Sunday, 9 August 2020

Lovecraft on Film:
The Curse
(David Keith, 1987)

After Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna reignited the possibilities for commercially viable Lovecraftian cinema with Re-animator and From Beyond, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw, if not exactly a flood, at least a steady trickle of American horror films purporting to take inspiration from “H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale of terror” or somesuch.

By my reckoning, the first to hit theatres (or, more likely, video shops) was 1987’s ‘The Curse’, a loose adaptation of ‘The Color Out of Space’ (published 1927) featuring primary production credits which look at least…. somewhat promising?

Better known for his work as an actor, first time director David Keith had played the lead in Donald Cammell’s mesmerising ‘White of the Eye’ earlier the same year, whilst producer Ovidio G. Assonitis had previously specialised in over-reaching Italio-American co-productions, gifting the world with such inexplicable yet strangely appealing disasterpieces as ‘Tentacles’ (1977), ‘The Visitor’ (1979) and ‘Piranha II: The Spawning’ (1981). (1)

According to IMDB meanwhile, none other than Lucio Fulci himself also served as “associate producer” on ‘The Curse’, whatever that may have entailed, although I’m pretty sure I don’t recall seeing his name on the credits. (2)

So, could a touch of Cammell’s visionary magic(k) have rubbed off on Keith, inspiring him in his own filmmaking venture? Could Assonitis manage to rekindle some of the errant craziness of his glory days, perhaps even infusing the spirit of Fulci’s U.S.-shot horror films into proceedings..?

In short, the answer is ‘no’ on all counts, but, having gone to the trouble of acquiring and watching this film, I’m duty-bound to give it its due with a full review, so let’s get stuck in.

Given the wealth of Lovecraft tales which have never been adapted for the screen, I’ve never really understood why ‘The Color Out of Space’ has proven so popular with filmmakers over the years. (‘The Curse’ is the second of four feature length adaptations that I’m aware of, beginning with Die, Monster, Die! back in 1965.)

Admittedly, the story is one of the most accomplished pieces of descriptive writing HPL ever produced, but if we remove the uncanny pleasures of his extraordinary prose from the equation, the actual detail of the narrative are pretty sketchy and uninvolving, at least in terms of what could actually be captured on film. In fact, I would have thought that Lovecraft’s conception of the alien infiltration of earth’s eco-system being characterised by the spread of an impossible colour, previously unseen by human eyes, would have been an immediate deal-breaker when it came to adapting the story for a visual medium. But, what do I know?

As it turns out, the 2010 German version of ‘The Color Out of Space’ (‘Die Farbe’, directed by Huan Vu) overcame this problem simply by shooting in black & white, whilst Richard Stanley’s much discussed 2019 adaptation chose instead to simply remind us of the widely recognised fact that the colour of inter-dimensional alien evil is in fact magenta. As looser, less committed, versions of the story meanwhile, both ‘Die, Monster, Die!’ and ‘The Curse’ take the easy way out by simply not bothering to address the idea of ‘impossible’ colours at all.

Speaking of Stanley, he recently shed some light on the reasons for ‘The Color Out of Space’s popularity with filmmakers whilst appearing on an episode of Josh Olsen & Joe Dante’s The Movies That Made Me podcast (a great listen by the way – highly recommended). Setting out his reasons for picking the story as the first entry in his proposed trilogy of Lovecraft movies, Stanley modestly describes it as the “low-hanging fruit” of the Lovecraft canon, reasoning that it features no face-to-face encoutners with indescribable, sanity-shaking monstrosities and is set entirely on a remote American farmstead, rather than, “..on another planet, or at the bottom of the Mariana Trench”. Looking at it that way, I suppose he has a point.

As far as concepts for modestly budgeted SF/horror movies are concerned, “meteorite falls on farm, shit gets weird” is workable and easy to understand. Try, on the other hand, to deliver a one-line pitch for, say, ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ or ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ which would convince a sceptical production company or studio exec to write you a cheque, and suddenly the popularity of ‘The Color Out of Space’ begins to make a whole lot of sense.

Although it is difficult to imagine a filmmaker as defiantly leftfield as Richard Stanley taking notes from a film as pedestrian as ‘The Curse’, there are nonetheless a number of striking similarities between the 2019 ‘Color Out of Space’ and the approach taken by this film’s scriptwriter, David Chaskin. [For the sake of argument, I’m just going to chalk these parallels up as coincidence – the natural result of two writers taking the same steps in order to reshape HPL’s tale into a workable, contemporary-set screenplay.]

Both films portray the farm upon which the action takes place as a bright, orderly and somewhat idyllic location, prior to the arrival of the fateful meteorite – a far cry from the remote, backwater outpost carved from the dark valleys and forbidding deep forest of Arkham County, as stipulated by Lovecraft. (Ditching New England altogether, ‘The Curse’ actually takes place in the neatly cultivated countryside of Tellico Plains, Tennessee – the real life town around which the film was actually shot, insofar as I can tell.)

Additionally, both films take the character of the municipal surveyor who retrospectively narrates Lovecraft’s tale after hearing it second-hand from an aged local resident, and move him into the same timeframe as the primary action, allowing him to function both as a first hand witness to the ghastly events on the farm, and as a kind of belated ‘hero’ who turns up during the climax and attempts to rescue the survivors.

Most significantly though, both films essentially use the story’s supernatural events as a pretext for exploring the underlying tensions within a family unit – an approach entirely bypassed by Lovecraft, who, in typically misanthropic style, doesn’t even bother to introduce or name the members of Nahum Gardner’s ill-fated clan until it comes time for them to be transformed and/or destroyed by the malignant forces unleashed around them.

So, without further ado, ‘The Curse’ introduces us to sternly puritanical patriarch Nathan Crane (veteran Hollywood supporting player and TV regular Claude Akins), who is attempting to make a living off the land whilst also beating his strict religious beliefs into his newly reconstituted family [and/or using the word of the lord to cement the fragile bonds which unite them, depending on your tolerance for comically exaggerated, authoritarian bible-bashing].

Nathan’s significantly younger wife Frances (Kathleen Jordon Gregory) is a divorcee, and has apparently arrived from a somewhat more cosmopolitan background, with her two children in tow – early teenaged Zack (Wil Wheaton, top-billed here on the basis of his roles in ‘Stand By Me’ (1986) and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’) and his younger sister Alice (Wil’s real life sister Amy Wheaton).

It’s unclear how Nathan and Frances got together, but she mentions something about him providing for them in their hour of direst need, or somesuch. Indeed, the basic set up here suggests a variation on Charles Laughton’s ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1955) in which Robert Mitchum’s character, rather than killing and robbing Shelley Winters, had instead decided to stick around and play house. Oh, and if he’d brought his own child from a previous marriage along for the ride too (that being Cyrus, played by Malcolm Danare as an oafish, mouth-breathing bully).

Admittedly, Nathan’s religious mania is depicted here as heart-felt belief rather than psychotic hustle, but nonetheless, the trajectory of this story is clear from the outset, as are the filmmakers’ sympathies. We’ve got smart, sensitive kids Zack and Alice pitched against their abusive, scripture-spouting step-father, with thuggish Cyrus as his enforcer, and their mother caught in the middle as the weak-willed victim.

And, that is indeed exactly the way things pan out once the bad ol’ meteor lands. Despite all kinds of latex-faced, goo-dripping hullaballoo being unleashed however, watching the movie grimly plod toward this desultory foregone conclusion across eighty minutes of cartoonish, one dimensional characterisation and bland, atmosphere-free visuals is… a less than edifying experience, to say the least.

Never mind though, at least we’ve got a fairly extensive sub-plot to distract us, concerning a buffoonish, cigar-chewing real estate agent (Steve Carlisle), who is trying to force Nathan Crane to sell up so that he can sell the land on at a profit to the company who are planning to build the big dam, or somesuch.

The Cranes’ nearest neighbour meanwhile is a doctor (hard-working character actor Cooper Huckabee) who provides the film with it’s only real voice of reason. Unfortunately for all concerned however, his slutty, gold-digging wife (Hope North) is in league with the real estate guy, so she does her best to distract him from all the f-ed up stuff going on over at the farm, and…. ugh. Yeah, I’m sorry, but this stuff is all just really bad. Again, with all due respect to the thespians concerned, these characters are portrayed as witless, face-pulling stereotypes, their scenes playing out like a broad ‘80s comedy, with added cruelty and minus the jokes.

Despite its lack of taste and imagination however, in technical terms ‘The Curse’ is at least reasonably efficient, with Keith doing a convincing impression of a seasoned b-movie hack, despite this being his first directorial assignment. The special effects – when they finally arrive – are fairly good, even as they stick strictly to the ‘syrupy goo and latex appliances’ approach so often favoured by late ‘80s American horror. Some of the shots of contaminated / maggot-infested fruit and vegetables are genuinely rather nauseating, and the climax boasts a few knobbly troll-faces, so if that sounds like your idea of a good time, knock yourself out.

Staying on the sunny side, one of the few things I enjoyed in ‘The Curse’ was actually Claude Akins’ performance. Though his character is clearly written as a one-dimensional hate figure, Akins manages to invest some of his scenes with a surprising degree of gravitas, lending a sense of hard-won sincerity to his biblical tirades, whilst the matter-of-fact manner in which he extracts his step-daughter from a barn full of demonic chickens(!) is also fairly admirable.

Though this abusive and delusional man was never exactly going to win much respect from us as he beats his step-son and locks his mentally ill wife in the attic, Akins’ efforts to make something of the part nonetheless add a note of depth and ambiguity to proceedings which this film otherwise sorely lacks.

Another highlight meanwhile is the score, which comes courtesy of Franco Micalizzi, erstwhile don of ‘70s Italio-crime movie funk. For ‘The Curse’, Micalizzi essentially seems to have delivered a killer soundtrack for an ‘Alien’ rip-off type sci-fi / horror film, leavened with some incongruous slide guitar to add a ‘southern’ flavour, and the results are quite pleasing.

Although ‘The Curse’ generally betrays few signs of its Italian pedigree, it does have a few fog-shrouded, blue-tinted exterior shots which, combined with Micalizzi’s score, momentary allowed me to make believe I was watching, say, a Lamberto Bava movie or something. A happy dream.

For the most part though, ‘The Curse’ simply offers an object lesson in why trashy horror movies generally work best when their casts are comprised of unattached singletons and/or duplicitous, scheming assholes who can line themselves up for the slaughter, sans baggage.

By instead working through the dynamics of an isolated, dysfunctional family, ‘The Curse’ inevitably ends up evoking issues of child abuse, mental illness and religious hysteria – all subjects requiring a degree of insight, subtlety and compassion which the filmmakers here are simply unable to muster.

As a result, the film merely feels depressing, its ostensible entertainment value tethered to such peculiar items as rotten, pus-filled cabbages, bubonic plague-afflicted dinner scenes, or the sight of a small girl being terrorised by her chained up, monster-headed mother… none of which exactly filled my heart with joy, to be perfectly honest.

It is interesting I think to note that all of the extant versions of ‘The Color Out of Space’ (excepting perhaps ‘Die, Monster, Die!’) share a touch of this genuinely upsetting quality. By far the most disturbing aspect of Lovecraft’s tale arises from the coldly dispassionate tone with which he describes the physical deterioration of Nahum Gardner and his wife, whilst Stanley, in his 2019 film, takes the opposite approach, selling us on his story’s drastic shift in tone by ensuring that these horrors are inflicted upon fully fleshed out characters whom we have spent time with and learned to care about.

Falling between these two stools with an artless lack of grace meanwhile, ‘The Curse’ simply seems squalid, mean-spirited and rather pointless, failing to meaningfully engage with its subject matter whilst simultaneously denying us the pleasures of a mindless good time. Individual mileage may vary, but I don’t think I’ll be returning to it any time soon.


POST-SCRIPT: Whilst it seems fairly extraordinary to me that a film this unenjoyable could become a ‘hit’, it is perhaps testament to the video rental era market’s unquenchable hunger for franchise horror movies that Ovidio G. Assonitis actually went on to produce two narratively unrelated sequels to ‘The Curse’, with parts II and III appearing in 1989 and 1991 respectively.

Mercifully, neither of these follow ups seem to have any connection to Lovecraft, so I’m not obligated to watch them, but nonetheless, I feel a dreadful certainty that they will be unfolding themselves before my cursed eyes on some dark night before too long, for such is the horror fan’s burden. Apparently, ‘Curse III: The Sacrifice’ stars Christopher Lee and concerns “black magic in 1950s Africa”, no less. How can I resist…


(1) David Keith is not to be confused incidentally with Keith David, the star of John Carpenter’s ‘Christine’, who also went on to pursue a directorial career.

(2) Fulci is actually credited here under the anglicised name Louis Fulci, for some reason. Quoth IMDB Trivia: “Contrary to the actual films credits, producer Ovidio G. Assonitis said in an interview that Lucio Fulci was not his partner on producing the film. He states that Fulci was only the director of the second unit.”

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