Sunday, May 23, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Best of the Rest

Well, we are officially closing down our two week “A Week of Howard Phillips Lovecraft” theme. We hope you’ve enjoyed the reviews of the good, the bad and the unnamable. To end things I’ll be doing some quick reviews of flicks that aren’t Lovecraft adaptations but definitely carry that Lovecraft tone.

CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991) - I remembered being entranced by this HBO Films production back in the day and found it to be even better upon review nearly 20 years later. Set in an alternate 1940s Los Angeles where magic is real, Detective H. Phillip Lovecraft (the amazing Fred Ward) is hired by a rich dude (David Warner) to track down his stolen copy of the Necronomicon. Along the way Lovecraft must deal with magic, a lolita, thugs (including Clancy Brown), demons, and old flames (pre-fame Julianne Moore).

This has really aged well, thanks mostly to the gritty detective portrayal by Ward. He is able to spit some of writer Joseph (thirtysomething, STEEL & LACE) Dougherty's sharp film noir-inspired dialog with such natural spin that you would think he was a relic from the era. Director Martin (CASINO ROYALE) Campbell keeps everything moving quickly and isn't afraid to embrace the horror elements, which include lots of Lovecraftian creatures. This might be one of the most under appreciated horror films of the 90s and could have made a great series. I don’t think they really knew what they had on their hands (the lame artwork being a great illustration: “The comedy detective thriller with very special effects” – oh boy!). HBO delivered the sequel WITCH HUNT (1994) a few years later but it isn’t nearly as good due to a campier tone and hammy Dennis Hopper replacing Ward in the Lovecraft role.

THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR (1983) - Not to be confused with THE DUNWICH HORROR, this is the DEVONSVILLE TERROR. DEVONSVILLE…DUNWICH…HORROR…TERROR. Oh, I see what you did there Lommell! 300 years after townies killed three witches, the citizens of Devonsville feels that crusading urge again when three new women (an environmentalist, a deejay, a schoolteacher) move into the community. Teacher Jenny (Suzanna Love) finds only local stud Matthew (Robert Walker Jr.) to be a willing dating prospect, which is bad because his ancestors were the ones who organized the witch killings. Meanwhile, Dr. Warley (Donald Pleasence) investigates the town's history to cure himself of the curse of having worms crawl out of his skin (really).

This was another childhood viewing that holds up as well as one would expect a 80s Ulli Lommel flick could. The Lovecraft influence can be felt with the small New England-esque setting, witches and worms, and odd town folks. This flick is just plain weird at points though and full of bizarre scenes like when Paul Willson shows up at Jenny's house and gives this long rant about love before playing his violin. Lead Love was married to Lommel at the time (and apparently writing the checks) with both players fresh off the success of THE BOOGEYMAN (1980). She is probably the main appeal here. The end is pretty amusing as Jenny is revealed to be a revenge-seeking witch with superpowers and she causes heads to roll, explode and melt. Then she splits town, with her relationship with Matthew left with no resolution and a guy trying to ape Pleasence's voice doing a voice over. Pretty sure Pleasence did one day of filming as all of his scenes are shot in the same room and he is wearing the same outfit.

FOREVER EVIL (1987) - This Texas-produced flick is how I like my women – twentysomething years old and dumb as hell. Three couples head to a cabin for the weekend to bid the place farewell before Marc (Red Mitchell) sells it. What they don't know is that a pulsing stellar Quasar is happening when they get there and it unleashes some monsters that kill everyone except Marc. Still with me? Marc then teams up with Reggie (Tracey Huffman), a female survivor of a similar incident, and Leo (Charles Trotter), a cop who has seen this before, to figure out what is going on. Together, the trio finds out that an immortal being on Earth has been planning these attacks for over a century in an effort to bring back evil god Yog Kothag (someone has been reading Lovecraft) to end humanity as we know it.

This movie falls into the same category for me as late 80s flicks like THE VIDEO DEAD, DEMON WIND, THE DEAD PIT and DEMONWARP (all recommended). It might be a bit budget starved, but you can appreciate the amount of effort and imagination that went into making it. The first time I saw this back in 1990 or so, I was surprised how they pulled a PSYCHO on me and offed everyone about 20 minutes in and took it from there. Mitchell, looking like a cross between Jack Black and Jason Alexander, is an interesting choice for a lead and he is alright I guess. If you are looking for a few laughs, see the scene where Reggie declares her love to him. While the flick is overlong at 107 minutes, it has enough weirdness (demon babies, random zombies, a cute looking demon dog) for me to recommend seeing it at least once.

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) – Insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is hired by a publishing firm to locate Sutter Cane (J├╝rgen Prochnow), the world’s best selling horror novelist who has disappeared on the eve of his latest release. Accompanied by Cane’s publicist Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Trent travels to the town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire and quickly finds out that Cane may have been dealing with the darker arts more in fact rather than in fiction.

John Carpenter is an admitted fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing and his own work from THE FOG to THE THING to PRINCE OF DARKNESS has always imbued a Lovecraftian tone. Well, if the man isn’t going to ever do a full-on Lovecraft adaptation, then this is as close as we will get from him. This has so many Lovecraft nods and themes in it. The title itself references Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” story. You also have asylum sequences, tentacle menace and great old demon Gods summoned up by Cane (which Carpenter only shows in glimpses, another Lovecraftian ploy). Pretty much the entire thing lives and breathes a Lovecraft ethos but isn’t based on any of his works. It is also notable as it is the last great film of Carpenter’s career. At least he went out with a bang as, tragically, he was killed in a bus accident alongside Jackie Chan and Metallica shortly after this was released. That is the truth and I’m sticking to it. ;-)

UZUMAKI (2000) aka SPIRAL – Saving the weirdest for last! This focuses on Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) and potential boyfriend Shuichi (Fhi Fan), who live in a small Japanese town. Things get weird right away as Kirie spots Shuichi’s dad oddly videotaping a snail on a wall. Seems Mr. Saito has become obsessed with uzumaki (spirals) and begins seeing them everywhere. This obsession results in him filling his house with anything with a spiral on it before he commits the world’s first spiral suicide in a washing machine (!?!). After his death, the rest of the town starts to go uzumaki crazy.

Based on a manga by Junji Ito, this Japanese oddity (have I told you it’s weird enough?) came from single named director Higuchinsky and definitely has Lovecraftian overtones. The two stories it really reminds me of are “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Colour Out of Space.” The seaside town threatened by a typhoon is very evocative of Arkham, Massachusetts. There are also never fully fleshed out references to giant sea snakes being responsible for this chaos. And how can you not see Lovecraft in people who slowly turn into snails? The deliberately odd and obsessive tone has caused many critics to liken in to Lovecraft’s work. And, naturally, it has caused many teens expecting another THE RING to virtually riot online and declare the movie trash. Don’t listen to them as this is a real treat with its deliberate strangeness, leisurely pace and clever editing.

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