwriter Brent V. Friedman (Mortal Kombat Annihilation, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven).
I suppose the most instantly novel aspect of this bookending narrative, broken into four easy pieces and shoved between the three primary shorts, is that the story is completely fabricated as opposed to claiming any loose basis from an existing H.P. story.
In an amusing fourth wall prodding twist, our protag is the author himself (that would be Howie Phil) who in the fall of 1932 (that would be eerily close to the date of his death) has trekked to an American outpost of Omniadi Monks to further the ‘research’ of his authorship in their miskatonic reminiscent library. Howie harbors ulterior motives to seek out a copy of the fabled Necronomicon supposedly kept within… you would think that something so maddeningly deadly would be kept secret and safe in the Gandalf vernacular, but after a truly idiotic sacred key stealing scene, Howie finds himself inside the secret chamber opening the tome for his first stolen glimpse.
Here we reveal our plot progressing mechanic to be the individual tales of the afore mentioned short films, scribed within the book… which again seems rather odd considering these are all modern tales in comparison to the wrap-around time stamp of 1930. Would an ancient and coveted book be filled with such pulp? Surely our hero (that would be Howie) was expecting tales of gigantic beings and the incantations to raise them…
Lets press on.
The first mistake this film makes is starting with the strongest of the three shorts: ‘The Drowned’ which is both written and directed by Christoph Gans (Silent Hill, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Crying Freeman) who at the time was nothing more than an up-and-comer. The short is listed as being loosely based on ‘The Rats in the Walls’ originally published in Weird Tales, although in adaptation it tends to frankenstein a number of Lovecraftien concepts together, into a story which only barely works. In summary the original plot is intact insofar as the De La Poer family heir, portrayed by Bruce Payne (Warlock III, Passenger 57) and his inheritance of the legendary priory from his family line, still standing albeit decrepit and haunted.
Beyond this core concept the plot then attempts to curl its self to a broad pallet of the mythos, including a particularly well put together sinister fish-man of the Innsmouth villager variety and an excessive giant rubber monster head in the finale which is perhaps an attempt at depicting Chtulhu… concepts referential to everything but the source text come across so profoundly that it gets baffling as to why Gans didn’t just choose to craft a more faithful adaptation of Dagon.
As a Frenchman furthermore, who clearly takes great interest in folklore inspired horror (see his adaptation of the Beast of Gevaudan) it seems a waste that he chose a story evoking The Marquis De Sade, Giles De Rais, The Mouse Tower of Bingen and more, yet neglected to follow through with a faithful adaptation. There isn’t even room for Nigger-Man (De La Poer’s inappropriately named cat)…
Lets continue into the depths.
The middle film in the anthology entitled ‘The Cold’ is adapted from a lesser known Lovecraft short entitled ‘Cool Air’. Directed and written by Kaneko Shūsuke and Itō Kazunori, who between them have worked on a laundry list of influential films including the Godzilla, Gamera and Death Note series, along with a handful of significant anime from Patlabor to Ghost in the Shell. With a good chunk of this experience already under their belts when taking the reigns of this installment, it baffles me as to why they would choose such a simple, brief and ultimately dull piece from the Lovecraft backlog when they could have realized something far more interested on the same budget. I mean come on, these guys were the only crew members involved in Necronomicon who’ve actually worked on special effects crafting gigantic daikaiju monsters, you’d think they might have aimed higher in their segment…
For what its worth the drab plot of the original tale is mostly intact in its equally drab adaptation, save for the alteration of the protagonist gender and backstory. An over acting journalist attempts to bully the truth out of a widow regarding her late defacto; the mad professor whom locals decide responsible for the grizzly murders of several missing persons. The only familiar face amid the swill is David Warner (The Omen, Tron) who barely emerges with his career intact after struggling through terrible co-stars to hold this forgettable piece together. If you watch as far as the completely emotionless saccharine lovemaking scene between Warner and c-ostar (who must be both in plot and actually young enough to be his granddaughter) you’ll see that this entry is indeed the ugly child.
Bare with me, we’ll press on to Yuggoth.
By the time we’ve arrived at the third and final entry into the Necronomicon anthology it feels as though the wheels have completely fallen off with regards toward any connections still being made to the wrap around. With the book its self making cameos in each tale, we’re reminded of its relevance although the point seems to have been misplaced a ways back. Nevertheless, our last short is entitled ‘Whispers’ which is of course a nod toward the novella ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’, and its barely a nod at that, as Yuzna has jumped back into the fray to write / direct this entry which has absolutely nothing to do with the original text, save for the presence of its space gliding Mi-go.
Two cops have had an affair, gotten preggers and become embroiled in a high speed chase after a suspected mass murdered. From here a heinous crash separates them right before being tormented by a mad old couple in a warehouse. Eventually the Mi-go are debuted along with an impressive subterranean carrion pit of human carnage, which is interestingly closer in depiction to the infamous grotto (from The Rats in the Walls) than anything else appearing in Gans’ adaptation. Ever true to form, Yuzna brings more depraved violence and evil to the table than any of the previous entries, along with a conclusion that first aims for sinister twist before losing its shit and ending on a vague albeit consistently gory note, with a tremendously out of place touch of anti-abortion soapboxing… you could perhaps feel satisfied that the third film leaves you with the grizzliest conclusion of the three, or you could blow a few spit bubbles while you ponder the meaningless ending.
Finally we return to Howie in the library for a close to the wrap-around narrative, yet at this late stage it seems as though the nonsensical Yuzna madness has spread, making for a finale devoid of further canonical relevance. So where to from here? Well overall I need to state that is an okay watch, aside from my extensive carping its a decent anthology for the uninitiated and perhaps more of an eye roller for the crusty seasoned Lovecraft aficionados who enjoy complaining about the correct pronunciation of great old ones cryptic titles (me). Some of the sets feel truly authentic (the carrion pit, the De La Poer mansion) and some feel so boring its as though they’re sucking your bone marrow and spinal fluid out (that one house set that the entire second short took place in sucked particularly hard).
The film was scored by Joe LoDuca who among his extensive body of film work, composed the score to a little trilogy of films you might have heard of; Evil Dead. And with a myriad of different special effects in the film (miniatures, molds, prosthetics, digital morphs, roto) its difficult to give kudos to any one person or entity as a great deal seems to have been contracted to a number of individual studios, but as a complete package it did enjoy the success of a Best in Show special effects award at the 1994 Fantafestival. Impressive are the zombies & fish monsters in ‘The Drowned’, super fake albeit utterly disturbing wanton gore in ‘Whispers’ and a particularly decent vacuum bladder melting man sequence in ‘The Cold’ -maybe the one saving grace of this previously labeled ugly child.
Lastly I should point out that in its wrap-around, playing as the dramatized H.P. Lovecraft is our boy Jeffrey Combs! easily the most experienced player in the adaptation of Lovecraftien tales, with a resume including From Beyond, The Lurking Fear, The Dunwich Horror, Castle Freak and of course his career defining role as Dr Herbert West -Reanimator. It seems only fitting that Jeff be the one to don fake rubber nose & chin and roll up as Howie himself (along with his cab driver who you should also note, is Brian Yuzna chucking on with a cameo).
So go on then if you’re looking for something unchalleging and introductory to the mind of H.P. All in all I give it three unknowable horrors out of five:
Stay tuned for our next journey into madness, in the mean time watch the entire film here