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.
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.”
A helicopter shot shows us a city which is supposed to be Providence, Rhode Island–but now that I’ve been to Providence I can see that, while it’s similar with its domed capital and cluster of tall buildings beside a river, it isn’t. IMDB says it’s actually Hartford, Connecticut.
Like many good films noir, John March’s story begins with a blonde woman walking into a detective’s office. Her name is Claire Ward (Jane Sibbert), and the job she wants done isn’t the typical sleazy divorce evidence case March usually gets paid to do. Something very strange is going on with Claire’s husband Charles, and she wants to find out what it is.
The Wards have only been married about a year. Charles’s family were Old Money, prominent in the Providence area back to the colonial period. He was a professional chemist, head of the research department of a cosmetics company, but lately he’d lost interest in creating new moisturizing face-creams and began conducting private experiments in the old carriage-house of their home.
The police have just questioned Claire about “contraband” items in Charles’s possession–i.e., human remains. Claire can’t ask Charles about this herself, since the couple quarreled on October 1, two weeks ago, over Charles’s stinky lab-work. Charles and “that man,” the mysterious bearded and perpetually sunglass-wearing Dr. Ash moved the lab equipment out the next morning to continue their work in another location. Although Charles sounded apologetic at that time, Claire hasn’t seen him since.
These strange activities began six months ago, when Charles inherited a trunk full of historical family documents–wills, property deeds, genealogies and old Bibles, and such.
Some of these papers alluded to an ancestor named Joseph Curwen, who was said to be the true founder of the Ward family as well as having the reputation of being “some sort of magician”. Charles took an interest in this Curwen.
Curwen once owned a farmhouse in the Pawtuxet valley outside Providence, so Charles and Claire drove up to see if it was still there. It was, boarded up and abandoned, but they pulled the boards off the door and went in to have a look around anyway.
Noticing an odd strip of wallpaper on the wood panels above the fireplace, Charles peeled this away to discover a portrait of Curwen painted on the wall. The resemblance between Curwen and Charles is uncanny.
Charles had the portrait removed and restored, and installed it in his own home; Claire says that John Marsh can come and have a look at it if he likes.
When John does come over to see the portrait, Claire also shows him photos of Charles and herself when they were a happy couple. She says that what attracted her most was his smile. Charles does have nice, even teeth.
Claire also says that Charles discovered more papers that contained “early scientific knowledge” and that’s when his secretive lab experiments begin (They don’t say that he discovered this information behind the portrait, but when we go into the house later, you can see there’s a gap in the mantle behind the space where the portrait used to be.)
In the carriage house, where Charles began his work, they find a few leftover pieces of equipment, some mostly empty drip-bags of blood, a chalkboard with chemical equations and cabalistic symbols written on it, and that trunk, now empty.
John drives out to the old Curwen house, where Charles and Dr. Ash are working now. A neighbor had called to complain about delivery trunks bringing ominously long boxes to the house at all hours of the night, and that’s how the police got involved. The directions the detective receives to get there tell him that he’ll know when he’s arrived by the “smell of death”.
Posing as a fire inspector, John gets past the suspicious and skeevy-looking one-eyed Asian man who answers the door. He doesn’t get inside the house for a look around, but he talks briefly to Charles Ward. Charles won’t discuss the human remains or the long boxes, but he explains that the awful smell is from dead lab animals which he will cremate in a proper fashion.
From his smart-ass assistant Lonnie, who seems to “know somebody” in lots of different and useful places, John learns that the one-eyed man is a former Hong Kong drug-runner who may be doing a different type of smuggling for Charles. The remains Charles received weren’t fresh cadavers; they were old bones. Not only has the colonial graveyard near the house been vandalized recently, but there have been a number of grave-robbings around Europe. Someone’s stolen the bodies of 38 medieval and Renaissance personages such as Cosimo Ruggeri, Robert Fludd and Nicolas Flamel–alchemists, scholars of the occult, or men like Curwen who had a reputation for sorcery in their own day. Lonnie’s theory is that someone’s collecting them like baseball cards. Charles Ward?
Lonnie finds out that, in addition to the human remains, an enormous amount of raw beef–more than three people could possibly eat–and fresh cow’s blood has been shipped to the Curwen house from a local meat vendor.
More weirdness: The neighbor who complained is killed in a rather gruesome and messy way. The police say it looks like an animal attack; there are feral dogs running around the countryside, but the inspector who tells John this doesn’t seem entirely satisfied with this explanation.
Then Claire gets a message from a desperate-sounding Charles, left on their telephone answering machine: “I need help. I think I made a mistake–a terrible mistake. I’m afraid. Afraid for you.” He warns her to keep away from Dr. Ash.
The message cuts off abruptly.
John and Claire rush over to the old farmhouse together. The Charles Ward who lets them in no longer sounds frightened, but he looks like hell warmed over: haggard, blotchy, and unshaven face, red-rimmed eyes, and really bad teeth. His voice is a hoarse whisper. His vocabulary and style of speech are archaic as he insists that he’s fine, just a bit “phthisical” lately.* Dr. Ash is looking after him. He refuses to come home with Claire, even though their anniversary is coming up in just a few days. His work is too important. He’s on “the threshold of great things” and, when John presses for details, snaps that his works concerns “the interrogation of Matter,” which requires great solitude.
Claire leaves the house in tears. “That’s not my husband.”
John believes that either Charles thinks that he’s Joseph Curwen, or that Dr. Ash has somehow convinced him that he’s channeling the spirit of his ancestor. Either way, they have grounds to have Charles hospitalized for observation for 30 days, which may be enough time for him to come to his senses.
The next time they visit the Curwen house, they bring police officers and an ambulance, which turns out to be a good idea. Charles menaces his wife with a scalpel to her throat, but he’s quickly overcome by the police. John gets his hand sliced in the melee. The one-eyed man is also arrested. Dr. Ash is nowhere to be found.
“Ye have made the most damnable mistake,” Charles warns as he’s carted away in a straightjacket.
At the asylum, he sits in restraints, refusing to eat “seared, burnt flesh,” as he calls his dinner. He must have raw meat. It’s the blood he needs. His doctors look him over and conclude that the best they can hope for at this point is reducing his “homicidal and cannibalistic impulses”.
But that’s not the end of the case. John is still looking for answers. He and Claire take a second look at that trunk that started Charles on his strange journey; tucked into the torn lining is the diary of Ezra Ward for the year 1771. As they read the entries for October of that year, we go into an historical flashback, and my favorite part of this movie.
Joseph Curwen’s young wife Eliza was carrying on with Ezra, the man she would have preferred to marry if her father’s greed hadn’t forced her to take the more wealthy Curwen instead. Ezra was hanging around outside the house, keeping an eye on things. He wrote his observations in his diary–like Charles Ward, Joseph Curwen had numerous cattle and coffins brought to his door.
When the two lovers met on the night of October 7, Eliza told Ezra that his suspicions about her husband were true. Joseph Curwen was “truly practicing the dark arts.” She’d seen it for herself. He came up from the cellar a few nights before with a bloody, bitten arm and told her, “The dead take much blood.”
Ezra went to the Providence authorities and tried to convince them to do something about Curwen, but it wasn’t until they saw evidence of Curwen’s necromantic work for themselves that they agreed to act.
After heavy autumn rainstorms, an “abomination” was fished out of the river–a sort of monstrous, misshapen figure like a man with exposed organs and malformed bones that made up half its body. Erza’s diary says that they destroyed it by tossing it on a bonfire.
In this scene, my sympathies are with the abomination, shown writhing in slow motion as it burns alive. Surely they could have put it out of its misery more quickly in some other way–a shot to the head or chopping it up–before they burned it? Poor, grotesque thing.
Anyway, on the night of October 13, 1771, the “most learned men” of Providence along with hired privateers raided the Curwen house with the intent of burning Curwen too. They also shouted about burning the house down, but obviously that didn’t happen if it still stood intact 22o years later.
During this raid, Eliza confided to Ezra that she was pregnant with her husband’s child. Ezra’s journal and the flashback end frustratingly at this point, with Curwen’s fate left hanging.
In Lovecraft’s story, Eliza Tillinghast had a daughter Ann and she resumed her maiden name but never remarried; here, she married her old sweetheart, who presumably accepted her child, a son, as his own. The story editing’s a bit sloppy, since Claire, John, and his assistants act like this is news to them, even though it’s precisely the dark family secret about Curwen, whispered through generations of Wards, that led Charles to seek out information about him in the first place.
Lonnie had interviewed another neighbor (also messily killed) who had found what looked like collapsed tunnels on her own property adjacent to the old Curwen house. Something horrible has been going on under there for a long time.
Lonnie’s advice to Claire: “Blow it up. You own it.” He knows a guy who can get them enough explosives to do it.
Claire agrees, but “Not before we know what’s down there.”
Back to the Curwen house they go. John and Lonnie don’t want Claire to go down into the underground tunnels with them, but she is the client and she insists. “You can’t stop me.”
In the ordinary cellar of the house, they find a hidden manhole with a metal covering like the top of huge mason jar. This leads to a long shaft down to a curving brick-lined tunnel with more stairs leading down even deeper. It stinks; Claire says that it “smells like Charles’s experiments.”
There are some locked doors along the way and one we’ve already heard about from Ezra Ward’s diary, that opens onto the riverbank. Eventually they find one that opens and gives them access to a cozy study with a fireplace, shelves full of books, and a desk. On the desk is Joseph Curwen’s own notebook “To Him who shall come after and how he may get beyond time and ye Spheres.”
This notebook contains helpful information with illustrations about “Essential Saltes” and how to use a curiously shaped glassware alembic to create an elixir called the “Reflux”. Curwen notes that it’s important to make sure the salts are complete; if they aren’t, then the results can produce “the liveliest awfulness”.
Also “Beware the Marriage of the Flesh”, Curwen cautions, “for That Which has been Taken hath a Desire for its own Return, even if Sucked from the Operator’s very Bones”.
The last pages are written in ballpoint pen, but the handwriting is the same.
A modern suitcase that Claire identifies as Charles’s is in the study as well, although they won’t notice it until later when they carry it out with them.
Next door is a laboratory with one long wall containing numerous niches, each holding a little urn labeled with the name of one of those ancient occult scholars. Their Essential Salts are kept inside.
To his credit, John is quick to grasp what’s been happening here and tries the recipe for himself: a pinch of Essential Salt, a little blood, and a few drops of that Reflux elixir from the alembic which happens to be sitting on the table–and something grotesque and alive starts to grow before their horrified eyes.
John: “It’s real.”
Beyond the lab is a vast, vaulted chamber with oubliettes in the floor. Not all of the oubliettes are covered, so our heroes can see that this is where the experiment’s failures are kept, misshapen monstrosities with only a vague and distorted resemblance to the men whose Essential Salts they were created from.
You know, that really has to suck for these long-dead scholars and magicians, men of high intelligence and great, arcane learning… and they’re being brought back as hideously deformed creatures and stuck in underground pits. The idea was to resurrect them to ask about whatever secret knowledge they acquired during their lifetimes that was lost with them, but none of the monsters we see look like they can speak coherently, never mind carry on an intellectual conversation.
For example, the one monstrosity our trio encounters wandering freely around. It only says “Rrah!”
While I really like the abomination in the 1771 flashback, the monster that menaces Claire, John, and Lonnie just doesn’t do anything for me. I was under the impression that it was stop-motion, but now I watch it again I can see it’s a guy in a foam-rubber suit with some animatronics to give it that strange, jerky movement.
I used to think that this particular creature was the result of John’s trying his own experiment a few minutes earlier, since they just walk away and leave the thing growing on the table. But something’s been going around killing people for days–not just the two neighbors, but a man in town after Charles was committed. Also, just as they were about to go down into the tunnel under the cellar, we distinctly heard the sound of a door closing, presumably that door by the river that this monster has been using to get in and out whenever it felt a bit peckish and wanted some fresh meat to gnaw on.
This should be the big horror sequence of the movie, but it falls rather flat for me partially because of the monster, and also because the scene keeps going dark as the trio drop and break their lantern, the batteries in the flashlight fail, and they start lighting matches. Instead of increasing suspense, it quickly grows tedious. Maybe the periods of complete darkness would work better in a theater, but The Resurrected never had a theatrical release.
Eventually, John kicks the monster into one of the pits. Claire has been knocked down and hit her head. After blowing up the tunnels, the laboratory and all the monsters, and the old house along with them, John drives Claire to the hospital. Then he takes Charles’s suitcase to his own office to open it. Inside are the hat, sunglasses, and fake beard that comprise the “Dr. Ash” disguise, and the bloody skeletal remains of a man, complete with a skull with very nice teeth. This tells John March all he needs to know.
He heads for the asylum to confront the man in the straightjacket posing as Charles Dexter Ward, and we finally see how the orderly lost his head and how that burnmark got on the floor.
Apart from the modern setting and the replacement of a doctor with a detective to make this “case” an investigation rather than a medical study, the central story of Charles Dexter Ward remains surprisingly intact: A man from an old New England family takes too deep an interest in his peculiar ancestor and his peculiar ancestor’s necromantic work, uses that work to bring his ancestor back, and winds up being replaced by the old sorcerer, who looks very much like him and who has further plans of his own. I like this movie for that; it sticks to the Lovecraft at its heart.
There are some script inconsistencies that could be tightened up to avoid confusion. I’ve mentioned a couple of them above.
Another one: I’m not sure when exactly Charles Ward brought Joseph Curwen back to life. From the story Claire tells at the beginning, it looks like it happened on the night of their quarrel, October 1, when Charles left their party to go and do something important in his carriage-house lab. But the next morning when Charles moves out, Claire already recognizes Curwen in his disguise as Dr. Ash, so he must have been around long enough for her to have seen him before.
There’s also some padding with scenes of John March having nightmares or being haunted by glimpses of Dr. Ash–who he never actually set eyes on and only knows from Claire’s description.
On the plus side: The monster effects are pretty good apart from that one, and the sets for the underground lab and vault are cool-looking with a lot of interesting props.
Chris Sarandon doesn’t have much to do as the Charles Dexter Ward, but he really takes off once Joseph Curwen takes over; you believe this is an ages-old man who would just as soon sink those nasty teeth of his into you and “strip thy flesh from thy bones like a suckling pig.” John Terry is wry and cynical, as all movie detectives should be, but you can see he’s growing sweet on his client as they investigate what her husband’s up to. But, especially, I like Jane Sibbert’s Claire Ward; contrary to the noir expectations in which she’s introduced, no slinky, treacherous vixen is she, but a woman determined to get at the truth.
Usually, women are added to stories like this to provide a romantic interest for the hero and so they can be placed in jeopardy. Claire does have some moments of danger–that scalpel, and the monster-chase–but that’s nothing to what Debra Paget as Mrs. Ward in Haunted Palace had to put up with. There’s just a hint of an implied sexual threat to her in that her husband has been actually replaced by another extremely evil man, but fortunately the movie never really goes in that direction; apart from the moment when he holds the scalpel to her throat, she’s never in physical contact with Joseph Curwen. At most, Curwen taunts John March during their final confrontation with how happy his wife will be once he’s recovered his senses and had his teeth fixed. Near the end, when we learn that she’s pregnant, there’s no question that the father of her baby is Charles.
I’m also pleased that there isn’t an overt romance between John March and Claire Ward. He is attracted to her from the first time they meet, but it never goes any farther. It shouldn’t, since she’s a married woman and her devotion to her husband is her primary motivation throughout the film.
My BluRay has a deleted scene in which the two did spend the night together after Charles/Joseph was committed, but seeing it only confirms my opinion that this isn’t a good idea. According to an interview with Jane Sibbert also on the BluRay, this was the first thing they filmed, which may explain why the tone is so wrong. While I might just possibly buy that Claire would turn to John after the awful day’s she had, I doubt she’d be that giggly about it. And I really can’t believe that the first thing she did when she got home from the asylum wouldn’t be to tear down that portrait of Joseph Curwen in her living room and throw it on the fire.
*This is a great word and more people should use it whenever they feel a cold coming on.