Thursday 28 January 2016

Lovecraft on Film:
Die, Monster, Die!
(Daniel Haller, 1965)

“Upon everything was a haze of restlessness and oppression; a touch of the unreal and the grotesque, as if some vital element of perspective or chiaroscuro were awry. I did not wonder that the foreigners would not stay, for this was no region to sleep in.”

At what point does a H.P. Lovecraft adaptation sufficiently depart from its source material that it ceases to be classifiable as a ‘Lovecraft movie’? This is the question we will probably find ourselves asking with increasing frequency as we plough through the troubled legacy of Lovecraftian cinema, and it occurs for the first time when contemplating American International Pictures’ second attempt to squeeze HPL’s uncooperative stories into the shape of a ‘60s gothic horror film - an extremely loose adaptation of 1927’s ‘The Color Out of Space’, retitled with characteristic AIP subtlety as ‘Die Monster Die!’ (a title that, along with the attention-grabbing poster-art reproduced above, remains arguably the best thing about the entire project).

I actually know very little about the circumstances of ‘Die Monster Die!’s production, but, given that it was filmed largely on location in England in early 1965 and marks the directorial debut of Daniel Haller, the much-celebrated art director on AIP’s Poe series, my guess is that DMD! (as it will henceforth by termed for the sake of brevity) must have been produced as an adjunct to Roger Corman’s last two Poe pictures, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’, which were shooting in the UK during 1964.

Given the rushed and rather confused feel of DMD!, it is easy to believe that it might even have been fitted in around the slack in the production schedule on Corman’s films, much as 1963’s ‘The Terror’ was infamously pulled together to capitalise on a few days of studio time left over from ‘The Raven’. Having said that though, the relatively low level of cast & crew crossover between the films tends to suggest that DMD! was actually shot in parallel by a different unit, thus wringing maximum value from AIP’s transatlantic jaunt - even if Jerry Sohl’s threadbare script doesn’t exactly speak of a great deal of advance planning.(1)

Speaking of planning, I’d also be interested to find out why AIP – who had insisted that The Haunted Palace be rebranded as a Poe film before they’d release it – suddenly came round to the idea of making H.P. Lovecraft movies as the ‘60s wore on.

We might presume that, urged on by Corman, Haller or other HPL boosters amongst their creative staff, AIP took a chance on DMD! as a low budget experiment to fill the lower half of a double-bill. But, given that Haller’s film didn’t exactly set the box office aflame, and in fact generated precious little enthusiasm even from horror fans, why did they let Haller go back to the well yet again for the comparatively high profile ‘The Dunwich Horror’ in 1970? Changing times perhaps, and the growing popularity of Lovecraft amongst the ‘counter-culture’ audience that the studio was trying to attract by that point..? No idea. (2)

I mean, for all I know, Nicholson & Arkoff might have just told their people “make us some more of them horror movies” and left the specifics to producers lower down the food chain. I don’t know. That I even care at this stage perhaps speaks poorly for my priorities in life, though one imagines any AIP experts in the audience may have some thoughts on the matter. (As ever, thoughts are welcome in the comments.)

Anyway, getting back to the matter in hand – ‘Die Monster Die!’ is an odd one and no mistake. Not ‘odd’ in a good way necessarily, but it is certainly one of the strangest and most thematically unglued of AIP’s ‘60s horror films – a drifting and uncertain production that quickly loses sight of whatever point it was trying to make and never really regains it, despite some diverting moments of all-out weirdness.

To begin at the root of the film’s problems, ‘The Color Out of Space’ has always struck me as being one of the most thoroughly ‘unfilmable’ of Lovecraft’s many unfilmable works. Admittedly, it does take place entirely in a real world location and doesn’t call for any cyclopean cityscapes, cosmic vistas or gigantic alien deities, which is helpful from a budgetary POV. But at the same time, it is also singularly lacking in human characters or interactions, with its success as a story resting largely upon the author’s evocative descriptions of impossible colours, weird alien flora, pungent, stifling aromas, and other such things that are extremely difficult to recreate in a motion picture, regardless of financing.

If such material presents a challenge to filmmakers, then I fear it is one that Haller and his collaborators were singularly unprepared to meet on this occasion, resulting in the immediate jettisoning of so much of Lovecraft’s story that they might as well have changed a few names and just presented it as an original screenplay. As in ‘The Haunted Palace’, there are a few token attempts to infuse new “Lovecraftian” ideas into the film, but these are never very well integrated into the main narrative, meaning that, beyond the basic kernel of “a meteorite falls in a place, weird stuff happens”, they were pretty much off into uncharted territory straight away with this one - and sadly, the resulting lack of direction shows through all too clearly.

Also problematic is the fact that, once HPL’s distinctive macabre prose is removed from the equation, ‘The Color Out of Space’ is basically a pure science fiction story, making it an awkward fit for the AIP’s preferred gothic horror template. For the lack of anything better to do, Sohl seems to have decided to get around this problem by rehashing various bits of Richard Mathesons’s script for The Fall of the House of Usher, expanding on Matheson’s concept of the lands surrounding the Usher house being ‘blighted’ by some unknown malignancy, and tying it in with the effects of the infernal meteorite that crashed upon the remote country estate of one Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff), back in the days when his father was lord of the manner.

Deciding to rekindle one of the more evocative and under-utilised ideas in Matheson’s script wasn’t such a bad idea. In fact it serves as a somewhat ingenious way of introducing familiar gothic tropes of familial decay and dysfunction into a plotline whose pseudo-scientific basis leans more towards a ‘50s-style cold war monster movie than a castles n’ cobwebs flick, and indeed, the by-now-traditional foreboding trudge through the blighted wasteland is actually one of the film’s most rewarding sequences, with real life woodland locations enhanced by some splendid matte paintings and a touch of fog whilst regular Hammer composer Don Banks goes all out for ‘ominous’ on the soundtrack.

Sadly though, Sohl didn’t leave his cribbing from Matheson there, instead porting over whole swathes of narrative structure, character interaction and dramatic set-pieces straight from ‘..Usher’, to the extent that DMD! often begins to resemble a rather tepid, under-funded remake of the earlier film, as our obligatory straight-talking leading man Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) strides across the aforementioned blasted heath to Witley’s crumbling manse and demands to see the suspicious old geezer’s beautiful daughter Susan (Suzan Farmer) whom he previously met in college in Boston, and so on and so forth. (3)

Yet another bump in the film’s road to the screen comes via the circumstantial decision to shift the action from the backwoods of Lovecraft’s beloved New England (as so indelibly described in his story’s celebrated opening passages) to, well, old England - which is rather less atmospherically introduced by having Nick Adams step off a commuter train at, uh, ‘Arkham’ station and wander around an A-road bisected village that looks a bit like somewhere you might pass through whilst taking a diversion off the motorway in Leicestershire. [It's actually the village of Shere in Surrey, as previously seen in The Earth Dies Screaming and the telescope sequence in ‘A Matter of Life & Death’, no less. – fact-checking Ed.]

Maybe this will be a problem specific to UK viewers, but the quaintness and everyday realism of such a location sits very poorly with the foreboding gothic fantasia that the script is going for, and makes the straight-from-central-casting obstructive locals who shun Reinhart’s requests for help in getting to “the old Witley place” seem outright ridiculous, as exemplified by the proprietor of a bicycle hire shop whose first response to a stranger looking to hire a bicycle is an accusatory “WHERE WOULD YOU BE PLANNIN’ TO RIDE IT?”.

None of this is exactly helped by the fact that, during these scenes, Nick Adams gives every indication of being a singularly dislikeable leading man, speaking, scowling (and indeed dressing) as if he were midway through failing an audition for the part of a tough in a local theatre production of a Mickey Spillane story. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t want to give him accurate directions either if he accosted me outside the greengrocers.

In the grand tradition of Mark Damon in ‘..House of Usher’ and John Kerr in ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’, he’s basically an overbearing, out of place jerk, but, whereas those films made sure that more appealing characters were swiftly offered up for us to invest in, DMD! opens with a fifteen minute stretch in which we are expected to identify solely with frustrating and seemingly pointless travails of this rude and boorish man, fostering a sense of audience alienation that bodes poorly for the tale that follows.

When Adams finally does reach the “old Witley place” (as if anyone would ever refer to a local stately home as such in rural England), it turns out to be none other than good old Oakley Court, near Windsor – a location that will need no introduction to fans as Hammer’s stately home of choice, in addition to its usage in many other British horror titles over the years (José Larraz’s ‘Vampyres’ foremost amongst them).

Despite the overly familiar aspect of the main house’s frontage, Haller nonetheless manages to achieve some suitably atmospheric shots during Adams’ approach the estate, concentrating on readymade details such as the rickety, wrought-iron gates and the imposing, moss-covered fountain on the front lawn to bring out a whole new aspect of this much-exploited location.

Sadly though, details such as these are rarely returned to in the later sections of the films, and, acknowledged master of artificial sets though Haller may have been, he somehow manages to get surprisingly little value out of the interiors here. Once we’re inside the house, it’s difficult to really establish whether the drab and slightly claustrophobic antechambers were filmed on location or built as sets, but either way, they fail to really make much of an impression, despite some pleasantly cluttered set dressing. The stuff that was definitely filmed on sets meanwhile fares better, with Witley’s eerie subterranean crypt (complete with wheelchair lift) and the house’s dusty, picturesque chapel both fulfilling their purpose very nicely.

Once we’re safely ensconced within the house, the movie more or less continues to trudge through a loose variant on the ‘..Usher’ template with no great enthusiasm. Despite the filmmakers’ intermittent attempts to liven things up via hints of a very odd mystery, a crazed maid on the loose outside and eerie consultations with Karloff’s bed-ridden, vengeful wife, it all just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

Freda Jackson actually very good in the latter role, hitting the appropriate frenzied gothic notes very nicely, but Farmer as her daughter is a rather different story. A bright and cheery co-ed in a pink angora-sweater, with early ‘60s ‘torpedo’ breasts in full effect, she makes for a comically incongruous addition to the cloistered weirdness of the Witley household, reminiscent of the misfit ‘normal’ daughter in The Munsters.

As to Karloff himself, I can only imagine that his fans, having seen him apparently on fine form in ‘The Raven’ just two years earlier, must have been shocked to see Boris confined to wheelchair - seemingly out of necessity rather than for the purposes of a particular characterisation - with the effects of a sudden decline in health written all to clearly across his newly drawn, somewhat wizened features.

Although DMD! represents the first entry in what I suppose might be termed Karloff’s “geriatric era”, he is, as usual, all business here, delivering a direct and solid performance in his familiar ‘genteel, domineering patriarch’ mode that bears little sign of his more obvious physical deterioration, and making the absolute best of the few good ‘horror’ bits the script offers him. (“Chains… for devils…”, he remarks apropos of nothing at one point whilst fishing a length of chain from an old trunk, in a moment that’s worth the entry price alone.)

As with so much else in this film, the problem is that the script seems to have little idea what to do with Karloff’s character. Though Witley is ostensibly the main figure of threat through much of the picture, in truth the malign aspects of his persona never really extend much beyond being a bit grumpy and secretive, and by the movie’s final act he has more or less entirely redeemed himself, belatedly becoming something of a misguided good guy as he sees the light and attempts to rid his household of the weird radioactive curse that has overtaken it.

Such an approach is workable of course – after all, Vincent Price specialised in turning initially antagonistic characters into sympathetic figures in his horror films - but crucially, DMD! bungles it by failing to establish any other credible threat for the characters to face up to, meaning that Karloff’s abdication from evil-doing leaves the movie with a chronic “villainy vacuum” - and frankly a glowing rock in the basement just isn't going to cut it, monster-wise.

DMD!’s various attempts to address this – first via a homicidal, deformed maid running around the grounds, and eventually through Karloff’s ludicrous transformation into a silver-skinned, radioactive monster-man straight out the cheapest of ‘50s b-movies – are too inconsistent and half-hearted to really make much of an impact on the story, meaning that the central good-evil / hunter-hunted conflict essential to a good horror movie is simply absent, with the result that DMD! eventually leaves us with the impression that we’ve simply been watching a bunch of slightly weird stuff happening to some odd, unhappy characters, all to no very clear purpose.

It’s just as well then that some of this “weird stuff” is fairly diverting, and it is in this spirit of curious perplexity that much of DMD!’s remaining appeal lies.

From Konga in 1961 through to Jack Cardiff’s ‘The Mutations’ in 1974, the notion of “strange goings on in the greenhouse” seems to have exercised an inexplicable fascination for budget-conscious American producers making horror films in the UK, and DMD! certainly provides one of the more memorable sequences in this particular micro-genre, as Adams and Farmer negotiate a couple of padlocks to get a look at the results of Old Man Witley’s meteorite-enhanced botanical experiments.

The ‘effects’ used in realising Witley’s giant-sized produce may leave something to be desired (basically they just stick some tomato plants in the foreground and have the characters stand further back and remark upon how huge they are, seemingly trusting that the audience won’t understand perspective), but, once our protagonists move on to investigate the eerie, dolphin-like shrieks emanating from a darkened potting shed, well - good grief.

If they may not be exactly what the Old Man of Providence had in mind, the creatures we are briefly shown therein are probably the closest thing to a genuine encounter with the unknown that we’re exposed to in any of these ‘60s Lovecraft adaptations. Some kind of strange, globular hand puppets with wobbly, fluid limbs, these beasties really are exceptionally bizarre in both conception and realisation – halfway between some previously undiscovered forms of deep water sea life and mutant rejects from the Star Wars cantina.

It’s hard to think of many other horror films that would go to such lengths to create non-threatening monsters, but these things are so repulsive and surprising in their aspect – more piteous than scary – that they are actually quite memorable and impressive. Of course, in keeping with just about every potentially interesting aspect of Sohl’s screenplay, they are allotted a bare minimum of screen-time, and both Adams and Farmer seem to entirely forget that they’ve witnessed seen such an extraordinary sight for the remainder of the picture, but hey – it’s a really weird moment, which is probably about all we can ask for by this stage in proceedings.

Also worth chalking up in the film’s favour is a regrettably brief cameo from this blog's offical favourite actor, the ever-wonderful Patrick Magee, who pops up as the local doctor whom Adams consults to get a second opinion on the Witley family.

Appropriately, Magee seems to be lurking in some stifling Victorian parlor in which you can almost smell the damp seeping off the walls, and the script’s intimation that he has been driven to drink and had his medical career ruined as a result of the trauma he experienced when called to the Witley place to preside over the death throes of Karloff’s father (of course, no one else ever saw the body, and there was no autopsy) is a splendidly Lovecraftian idea (if admittedly one borrowed from ‘The Dunwich Horror’ rather than ‘The Color Out of Space’).

With his patented steam-out-of-the-ears over-acting prowess cruising comfortably at about, say, 6 out of 10, it’s a delight to see Magee giving Adams his best hate-filled stare and sloppily downing an early morning glass of scotch – the perfect traumatised victim of prior Lovecraftian hullaballoo - but the extreme brevity of his appearance proves a real disappointment. I suppose the great man must have had something more pressing in his diary that week.

A few other interesting, authentically ‘Lovecraftian’ touches are introduced into DMD! here and there, largely arising from the film’s attempts to meld occult/spooky imagery with a sci-fi storyline, but yet again, these ideas are left largely undeveloped, probably inspiring more confusion than anything else in the minds of casual viewers.

Although Karloff’s character claims to be a man of science for instance, the underground chamber in which he keeps his glowing meteorite (housed in a gated well with a hand crank, reminiscent of the one in ‘The Haunted Palace’, as if he fears the stone might jump out and run away) is clumsily decorated with skull-shaped carvings and Satanic murals.

Viewers who have been paying attention to the dialogue might presume that it was the old man’s father who, being of a more superstitious bent than his son, was responsible for these decorations. But if so, why are they of such an unhinged, ‘primitive’ character, looking like the kind of thing remote tribesmen or beatnik artisans might have come up with, rather than reflecting the more ‘refined’ tastes one might expect of a titled gent in Victorian England?

I mean, they’re quite nice morbid carvings and murals, I’ll give them that, but like so many things in this film, their presence just doesn’t quite click on an aesthetic level, as if something was lost in translation when the action was shifted from the redneck American backwaters of Lovecraft’s story to the English Home Counties.

Similarly, the brief appearance of a ‘forbidden’ grimoire that Adams flicks through in the Witley library – rather bluntly titled ‘The Cult of the Outer Ones’ - turns out to be a complete non-sequitur, clarifying little beyond perhaps the origin of Witley Snr’s more outré tastes in interior décor, and basically just functioning as an opportunity for the filmmakers to say, “well ok folks, we might have thrown out just about everything in his story, but look – a Lovecraft thing!”

The fact that none of Lovecraft’s beloved lurid tomes are referenced anywhere in the text of ‘The Color Out of Space’ sadly renders this a bit of a wasted effort, whilst the fact that the railway station Adams arrives at is named ‘Arkham’, and that the name ‘Witley’ (which is not featured in the original story) is clearly derived fron HPL’s oft-used ‘Whateley’, seem equally tokenistic gestures – notable solely as early examples of the kind of “see what we did there” in-jokes that would be soon become ubiquitous as horror cinema became increasingly self-aware from the ‘70s onwards. (Along similar lines, keen-eyed viewers will also spot a version of Lovecraft’s ‘elder sign’ amid the murals in Witley’s crypt, suggesting that there was at least some hardcore HPL fandom going on amid the film’s creative staff.)

In a nutshell, I think perhaps the essential problem with ‘Die Monster Die!’ is that it is a project thrown together opportunistically, taking a pile of promising elements – Karloff, Haller, a Lovecraft story, an English manor house, a van full of nice props – then mixing them all up and hoping for the best, but failing to account for a total lack of vision, direction or self-belief that makes the finished product feel like far less than the sum of its parts.

A  wash-out though it may be as a horror film however, DMD! is another one those misbegotten Lovecraft adaptations that I find it difficult to really hate. In a way, it is its very failures - its fuzzy logic, shoddy special effects and aimless meanderings - that render it oddly enjoyable if approached in the right state of mind; that preferably being what we might euphemistically term a ‘mellow’ one.

Even if it is more than likely entirely accidental, the film’s sheer off-beat vibe, nearly, almost, kinda, sorta serves to tie it in with the aesthetic of the later ‘60s counter-culture that was emerging at around the time of its production.

Although none of the explicit nods to California beat culture and new age spirituality found in Roger Corman or Jack Hill’s AIP films are present here, the general ‘feel’ of DMD! is nonetheless so out to lunch that at times it almost works as a kind of zonked out ‘head movie’, in much the same way that something like Ed Wood’s ‘Bride of the Monster’ (which the loopier second half here to some extent resembles) does.

Even when viewed on DVD or Blu-Ray, it is the kind of film that is impossible to fully separate from the warped and faded “I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing-here” vibe of a late night UHF broadcast. Factor in the wonderfully ominous, trippy title sequence and the weird, non-threatening puppet creatures, and the gentle ebb and flow of post-midnight psychotronic otherness eventually conquers all.

And… that’s about the best way I can find to explain the strange appeal of ‘Die Monster Die!’, which I have to admit I still quite like, despite having just spent the best part of three thousand words slamming it. For all its faults as a Lovecraft adaptation and a piece of cinema, it’s still a shonky, crack-brained b-movie that throbs with its own febrile glow of dementia and decay, and sometimes that’s enough to see you through the night.



(1) Primarily known as a TV writer, with episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’, ‘The Outer Limits’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents..’ under his belt, Jerry Sohl also wrote a number of science fiction novels, and stepped in to ghost-write for ‘Haunted Palace’ scriptwriter Charles Beaumont after the latter became seriously ill… which perhaps explains the AIP connection.

(2) Though overlooked as a potential b-feature for ‘Masque of the Red Death’, ‘Die Monster Die!’ eventually saw release in the US in October 1965, propping up Mario Bava’s ‘Planet of the Vampires’. Leaving aside the evidently superior qualities of Bava’s film, the fact that AIP didn’t even consider DMD! worthy of headlining over a dubbed Italian sci-fi flick perhaps tells us something about their thoughts on Haller’s finished film.

(3) Suzan Farmer was Hammer’s virginal victim of choice for the 1966 season, with roles in both ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ and ‘Rasputin’, after which she went on to a ton of groovy British TV work. Nick Adams meanwhile spent the ‘50s rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s finest via supporting roles in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, ‘Hell is For Heroes’ and ‘Pillow Talk’ amongst others. I don’t specifically recall him in any of those, but going by his ‘bullying jerk’ screen persona in DMD!, one imagines he spent quite a lot of time getting punched by heroes. He even got a “Best Supporting Actor” nod for ‘The Charge is Murder’ in 1963, but sadly died of an accidental drug overdose in 1968.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I liked the film, one of the series that Boris made in England during the 1960s (The Sorcerers, The Crimson Cult). it just didn't have the Lovecraft feel, the dread, the sense of impending doom. Very few films have it. A couple of Night Gallery tales came close. Today with CGI, it's easier to create Lovecraftian visuals. Some of the animated shorts have nailed the atmosphere