Sunday, 1 March 2020

Lovecraft on Film:
Reanimator (1985) and
the Great ‘70s Lovecraft Drought.

(Part # 1 of 2)


“While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.”
- H.P. Lovecraft, ‘Herbert West: Re-animator’

To get this out of the way right from the outset: this post (split into two parts for reasons of length and general practicality) is not going to be a conventional review of Stuart Gordon’s ‘Re-animator’.

I mean, if you’re reading this blog, chances are you like horror movies. And if you like horror reviews, chances are you’re already familiar with ‘Re-animator’. And if you’re already familiar with ‘Re-animator’, chances are you like it. I know I certainly do.

In fact, Stuart Gordon is one of the few living genre directors of whom I can truthfully say that I have seen most of the films, and have enjoyed all of them (yes, even ‘Space Truckers’). I’m a fan, it’s fair to say, but even so, I’d find it difficult to arguable against the proposition that Gordon’s first feature remains his very best.

From the mordant wit of Dennis Paoli’s script, to a magnificent set of performances provided by Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott and David Gale (all adhering perfectly to the Vincent Price principle of going BIG whilst keeping a tight hand on the reins), to the unhinged sense of excess and bad taste brought to the project by producer Brian Yuzna and the gifted special effects team… what can you say, it’s a classic of the genre. One of those rare instances when all the stars align, all the elements are in place, and a great movie is summoned forth.

Beyond that however, I simply don’t have much to say about it, to be honest. In keeping with the wider remit I’ve tried to establish in earlier instalments of this ‘Lovecraft on Film’ series [see sidebar for links] therefore, I thought it might be more interesting to explore the wider circumstances which led Gordon and his collaborators to reignite the possibilities of adapting H.P. Lovecraft for the screen through the least quote-unquote “Lovecraftian” route imaginable, and before that, to reflect upon the remarkable fact that, during the fifteen years which preceded the release of ‘Re-animator’, no feature length film based on Lovecraft’s writings made it to the screen, anywhere in the world.

Given the extent to which Lovecraft’s influence has saturated horror culture these days, and particularly in view of the fact that the ‘70s saw sales of his fiction rise exponentially as the market for paperback horror took off and prime-mover Stephen King began talking him up as a key influence, such a statement seems extraordinary, but nonetheless, it’s true.

Between the release of AIP’s The Dunwich Horror in January 1970 and ‘Re-animator’ in October 1985, the only entries on IMDB which credit H.P. Lovecraft as a source are two episodes of the ‘Night Gallery’ TV series (both 1971), a fifty-minute West German TV movie based on ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ (H.P. Lovecraft: Schatten aus der Zeit (1975), starring Anton Diffring, no less), a couple of episodes of Italian TV anthologies in the early ‘80s (based on ‘The Silver Key’ and ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’ respectively), and two amateur short films based on ‘The Music of Erich Zann’ and ‘Pickman’s Model’ respectively. In terms of feature films though – zilch. (1)

So, caused the dark old well dry up for so long, following a brief burst of productivity during the 1960s? Behold, as assorted answers to that question crawl out of the murk and present themselves for inspection!

For one thing, none of the four Lovecraft adaptations made during the ‘60s proved particularly successful, either critically or commercially. Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace probably did least worst of the bunch, but it has still tended to get lost in the shuffle amongst the director’s more fondly remembered gothic films, and, given its branding as an ersatz Poe movie, few besides diehard genre fans would even have acknowledged it as a Lovecraft adaptation at the time. The three subsequent films meanwhile all found themselves variously written off as obscurities, embarrassments or disasters… which can scarcely have done much to encourage prospective producers to take a dip in the same stagnant waters.

Then, for another thing, we need to address that old chestnut about horror cinema ‘changing’ through the ‘70s, which I’m sure I don’t need to bore you with at length here. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ > ‘Last House On The Left’ > ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ – you know the score. Although gothic horror may have limped on in various mutant iterations in Europe, as far as the U.S. box office was concerned, gothic was already pretty much six feet under by the turn of the decade, surviving only in the tongue-in-cheek / post-modern context of the ‘Count Yorga’ movies and Dan Curtis’s ‘Dark Shadows’ franchise.

Of course, fans of HPL’s literary work could probably argue for days on end about the extent to which his writing may or may not be considered ‘gothic’, but so far as the movers n’ shakers on the shadier end of the mid-century U.S. film industry were concerned, Lovecraft was simply the guy you went to when you’d run out of Poe. And, after AIP gave up on their dogged attempts to milk a few more bucks from Edgar Allan following the flaccid reception accorded to Gordon Hessler’s deeply muddled ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ in July 1971, Poe movies were well and truly off the menu in America for a good long while – never mind those bearing the name of his perceived literary successor.

And, as if that wasn’t enough to discourage potential producers, we’re also talking here about an era in which the successive impact of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Omen’ had helped ensure that, if you did want to place your bets on a fantastical / metaphysical horror movie, you’d damn well better stick to the familiar world of Christian dualism -- the very thing which Lovecraft pointedly excised from his fiction from the outset, arguing that it was boring, played out and antithetical to his essentially scientific, atheistic worldview.

After all, with an international audience revved up and hungry for all things Satan, what filmmakers in their right mind would waste their time struggling to bring the dread realm of Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth to the screen? I mean, just think how many black candles and scary contact lenses you could get for the same outlay! It would be little short of lunacy.

Along similar lines meanwhile, I also have an inkling that, in some ways, the more people actually read Lovecraft during these years, and the more the outré nature of his work was acknowledged and discussed, the less likely screen adaptations of his work became. After all, fools rush in etc. Given that the Lovecraft movies produced during the ‘60s, when his work remained relatively obscure, continued to be written off as failures, could it have been during the following decade that the author’s reputation as being “unfilmable” really took hold…?

As comprehensively unpromising as the outlook for full-blooded Lovecraftian cinema may have been during these years however, the extent to which his ideas began to seep into popular culture through other means cannot by overestimated, and the process by which his influence gradually began to seep up through the floorboards of the horror genre through some weird kind of fanboy osmosis, making its presence felt it a series of ostensibly unrelated movies, remains fascinating.


“The next night devils danced on the roofs of Arkham, and unnatural madness howled in the wind. Through the fevered town had crept a curse which some said was greater than the plague, and which some whispered was the embodied daemon-soul of the plague itself.”
- H.P. Lovecraft, ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’

I’m sure there must be other examples I’ve overlooked (suggestions to the usual address please), but so far as I’m aware at the time of writing, the only commercially released American horror film of the 1970s to take significant inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft was Willard Hyatt & Gloria Katz’ retrospectively revered ‘Messiah of Evil’ (1972).

In addition to winning praise from its fans for a nebulously defined “Lovecraftian atmosphere”, ‘Messiah..’ goes as far as to borrow its basic set-up (protagonist seeks lost relative in coastal town controlled by sinister cult) and a number of plot points from HPL’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ (1931), with Elisha Cook Jr’s wonderful turn as an exposition-spouting alcoholic hobo in particular seemingly modelled directly upon the story’s Zadok Allen character.

Though only published posthumously, ‘..Innsmouth’ certainly stands out one of Lovecraft’s more cinematic and comparatively action-packed tales, and it is possible that Hyatt & Katz’ script for ‘Messiah of Evil’ may have even started life as a direct adaptation. Wisely though perhaps, the couple took the decision to entirely ditch both the story’s Cthulhu Mythos references and Lovecraft’s barely-concealed fears of racial miscegenation, instead introducing their own equally compelling and ambiguous supernatural schema which, together with the film’s bold and expressionistic visual style, has helped ‘Messiah..’ live on as a haunting and fascinating artefact, widely regarded as one of the era’s most unique and accomplished independent horror films.

Elisha Cook Jr tells of the Dark Stranger and the Blood Moon in ‘Messiah of Evil’ (1972).

After that though, the trail pretty much goes cold in terms of Lovecraftian cinema for the remainder of the ‘70s, only really picking up at the dawn of the 1980s, by which point wink-nod references to Lovecraft and his mythos had firmly established themselves as a common-place in the in-joke-happy, none-more-nerdy domains of comic books, fanzines and RPGs, slowly but surely making their way into heavy metal lyrics (Metallica’s ‘The Call of Ktulu’ appeared on ‘Ride the Lightning’ in ’84, most significantly), and, inevitably, the newly resurgent world of independent / underground horror cinema.

First off the slab according to my calculations was Lucio Fulci’s defiantly nonsensical gore-fest ‘Paura Nella Città Dei Morti Viventi’ [‘City of the Living Dead’], released in Italy in August 1980, which pays direct tribute to Lovecraft by establishing its setting as the fog-strewn New England town of Dunwich, even though it otherwise relies such familiar horror tropes as dead priests, ‘hell’, telekinesis and zombies to do its dirty work.

Lovecraft’s work seems to have been fairly widely read in translation in Italy (Mario Bava declared himself a fan during the ‘60s), and suffice to say, Fulci and/or his co-writer Dardano Sacchetti must surely have been devotees of the Weird Tales canon, as is made abundantly clear by their next film, the legendary ‘L’ Aldilà’ [‘The Beyond’], first unleashed upon a paying public in April 1981.

A 1974 Italian Lovecraft collection (name & rather way-out cover illustration both taken from ‘Dreams in the Witch House’), from the personal library of Dino de Laurentiis, no less. (Yours on Ebay for $70.86 U.S. at the time of writing.)

Although it shifts its action down the East Coast to a particularly swampy New Orleans, and retains the reanimated corpses and hell-fixated metaphysics of its predecessor, ‘The Beyond’s evocative, period-set opening - in which a posse of lantern-bearing Edwardian townsfolk cross a lake to forcibly put an end to some black magickal goings-on in the lower depths of the film’s decrepit Southern gothic hotel - bears more than a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ (written 1927 / published 1941), as well as sharing that novel’s musty, decrepit atmosphere.

Curiously though, ‘The Beyond’s script also goes on to repeatedly evoke, not the more famous Necronomicon, but The Book of Eibon – a rival grimoire created by Lovecraft’s friend and contemporary Clark Ashton Smith in his 1933 Hyperborean tale ‘Ubbo-Sathla’ and subsequently added to the ever-expanding lists of forbidden tomes which HPL liked to incorporate into his tales, before its history and contents were significantly expanded upon by Lin Carter, in his later fantasy work and posthumous C.A.S. ‘collaborations’.

Being somewhat of a pedant regarding such things (as you may have noted), I’ve often found myself sitting through ‘The Beyond’s assorted eye-gougings and face-meltings wondering exactly what led Fulci & Sacchetti to this fairly esoteric bit of mythos referencin’. Did the Necronomicon already feel a bit obvious and old hat by this point? Were they worried about copyright, or about the expectations that referencing the more famous tome might create? Or, did ‘The Book of Eibon’ simply sound cooler, and more mysterious..? Who knows.

Speaking of grimoires meanwhile, the film which arguably did more to raise awareness of the Lovecraft mythos than anything before or since was just around the corner whilst Fulci & co were raising hell at the Seven Doors Hotel. If you’ve kept reading this far, you probably won’t need me to remind you that ‘The Evil Dead’ premiered in October 1981, and that its enthusiastic portrayal of the dread Necronomicon – writhing supernatural faces carved into the human skin of its binding, in a beautiful piece of production design – soon became the stuff of pop culture legend.

Actually, the extent to which Sam Raimi and his collaborators were directly inspired by Lovecraft in their decision to include the book in their film is debatable – its portrayal as a “Sumerian book of the dead” points instead to the influence of the bogus ‘Simon’ Necronomicon which emerged from the scene surrounding Manhattan’s ‘Magickal Childe’ occult supply shop in 1977 – but nonetheless, the film’s impact in terms of cementing the Mad Arab’s fearful tome in the public consciousness and encouraging horror fans across the globe to investigate its literary origins, cannot be underestimated. (2)

Post-‘Evil Dead’, we begin to see this kind of veiled Lovecraft referencin’ seeping into Hollywood studio productions for the first time, even whilst direct attributions or adaptations were not yet forthcoming.

It would perhaps be stretching the point a little to claim that John Carpenter’s esteemed ‘The Thing’ (released in June 1982) seems to draw upon imagery and ideas taken from Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ (written 1931 / published 1936) in addition to its more obvious sources (the 1951 Hawks/Nyby film, John W. Campbell’s original story, ‘Alien’) – but, we certainly wouldn’t be the first to make this connection, and the fact that Carpenter went on the seed similarly oblique Lovecraftian ideas into his later films (‘Prince of Darkness’ (1987), ‘In The Mouth of Madness’ (1994)) likewise lends weight to the argument. (3)

Looking at the other big names in horror meanwhile, we could perhaps read the ‘Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill’ segment of George Romero & Stephen King’s anthology ‘Creepshow’ (1982) as a tribute to Lovecraft’s ‘The Color Out of Space’ (1927), but, as Kim Newman has puckishly observed on at least one occasion, the biggest Cthulhu Mythos movie of the 1980s was actually none other than ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984).

I mean, just think about it – strangely-named, malevolent gods breaking through from other dimensions, assorted rambling about keys and gatekeepers, mind-bending non-Euclidian geometry? Whichever way you care to look at it, the final act of ‘Ghostbusters’ gets closer to the heart of HPL’s vision than anything that had been put on screen up to this point.

The Temple of Gozer rises from the unfathomable abyss in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984).

The most extraordinary aspect of this realisation I think is that, by throwing all this stuff into their script, Ramis & Aykroyd were essentially parodying a style of horror which, in cinematic terms at least, didn’t even exist in any meaningful form - a testament to the extent to which Lovecraft’s influence had seeped into the foundations of American culture, in spite of the entertainment industry’s reluctance to approach his work directly.

And, it’s at this point that we re-introduce our friend Stuart Gordon, a former ‘60s radical and principal founder of Illinois’s confrontational Screw Theatre ensemble, who, when he started work on the project which became ‘Re-animator’, remained a director of Chicago’s successful, and slightly more conventional, Organic Theatre Company, which he had helped establish in 1969 in partnership with his wife, actress Caroline Purdy-Gordon.

Though Gordon had no previous experience in the film industry, the early ‘80s found him with a yen to move into the realm of film and/or TV production, and, making a quick scan of the preceding years’ budgets and box office, he soon decided, as so many had before him, that a horror project would seem an expedite way to make the transition.

As a keen reader of Lovecraft and Poe, we can easily imagine Gordon gleefully scanning back through his favourite stories in search of budget conscious inspiration… but the path which eventually led him to almost single-handedly reinvent the film industry’s perception of H.P. Lovecraft took him considerably beyond his well-thumbed paperbacks.

To be continued…


(1) The Music of Erich Zann (John Strysik, 1980) runs 17 minutes and was screened at the Young Chicago Filmmakers Festival in October 1980. Pickman’s Model (Cathy Welch, 1981) runs 32 minutes and screened at some point that year in Austin, Texas. To my knowledge, neither of these films has ever been commercially released, but if you know where I can track copies down, please feel free to hit me up, because I’d love to be able to factor them into my overview of Lovecraftian cinema at some point.

(2) A bit of a digression, but for anyone curious about the origins of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon, I highly recommend this 2014 NY Press article, which is a great read re: ‘70s NY counter-cultural weirdness more generally, although, ironically in view of the subject matter, the NY Press website neglects to include a by-line telling us who actually wrote the damned thing.

(3) It’s interesting to note that the three Carpenter films which draw upon Lovecraftian imagery are the same ones the director has retrospectively grouped together as what he deems his “apocalypse trilogy”. Coincidence? Probably. Speaking of which, wouldn’t it be great if Carpenter had quit tippy-tapping around the margins of the mythos and make a full-blooded Lovecraft movie? Come on John - as the tale of Herbert West so clearly reminds us, it’s never too late!


Tristan Eldritch said...

Elephant in the room question raised by this post: did you like Richard Stanley's COLOR OUT OF SPACE?

Ben said...

Well, I have tickets to see it in the cinema this week, so hopefully I'll have an opinion soon enough! I may jump ahead in the timeline and do a post about it if I feel the need to write something, who knows...

Seriously though, the timing of this post is a complete coincidence; I've been meaning to get cracking on covering these '80s/'90s Lovecraft movies for about three years, but never got beyond the first few paragraphs of trying to write something about 'Re-animator', so thought this new year I'd take a completely different approach and kind of side-step it. Much as I love the Stuart Gordon movies, what I'm really looking forward to is getting around to the more obscure, forgotten ones which I've never seen before - 'The Unnameable', Dan O'Bannon's 'The Resurrected', 'Cast a Deadly Spell' (that definitely looks like a weird one)... should be interesting, I hope...?

Tristan Eldritch said...

I've actually seen shockingly few of these movies, never having gotten around to any of the Stuart Gordon flicks for some reason. I think THE HAUNTED PALACE may be the only direct Lovecraft adaptation I've seen prior to COLOR. In terms of capturing the particular Lovecraftian mood of cosmic awe and dread, I think Ridley Scott's ALIEN and PROMETHEUS (despite it's garbled story-telling) come the closest that I've seen. Michael Mann's bizarre film maudit THE KEEP also contains some of the best Lovecraftian imagery on screen.

Ben said...

Yes, it's funny how there's a definite distinction between films which are deemed to have a "Lovecraftian" feel (into which category you could also put Event Horizon, Possession, The Thing, etc), and those which draw directly from his writing... with almost no crossover between the two!

For the most part the Stuart Gordon films just use his writing as a jumping off point for some fun, gory, well made horror movies, without really engaging with all the cosmic/existential stuff, and I find the four '60s films fascinating becasue they're basically attempts to make commercial horror films in the standard, gothic style of the era, but adding a slight twist of Lovecraft to the mix knocks them off balance, making them strange.

Having watched it last night, I think 'Color Out of Space' actually fits quite neatly into this tradition - it basically plays like a slick, contemporary American horror film that's been left out in the rain too long and got a bit warped and peculiar (though admittedly, the strangeness in this case seems to come more from a combination of Stanley, Cage and too much weed than from Lovecraft).

Tonally, it's all over the place, but as a result I thought it captured that uneasy mixture of genuinely disturbing stuff and outright goofiness that characterises Lovecraft's writing quite well. Watching it with an audience, there were a lot of awkward "is this funny? Are we supposed to be laughing here?" kind of moments, which is probably to be encouraged.

It's certainly no mind-blowing masterpiece, but I found it a solid and enjoyable movie, rambling and flawed but rather charming, and I'm happy that it exists and is doing well.

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Great post here, Ben. Looking forward to part 2!

Watched From Beyond recently, so will be interesting to see what you write around that one.

Ben said...

Thanks Maurice, appreciated as always.

I'm not sure what I'm going to find to say about 'From Beyond' yet to be honest - I'll have to re-watch it when I get a chance and think of something...

Tristan Eldritch said...

My feelings about COLOR OUT OF SPACE were quite similar. In a funny way, it reminded me a little of Italian rip-off cinema - it's pretty low-budget, borrows liberally from a bunch of other films (Carpenter, EVIL DEAD, even POLTERGEIST at times), and creates its own distinctive melange through a mixture of inspired craft and tonal wonkiness. It would make a pretty wild double-bill with THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY.

Ben said...

Yes, that's pretty spot-on I think! The, uh, tributes to 'The Thing' are pretty shameless, and it definitely has that classic "this is nonsense, but I love it anyway" Euro-cult feel in places.

I'd perhaps place it more in the realm of really late era Italio-exploitation though, when some directors were trying to go for a more mainstream/family friendly approach, with generally disasterous results... even a slight 'Troll 2' vibe to the slightly 'off' dynamics between the family members perhaps, but maybe that's just me...?