Sunday, May 9, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The "Never Got Made" File #14 - SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH

Welcome to Video Junkie's second theme week. And by week we mean seven days and some change. We seem to slowly be working our way down the cinematic alphabet as we go from B for Blind to C for Cthulhu. Yep, our second week focuses on the cinematic adaptations of the literary works of one H.P. Lovecraft. One of the most descriptive, influential and respected writers in the horror genre, Lovecraft created a contained and detailed world that offered filmmakers plenty of fertile ground to work with. Like all heavily adapted authors, the quality varies. We won’t be talking about the stuff examined to death (the original THE DUNWICH HORROR, RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND), but instead will focus on the lesser known adaptations that run the gamut from good to bad to amphibian.

What better way to start off than to combine two of my favorite passions - horror and unmade films. Sure, there have been plenty of aborted Lovecraft projects over the years, but none so chronicled as Stuart Gordon's unsuccessful attempts to get an adaptation of Lovecraft's novella THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH off the ground. The first major exposure for the ill-fated project came in Fangoria #91 where they boldly deemed it “the greatest horror movie never made!” Hyperbole aside, writer Chas Balun does give a detailed chronology of the film’s history in his “The Unmaking of THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH” article.

Talk of an adaptation of SHADOW initially began after Gordon and Yuzna’s success with Lovecraft's RE-ANIMATOR (1985). Gordon has often cited the adaptation as his dream project as he told Fangoria, “It’s always been my favorite Lovecraft story.” With a script in place by frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli, Gordon initially lined this up as his second horror feature. But further commitments to Charles Band’s Empire Pictures (another Lovecraft adaptation in FROM BEYOND, DOLLS and ROBOT JOX) put the project on the back burner. Eventually Gordon and company were able to set up a production deal at another one of the 1980s most prolific B-movie producers. From the article:

“We set it up with Vestron,” Gordon recounts. “I had originally told them it would cost around $5 million. Vestron came back and said if we could do it for $4 million, we had a deal.”

Gordon quickly got to work on the project as he scouted locations and worked with renowned comic book artist Bernie Wrightson to create some storyboards. Wrightson delivered roughly 70 drawings and paintings to help flesh out the fishy folk inhabiting the town of Innsmouth. Below are just a sampling of the work he turned in as shown in Fangoria and the Lovecraft cinema book "The Lurker in the Lobby."

Also joining the production was FX legend Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST), who provided several head sculptures of the amphibious creatures to populate the piece. Below are two examples of his work for the project. Kind of creepy how his fish-women looks like every other actress in Hollywood nowadays, eh?

Despite a healthy amount of pre-production, Gordon and his team slowly began to realize they couldn’t do this film properly for the ascribed $4 million dollar budget Vestron was offering and the project eventually was put on hold. As Gordon told the magazine:
“The further we got into it, we realized it couldn’t be made for that. For less than $7 million, you would lose what made SHADOW so special in the first place.”
“It was a mutual realization,” Gordon sighs. “We all knew we just couldn’t do it right for $4 million.”
Eighteen months later, Fangoria revisited the subject in their “Special H.P. Lovecraft issue” (Fangoria #106). In “The Lurking Film Projects” article by Anthony C. Ferrante, the status of the INNSMOUTH adaptation is given an update. Vestron and their Vestron Pictures line had now bitten the dust and significant legal wrangling got the project back into Gordon and Yuzna’s hands where it found a new home at Charles Band’s bustling new Full Moon Entertainment outfit. Gordon and Paoli had just done an update of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) for Band, so a it seemed a natural progression. Band was very high on the project as he mentioned it in VideoZones and delivered an updated version of Wrightson’s naked fish woman artwork (see Cinefantastique cover). Yet budget issues arose again and a promised late summer 1991 filming in Malta never materialized.
As Band told Cinefantastique:
“We were unable to get [SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH] made because the budget on it was too high. It didn’t fit into your horror movie niche, it was a bigger project and it was so strange. What people kept saying to us was that if it was about vampires or werewovles, you would have no problem here, but since this is about people turning into fish, this is a little bit too weird for us to be able to put this kind of money into the project. Well, to me, that’s what makes this interesting. You haven’t seen this before.”
Band and Gordon instead collaborated on the lower-budget CASTLE FREAK (1995), an adaptation of “The Outsider” short story by Lovecraft. They eventually parted ways as Band needed to make less odd films about killer bongs and deadly gingerbread men while Gordon focused on truckers in outer space and magical ice cream colored suits. And you thought fish people were weird?

All was not lost though as Gordon would eventually get his INNSMOUTH adaptation made…sorta. In the new millennium, producer Yuzna secured financing for co-productions for Spain’s Filmax and they started a production company called Fantastic Factory. The third film made under this banner was DAGON (2001), which saw Gordon directing and Paoli scripting. In a clever twist (possibly to circumvent legal ramifications), the film is indeed an adaptation of the 5-page Lovecraft short story “Dagon” but also adapts “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Lensed in Spain, the film effectively brings to life the town inhabited by fish folk and – despite a wooden lead performance by Ezra Godden – proves to be atmospheric and one of Gordon’s best films. Ironically, the film was made for an estimated budget of $4.8 million.

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