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 Legacy

The Legacy is one of those sophisticated devil-worshipper films that were popular during the 1970s following Rosemary’s Baby. While it has some narrativeBestowing the ring flaws, it was one of the staples of my late-night TV viewing as a teenager and I still have a fondness for it.  The story plays out as if it were an old-fashioned, country-house murder mystery and features a number of  grisly, magically induced baroque deaths. But there’s really little doubt about who’s responsible in the end.

Los Angeles architect Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) receives a job offer in England. The work itself isn’t clearly defined, but the letter encloses a check for $50,000 as a retainer–a massive amount of money in the 1970s–and asks that Maggie be in the UK by a specific date a couple of weeks away.  Her business partner and lover Pete Danner (Sam Elliott)* is dubious about taking a job they know nothing about, but the check is certainly real.

Maggie decides to accept. In fact, she wants to go right away to spend a few days as a tourist and to look up “where her English blood came from” before meeting with her client.

During the opening credits, accompanied by the movie theme song sung by Kiki Dee, we see Pete and Maggie in London, then zipping around the countryside on a motorcycle. They pass through a charming little village, stop to have a picnic lunch beside a stream, then ride down a narrow lane where they swerve off suddenly into the trees to avoid a crash with a Rolls Royce coming up the other way.

Motorcycle crashThe owner of the Rolls (John Standing) is extremely apologetic as he  checks the couple for injuries. They aren’t hurt, but the motorcycle is a bit banged up.

The gentleman offers to take them to his house for a spot of tea while the local mechanic comes for the bike and repairs it. Only when they’re actually in the back of the limo does he introduce himself as Jason Mountolive.

After a brief stop in that village for Harry the chauffeur to speak to the garage mechanic, they drive on to Jason’s house, Ravenshurst, which is a lovely old mansion on a grand estate.

Jason sends his guests in through the front door, telling them that “Adams” will take care of them. He stays in the car as it goes around to the back. While he seemed perfectly fine while talking to Maggie and Pete after the accident, something is seriously wrong with him; he’s very weak, and the chauffeur has to help him out of the car and up the back stairs to his room.

Maggie and Pete, meanwhile, are impressed by the gorgeous interior of the house. They see no sign of Adams or anyone else, apart from a white cat with mismatched eyes like David Bowie–one green and one blue.

The drawing room

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Daughters of Darkness

Daughters of DarknessThe late 1960s and early ’70s were the prime era for UK or Euro lesbian vampire films. Most were based, more or less, on Sheridan LeFanu’s Victorian novella, Carmilla. A smaller number use the historical figure Erzsebet BathoryDaughters of Darkness is one of the latter, and makes “the Blood Countess” an actual vampire instead of an all too real, human monster.

Daughters of Darkness is remarkably international. It was filmed in Belgium by Belgium director Harry Kümel, but funded by six or seven different countries. Its star is famous French actress Delphine Seyrig, but producers in their respective nations also contributed German actress Andrea Rau and French Canadian actress Danielle Ouimet (playing a Swiss). America’s contribution was the lead actor, a Brooklyn boy playing British–I think; the character’s name and his accent sound more Eastern European than Brit to me.  Anyway, it’s John Karlen, who has had previous experience dealing with vampires. He’s the reason I wanted to look at this film after seeing the trailer for it on one of the Dark Shadows extra features DVDs.

This film begins on a train, with newlywed couple Stefan and Valerie Chiltern demonstrating how to have sex within the confines of an upper berth. She seems a nice enough young woman, if a tad vapid, but we soon learn that there’s something just a little off about him.

Due to an accident on the line ahead, their train is late arriving at Ostend and they miss that evening’s ferry to England. While they wait for the next  ferry, the couple checks in at the massive Hotel des Thermes right on the beach. It’s the middle of winter, so the hotel is empty and seems to be staffed only by one elderly concierge, who gives them the Royal Suite.

Stefan and Valerie

Not that Stefan minds the delay. He’s reluctant to get home with his bride. When he asks the concierge to put in a phone call to the UK for him, he slips the man a note as well as a tip. The note asks the concierge to say that he couldn’t get the call through.

Why doesn’t Stefan want to go home? It’s his mother, who he says will not welcome this impulsive marriage, which followed a whirlwind romance during a few weeks’ vacation in Switzerland. “She already hates you and she doesn’t even know you exist,” he tells Valerie.

Mother is going to be the least of their problems. While the couple discusses the matter over dinner, another pair of guests arrives in a stylish, old-fashioned car: the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is dressed like a glamorous 1930s movie star (Seyrig’s look specifically recalls Marlene Dietrich) and her cherry-lipped companion, Ilona.  The concierge is surprised by the Countess; he’s sure he’s seen her before, 40 years ago when he was first working at the hotel as a young bellhop. And yet the lady doesn’t look as if she can be much more than 40 (she admits to 35).

Countess Elizabeth Bathory“It must have been my mother,” she responds coolly.

The Countess wants the Royal Suite for herself, until she catches sight of the newlyweds in the dining room. She takes immediate  interest in the young couple, and accepts the suite next to theirs. In the privacy of their room that night, the Countess and Ilona discuss their neighbors. The Countess hasn’t stopped talking about Valerie since she first saw her, which makes Ilona jealous.

When Ilona observes that Valerie and her husband will only be staying at the hotel for one night, the Countess replies that many things can change in a night.

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The VVitch

The witch

“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?
A pretty dress?
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Wouldst thou like to see the world?”

 

All that in exchange for signing your name in a book and handing over your immortal soul.

The VVitch is titled in that style to mimic the printed works of the 16th and early 17th century, when U, V, and W weren’t quite distinguished as separate letters of the alphabet. This was one of the things that attracted me to this movie before I even saw it. The other thing was learning that the language used was also in the period style, with dialog taken directly from pamphlets and trial accounts of the era. While some have found this mode of speech and the character’s accents off-putting, for me it’s the best thing about the movie. The way the characters talk and their social and religious attitudes are as close as we’ll probably ever get to authentically historic, while remaining accessible to a modern audience.

Aside from a few quibbles–like the breed of dog, the number of candles, or the pierced holes in the  heroine’s earlobes–the look of this film is also marvelously well done with regard to historic details. It feels right.

Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The VVitch evokes several classic  fairytales, but gives them a darker turn. It’s almost a version of Hansel and Gretel in which the witch triumphs.

It’s 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We meet a transplanted Yorkshire family with no given last name as the father William (Ralph Ineson) is being judged by members of a Puritan council. With him are his wife Kate (Kate Dickie), their teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), 12-year-old Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the 6-year old twins, Jonas and Mercy.

William is having religious differences with the elders. Those who came from England to the North American colonies during this period seeking religious freedom were generally in one of two categories: Puritans, who sought to purify the Church of England and remove all taint of Catholicism and “Popish” practice from its rites and ceremonies, and separatists, who gave the Church up as impossibly corrupt and wanted to strike out on their own with their individual ideas of true Christianity. William falls into this second category, and his ideas are out of accord with the rest of the community.

After calling the council “false Christians” and declaring his beliefs to be the true way, William is banished from the colony. He loads his family into a cart and they head out alone into the wilderness.

They journey for two days before they come to a meadow near a vast primeval wood and decide that this is the place where God meant them to settle. Everyone kneels to pray.

The farm

We next see the family some months later, in the bleak, late autumn: the trees are bare and a small field of colorful but somewhat blighted corn has been harvested into standing stacks. There’s also a withered garden. William has built a one-room thatched cottage and a goat-shed, but a larger barn is still under construction. Kate has had a new baby since the family settled here, a little boy named Samuel.

Unfortunately, with the family living in such isolated circumstances, Samuel hasn’t been baptized.

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The Quiet Ones

The Professor and his team So you think I got an evil mind?
Well, I’ll tell you, honey–
I don’t know why.
And I don’t know why…

anymore.

Most Americans are probably more familiar with Quiet Riot’s cover of “Cum On Feel The Noize” in the 1980s, but it was originally a big hit in the UK for a band called Slade in the early ’70s. You’ll hear a lot of that song in The Quiet Ones, a Hammer revival film set in 1974; it’s just the kind of music you want to use to keep a suicidally depressed girl with a poltergeist from getting any sleep.

Now, why would anybody want to do that?

It’s a psychological experiment. Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris, the luckless Lane Pryce on Mad Men) explains it during a lecture just before he hires a cameraman to document his work.

“What if you could prove that the supernatural was merely a manifestation of what already exists in the mind, the subconscious?” The professor doesn’t believe in ghosts or demons, but that the negative energy of a disturbed mind can create the type of physical phenomena that looks like a haunting or possession. He thinks that he’s near to finding a cure for it; if he can externalize the phenomena, it can be removed like a tumor. “We cure one patient, we cure all mankind.”

The patient he has in mind is a young woman named Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke). Orphaned at an early age, with no memory of her past, Jane has grown up in a series of foster homes but she’s never stayed anywhere for very long. Sooner or later, “things started to happen”–poltergeist activity that made it impossible for her foster family to keep her. After she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, Jane came voluntarily into Coupland’s care. He’s currently keeping her in a house in town, under the observation of three student assistants. No, make that two assistants. One quits, angry and appalled at what he calls Coupland’s “unethical” practices before he storms off.

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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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Theatre of Blood

This is one of my favorite Vincent Price films. I’ve heard that it was one of his too.

It’s a bit gruesome, but played for comedy and a lot of fun. Some of Britain’s finest actors queued up to play the critics/victims in this film and have their own vicarious revenge. I know it’s a Dr. Phibes knock-off, but I prefer it. With my background in English Lit, I’d rather watch a movie about a hammy actor committing a series of baroque Shakespearean-themed murders to a disfigured doctor committing Biblically-based ones.

Critics Circle Awards 1970

The film begin with Michael Hordern (last seen here as the skeptical and nearly incoherent Mr. Parkins in Whistle and I’ll Come to You) as London theatre critic George Maxwell. He and his wife are having breakfast in their flat overlooking Hammersmith Bridge and the newspaper he’s reading informs viewers that the date is March 15, 1972.

Maxwell’s reading the latest of his own scathing reviews is interrupted when receives a telephone call asking him to come to an empty tenement that’s about to be torn down to help evict some squatters. As chair of the local housing committee, he sees nothing remarkable with this request apart from his needing to be present so the police can see the squatters off the property. His only concern is whether or not it will make him late for his Critics Circle meeting.

His wife, whose name is not Calpurnia, gets into the theme of the movie before we even know what it is by warning him not to go; she’s had dreams of a disaster befalling Maxwell. Dismissing her fears, off he blithely goes.

When he arrives at the abandoned building, two people dressed in policemen’s uniforms are waiting for him. In spite of the abundant facial hair both wear to conceal their features, their voices are distinctive and easily recognizable. They escort Maxwell up a couple of floors to where a group of tramps and meths drinkers are lying about on filthy pallets. But when Maxwell tries to shoo them out, they rise up, smashing the bottles they’ve been drinking from orMaxwell dies taking up other sharp objects, chase him until they trap him, then stab him viciously.

Bleeding, Maxwell staggers toward the taller of the two policemen, who have stood by watching while all this has been going on. Instead of saying anything to the point, the man begins to recite a speech from Julius Caesar.

Maxwell falls down (the camera looking up through the slatwork floor beneath him); the supposed policemen stands over him, still reciting. Stripping off his helmet and false mustache, he reveals himself to be… well, it’s Vincent Price. Like his voice didn’t make that obvious the instant he  spoke.

Maxwell has just time to choke out, “You… but you’re dead,” before he dies himself.

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Murder at the Vanities

“Pre-Code” isn’t an accurate name for movies made in the early 1930s. The Hays Office Production Code was initially introduced in 1930, outlining what could and couldn’t be shown as well as said in the new, talking pictures, but the Code wasn’t rigidly enforced. In fact, it was pretty much ignored during those early years as filmmakers continued to test its  limits and see how far they could go. Only in 1934, when Joseph Breen organized a boycott with the Catholic Legion of Decency, did the film studios concede and start making movies that conformed to one specific vision of a world where nobody swore or used illegal drugs, criminals received their just deserts,  and even married couples always kept one foot on the floor.

Rita shows Lt. Murdoch her favorite hat pinThese so-called Pre-Code movies are often crude and sometimes still have the power to shock, but they also have a breezy freedom and brash cynicism that feels more natural than their later, more heavily censored counterparts. They seem to me to reveal a more honest picture of what people in the early 1930s were really like.

Murder at the Vanities was released in the summer of 1934, just before censorship of films became more stringent. It’s not a great musical of the era, like 42nd Street or Golddiggers of 1933, but there’s a lot going on here that wouldn’t be allowed in movies even a few months later, plus a murder mystery that occurs between (and during) the musical numbers.

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Blood on Satan’s Claw

The British film studios Tigon and Amicus were generally seen as second-rate Hammer;  but that’s not a fair assessment. Both turned out a number of horror films in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which also starred Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing, but each had a character of its own. The films of all three made up a lot of the late-night TV viewing of my youth.

Peter sees his bride's clawed hand Tigon tended to take risks with less conventional horror stories. Sometimes the gamble worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

For example, Tigon produced the extremely goofy Blood Beast Terror featuring a giant weremoth, as well as The Creeping Flesh with its  philosophical musings on the true nature of Evil.

Tigon also made a couple of interesting films based on witch-hunting in 17th-century rural England with completely opposite points of view.

Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General stars Vincent Price as a chillingly cold-blooded and sadistic man based on real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who tortures and executes people accused of being witches. There are no real witches in this film, only innocent victims of Hopkins’s lust for money, prestige and power. In Blood on Satan’s Claw, on the other hand, the witches are real and evil, and the men who hunt them are the heroes.

The exact year in which Blood on Satan’s Claw is set isn’t clearly established, but it seems to be circa 1700; there’s a reference to “King James III in exile,” so it must be after the death of James II, when William of Orange or Queen Anne was actually the reigning monarch. The film consists of three separate stories; they were originally meant to be filmed as an anthology, then sewn together to form one plot, although a few gaps show here and there. Although they are original pieces of fiction, they have the flavor of authentic folk horror, the type of tales that might be told around the hearths of country homes during this period.

First folk tale: This farmer was out a-plowing his field, when he found something horrible buried in the dirt…

The film begins on a spring day somewhere in rural England with a ploughman by the name of Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) working in a field belonging to local landowner Mistress Banham. When he notices a number of birds gathered on a spot of ground recently turned up by his plow, he investigates and finds a horrible thing: a collection of bones and a crushed skull with one intact and very fresh-looking eye.

The horrible thing The worm on the eyeball is a particularly grotesque touch and the film makes the most of it, pulling in close to give the viewers the first in a series of disturbing but not gory images.

Ralph runs to the manor-farm, where Mistress Banham (Avice Landone) is entertaining an old friend, a highly placed magistrate (Patrick Wymark. His character is credited as The Judge and doesn’t seem to have a name; I think he’s addressed once as Lord Edmond, but the dialogue isn’t clear).

The Judge is a skeptical gentleman, but he agrees to go out and have a look at Ralph’s gruesome find. When the two get out to the field, there’s no horrible wormy skull to be found. The local parson (Anthony Ainley) is discovered in the underbrush, catching a snake. A harmless proto-naturalist, or is he in league with the devil?

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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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