Thursday, May 13, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Unwatchable!

Nearly 75 years after H.P. Lovecraft’s death and the Cthulhu Mythos is going strong in books, comics, games, movies and music. Cinematically speaking there have been nearly 100 adaptations of his work. Naturally, this high level of output is going to bring out the hucksters looking for a quick buck. Today we will examine two of the worst offenders.

H.P. LOVECRAFT’S THE TOMB (2007) – Two quick history lessons before we begin. Lesson #1 – Lovecraft’s short story “The Tomb” was first published in 1922. The story centers on a young man who, from an asylum cell, tells the tale of how he became entranced with the titular location by a burned down estate and how it eventually drove him insane. Lesson #2 – German director Ulli Lommel’s biggest claim to fame is hanging out with Andy Warhol and Fassbinder. His cinematic notoriety comes from the vaunted THE BOOGEYMAN, a semi-effective HALLOWEEN knock off from 1980. He is also responsible for what I once considered to be one of the worst films I’d ever seen, REVENGE OF THE BOOGEYMAN (aka THE BOOGEYMAN 3; 1994). Until now…

As a VJ rule of law, you always know you are going to be in for a rough time when the opening credits feature grammar errors. No joke, the on-screen title here reads H.P. LOVECRAFT THE TOMB. Is Lovecraft starring in this and top billed? Yup, they forgot the oh-so-important apostrophe “S” on there (the box gets it right). Anyway, Tara (Victoria Ullmann) and Billy (Christian Behm, who also edited under the pseudonym Xgin…really!) wake up in what appears to be a warehouse filled with 9 candles, 2 doll heads (creeeeeepy) and 8 coffins. A disembodied voice informs them they will “play a game” in “the tomb” as they must find 6 other folks and guess their captor’s name in addition to their connection. “Eight nails. Who fails?” he constantly teases them over the PA system.

Hmmmmm, the plot sounds awfully familiar. Yup, good ol’ Lommel is getting his SAW on big time. One can’t even begin to convey how bad this film is. It is shot-on-video and looks terrible. The sound is so muffled that I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what characters were saying. The set design consists of handing some poor PA $50 and telling them to go wild at the dollar store during Halloween. And, of course, you have the fact that Lommel is ripping off SAW hard. But the killer’s motivation is laughable. Everyone has wronged him in some way and he writes down their offense in his little book. One guy’s offense? “He sold me a lemon!” Yup, our killer Morris (Gerard Griesbaum) is willing to kidnap someone and torture them because he wasn’t smart enough to kick the tires on the used car lot. I’d almost want to give Lommel credit and assume he is doing a spoof of the inane SAW revenge motif. But then he shows the killer watching his captives on a computer WITH THE MONITOR TURNED OFF and I just remember Lommel’s an idiot.

All of this deems it pretty much unwatchable so the H.P. Lovecraft in the title is just the icing on the cake. Lommel actually has nods to Lovecraft’s work in the story as the villain throws out some names from Lovecraft’s fiction that Billy recognizes. Also, one future corpse is a high school English teacher who inexplicably starts quoting “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Finally, when Tara “wins” the game she is given money, a Ferrari and a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb” for her trouble. What? Lommel went batshit around 2004 and started pumping out these SOV serial killer flicks like crazy. To date he has made 18 (!!!) of these flicks with his band of collaborators. The only thing worse than this flick is knowing that Lionsgate - who make a shitload of money off the SAW franchise - are cynical enough to pick this SAW-knock off up and release it to the masses, proving they have less respect for the horror audience than Lommel. A special screw you for the “Curiosity will lure you in” tagline.

CTHULHU MANSION (1990) – Compared to THE TOMB, this one gets off easy when it comes to the Lovesploitation. Magician Chandu (Frank Finlay) decides to use some spells from a book labeled Cthulhu (no Necronomicon, sheesh!) to spice up his husband 'n wife magic act. This results in him actually levitating his wife before a crowd (sweet) before she bursts into flames (d’oh!). Years later, Chandu is working a father ‘n daughter act at a carnival. After a drug deal gone bad (because all drug deals go down at the carnival), Hawk (Brad Fisher) and his gang kidnap Chandu and his team and head to his creepy Cthulhu (the only Lovecraft connection) Manor. Naturally, strange things start to happen after the criminals find the Cthulhu book.

This ain’t got hell all to do with Lovecraft stories outside of Lovecraft adaptations being all the rage in the late 80s. “From the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft” boasts the video box. Please point me in the direction of his stories about cocaine deals gone wrong at a carnival. The actual screen credit is a little more diplomatic, claiming the film was “Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.” So if you pretty much throw the word Cthulhu onscreen you are good to go in the world of video marketing. 

Of course, this type of exploitation is understandable when you know who was behind it. Director Juan Piquer Simon is a favorite round these parts for his goofy slasher masterpiece PIECES (1982) and the world’s best killer slug movie ever SLUGS (1988). This film, sadly, lacks the charm and insanity of those two but it is not without its moments. At least Simon was honest when he said of the film in 1991 to Fangoria, “It would be pretentious on my part to say that CTHULHU MANSION truly ‘does justice’ to Lovecraft’s writings.” The aforementioned on stage tragedy is a riot, especially when the mute assistant bolts onto stage and tries to put the flame engulfed floating wife out with a fire extinguisher. I can’t think of a worse day at the office. The whole gang gets it in a variety of bizarre ways including death by monster in the fridge, a blood spewing shower, killer ivy and flying cutlery. And the end demon is dispelled by literally turning his upside down cross right side up. Genius!

Finlay graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and I bet the day he received his diploma he never foresaw himself acting in this. Of course, he is a pro and gives it his all (hard lessons learned from starring at Mathilda May’s breasts on LIFEFORCE, no doubt) in what is easily the worst entry on his filmography. The rest of the cast is not quite up to Finlay’s snuff. Fisher is a riot (in all the wrong ways) as the gang leader Hawk. He eventually ended up in several RED SHOE DIARIES episodes and that seems appropriate. Sweet gang member Melanie Shatner is, indeed, the daughter of Captain Kirk and she is pretty damn attractive. She thankfully hasn’t inherited her father’s flair for the overdramatic and went on to earn her stripes in SYNGENOR (1990) and the first two SUBSPECIES sequels. Sadly, she keeps her clothes on. In fact, nudity is lacking in the entire thing and I shame you Mr. PIECES.

This was released in some territories as BLACK MAGIC MANSION and I think that title is more apt. It would stifle the Lovecraft crowd hate and be seen as merely a goofy ass 80s house with monsters flick. As I mentioned in THE UNNAMABLE reviews, there is an inherent charm to be found films like this. After all it is at least shot on film, has decent actors, some monsters and enough unintentional laughs to make it worth while. It has its fans. In fact, I know my good friend Jon Kitley loooves it.

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