Friday, 11 September 2020

Lovecraft on Film:
The Unnamable
(Jean-Paul Ouellette, 1988)

“The witchcraft terror is a horrible ray of light on what was stewing in men’s crushed brains, but even that is a trifle. There was no beauty: no freedom – we can see that from the architectural and household remains, and the poisonous sermons of the cramped divines. And inside that rusted iron straightjacket lurked gibbering hideousness, perversion, and diabolism. Here, truly, was the apotheosis of the unnamable.”  - H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Unnamable’

First published in the July 1925 issue of ‘Weird Tales’, H.P. Lovecraft’s brief tale ‘The Unnamable’ is an odd business, even by its author’s usual standards. Though ostensibly a conventional horror story, with an old dark house, a graveyard, scary folk tales and a grisly climax involving an indescribable monster to be found within its few short pages, Lovecraft’s intentions in drafting this one actually seem to have lain somewhere else entirely.

Seemingly functioning more as an extended in-joke aimed at the author’s fans and correspondents, ‘The Unnamable’ is in fact an archly self-aware piece of niche literary jocularity. Chiefly centred around a faux-Platonic dialogue conducted between two gentlemen lounging around in an Arkham cemetery, it also meanwhile provides a vehicle for Lovecraft’s sincerely held views on the value of mystery and ambiguity within literature and culture (as opposed to the smug, Christian Science-derived rationality proffered by his hypothetical critics).

Though identified in the story’s final sentence as “Carter”, the narrator of ‘The Unnamable’ is clearly a stand-in for Lovecraft himself – an amateur scribbler of spooky tales, criticised by his more down-to-earth friends for his “..constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things”; “..a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my low standing as an author,” the narrator informs us, tongue firmly in cheek.

Beginning with the unforgettable opening gambit, “We were sitting on a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb in the late afternoon of an autumn day at the old burying-ground in Arkham and speculating about the unnamable,” the story in fact allows us a rare glimpse of Lovecraft’s capacity not only to recognise, but to happily lampoon, the excesses of his own style, as he proceeds to pepper his text with adjective-clogged sentences so patently absurd that they surely must have been intended as a kind of winking self-parody.(1)

Much of this literary jiggery-pokery is inevitably lost in Jean-Paul Ouellette’s 1988 movie adaptation of ‘The Unnamable’, but nonetheless, the first-time writer/director does a surprisingly good job of retaining the self-reflexive tone of the piece, remaining faithful both to the flimsy outline of the story, and to the reassuringly eerie atmosphere of Lovecraft’s fantastical New England.(2)

Immediately expanding upon Lovecraft’s story, the film opens with a historical prologue which seems designed to reassure nervous Weird Tales fans that they can nix that outraged letter to the editor of ‘Crypt of Cthulhu’ – this movie’s got them covered.

In the drawing-room of a shadow-haunted, colonial mansion, an aged alchemist or warlock of some kind is chilling out with his extensive collection of grimoires. But, his contemplation of the Pnakotic Manuscripts is persistently interrupted by the unholy sounds emanating from the house’s gabled attic room, causing him to recall that this is where he has locked up the unseen, and indeed unnameable, creature which used to by his wife.

One cautious (and, it must be said, extremely slow) ascent of the perilous staircase later, following some shaky fingering of the wrought iron key which may perchance unlock the big, rusted padlock which keeps the door chained, and – surprise! – we’re treated to some of the best value late ‘80s gore that money can buy, and “the unnameable” is on the loose.

Though admirable in its intent to establish an authentically “Lovecraftian” feel, the meagre resources with which this film was produced are all too clearly on view during this prologue. Though the sets and lighting are pretty decent, and the grimoires and candles and stuff look lovely, some of the other period details have a bit of an Andy Milligan feel to them, which does not necessarily bode well for what follows.

(I just couldn’t get past the absolutely ridiculous nightcap/hanky thing the old man is wearing on his head, whilst the puritan minister who turns up to declare that the house should be sealed up and shunned for all eternity looks about twenty years old, and appears to be wearing a sheet of A1 printing paper with a hole cut in the middle around his neck.)

We’re on safer ground however – in terms of costumery, at least - as we zip forward to present day, where we find ourselves in a bucolic cemetery just down the road from Arkham’s Miskatonic University campus. Here, as per Lovecraft’s tale, a group of friends are indeed ‘speculating about the unnameable’. Admittedly, the mature adults of HPL’s story (in which the narrator’s rationalist antagonist is identified as “principal of the East High School”) have been recast here as fresh-faced students, and there are three of them, rather than two, but y’know – this is an ‘80s horror movie. Young victims are needed. 

Making an inter-textual jump never explicitly stated in the source text, Ouellette’s screenplay assumes that that our narrator, “Carter”, is in fact none other than Randolph Carter, protagonist of both HPL’s titular ‘Statement of…’ (1919), and his subsequent series of Dunsany-inspired “dreamland” fantasies.

As played here by the immediately likeable Mark Kinsey Stephenson, it is also clear that this Randolph Carter is going to be anything but a sickly, introverted Lovecraft stand-in. In fact, he comes across as a lively and rather charismatic figure right from the outset, becoming more-so as the movie progresses.

An oddball aspiring folklorist possessed of nervous energy and a presumably vast knowledge of esoteric lore, Stephenson’s Carter makes for a pretty great horror movie hero all round. It’s easy to imagine him having headed up his own TV show or on-going franchise in which he traipsed around New England, collecting old stories and investigating sinister goings-on, like some more collegiate equivalent of Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘Silver John’ character.

(Though this possibility sadly never came to pass, the appeal of Stephenson’s characterisation was clearly not lost on Ouellette and his collaborators; ‘The Unnamable’s 1992 sequel is sub-titled “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, with Stephenson top-billed.)

Unfortunately, none of the other characters here are quite so memorable, but again – we’re in ‘80s horror movie territory here, so they’re all just meat for the grinder, more or less. For the most part the cast acquit themselves fairly well, with Charles Klausmeyer standing out for his young Roman Polanski / John Moulder-Brown type look in the role of Carter’s younger buddy/protégé Howard Damon. (He also seems to wear a tweed suit and tie to campus every day, which lends a touch of class.) 

In this telling of the story, Carter’s rationalist antagonist in the graveyard discussion – business major Joel Manton, played by Mark Parra – becomes so worked up about his friend’s willingness to embrace the supernatural that he stomps off in the direction of the haunted house just across the way, declaring that he will spend the night there in order to prove that nothing untoward is going on within. (Good luck with that, fella.)

Shrugging this off, Carter and Damon meanwhile return to campus, where we re-join them the following morning in the Miskatonic University library, where they discuss Manton’s apparent failure to return from his impromptu camp-out.

Meanwhile, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a routine campus slasher, as two studious sorority girls (one of whom the shy Damon happens to have the hots for) are chatted up by a pair of generic frat-boys, one of whom proudly displays that universal signifier of jockitude, a woollen sweater hanging loose over his shoulders (where indeed it remains, worn like a cloak, for the entire remainder of the movie).

Claiming rather feebly that they need to undertake some nocturnal location-scouting for forthcoming initiation-related hi-jinks, the jocks manage to convince the reluctant girls to meet them at the spooky old house by the graveyard that evening for a thinly veiled double-date, and… well you don’t need to be much of an aspiring folklorist to figure out where all this is headed. (Toward a partial recreation of 1981’s ‘Hell Night’, if nothing else.)

This mixture of quirky, Lovecraftian atmospherics and rote slasher movie cliché may seem a little jarring at first, but ‘The Unnamable’s tone actually remains pretty consistent throughout, using hefty doses of humour and raised eyebrow self-awareness to distract attention from the minimal and formulaic plotting -- much as Lovecraft did in his original tale, in fact.

Despite the low budget, the film’s photography (courtesy of DP Tom Fraser) is pretty good, particularly once the action moves entirely into the cluttered, candle-lit interior of the derelict old house during the movie’s second half, making extensive, rather fantastical use of blue gel lighting, alongside some imaginatively patterned shadows.

So smitten do the filmmakers seem in fact by their creepy gothic lighting, the film actually begins to suffer from something of a middle act slump, as characters spend a very, very long time exploring the eerily lit interior sets. Feeling suspiciously like attempts to pad out a near non-existent narrative to feature length, these extended peregrinations could well induce severe wakefulness / attention-span issues amongst late night/inebriated viewers, but as a dedicated fan of ‘60s Italian gothics, I was personally happy enough to roll with ‘em.

Likewise, David Bergeaud’s ridiculously over-bearing, faux-classical keyboard score may prove an intolerable for some, but I actually found it weirdly endearing, functioning in a sense as a persistent reminder of the film’s independent/low budget origins and determined eccentricity, lest we begin expecting it to get too slick n’ professional.

As befits a movie dealing with the, ahem, “unnameable”, much of the drag in the middle half hour results from the filmmakers’ reluctance to reveal their monster. The mystery of what the creature actually looks like is maintained for what, by 80s/90s b-horror standards, feels like an exceptionally long time. And, when we do finally start to get some glimpses of our resident beastie, well…. the hairy goat legs were a bit of a surprise, I’ll tell you that much. [Cue momentary flashback to Dragnet (1987).] 

Unfortunately, most of the posters and box art for this movie rather give the game away, spoiling the eventual appearance of the monster by utilising stills which make it look a scrawny cousin of that demon thing from Ridley Scott’s ‘Legend’, but if we can put that out of our minds before viewing, the creature’s eventual Big Reveal within the movie itself is…. actually quite impressive.

Portrayed by actress Katrin Alexandre, who employs a series of extravagantly theatrical, choreographed movements, this creature’s amalgam of disparate monster tropes manages to justify the “unnameable” epithet about as well as anything which could be conjured up on this movie’s budget possibly could. 

Fans may be liable to declare that it looks absolutely nothing like the kind of entity we usually think of as fitting in to Lovecraft’s universe, but they’d be well advised to refer back to the source text, wherein HPL, who seems to been on a bit of a Cotton Mather-inspired backwoods folklore kick at this point, does actually state that his indescribable creature’s attributes include horns and cloven hooves, as well as the more familiar tentacles and shapeless, shifting clods of organic matter.

Obvious though it may be, the climactic scene here in which the monster skulks in the shadows whilst a doomed jock/sorority girl couple are making out in a deserted room (thus delivering the film’s requisite minimum quantity of gratuitous nudity), rolling a severed head into the view of the female partner, is very well done – a killer scare with some sharp editing. (Meanwhile, I’ve also got to admire the fact that the couple weren’t deterred by discovering a bloody femur bone beneath their makeshift bed.)

Another highlight in the lead-up to the film’s conclusion are the scenes which find a flustered Randolph Carter indulging in a few arch, rather Jeffrey Combs-esque line readings as he ploughs his way through the deceased warlock’s grimoire collection, which has apparently been left untouched for three centuries. Kicking up as much dust as you’d expect in the process, he eventually zeroes in on (what else?) the ‘Necronomicon’ itself, and, in a development almost certainly inspired by ‘The Evil Dead’, he’s soon located the requisite “anaal nathrakh”s necessary to send the unnamable creature which was once the ancient wizard’s wife back from whence it came. (3)

(Actually, it’s implied that Carter saves the day by invoking some kind of dryad-ish woodland spirits embodied in the trees outside the house, or something – an interesting, if under-explored, twist.) 

Though not a lost classic by any stretch of the imagination, ‘The Unnamable’ is nonetheless a noble effort. Ouellette was clearly a sincere fan of Lovecraft’s work, and his attempt to make a film which might actually appeal to his fellow cultists whilst also fulfilling the commercial requirements of a late ‘80s American horror movie demonstrates a certain amount of both daring and ingenuity.

Considering that he and his collaborators were working on a miniscule budget, utilising a largely inexperienced cast and crew, and working to a script which ultimately doesn’t add up to much more than a handful of well-worn genre clichés, I think ‘The Unnamable’ actually emerges as a surprisingly accomplished piece of work, within its own modest parameters. It conveys a ‘little-train-that-could’ style sense of fun and achievement, which seasoned connoisseurs of independent American horror should be able to appreciate, even if it couldn’t hope to hit the heights so recently scaled by Stuart Gordon and co in the field of Lovecraftian cinema. 


(1)Just as an example, try this one on for size: “Moreover, so far as aesthetic theory was involved, if the psychic emanations of human creatures be grotesque distortions, what coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulosity as the spectre of a malign, chaotic perversion, itself a morbid blasphemy against Nature?”

(2) After working in camera tech / continuity roles on a variety of marginal New York-based productions in late ‘70s, Ouellette seems to have gotten quite a big break when he was appointed as ‘second unit director (action)’ on ‘The Terminator’ in 1984, but sadly his career in the film industry never really seems to have gained much traction after this. Aside from the two ‘Unnameable’ films, his only other feature as director is a 1990 STV actioner named ‘Chinatown Connection’, and the remainder of his sparse CV comprises short films, a TV movie script and production credits on a few little-known projects in the early ‘00s. 

(3) Yeah, I know “anaal nathrakh” is actually from ‘Excalibur’, but gimme a break here – I just like it more than the ‘Evil Dead’ incantations.

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