Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Havoc: BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP (2006)

Four strange aeons ago we went on an eldrtich binge rounding up a mind-altering 25 H.P. Lovecraft adaptations to froth at the mouth over. It was an epic task that would have driven lesser men mad just contemplating it. To prove that we haven't lost that Lovecraft feeling, we are dedicating the last portion of this year's Halloween Havoc to awakening some of the items that we let slumber lie the first time around.

Every time I talk about H.P. Lovecraft adaptations I feel I have to make a whole mess of qualifying statements to bracket my perception of the movie. Lovecraft fans are much like politics. There are two distinct camps and there is far too much time spent hating in both of them. On the one side you have the purists who demand that every detail be exactly as in the original story, in spite of the fact that everyone seems to agree that the stories are essentially unfilmable. On the other side you have the modernists who want Lovecraft films to be comic gorefests and are bored by tedious dialogue. Then you have everyone in between. This means that no Lovecraft adaptation made by mortal man will make either side happy.

Starting out with a voice-over interview with a former intern of the Ulster County Asylum, we quickly find out that things were not right. "The asylum was built on fear" says the doctor, presumably because a dance academies and hotels had been built over all of the gateways. He tells of an inbred, backwoods drunkard, Joe (William Sanderson), who has been taken to the asylum for the apparent grisly murder of his his family. He was found by the local loud-mouthed sheriff (Tom Savini) holding the bloody skull of one of his kin and mumbling "I sleep, I wake with bad things".

One of the interns at the asylum is Edward Eischel (Fountain Yount), who has been conducting secret experiments in the basement with a physically dead girl who's head he has opened so that he can insert probes into her brain that connect with a machine of his own design. Says Eischel, "I've always believed that human thought is the product of atomic or molecular motion and that motion can be converted into energy waves like heat, light, electricity." To prove his point, he uses his device to send electrical impulses to the dead girl's brain causing her to moan with orgasmic pleasure and repeat simple words. Wait, that really doesn't prove his theory at all does it? No matter, it is still progress!

While taking notes on Joe's examination, Eischel makes an enemy out of the county alienist, Dr. Wardlow (Kurt Hargan) who enjoys using leeches to drain the madness from Joe's body. Joe, as it turns out, has a growth on his back that looks like a face and hands, that Wardlow decides is the remnants of an unrealized twin. He surmises that this is the source of Joe's madness, but what he doesn't realize is just how right he is.

Quickly Eischel discovers that Joe's growth is an infestation of a creature beyond human comprehension named Amducious that is free to gruesomely slaughter humans as soon as Joe goes to sleep, or as Joe says "we sleep, Amducious come, make us free." This leads Eischel down a bloody path to know more, experience more and ultimately free Amducious from Joe's body.

On the one hand the filmmakers try to filch bits of inspiration from Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986), particularly in the final act which sports the bulk of the movie's effects work. On the other hand, it still works well for this level of moviemaking, though it seems in a bit of a sharp contrast with the plot-heavy first hour.

As you may have guessed there is a pretty solid thread of Lovecraft's 4,000 word story running through the film Although some details have been changed and many characters have been added along with an entirely new ending, it still is closer to the story than many high-profile adaptations. I hate to be redundant, but as I've said before movies are their own medium, just like books, video games or peyote-induced hallucinations. If you transfer one to another, something is going to change. It is a universal law. If you expect a book to translate flawlessly to the screen, you might as well deny the existence of gravity or believe in the hype over Eli Roth.

Made by Barrett J. Leigh, a Hollywood production manager, with what appears to be an assortment of community theater cast and crew, the film has a plethora of shortcomings. The actors give away their stage training, by acting as if they are in a state play with projected voices and exaggerated mannerisms. The make-up is also done for the stage and looks amateurish in close-up This is particularly painful as it is the biggest detractor from an otherwise interesting effort that I'm assuming started life as a play. I think the casting of Tom Savini in an early role was done simply to make the other actors look better. Casting Savini as an actor instantly demotes your movie to Walmart Bargain Bin status. At the same time, adding William Sanderson in a pivotal role does the movie a lot of favors.
I'm not giving away any major spoilers, because in spite of everything I do think the film is an interesting, if flawed, adaptation. The movie is shot in black and white with bursts of oversaturated and tinted colors whenever Amducious is awake. There is a very surreal, almost uncomfortable style that uses a lot of disorienting rapid edits of imagery to convey Joe's madness and Amducious' otherworldlyness and while you could argue that it has been done before, I think it is nicely done here. Also, I've seen some people bitching about how the lead wears a terribly fake-looking wig. Obviously they never watched the movie, because we find out at the end, that it is supposed to be a terribly fake-looking wig as it is hiding... something. Although some alterations were made from the story, for the most part, I feel that the alterations make for a good movie. I really like the fact that the unnamed being in the story, here called Amducious, has been turned into a malevolent force of mayhem that is only let loose while Joe sleeps. In Lovecraft's story the being is not necessarily violent, but the fact that he is in Joe makes Joe violent. It works great on the printed page, but would be difficult to translate to the screen.

It is definitely a mixed bag, to say the least. It seems this is one film seems to have made neither the purist or the modern camps happy since it tried to marry the two and just like politics, marriage is nothing but trouble. If you are going to delve deep into Lovecraft's filmography, you have to be prepared for no-budget, amateur productions. If not, you will be disappointed nearly every time. With low expectations, this movie has got some good things going for it and you might even be surprised. My recommendation? Watch CHILL (2007) or BEYOND DUNWICH HORROR (2007) first, then you will really appreciate BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP.

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