Monday 4 December 2023

Lovecraft on Film Appendum:
The Evil Clergyman
(Charles Band, 1987 / 2012)

As anyone familiar with his work will be aware, H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Evil Clergyman’ is a brief, half-formed fragment, obviously written in haste, perhaps extrapolated from a bad dream, and presumably never intended for publication in its extant form. Nonetheless, it saw print several years after Lovecraft’s death, in the April 1939 edition of ‘Weird Tales’, and - rather irksomely - it has formed part of his accepted canon ever since, seemingly more by accident than design.

As such, it seems appropriate that the story’s movie adaptation should take the form of an orphaned, 28 minute short, originally intended for inclusion in a 1988 Empire Pictures anthology flick named ‘Pulse Pounders’ which never saw the light of a projector at the time, remaining unreleased due to (it says here) circumstances arising from the company’s bankruptcy.

Furthermore, it appears that the original film elements for ‘The Evil Clergyman’ were subsequently misplaced or destroyed, leaving the footage presumed lost until, a quarter century later, Charlie Band found a VHS work print knocking about in his attic and smelled a quick buck to be made.

A bit of a clean up, a new credits sequence and a newly commissioned score from brother Richard later, and ‘The Evil Clergyman’ finally premiered, streaming on Band’s Full Moon Features website, in 2012.

I’m unfamiliar with the back story re: how exactly those film elements ended up disappearing, but I can only assume it must have been the result of some terrible and unprecedented freak accident, as any other explanation would frankly beggar belief given the breadth of talent involved in creating this segment, and the relatively lavish budget obviously invested in this thing.

With the exception of an AWOL Stuart Gordon in fact, ‘..Clergyman’ is effectively a ‘Reanimator’  reunion, with Dennis Paoli providing the script, photography by Mac Ahlberg, effects by John Carl Buechler, and a cast comprising Barbara Crampton, Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, with the ever wonderful David Warner (R.I.P.) thrown in for good measure.

In the grand tradition of Poe/Lovecraft adaptations through the ages, the film’s narrative has pretty much nothing in common with the supposed source story whatsoever. Instead, Paoli’s script sees Crampton taking centre stage, playing a woman returning to the attic chamber of a medieval castle which she had previously shared with her lover (Combs), a lapsed priest and alleged black magician who has recently taken his own life, prompting her to flee and leave the room vacant.

This ill-stared chamber is apparently still up for rent from the castle’s acid-tongued landlady (Una Brandon-Jones) however, and, once ensconced within it (ostensibly to “collect her things,” although the room looks bare), Crampton begins to experience a series of increasingly hair-raising manifestations related to her deceased partner, and reflective of the unholy depredations the pair apparently got up to prior to Combs’ decision to sling a noose slung over the high beams, and depart this mortal coil… temporarily, at least.

Along the way, Warner pops up as the revenant spirit of another dead priest, who pops up to warn Crampton of the error of her ways, whilst Gale is in full effect as Combs’ familiar, a chittering, man-faced rat-thing straight out of ‘Dreams in the Witch House’.

And... it actually all works really well. Paoli’s story is weird, memorable and unnerving, leaving plenty to the imagination, whilst the production design and performances are excellent.

Though she’s not really called upon to do much more than act terrified, confused and distraught here, Crampton achieves this quite brilliantly. Always a good few rungs up the ladder from yr average ‘80s ‘scream queen’, the sheer intensity scruff of the neck and drags us through this compressed ghost train ride of a viewing experience very effectively.

By contrast, we get a relatively low-key turn from Combs, but there is still a hell of a lot to enjoy in his sleazily sinister presence. His introductory “hi” at the moment his character first takes on corporeal form is a delight in itself, and the spectral love scenes he shares with Crampton take on an appropriately fevered quality, drawing us further into the odd story being told here.

Warner meanwhile seems a bit surplus to requirements here in terms of the narrative, but it’s great to have him along for the ride, and he’s clearly having a fine time regardless. In the midst of a seemingly endless series of rent-a-villain / mad scientist roles at this point in his career, the old boy knows exactly how to pitch a high-handed spectral priest, managing to deliver lines like “I’m a bishop, from Canterbury, sent to expel your lover from our church” entirely straight, without eliciting laughs from the peanut gallery.

As for the long-suffering David Gale meanwhile, one shudders to imagine the indignities he must have been subjected to in the process of realising Buechler’s man-faced rat effects - an inspired mixture of puppetry and facial prosthetics which is actually extremely effective, allowing Gale’s face and voice remain present, even when seemingly attached to a repulsive, ankle-high critter capering about on the castle floor.

Essentially functioning as a foul-mouthed, perpetually enraged manifestation of the Combs character’s id, Gale manages to deliver a memorable performance under what we might reasonably assuming were challenging circumstances; his spittle-flecked delivery of words like “WHORE” and “SLUT” in particular are imbued with an old world, puritan gusto which I very much enjoyed.

Shot, inevitably, amid the imposing environs of the swanky Italian castle which Charles Band inexplicably ended up owning in the late ‘80s (also see: ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1991), ‘Castle Freak’ (1995)), ‘..Clergyman’ benefits greatly from the location’s in-built atmosphere, adopting an almost abstract / fairy tale-like vibe which slips further into delirium as Crampton’s visions take told, and the world outside her lofty chamber effectively ceases to exist.

Moodily lit by Ahlberg in a none-more-80s manner, with deep shadows and shocks of blue-tinged moon light drifting in across the ancient brick-work, this is certainly one of the more accomplished efforts I’ve seen bearing Charles Band’s name as director. As is often the case, it’s perhaps questionable to what extent creative decisions here were actually taken by Band, but for what it’s worth, everything here is very solidly done. (I particularly liked the striking use of vertiginous high and low angles, reflecting the constant presence of both the swinging noose above, and the skittering rat-thing below.)

Even Richard Band’s retrospectively recorded orchestral score goes over gangbusters, really classing up this murky VHS-sourced work-print, much like his similarly bombastic/melodic work on Gordon’s ‘80s films, hovering just on the precipice of Elfman-esque parody, but never quite taking the plunge, or overpowering the action on-screen.

Given how strong this short is overall, it’s easy to see why a few elements ended up being recycled in other productions during the years in which the material shot for ‘Pulse Pounders’ remained unreleased.

Most notably, the effects used to create the human-faced rat creature were repurposed pretty much in their entirety for the creation of Brown Jenkin in Gordon’s 2005 TV adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dreams in the Witch House’, whilst the “erotically charged predatory haunting” conceit of Paoli’s script also strongly reminded me of another Gordon-adjacent film, Danny Draven’s 2002 ‘Deathbed’ (not to be confused with the late George Barry’s outsider masterpiece of the same name), an interesting obscurity, also shot by Ahlberg and executive produced by Band, which saw release on DVD under the rather niche banner of “Stuart Gordon presents…”. (Were there any other entries in that series, I wonder? I don’t recall ever seeing any...)

In summary then, ‘The Evil Clergyman’ stands as something of an unexpected minor miracle for fans of the Empire/Full Moon/Stuart Gordon milieu. Alongside this year’s Suitable Flesh, it offers encouraging proof that the spirit of Gordon’s Lovecraft movies could live on and flourish, even in circumstances in which the man himself was unable to call the shots. Well worth making a small amount of time for if (as is understandable) it passed you by upon its belated release in 2012.

No comments: