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.

Randolph, who has written and published a handful of macabre stories, tells his friends an old tale about a monstrous creature that was said to haunt a deserted house, and stared out through the attic window for so long that it left an image of its own horrible face in the glass. Cotton Mather mentioned it in his writings. According to a diary written many years later by one of Randolph’s own ancestors, a young boy who ventured into the house to look through the legendary window saw something that frightened him so horribly that he went mad. The substance of this, if not the exact words, is taken from Lovecraft.

Joel, Howard, and Randolph

Joel scoffs at the story, although weirdly he seems to believe that the thing about leaving  a visual impression in glass is scientifically possible. He asks if the story is true, then where is the house? He’d like to see it.

Randolph smugly replies that he did see it–the house is right there behind him at the edge of the graveyard. So is the old wizard’s tomb, now with a sturdy tree growing up out of it.

Joel wants to go into the house once it’s dark and see the attic window for himself. Randolph and Howard leave him there and head back to the campus, where we meet two more MU students–nobody you’d find in a Lovecraft story, but typical for the cast in a slasher movie: Wendy, whom we know right away is doomed because she’s blonde and attractive and scorns Tanya and Howard flee the housethe shy and awkward Howard in favor of frat boys, and the demure Tanya, who might as well have Final Girl emblazoned on her sweatshirt.

Meanwhile, Joel has made his way up through the house. He hears some thumps and furtive movements, but assumes it’s Randolph trying to scare him.

When he gets to the top floor, where the room with the padlock is, he finds the window. There is an image of a horrible face in the glass. Joel screams and retreats… and meets up with the original. We don’t see his grisly death as vividly as the old man’s in the opening scenes, but it seems to be similar.

After this, we depart from Lovecraft and the next 40 minutes or so is pretty much Spam-in-a-Cabin. The two girls and a couple of those previously alluded-to frat boys go to the old house the next night for the usual reasons kids do this: to scare each other with spooky stories and to make out.

Wendy and her boyfriend demonstrate that Sex = Death in such movies. They don’t actually get to the sex–Joel’s severed head drops down on them from a hole in the ceiling and interrupts–but, as was made explicit in Cabin the Woods, bared breasts are sufficient to warrant a messy execution.

Tanya and her date are chastely sitting and talking in another room when they hear Wendy scream.

Somewhere in here, Randolph and Howard return to the house since Joel hasn’t been seen all day and Howard is worried that his friend might’ve been injured. Howard meets up with Tonya and joins the others as they run around the house and the cast gets whittled down in various nasty ways.

Randolph Carter readingIt’s Randolph Carter’s turn to scoff when he first hears Tonya’s story. He insists it’s all a prank that either Joel or the frat-boys are playing. Instead of running around, he sits in what used to be the study reading the wizard’s diary, which gives him information about the danger everyone is in. Not that he does anything about it. He’s kind of a jerk, so I doubt he’d do anything even if he heard all the screaming going on upstairs and in the basement. It’s not that big a house, so it’s strange that he doesn’t.

What’s most interesting about the information Randolph reads is the old man’s claim that he took measures–using “the spirits of the trees” around the house–to try and stop or contain the creature within. Whether it’s this or the clergyman’s words that have kept the Unnamable from going out to prey on the students of the nearby university and other Arkham residents on a regular basis over the centuries is ambiguous. But those trees will become important later on.

Eventually, after we’re down to exactly the two people who were expected to survive, the Unnamable makes her appearance. She’s the best part of this film.

Here’s Joel Manton’s description of what attacked him at the end of the original story:

“It was everywhere—a gelatin—a slime—yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes—and a blemish. It was the pit—the maelstrom—the ultimate abomination.”

This creature has the horns and hooves mentioned by Lovecraft, but it isn’t gelatinous or slimy or a multi-shaped being. She’s plainly a humanoid beast. The costume is great, not just the facial makeup, but the vestigial wings on the back, the tufts of fur on the bodysuit, and the stilted cloven-hooved feet to make her tower over her victims. The woman in this outfit is a dancer (Katrin Alexandre)–you can see her out of costume in an earlier scene in the movie, playing a librarian–so her movements are strangely beautiful, graceful and predatory. Like a tiger about to eviscerate you.

I’m sorry she’s not in another movie, killing a more interesting bunch of people. I’ve heard that the sequel, subtitled “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” is better, but I haven’t gotten around to seeing that.

Alyda Winthrop

Oh, and the Unnamable? She does have a name: Alyda Winthrop.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.