Saturday, November 15, 2014

Halloween Havoc: THE EVIL CLERGYMAN (1988)

Back in the mid-80s, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found Charles Band bowing at the grave of H.P. Lovecraft.  The two adaptations he co-produced – RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986) – made him some nice change at the box office ($2 million and $1 million, respectively, with neither getting a higher run than 190 theaters). Not only that, the two Stuart Gordon helmed films were deemed instant classics, lending Band’s Empire Pictures the credibility it certainly needed at the time.

Band was no doubt aware of this when he mounted an ambitious little project entitled PULSE POUNDERS in 1987.  The concept behind this anthology was to provide half hour mini-sequels to a couple of popular Empire productions – THE DUNGEONMASTER (1984) and TRANCERS (1985) – and fill the third slot with another Lovecraft adaptation.  With Gordon tied up filming ROBOT JOX (1989), Band took directorial control but planned a full RE-ANIMATOR reunion as he brought back Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and David Gale for an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Evil Clergyman.”  Also back was screenwriter Dennis Paoli, who put the kink in the earlier adaptations and continued that path here.

Selecting “The Evil Clergyman” to adapt is an odd choice because it is only a four-page story.  In fact, it isn’t really a story but a portion of a letter Lovecraft sent to a friend describing a dream he had and it was published posthumously in 1939. Damn, this means when Stephen King dies we’ll get adaptations of his emails and Entertainment Weekly articles.  The plot involves a man spending a night in a room and seeing the past as a former priest burns some mysterious religious texts and then commits suicide by hanging.  After witnessing this ordeal, the protagonist looks into a mirror and realizes he is now the priest and his body has been overtaken.

This adaptation opens with a woman named Said Brady (Barbara Crampton) arriving at a castle to visit the room of her former lover.  The landlady isn’t too welcoming, but lets her into the room. But not before accusing Said of having an “unhealthy obsession with sex and death” and saying she was once more beautiful than her.  Damn, Gramma, put away them claws.  Anyway, our female lead gets into the room and is quickly visited by the spirit of Jonathan (Jeffrey Combs), a former priest who greets her with a ghostly goosing.  She tells him that she has come to “make peace with your memory” and apparently that can only be done by getting it on. Jonathan proves he was quite the lothario by getting her into bed and stating, “Your body is my religion.”  Man, I am totally going to use that line.

Unbeknownst to Miss Brady, crawling around on the floor is a rat-man creature (David Gale).  Post-close encounter of the coital kind, she wakes up in bed with Jonathan missing and this tiny beast licking her.  Uh, gross.  She is then greeted by a ghost of a clergyman (David Warner), who informs her of the perverse and deadly past of her lover.  In fact, he was one of his victims and shows this off by exposing the bashed in left side of his face.  He tells her that the rat-man is Jonathan’s animal familiar and that “he only wants your soul.”  Ladies, you thought your old boyfriend destroying your credit rating was bad?  Brady then has her second encounter with Jonathan and he proves how well hung he is…and not in the way you think, pervs!  He admits he committed suicide and then does the act again, hanging himself in center of the room from a ceiling beam.  He’s still alive though and asks her to kiss him.  When she says she can’t reach him, he slyly says, “Kiss me like you used to.”  Damn, brother be smooth.  This gives us an implied hanging blowjob that you know Lovecraft always wanted in his work.  The clergyman reappears to stop her, but she bashes his head in and then proceeds to hang herself.  Her death complete, Jonathan begs his familiar to have her body and it is granted.  The short ends with Miss Brady walking out of the room with Jonathan’s soul now nestled safely inside.  Damn, he is totally a freak.

This rendition of “The Evil Clergyman” is unique in that it is both a faithful adaptation and a complete reworking of the source material.  Paoli tells the simple story, but also includes some random Lovecraft elements from other stories. While never said, the rat-man is clearly supposed to be the rat-man Brown Jenkin from “The Dreams in the Witch House.” And the idea of soul transference also appeared more prevalently in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (not surprisingly, Gordon and Paoli had worked on an adaptation of that story which made the body switch from male/male to male/female).  Also, he ups the kinky factor significantly. As Tom pointed out to me, Band knew how his bread was buttered and the hanging blowjob scene here is an obvious nod to the infamous head scene in RE-ANIMATOR that drew that film so much attention.  And this is a full on RE-ANIMATOR reunion as we have most of the lead players back with even DP Mac Ahlberg behind the camera.

All of the performances are fine, although you might think of someone else other than Jeffrey Combs when it comes to a stud who can bed Barbara Crampton. You have to give Combs (and David Warner) credit though as they have that same ability as Peter Cushing to make any wacko dialogue/scenario sound believable.  This helps when Combs has to kiss the man-rat, surely not the highlight of his career.  The end also has Crampton doing a kind of Combs impersonation that is really good (she has his cadence down).  I don’t know why, but it amuses me that they flew Gale all the way to Italy to be made up like a rat and only gives him lines like, “Bitch! Whore!” Hey, as long as the check cleared, right? Ah, crap, at this point the check probably didn’t clear.  Yes, the whole PULSE POUNDERS project was one of the last efforts by the financially struggling Empire.  Filming started in April 1987, shut down, but then resumed in October 1987.  As it was, the film never got a full post-production treatment and the segments only came to light in 2012 when Full Moon found a copy of VHS and offered it up to fans.  While not the best Lovecraft short, I’d definitely recommend it to curious fans or those who simply want to check out the RE-ANIMATOR players in their prime one more time.

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