Wednesday, May 19, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The COLOUR of Lovecraft, Part 2

In 1987 the stars aligned, planets converged and a movie crew came together that I still am having issues wrapping my head around. Imagine Ovidio G. Assonitis and Lucio Fulci as producer with the David Keith (yes, the David Keith of TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT and WHITE OF THE EYE fame) as director and Fulci shooting second unit with Claude Akins and Wil Wheaton as leads. Now imagine that this actually happened. This very underrated adaptation of “Colour” has one of the most unusual collections of cast and crew that I can think of off the top of my head and it completely blows my mind to think of them working together. I'd love to know how the whole thing came about, but what we do know is that according to a Fangoria interview, Keith stipulated that he would take the gig, but only if they were to shoot it in his home state! Hence the transplant from Massachusetts to Tennessee.

A meteor crashes near a southern farmhouse in which god-fearing farmer Nathan Hayes (Akins) rules the roost with the iron will of the lord. The lord's word is loosely translated via Nathan's open hand connecting with the mouths of his stepson (Wheaton) or anyone who even thinks of stepping out of line. The local chairman of the city council warns that no-one should speak of the meteor as it might attract the wrong kind of government attention, when in fact, he is worried that the EPA won’t put in a new reservoir and he won’t be able to profit off of buying up the local farmland for a pennies on the dollar. Almost overnight the meteor melts into “colourful” sludge and the crops grow huge and hearty. The lord gets the credit, but we soon find out everything that grows is rotten on the inside. As the family continues to drink the tained well water and eat the tainted food, the family starts to go insane and violent. All except the stepson and stepdaughter who have been sneaking in untainted food and water.

I have to admit, I like so many others, was definitely on the hatewagon that this film generated. I didn’t (and still don’t) like Wil Wheaton and at the time Claude Akins was just that “Sherriff Lobo” guy. The movie wasn’t ultra-gory like RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986), didn’t have the brilliant casts that those two had and was pretty low-rent comparatively speaking, which accounts for the mixed reviews at back in the day. Current audiences seem hate this movie because of Wil Wheaton. Not because they hate Wheaton, but because they love him on “Star Trek: The Next Regurgitation.” They watch this movie because of fan devotion and discover it is (gasp) not like “Star Trek”! Then promptly run to their favorite blog/review site/discussion board and dis away.

This movie represents an epiphany of sorts for us at VJHQ. Mr. Wilson re-visited it a while back and found it to be entertaining; I watch it now and I have to say... I really enjoyed it. Particularly if viewed in context of other Italian-made genre films of that same year: the third Ator film, IRON WARRIOR, Lucio Fulci's AENIGMA, Umberto Lenzi's WARTIME, Joe D'Amato's KILLING BIRDS, Ruggero Deodato's CAMPING DEL TERROR, Sergio Martino's THE OPPONENT, Fabrizio De Angelis' KARATE WARRIOR, etc. I'm not saying these are all terrible films (except for AENIGMA, I'm saying that is a really terrible film), but hardly representative of their creator's best work and out of all those, I'd say THE CURSE comes out on top. Plus any film with a score by the great veteran genre composer Franco Micalizzi can't be all bad! Micalizzi, maybe best known for his classic score for VIOLENT NAPLES (1976), here provides a Ry Cooder-esque slide guitar combined with electronica for what I consider to be a score that may be even better than this movie deserves.

When you take a short story and expand it into a feature length film it is the opposite of adapting a 300 page book. A full book has to have lots of narrative and subplots dropped and some streamlining is required which can mean some restructuring of plot elements and characters. When adapting a short story, generally speaking, it’s going to either be padded out with lots of nothing which is not a good thing, or it’s going to have to have a clever writer figure out how to add characters, subplots and dialogue, bulking the film out to make a well paced feature. Here David Chaskin, fresh off of the not terribly well received A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 (1985), does exactly that. Chaskin, who would go on to write the excellent cult classic I, MADMAN (1989), retains a large amount of the Lovecraft story and builds a pretty solid foundation on which to build the necessary additions. Like all adaptations, the first half of the story revealing Lovecraft’s fascination with modern scientific techniques is gone, but are actually referenced in a scene near the end of the film. Many other little points from the story are woven into the plot here including the colour from the well, the crazed horse, the shrinking meteor, the reservoir, and a few others. He didn’t have to do that. It could have just ran with the seemingly "Jordy Verrill" inspired approach with a southern farm beset by formless evil, but he actually made the effort to work many of the stories points into the script and that counts for a whole hell of a lot in my book.

Shot with lots of fog and smoke, the filmmakers take every opportunity to inject atmosphere and make the film look bigger than it really is. There aren’t a whole lot of locations and admittedly the special effects are pretty “budget conscious” (you can plainly see the metal swing-arm attached to the meteor when it plows into the earth), no opportunity to get some visual excitement on the screen is missed. The subplot about the family dogs may seem superfluous, but adds another bit of menace and action when they start going crazy and end up mauling the doctor’s hot, but manipulative, wife. Interestingly, instead of outright gore, they decided to use a similar goo-factor approach as in the CREEPSHOW vignette. A cabbage is sliced open to reveal a puss-like multi-hued goo running out, as do the eyes and mouths of the afflicted chickens (who attack the young stepdaughter, played by Wil’s real life sister, Amy Wheaton) and the crazed family members.  That said, Fulci’s fingerprints are all over a scene that takes place in the basement. The scene, echoing a similar one in THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), features the crazed, mutated mother ripping out someone’s throat (no spoilers) with her clawed hands. It seems like this scene was tampered with by the MPAA as it looks like it was trimmed of some gore. After the victim falls to the floor she rips open his shirt and we get a quick glimpse of her ripping open his chest as it quickly cuts away. Whether this is censorship or maybe an effect that didn’t work, I can’t say for certain.

The cast is another factor that elevates the film. Sure the cast can’t compete with the larger than life presences of Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, but they really don’t have to. If taken by their own merits, the adult leads are actually quite good. Claude Akins, oddly sporting some product in his closely cropped hair, is nothing short of excellent as a strict, cruel farmer who makes up for his lack of education with a strong hand and a bible. Complimenting him is Kathleen Jordon Gregory (who died of cancer after making the film) as his wife, Francis, who damn near carries the movie with her subtle performance. She succumbs to madness without going way over the top, but is just loopy enough to be both creepy and rather amusing. The scene where she is darning a sock that is in her hand and begins to sew through her flesh while alternately laughing and screaming actually made me squirm a bit on my sofa, and lemme tell ya, that’s saying something. Coming from a background in Shakespearian theater, her performance as a mistreated woman makes a sharp contrast to Wheaton’s wooden acting and worse, the big bully step-brother Cyrus, Malcolm Danare, who’s “retarded fat guy” performance is more appropriate for a bad college comedy than an HP Lovecraft adaptation.

Speaking of Danare, who previously annoyed me in CHRISTINE (1983) and went on to annoy me in POPCORN (1991), he is easily the low point of this film. Not only does he rape the scenery like a high school attention-whore, but for some belial-only-knows reason, someone felt that he should only have one costume for the entire film: a mid-drift football jersey and low-rise jeans. This means we get to be subjected to more fat, hairy, ass-crack than a fistful of Jack Black movies. There is a scene that is far more disturbing than it should have been where Francis is starting to lose it and is suturing some barbed wire wounds in Cyrus’ ass. Cyrus yelps “what are you doing back there!?” to which Francis replies “connect... the... dots…” Slowly Nathan and Zach realize that is not the right answer and rush to look, cut to a shot of Cyrus bent over with thread zig-zagging from wound to wound. That was a very effective scene of horror until we got a big master shot of Cyrus' sasquach-like man-ass. And while we’re on the subject of too much skin, who was the chicken hawk who thought it would be a good idea to have Wheaton frequently shirtless and running around in his tidy-whiteys?

So, greatest movie ever? No. The best Lovecraft adaptation ever? No. But damned entertaining with some effective moments and, for the most part, a pretty cleverly adapted story.

More Italian "Colour"... NEXT!

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