The Unnamable

H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 short story The Unnamable, about something too horrible to be named that dwells in an ancient and abandoned house,   provides a basis for this 1988 low-budget horror film.

The original story is very short. You can read it in about 5 minutes online at: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/u.aspx.

The Face in the Window So brief a story naturally needs some filling out to become a feature-length movie. In this case, I’m sorry to say they took the unimaginative route of making another standard-template slasher movie–which came thick and fast throughout the ’80s following the success of  Halloween and Friday the 13th; I watched more of them in those days than I can remember now. But it does have one really good feature that shows some creativity.

We start off well enough, with an historical flashback. Going by the costumes and later dialog (as well as the dates given in the original story), it’s the 17th century. An old man has locked some unseen creature that breathes with a loud, purring noise like a lion into a room in his attic. The heavy door features a huge padlock and chains, and a small perforated peephole (recalling the red door from The Shuttered Room).

While he’s downstairs in his study–or perhaps a laboratory given the jars of colored liquid and powders–attempting to read from his collection of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, the thing in that room continues to thump on the door and make howling noises.

Wizard WinthropFinally, he goes upstairs to speak to it, addressing it as a “denizen of Hell” and promising that someday he will find the means to enable it to walk in the daylight. Then he unwisely unlocks and opens the door, and gets his heart torn out of his chest.

The next day, a group of men including a clergyman of unspecified denomination gather the mutilated body up into a sheet. They call the old man a wizard, and the clergyman places some kind of religious invocation on the house, declaring that the evil within it will never be able to pass its walls. The men carry the wrapped-up body out to the adjacent cemetery, quickly lower it down inside an above-ground tomb that’s ready and waiting, and place the stone slab over the top. After the others scurry away, the clergyman remains to complete a short funeral service; he glances repeatedly and nervously up at the attic window of the house behind him, then hastens away as well.

From there, we jump to the same churchyard about 300 years later–that is, modern times. This is the part of the film that sticks most closely to Lovecraft’s story, except there are three young men sitting against the tombstones instead of two.

In addition to our Lovecraft stand-in, Randolph Carter, and his friend Joel Manton, the third boy is named Howard. They’re all students at good old Miskatonic U, the campus of which is just a short walk away.

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The Resurrected

Some time ago, when I was reviewing the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre’s audioplay  The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, I cited the two rather loose film adaptations of this same HP Lovecraft story that I was familiar with: AIP’s Lovecraft-dressed-up-as-Poe Haunted Palace starring Vincent Price (which I really am going to review one of these days), and this film, which is Lovecraft noir placed in a modern setting.

The Resurrected was released in 1991, and everything about it has the looks of that late ’80s-early ’90s period.

Curwen and Ward

In my above review of the audioplay, I mentioned that both films have one significant change. In Lovecraft’s story, Charles Dexter Ward is a boy in his teens and early twenties. The films make him much older, and a married man as well. Chris Sarandon, who plays Ward here, was just short of 50.

After an introductory scene at the asylum, in which we learn that mental patient Charles Ward has escaped out the window of his padded cell, leaving behind the beheaded body of the orderly and a large, strange burnmark on the floor, our protagonist and narrator, private detective John March (John Terry) sits in his office and reports that this is the end of the case of Charles Dexter Ward. Like Carl Kolchak–or more like Walter Neff, since he’s bleeding from a wound in his shoulder–he speaks into a tape recorder.

“Three weeks ago,” he tells us, “Providence was a sane enough place.”

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DART Review: The Call of Cthulhu

Mystery Derelict Found at SeaThis isn’t the wonderful 2005 HP Lovecraft Historical Society silent film,  which was one of my very first blog reviews. It is the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version of The Call of Cthulhu made a few years later.

It’s another take on the same story of peculiar events during the spring of 1925, involving bizarre dreams, strange but similar sculptures related to a secret but worldwide cult, the terrifying discovery of an ancient city on a long-submerged island in the South Pacific, and a great, big, tentacled-faced guy who’s more than a little grumpy at being awakened from his nap.

You can read Lovecraft’s story online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx

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Bad Medicine: The Picture in the House

The 12th plate from Regnum Congo

“The book fell open, almost of its own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate shewing a butcher’s shop amongst the Anzique cannibals. My sense of restlessness returned, though I did not exhibit it. The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous.”

From HP Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House

This third and final segment of the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audio drama has been  stretched to fit into the “Bad Medicine” category. There is no doctor in the original story, and the physician added to this version seems more helpful than prone to horrific experimentation. But it is a spirited adaptation of an early Lovecraft story that’s never been one of my favorites.

A hapless bicyclist is forced to take shelter in what he takes to be an abandoned house during a violent rainstorm. But the house isn’t empty; its inhabitant is a loathsome old man who has become obsessed by an illustration of cannibals in Filippo Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo (which is a real book, by the way, as is the illustration described in this story) and hints that he’s been giving in to his “craving” for “victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy”.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ph.aspx.
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Bad Medicine: Cool Air

Sonia's notesThis special anthology episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre features three separate stories of “horrific healing” and medical science gone mad, two from H.P. Lovecraft and one from Edgar Allan Poe. I’m going to take them one by one.

The first is Cool Air, a Lovecraft story set in New York City during the 1920s. It’s about a Spanish doctor with an odd medical condition that requires him to keep his room very cold. You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ca.aspx

The principal change in this audio adaptation is  the sex of the first-person narrator. In Lovecraft’s story, he is unnamed and refers to himself as a “well-bred man”; here, she is a writer of pulp fiction named Sonia (after Lovecraft’s own wife, with whom he lived in Brooklyn for a couple of years in the 1920s).

When we meet Sonia Rudd (Sarah van der Pol), she and her husband Edwin (Andrew Leman) have fallen on hard times. She is nursing her feverish and desperately ill son; dialog indicates that the couple has already lost at least one other child and it doesn’t look like there’s much hope for this little boy. Sonia insists on keeping the room stiflingly warm. The radiator is turned up, blankets are piled on the child, and Sonia won’t let her husband open the window even a crack to let in a little cool air.

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The Testimony of Randolph Carter

Carter and Warren on the Gainesville pike“I will not deny, though my memory is uncertain and indistinct, that this witness of yours may have seen us together as he says, on the Gainesville pike, walking toward Big Cypress Swamp, at half past eleven on that awful night. That we bore electric lanterns, spades, and a curious coil of wire with attached instruments, I will even affirm; for these things all played a part in the single hideous scene which remains burned into my shaken recollection. But of what followed, and of the reason I was found alone and dazed on the edge of the swamp next morning, I must insist that I know nothing save what I have told you over and over again.”

From The Statement of Randolph Carter

This is one of H. P. Lovecraft’s early macabre works, written in 1919. It’s a simple, very short story about two men who visit an abandoned cemetery to open up a crypt in the middle of the night. One goes down inside the crypt for reasons he has not made entirely clear to his companion, who remains above ground. The two continue to communicate via telephone equipment they’ve brought with them, and the man on the surface hears some things that shake his sanity… and leave him with a bizarre explanation about what exactly became of his missing friend.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/src.aspx.

The Statement of Randolph Carter was used as the basis for a 50-minute long student film by Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and their Lovecraft-inclined friends in Denver during the late 1980s. (The same time I was at the University of Colorado in Denver. Small world, huh?)

For this film version, the story’s title has been changed to The Testimony of Randolph Carter–a slight but significant difference. A statement in this context is something a witness or other person with important  information might provide to the police during an investigation. Testimony is given at a trial, which is where we find Randolph Carter (Darrell Tyler) as the film begins.

Seated under a reddish spotlight in a minimalist courtroom set with the also red-lit figures of a judge, stenographer, witnesses, and lawyers around him, Carter is on trial for the murder of his friend.

“Did you kill Harley Warren?” the prosecution asks him bluntly.

The lawyer for Carter’s defense is quick to point out that there’s no proof that Warren is dead; he encourages Carter to tell his story, which provide a frame of narration for the flashback scenes that follow.

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Film Review: The Shuttered Room

August Derleth is a somewhat ambiguous figure in the personal history of HP Lovecraft and his work. On the one hand, Derleth is the reason most people today are at all familiar with Lovecraft. If it weren’t for his Arkham House press keeping Lovecraft’s stories in print, they might otherwise have been lost to pulp horror obscurity. On the other hand, Derleth not only kept Lovecraft’s finished work alive, but contributed posthumous “collaborations” to what he called the Cthulhu Mythos, built on notes or fragments of story ideas Lovecraft left behind… and Derleth wasn’t the writer that Lovecraft was.

He’s not actually a bad writer–he could do some nicely creepy things with the lonely woods and lakes of Wisconsin–but he also had the nerdish need to categorize and rank his monsters. Even in his best stories, someone will pull out a checklist to try and identify the particular Elder God that’s causing all the trouble so it can be dealt with correctly. If nothing else, Derleth’s scope of vision is more narrowly focused than Lovecraft’s and his cosmic horrors aren’t indescribable beings barely comprehensible to the humans who encounter them, but tend to be a tad more localized.

The Shuttered RoomThe Shuttered Room is one of these collaborative works, based on a few sentences in Lovecraft’s notes. I hadn’t read the short story since I was a teenager, nor seen this 1967 film version in nearly as many years. The original story isn’t available online, but as I recall it, a young man, one of the Whateley clan, inherits property in Dunwich, including an old mill that contains the eponymous shuttered room. He is directed to tear down the mill and kill anything living he finds inside. Of course, he doesn’t do this, and the inhabitant of that room manages to slip out and wreak havoc. In spite of the location and Whateley name, the story has more to do with Innsmouth than Dunwich.

The film version gets rid of most of the original story apart from the Whately name (as it’s spelled here) and the central plot idea of a young person inheriting an old mill with a mysterious shuttered room. The Innsmouth connection is lost, but the story still bears some relationship to The Dunwich Horror in a non-supernatural way.

It begins with a little girl saying her prayers before her mother tucks her into bed. After Mom and Dad have gone to their own room and gone to sleep, something unseen opens the door of the room at the top of the stairs and makes its way down.

Red DoorThis door is the most ominous-looking thing in this movie–it’s painted bright red when the rest of the house is in muted browns and greys, and it features a peep-hole ringed with little sharp spikes so that whatever’s normally kept locked in can’t even stick a finger through.

A camera-point-of-view creeps down the stairs to enter the parents’ room and stands briefly beside their bed as they sleep, then goes to the nursery where the little girl wakes and screams.

Mom and Dad awake at the commotion. “You forgot to lock the door!” says Dad as the couple heads downstairs to rescue their child from whatever is menacing her. The mother is attacked and falls to the floor, but the father takes hold of the intruder and, dodging the swipes it makes at his face, firmly guides it back upstairs to its room. The red door shuts.

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CD Review: Rats in the Walls

Exham Priory: 1261 -1923“Our host spun quite a ghost story. M.R. James couldn’t do better.”

The Rats in the Walls is my favorite HP Lovecraft story. It’s a wonderful, deeply disturbing tale of a wealthy American named Delapore who restores his ancestral home in England. The sound of spectral rats (which only he and his pet cats can hear) lead him to an ancient stone altar in the sub-cellar of the old priory and a tunnel hidden beneath it; there, he discovers not only the secret that led his ancestor to flee Exham Priory in the early 1600s, but remnants of unspeakable horrors perpetrated by a cult that went on for millennia on that same site, a cult in which his family were only the most recent members.

What I like most about this story isn’t the trappings of old-fashioned gothic horror implicit in the ruins of the priory, nor the eons-old cannibal cult–though both certainly have their charms. It’s that it plays upon the same theme as the Nigel Kneale stories I most enjoy, Quatermass and the Pit, and The Stone Tape: the history of the Bad Place goes back and back through centuries to the earliest days of humanity… and perhaps long before that.

The only thing that mars it for a modern reader is the extremely unfortunate, casually racist name of the narrator’s favorite black cat, who has an important part to play in the story.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/rw.aspx

When I first heard that the latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was to be an adaptation of Rats in the Walls, I was delighted, but I wondered how they would handle the cat’s name. When I attended a live, dramatic reading of this same story last summer in Providence, the reader renamed the cat Blackie, and I was perfectly happy with that.

Long before the cat comes into this adaptation, we’re given a sort of meta-textual reassurance about how this element of the story will be handled. This episode begins with a prologue set during the American Civil War. Yankee soldiers are about to seize and burn down Carfax, the Virginia plantation belonging to “Big Daddy” Delapore, a bed-ridden old man. The about-to-be-freed slave-woman who is with him tells him that she’s not going hear that word from him again and makes him say “Please” before she bring him the lock-box containing papers concerning the Delapore family secret.  The old man intends to give the box to his grandson, 7-year-old Matthew, for safe keeping, but the mansion is on fire; the little boy escapes with his Yankee-born mother, but the old man is trapped within the flames and the contents of the box are destroyed with him.

A second prologue jumps suddenly to World War I, where a young American airman, Alfred Delapore, Matthew’s son, is telling this story about the plantation to his British friend and fellow aviator, Edward Norrys (Kevin Stidham, doing an adorable Mancunian accent).

Alfred says that the family secret–the reason why their remote ancestor Walter de la Poer fled England for the American colonies in the wake of a mysterious tragedy at Exham Priory after the rest of his family was killed–was lost forever in the fire and neither he nor his father knows anything about it. But Norrys can tell them quite a lot about the de la Poers; his family was given the abandoned estate by James I, and his uncle is currently the owner of Exham Priory, which has fallen into ruins and is shunned even into the 20th century by the local folk. Uncle has no use for the place and might be willing to sell it.

James I grants Exham Priory to the Norrys familyAlfred is keen to write to his father back in the States, but just then the two young pilots are summoned by their commander to go fly a mission. Continue reading “CD Review: Rats in the Walls”

DVD Review: Die, Monster Die

Cursed is the ground where the Dark Forces live, new and strangely bodied... He who tampers there will be destroyed.After the success of Roger Corman’s cycle of films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, AIP naturally wanted to produce more like them, but they soon had to turn to other sources. There simply aren’t that many Poe short stories easily  adapted to the screen, and fewer still that could be stretched into full-length movies. Once they’d used up their best candidates, including a comedic spoof in The Raven and the anthology Tales of Terror, AIP turned to HP Lovecraft. In the early 1960s, Lovecraft hadn’t yet gained his fame, while Poe was well-known as America’s leading writer of the macabre, so they used the former writer’s story ideas, dressed up in trappings of the latter.

I call such movies Poe’d-up Lovecraft.

Die, Monster, Die isn’t the earliest example, nor the best, but it’s on the flip-side of The Dunwich Horror and it’s got Boris Karloff in one of his last films.

Those familiar with Lovecraft’s work will eventually recognize this film’s story as a loose adaptation of The Colour Out of Space.  Viewers unfamiliar with Lovecraft might take it for a modernized version of AIP’s own House of Usher; both films begin in a similar way.

Like Usher, Die, Monster, Die opens with a young man seeking out the family home of the woman he loves. This film’s hero Stephen Reinhart (a pugnacious Nick Adams) arrives at the sleepy UK–not Massachusetts–village of Arkham to encounter nothing but obstruction when the villagers hear that he wants to go to the Witley estate. They won’t drive him there, nor rent him a bike or car, nor even point him in the right direction. But walk he does, out into the countryside until he crosses a blasted landscape with dead, blackened trees that crumble in his hands when he touches them, and a prominent impact crater in the midst of it.

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CD Review: The Haunter of the Dark

Robert Bloch was a teenager when he wrote a fan letter to author H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930s. It was the beginning of a friendship-in-correspondence that lasted through the rest of Lovecraft’s life and launched Bloch on his own writing career.

This friendship also led Lovecraft to dedicate his last complete short story, The Haunter of the Dark, to Bloch, in response to a story young Bloch wrote about someone rather like him; the protagonist is named after Bloch, with his last name anglicized to Blake.

The Haunter of the Dark, set in Lovecraft’s own home town of Providence, Rhode Island, features a writer and painter of the macabre from the Midwest who is drawn to explore an ominous-looking, abandoned church on Federal Hill. Inside the church, Robert Blake discovers evidence of a cult that practiced occult ceremonies there in the late 18o0s, including a strangely angled, shining stone in a metal box. Gazing into this stone, he inadvertently rouses something that had been quiescent since the cult was driven out of the church by local Italian immigrants, something that can’t bear light and can only move in darkness, something that now turns its attention to him. It ends for Blake as badly as these things usually do for Lovecraft’s hapless heroes.

The story is online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hd.aspx

This is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories because of its setting among real places in Providence, especially the vivid descriptions of the old church:

Newspaper article about riots over the church“It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky. It seemed to rest on especially high ground; for the grimy facade, and the obliquely seen north side with sloping roof and the tops of great pointed windows, rose boldly above the tangle of surrounding ridgepoles and chimney-pots. Peculiarly grim and austere, it appeared to be built of stone, stained and weathered with the smoke and storms of a century and more. The style, so far as the glass could shew, was that earliest experimental form of Gothic revival which preceded the stately Upjohn period and held over some of the outlines and proportions of the Georgian age. Perhaps it was reared around 1810 or 1815.”

Sadly, the real church that this was based upon and the old-fashioned, gabled houses and  crowded back-streets of Federal Hill that Lovecraft described are no longer there. (At least the Shunned House still stands and I’m looking forward to seeing it in the near future.)

The latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre program from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society is based on The Haunter of the Dark, but adds new characters and elaborates on Blake’s exploration of the church and local history to create a slightly different story.

In Lovecraft’s original tale, Robert Blake is already settled in Providence when his adventure begins. He’s been curious for months about the dark and distant facade of the church he sees from the windows of his study on the other side of town near Brown University’s Hay Library.

The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre adaptation has aspiring writer Blake just arriving from Milwaukee to see famous author Philip Raymond, “a master of weird fiction” who has agreed to tutor Blake “in the art of crafting strange tales” (Philip loves his craft, you might even say).

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