Monday, May 17, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The COLOUR of Lovecraft, Part 1

One of my favorite, if not the favorite, Lovecraft story is “The Colour Out of Space”. Highly influential and way ahead of its time, the story builds up slowly until it crushes you with the weight of the eldritch horror of the Blasted Heath. The narrator is a surveyor who is doing the leg-work for a new reservoir in Arkham. He tells of his attempt to visit the Grower’s farm and his encounters with spooked locals, the blasted heath and a reputedly deranged old man, Ammi Pierce, who was an eye witness to the horrors. The first half of the story tells of the discovery and thorough scientific examination of a meteorite that crashed to earth next to the Grower family farm house. Lovecraft revels in the hard details, of what was no doubt cutting edge science at the time, to illustrate just how other worldly this meteorite is. For those of us who didn’t pursue chemistry past our public educations, either you are going to have to read it with a pocket encyclopedia handy or just skim through it mumbling “yeah, yeah, words, words, where’s the eldritch horror?” If you do look up some of that stuff, it’s pretty impressive and must have spun a few science-minded noggins back in the day. Following the science lesson, Ammi (who turns out not to be so crazy after all) recounts the trials of the Grower family who’s sudden bounty crop could seemed like a windfall, but the bitter, foul flavor and aroma was a harbinger of their ungodly fate. When I first read this story as a teenager, there were several parts that genuinely made my skin crawl. The sequence near the end where Ammi is halfway down the stairs, frozen in terror, while listening to something that was once human do inhuman things and then start moving towards the stairs is, in my opinion, one of the most chilling moments in any piece of horror literature. You can read the full story here.

The first HP Lovecraft adaptation I ever saw, and coincidentally one of the earliest if not the first adaptations, was DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965). Obviously drawing *ahem* inspiration from Roger Corman’s seven Edgar Allen Poe adaptations made from 1960-1964, AIP’s  adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” sported Corman’s classic swirling colors and rear-projection opening credits and gothic mansion story-telling. Taking place in Arkham, England in modern day (well, modern for when this film was made) this version tells of the Witley estate, shunned by the country locals who are terrified of the family’s legacy of evil. An American, Stephen Reinhart (TV veteran Nick Adams), arrives in Arkham at the behest of the mother of his college sweetheart, Letitia Witley (Freda Jackson). Upon arrival he finds that the villagers refuse to not only drive him to the house, but even renting him a bicycle is out of the question. After humping down the road he finally comes to the Witley manor where he is all but thrown out on his ear by a wheelchair-bound Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff). Seems Nahum doesn’t want him there and refuses any explanation. Letitia, however, is delighted to see him but avoids any probing into the issue and the mother, hidden behind the curtains on her bed, has a strange tale to tell that vaguely outlines the horrors that have unfolded within the house. The grandfather was well known for being evil (this is reinforced by a close-up of his family portrait with his eyes highlighted) and it seems that it is being hinted that Nahum is continuing his “work”, though he adamantly refuses this. It’s never really implicitly stated what sort of evil it is that the grandfather was up to, but the implication is the use of the meteorite.

After a long patch of minor incidents and lots of drama we find that Nahum’s green house is filled with exceptionally healthy plants, one so healthy that it tries to get a piece of Letitia EVIL DEAD style (well, in a G-rated way)! The best part is the revelation that pieces of some sort of glowing rock are not only making the plants a little too frisky, but they have mutated animals into what Steve calls “a zoo in hell”. These rubbery tentacled horrors are actually the highpoint of the film. All of this “evil” is attributed to radiation from the space rock which Steve declares to be Uranium. He knows this because he went to college and apparently there he learned that uranium glows with funny colors. As we all know from watching GODZILLA (1954) and old Jerry Brown speeches, radiation is in fact evil and causes stuff to grow all crazy (though if I’m not mistaken, then Governor Brown seemed to have missed that last point during his crusade). Of course this radiation will also turn elderly, wheelchair-bound men who accidentally break the rock to turn into a super-strong, silver-skinned maniac that likes to run around and try to kill damn nosy kids with his bare hands. Ha! They didn’t teach you that in college, did they, mister smartass American guy?

As much as I like the brief appearance of some rubber monsters and Patrick Magee (who is completely wasted, so to speak, as the town doctor), this movie’s only saving grace is really Boris Karloff. There is nothing that man could do that wouldn’t be instantly transformed from a sloppy mess to, at the very least, an entertaining sloppy mess. Some of the changes made to Lovecraft’s story are reasonable (assuming that you find the fact that AIP wanted to turn Lovecraft into Poe reasonable); Merwyn is no longer the Nahum Gardener’s son as in the story, but now is Nahum Witley’s elderly manservant. Gone is the lengthy scientific evaluation of the stone in the beginning, instead a knee-jerk “radiation screws everything up, let’s run for it” explanation is thrown in at the end. Lots of clumsy red-herrings are attempted by trying to make out as if Nahum is involved in some evil Eldritch rituals that go back a generation, when it turns out he's actually trying to save the world. One character runs amok dressed like a reject from a Mario Bava giallo wielding a kitchen knife, but serves no purpose other than to drum up some excitement in the second act. Another, previously presumed dead, pops up out of nowhere dressed exactly the same, to attack Nahum and cause him to accidentally break the meteorite with a battle axe. Other than that, most of the horror elements from the very end of Lovecraft’s story are strangely omitted. Most I can see being removed due to budgetary concerns, but they could have managed the some of it, including the sequence on the staircase instead of the silver-lamé killer.

While I don’t totally dislike this movie, it’s a pretty piss poor Lovecraft adaptation. Though it’s well shot, Jerry Sohl’s disjointed, blundering screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The leads are left to hold up most of the movie and unfortunately Freda Jackson and Nick Adams are way too bland and uninteresting to be able to do that. They almost seem like they were lifted from a William Castle film, the only difference being that Castle surrounded his typically uninspired leads with all sorts of crazy stuff that was either effective or amusingly not. Every time I've watched the film I can't help but think how great it would have been if the creatures from the "zoo" had been able to break free and go on a rampage. Now that would have been a crappy adaptation, but a damn cool one! Sohl went on to do another equally sloppy Lovecraft adaptation of "The Dreams in the Witch House" for Tigon Studios, released as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968) with no credit to Lovecraft.

It seems that AIP was going to try their hand at making a more faithful adaptation in 1971 with a project titled THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE. Unfortunately details on this unproduced film are about so scarce that it’s entirely possible this could be nothing more than a rumor or an incorrect factoid in a book (anyone else remember the cavalcade of errors in John Stanley’s “Creature Features” books?) . Hard to say without seeing some real evidence.

In 1982 when Lovecraft was surging back into popularity, George Romero’s CREEPSHOW featured a 14 minute vignette based on “Colour” titled “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” based on the short story “Weeds” by Stephen King.  Written and played very broadly by Mr. King hisself, and brother when I say “broadly”, I mean that it’s about as subtle and nuanced as an episode of “Hee Haw”. Verrill is a farmer who is an apple tree short of a orchard, and we know this because he talks like Gomer Pyle and watches WWF (Bob Backlund vs. The Samoan, for those who care) on a little black and white TV.

After a small meteor crashes near his farmhouse, Verrill gets the idea to sell it to the local university as he’s sure they’ll pay top dollar for it. While trying to cool it off, the meteor cracks in two spilling out an oddly colored goo which, as everyone remembers, Verrill declares to be (say it with me) “meteor shit!” The meteor shit causes a strange fungus or moss-like plantlife to grow all over everything including Verrill. This adaptation seems like it is set in the south, but as the road-signs indicate at the end of the piece, it’s actually in King’s favorite stomping grounds of Maine. It’s got a few of the elements from Lovecraft’s story; strange colored lights, plant growth and the meteor being carried in a lead bucket. Other than that this bit is strictly played for laughs, though the end is nicely grim and keeps the “good luck turned deadly” theme of Lovecraft's story.

0 Reactions:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated because... you know, the internet.