CLICK ON THE BANNER ABOVE TO WEAKEN THE WALL BETWEEN THIS AND THE SQUAMOUS, NON-EUCLIDEAN ROUNDTABLE SUPERSOAKER.
Note: As a preamble to this review, you could do worse than read the H.P. Lovecraft story from which it’s adapted, which can be found here. Meanwhile, I apologize in advance for what is a pretty lame review. Sadly, the film didn’t give me much to work with.
As now seems to be the pattern (perhaps because I have, after all, tilled a lot of this ground over the years), I found a general dearth of truly bad H.P. Lovecraft adaptations when the roundtable topic was chosen. And really, when seeking suggestions for a bad movie, this is the crowd to ask. Anyway, Lurking Fear was about the only thing suggested, so here we go.
I have to admit, I am not an aficionado of H.P. Lovecraft. I mean, I’ve read my share of his work (and, oddly enough, probably a larger number of Lovecraft pastiches). However, I’ve never methodically worked my way through his catalog. So the first thing I did was read the short story that inspired this film, one that has, in fact, inspired several movies. This proved pretty easy, as Lovecraft’s work has fallen into the public domain, and can be found all over the Web.
One can see why it’s one of Lovecraft’s signature tales. Yes, it occasionally descends into the exaggeratedly purple prose that has made him an ongoing target of spoofery.* However, it also ably builds suspense and Lovecraft’s literary trademark, dread, in a masterful fashion as it wends towards the tale’s pretty spectacular climax. And if the final revelation is probably going to surprise fewer readers now than back in 1922 when it was first published, well, it’s still top-notch stuff.[*A paragraph from our subject story: “Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined condors of purple fulgurous sky… formless phantasms and kaleidoscopic mutations of a ghoulish, remembered scene; forests of monstrous over-nourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnamable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils; mound-like tentacles groping from underground nuclei of polypous perversion… insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and demon arcades choked with fungous vegetation…”]
Sadly, the 1994 adaptation of the tale is not entirely well-served by one’s reading of the tale beforehand. Of course, that’s true of many Lovecraft adaptations, which until recently have proved a tough nut to crack. Although Lovecraft’s eternal rival Poe—the Karloff to his Lugosi—offered enough literary respectability to allow for the occasional studio film back in Hollywood’s golden era, Lovecraft’s smaller following, disreputable pulp reputation and rather more lurid themes kept him from receiving cinematic attention until 1963.
Indeed, Lovecraft’s work first reached the silver screen under the guise of being another of AIP’s Poe adaptations. Although based on Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the fairly opulent production The Haunted Palace was instead titled after one of Poe’s poems. More than that, the film’s title card actually reads “Edgar Allen Poe’s The Haunted Palace”.
Indeed, only those drive-in patrons paying more than typical attention to the credits would have seen that the film was eventually credited not only as “From the Poem by Edgar Allen Poe,” but also, “And a Story by H.P. Lovecraft.” With perennial Poe star Vincent playing the lead and Roger Corman helming the picture, AIP was clearly doing all it could to muddy the authorial waters. Given this, and despite an unusual fidelity to Lovecraft’s themes, none but the most literate of horror buffs would have recognized from whence the film sprang.
Sadly, the film did not auger a slew of similar adaptations. AIP took a less successful whack at Lovecraft’s work two years later with Die, Monster, Die!, a crudely pedestrian title that Lovecraft himself surely would have sniffed at. Two years after that saw England’s Seven Arts release The Shuttered Room (1967), the first Lovecraft adaptation to bear one of his actual titles. This story was built around another of the author’s trademark themes, family secrets from the past that erupt with horrible results in the present. That being said, the film, while solid—especially a nicely brutish turn by Oliver Reed—remains a somewhat prosaic thriller, as much Straw Dogs as Lovecraft. As such, it is sure to disappoint those hoping for a taste of the author’s signature Elder Gods-ish activities.
The next year British production House, Tigon,* took a whack at Lovecraft with Crucible of Blood (1968). Although sporting an all-star cast including Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough, the film is generally considered a middling effort at best.[*Strange how Hammer never got around to officially giving Lovecraft a whirl, especially since they successful mounted three Quatermass films which evidenced what many would consider overtly Lovecraftian themes.]
Although hardly a flood, these varied projects at least represented a steady trickle of Lovecraft films. That temporarily halted, however, and ironically with the release of 1970’s The Dunwich Horror. This was, at the time, the first adaptation to deal directly with the Cthulhu Mythos, and therefore the picture most deeply steeped in what we think of when we think Lovecraft. Unfortunately, the film really wasn’t that good. It moreover introduced what would become a perennial problem of Lovecraft movies; failed attempts to literalize on the screen entities whose appearance defied human comprehension, beings which invoked in observers madness or death in the stories themselves.
Moreover, horror had moved on from the gothic resurgence represented by Hammer and AIP’s Poe films. In the wake of Night of the Living Dead, a more ‘realistic,’ modernistic esthetic was favored. Save for The Dunwich Horror, the cinema screen of the ‘70s was utterly bereft of Lovecraft. (Although the decade closed with Italy’s Island of the Fishmen, a.k.a. Screamers, a 1979 film that seasoned a Dr. Moreau-esque storyline with Lovecraftian fishmen.) Indeed, the best Lovecrafts from the ‘70s appeared via two Night Gallery episodes, Cool Air and, particularly, Pickman’s Model.
Lovecraft returned with a vengeance, however, the following decade, especially in the wake of 1985’ Re-Animator. Although it may well be argued that the film (and its sequel and offshoot From Beyond) were more Stuart Gordon’s than H.P. Lovecraft’s,* the cult classic immediately brought Lovecraft’s name back front and center.[*On the other hand, although I’ve never heard him say so, it’s easy to think that Gordon meant for the film’s overt craziness to work as an analogue to Lovecraft’s overripe prose styling.]
With Re-Animator a fashionable success (and with the author’s work being in the public domain and hence free), Lovecraft adaptations flooded the direct to video shelves. Even so, the problem remained of how to bring the by definition unfilmable Cthulhu Mythos to film. Most films didn’t even try, especially the low-budget ones, sticking instead with smaller scale, non-Mythos tales like The Lurking Fear.
There were a few noble failures. HBO made a simply wonderful Philip Marlowe meets magic film in 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell. Here Chandleresque corruption was represented by magic, a short cut used by literally everyone save the Last Honest Man, down on his heels detective Harry Lovecraft (perfectly embodied by Fred Ward). This Chandler meets Lovecraft (with a dash of M.R. James) movie works really much better than it should,* but in the end is defeated by the Achilles Heel of the Lovecraft adaption: It can’t manage to attempt an Elder God-type creature without making it wholly underwhelming. Still, a great little movie, and it’s a scandal that it’s still not available on DVD.[*HBO managed to screw the pooch, however, in making their first sequel to one of their original films, 1994’s Witch Hunt. Sadly, this moved the action from the Chandleresque 1940s to the ‘50s, so that they could make yet another moronic parable about McCarthyism. This, as you’d expect from the highly subtle title, leaned on Arthur Miller’s metaphor of the search for communists as a ‘witch hunt.’ The irony being that the film unintentionally shows up the rather evident flaw in that idea. After all, in a world with real witches and sorcerers (i.e., communists), you can’t really call such a thing a witch hunt, the definition of which is the search for something which does not exist. Tired, back-patting politics aside, however, the film’s major flaw was the fact that Ward was replaced as Lovecraft by Dennis Hopper (!). In the end, nobody liked the follow-up, and a once promising film series was undone.]
That problem of how to represent the unrepresentable was solved not by an official Lovecraft adaptation, but by a pastiche; John Carpenter’s brilliant In the Mouth of Madness. Carpenter’s last great film, it wittily cut the Lovecraftian knot by emulating Lovecraft himself. Instead of attempting to show us Lovecraftian Elder Gods, and thus perforce diminishing them, Carpenter instead invoked a real sense of Lovecraftian dread and apocalypse with brief, impressionistic flashes of such creatures. These were mated with smaller scale instances of a world in which Man was literally doomed to extinction by the encroachment of these beings. It remains one of the handful of great Lovecraft films, in spirit if not in name.
After that, other really good Lovecraft adaptations started appearing. Not only were special effects catching up with Lovecraft’s imagination, but cinema had reached a point where you could represent his themes without being squeamish about it. Probably the best such adaptation was 2001’s Dagon, which saw Stuart Gordon return to Lovecraft, but having shed the wacky camp excess of Re-Animator. Gordon even managed to bring Lovecraft into the present day without crippling him, something not readily accomplished.
In any case, Lovecraftian films are now a cottage industry, mostly via a myriad of direct to video films. Predictably, many are awful, more lame, some good, and at least one brilliant, that being the wonderful ‘Lovecraft as filmed in silent film days’ short feature The Call of Cthulhu. Shot for a truly paltry $50,000, this labor of love shows what you can accomplish with passion, talent and a lot of hard work and imagination. Really a must-see, along with Dagon and In the Mouth of Madness.
Plus, the same group’s follow-up project, The Whisperer in the Darkness—a film with which Jabootu’s own Sandy Petersen is associated [since Sandy also, oh, yeah, created the classic Call of Cthulhu RPG game many years ago]—should be hitting DVD shelves sometime in the near future.
Meanwhile, Lovecraft’s themes continue to permeate mainstream Hollywood fare, which now lean heavily towards the fantastic anyway. Such films as Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) may by nature sanitize Lovecraft’s themes to a bit. Even so, the fact remains that the silver screen has never been friendlier to the author. Indeed, 2013 will see the industry’s first outright big budget adaptation of Lovecraft’s fiction in del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness. Although I suspect a big budget might be more of a hindrance to the project than a help—allowing the filmmaker to try too much, rather than forcing him to rely upon Lovecraftian suggestion and implication—if anyone can pull it off, it’s del Toro.
Until then, though, we’re stuck here with Lurking Fear (as the film dropped the definite article)…
As noted, reading the story before watching the film predictably did the latter few favors. Not so much because it blew the plotline, though. Indeed, the movie itself accomplishes that by at least partly revealing its monster(s) in the very first scene. Hence the climax of Lovecraft’s carefully engineered tale is largely tossed away in the picture’s first several minutes. On the other hand, you can’t really complain about that. Indeed, closing that barn door would make little sense, since the film’s video box art (above) also blows most of Lovecraft’s ending.
Going in, there are things that might fool you into believing this is going to be pretty good. First, the film was made by Charles Band’s production company Full Moon Entertainment. Band was basically to the ‘80s what Roger Corman was to the ‘80s, working in direct to video as Corman tilled the drive-in circuit. Both men churned out tons of cheap films, and both tended to make movies which were better and certainly more entertaining than you’d expect them to be.
Aside from the Full Moon imprimatur, the film boasts two actual cult actors, Jeffrey Combs—one of Full Moon’s stock company by this point, and obviously the star of Re-Animator—and Vincent Schiavelli. Then there’s the fact that the film runs a pithy 74 minutes (presumably the length of a contemporary hour and a half TV slot, minus commercials), indicating that at least the film will move. Then there’s the obvious fact that the film is evoking Lovecraft’s name, sure to draw interest from Full Moon’s staple audience.
However, Lurking Fear was made in 1994, well past Full Moon’s heyday, and perhaps they were just running out of juice. One issue is that the film looks as cheap as it probably was, usually not the case with Full Moon’s product. There’s the fact that Romania (where the company filmed many of its movies to save money) doesn’t suggest the picture’s U.S. setting particularly well.
Worse is the basic image quality. The more darkly lit scenes suffer from a strange artifacting that most prominently results in weird color mottling. Hazarding a guess, I’d say the scenes were underlit during the shoot, and had to be severely over-processed before being transferred to DVD. The result is about what you’d expect from a really crummy local cable show.
Meanwhile, Combs and Schiavelli aren’t used particularly well. The latter, for instance, plays kind of a regular character rather than one of his trademark weirdos. While I’m sure he appreciated the chance to stretch a bit as an actor, it makes his appearance here kind of pointless. Combs, hidden behind a beard and glasses, is also stuck in a disappointingly prosaic role, although he at least occasionally attempts to Combs things up a bit.
Meanwhile, Lovecraft is tossed almost entirely out the window. The film’s plotline has pretty much nothing to do with his story. The contemporary setting does Lovecraft no favors, and of course the movie adds a romantic angle that hardly suggests the author’s work.
Uhm, yeah, about that…
On the one hand, this is in broad terms forgivable; films are a different medium than print, and require different things. You can certainly make a film that’s true to Lovecraft; period setting, generally all male casts (except when women turn out to be monsters), main characters who tend to be neurotic, half-mad scholars of the occult, etc. However, it’s going to take more talent than evinced here to pull it off, and even more to make such things palatable to a modern, mainstream audience. It’ll be interesting to see how del Toro does with At the Mountains of Madness.
No, the problem isn’t so much the film’s general non-allegiance to Lovecraft. It’s that its replacement storyline is dumb, and moreover foreshadows the endless crap the Syfy Network now unleashes every year with their so-called ‘original movies.’ The entire ‘human villain’ angle, also sadly on display here, is a particular bugaboo of mine. Such subplots indicate that they assign these films to people who don’t think you can make an interesting movie out of whatever outré menace that particular project revolves around. That being the case, why bother?
Finally…well, I can’t say anything bad about the brief running time, though. Sure the film isn’t very good. But at least it’s not twenty minutes longer.
We open in an underlit and color-mottled dingy room, as lightning flashes in the nighttime sky outside. Two adult sisters are on the scene, and a baby lies in a crib. The mother, Leigh, has summoned her sibling Cathy (Ashley Lauren, aka Ashley Laurence, one of the stars of Hellraiser) to the present hovel. Cathy is rather amusingly dressed up exactly like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, with pulled-back hair and round glasses, presumably to indicate her stuffshirtedness. And indeed, she proves more than slightly uncomfortable with the pistols Leigh is waving around and trying to arm her with.
“As you can see, one of the twins is healthy and normal, while the other shows marked signs of inbreeding.”
Cathy wants to leave immediately for the local airport, but Leigh is set on holing up for the night and departing with her baby in the morning. “It’s too dangerous outside at night,” Leigh explains. Cathy retorts, “I called for a cab,” to which Leigh, “Really? I cancelled it.” Uhm, OK. I mean, that answers the question of why they don’t just call for a taxi. However, Leigh’s motivation for cancelling it in order to remain in what she clearly deems a dangerous situation seems a bit opaque.
Leigh then stoops to examine a boarded up wall grate, and seems satisfied. However, we get a Breathy Monster POV shot from the other side (which doesn’t remotely match the hole from Leigh’s side), so we know something is up. Then the sisters argue some more, because even a 74 minute running time apparently demands some filler. Then they say “Merry Christmas” (!) to each other and hug.
Cut to later that night. Cathy is sleeping, and Leigh is (for some reason) not on hand. An awkward, rubber-clawed monster glove emerges from the aforementioned wall grate and just pushes off the boards ‘securing’ it; these were apparently attached with scotch tape, if that. There does follow a nice moment, though, where the still largely unseen creature fashions a hook from a wire and uses it to drag the crib over to its position. This establishes in a nice pithy fashion that the monsters here are not unthinking animals.
Things look grim (or Grimm) for the baby, but then Leigh bursts into the room and fires her gun. The hand withdraws. Leigh pushes the crib away and Cathy grabs the baby. However Leigh also continues to stand next to the grate for little apparent reason, other than to allow the monster hands to reemerge and kack her.
And so it occurs. As Cathy looks on in horror, Leigh is first unconvincingly clawed and then unconvincingly pulled through the rather small hole, never to be seen again. Oh, the humanity. Cue opening credits, complete with some very *cough* Lovecraft-esque rock guitar chords. Boy, writers like Lovecraft, Poe and Wells got a lot laid of bad movies at their doorstep, like little bags of cinematic poops sullying their shoes as they try to stamp them out.
Now we meet our protagonist, John Martense. The Martense family figures prominently in Lovecraft’s original tale, although no actual members of the family appear in it. (Well, sorta.) However, in lieu of Lovecraft’s typical anonymous occult academic, it’s kind of natural, I guess, that we’d instead get an actual descendant of the clan.
Sadly, though, it’s this one. This John Martense is a jailbird just getting out after a four year stint. Despite this, his anonymously hunky features, artfully feathered blond mop o’ hair and fashionable beard stubble suggest less a hardened ex-con than a fugitive from an Abercrombie & Finch catalog after a weekend bender. I’ve derided the host of The Hitchhiker before for being a bit too male model-y. This guy here reminds me things could have been far worse.
“…Bad to the bone…ba-Ba, ba-ba…I’m bad to the bone…”
Following attempts to suggest a prison without actually showing one, we hear Martense begin with the expository voiceovers. Swell. He manifests a rather unconvincing southern accent, one that predictably will come and go throughout the picture. Of course, Lovecraft’s stories tended to take place in the northeastern states, like Maine, not the south. But whatever. It’s hardly their greatest crime against him.
Via this we learn, gasp, that John had been in jail for a crime of which he was innocent. Because otherwise we might not sympathize with him, I guess, and then he’d get all pouty. Moreover, the Martense family name is a local blight (odd, since they establish later that the family was centered far from the present location). Therefore, John has but one place to go, to see “a petty thief who used to run with my father.”
This is “discount” undertaker Skelton Knaggs. Presumably this is meant to be a funny moniker, apparently because Lovecraft remains best remembered for his sly sense of whimsy. Knaggs is played by Schiavelli, who again just kind of plays the part in a distressing normal fashion, at least by his standard. Knaggs is just sort of an old school guy with (I guess) a bit of a New York accent.
“Have I seen the movie? No. Did I enjoy the lovely large-sized pizza with two toppings and side order of crazy bread it bought me? Yes.”
Long story short (the opposite strategy the filmmakers took), Knaggs has half a map showing where Martense’s estranged and now deceased criminal father buried a body sewn full of money. John has the other half, and being a naïf, lets Knaggs get a good look at it. However, Knaggs is an honorable thief—you know the kind—and sends John down to the Lefferts Corners, “about 200 miles south of here,” to dig up the body and fetch the loot.* John also asserts at one point that he’s “just done five years in prison.” Less than five minutes ago it was four years. Continuity![*Lefferts Corners is a location in Lovecraft’s story, so grabbing a few location and character names largely sums up the ‘adapting’ done here.]
Cut to the dilapidated graveyard, which has an even more dilapidated clinic next to it. Again, there’s no real hint to where Lefferts Corner is supposed to be, other than John’s spurious accent. Here we catch up with Cathy, who has gone through a transformation seemingly meant to suggest the newly hardened Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. Of course, for that Linda Hamilton attended an Israeli military course and got into almost painfully buff shape. Here they just toss dog tags (?), a black tank top and pants on actress Laurence and call it a day. Oh, and she has a knife and a pistol in a shoulder hostler. Yeah, she’s a regular GI Joe.
“I’ve got a little surprise for you tonight” she sneers, while (sort of) burying a Bugs Bunny-ish bundle of dynamite more or less on the surface of a grave by heaping a bare minimum amount of dirt over it. Seems kind of lazy not to dig an actual hole to put it in, but there you go. Kids today have no work ethic. Moreover, there’s no apparent mechanism to set off the dynamite, so I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen here.
A tough day’s work now behind her, she splits and heads over to the clinic, run by Dr. Haggis (Combs). Again, is the name ‘Haggis’ supposed to be funny? There she and Haggis attempt to corral a panicking pregnant woman, who shows signs of having been clawed by something. Haggis finally manages to secure the patient and sew up her wounds, and there are Ominous Hints that this sort of mysterious attack happens regularly in Lefferts Corner.
“Oh, c’mon. That movie isn’t *that* bad.”
Haggis then presents Cathy with a newly arrived crate of dynamite. However, the sticks are old and unstable, as Cathy demonstrates by flicking away a few drops of TNT ‘sweat,’ which explode on contact with his desk. Anyway, plot point established. [Future Ken: Actually, the instability of the dynamite never comes into play.] That’s what they have to work with, though, and Cathy and Haggis prepare to leave to use the dynamite in some fashion. Still freaked, Pregnant Lady demands to come with, and because this is a movie, they let her.
Meanwhile, we occasionally cut to John driving down a country road, apparently going about ten miles an hour, top. Probably because it’s difficult to borrow a classic American convertible in Romania, and probably pretty expensive to fix / replace it should anything happen to it.
Then it’s back to Knaggs, who is finishing up prep for a funeral before he leaves to join John. However, a femme fatale-ish blonde enters the joint. She’s kind of Virginia Madsen-lite, attractive but hardly the sort of sexually charged knock-out implied by the breed. However, when you look like Vincent Schiavelli, I guess you aren’t too particular who you flirt with. And indeed, he’s quickly macking on her.
Sadly, though, she ends up pulling a gun on him, and thus enters Brit (?!) gangster Bennett (John Finch). He’s introduced driving up outside, his car sporting an “Arkham Imports” plate holder (har har, my sides) over a Massachusetts license plate. I have to say, the implication that any of this is happening in Massachusetts ranks a lot higher on the “I’m not buying it” scale than the rubber-gloved monster we saw earlier.
Bennett proves, of course, to be the inevitable *sigh* human villain of the piece, and unsurprisingly after the money. To prove he knows what he’s about, he has his hulking henchman Pierce cut open Knaggs’ latest customer, who proves to have what looks to be five kilos of cocaine or heroin sewn up inside him. Er, wouldn’t that amount of smack be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Apparently, then, I guess the money down in Lefferts Corner must be even more. Anyway, Knaggs is forced to rat out John and then is killed. I’d say Spoiler Alert, but really, this sort of movie is always going to kill off their more expensive actors as soon as possible to save money. And this is indeed the sort of movie where Vincent Schiavelli would represent one of the more expensive actors.
Also, did I mention that none of this stuff has a single damn thing to do with Lovecraft’s story?
Neither does anything much that happens from here on out. The entire cast pretty much all congregates at the Lefferts Corner church, overseen by the pious Father Poole (Paul Mantee). This, we learn, is where the creatures live, beneath the church grounds where they feed not only on the few remaining locals, but on the corpses buried in the church graveyard.
“…then on Thursday, Father, I had lascivious thoughts about Gollum…”
At this point it becomes your standard, albeit highly lame, siege horror movie. However, despite the promise of a multitude of creatures boiling from the ground and killing everyone (which the characters in the film themselves indicate is inevitable), instead we get one oddly robust-looking monster dude who skulks around occasionally grabbing somebody. This fellow gets shot at so much that I eventually figured he was meant to be bulletproof, which was ridiculous. However, then it turns out (I think) that just everyone kept missing him with all those dozens of bullets, even at point blank range, and that seemed even dumber somehow.
Eventually we learn that Father Poole is in contact with the head ghoul guy, who can even speak. (!!) In the end I wasn’t even sure there were going to be any other creatures than the one, but there prove to be maybe half a dozen, far short of the teeming hordes Lovecraft described. And they don’t really do much of anything, just sitting around (probably because their make-up jobs wouldn’t hold up to much jostling) in the basement and letting the one guy with the better make-up job do all the work.
The mutated Martense clan of the story should really be much closer to the creatures in The Descent, one of several cannibalistic subterranean monster films (Raw Meat, arguably CHUD) that seem a more legitimate heir to Lovecraft’s story than this so-called adaptation. These guys are even wearing old timey suits and dresses, which just seems way off.
Basically, the ‘human’ characters, good guys and bad, just stand around and threaten each other, while occasional dying. It’s all distressingly dull, and well under the standard of most Full Moon movies. There aren’t even many entertainingly stupid moments. I will attest, however, that a scene where the hero grabs a desiccated arm and manages to instantly light it like a torch (!!) with a cigarette lighter was pretty good.
From left to right…ah, who cares?
Among its sundry sins, the film wastes a pretty good cast. Aside from Combs and Schiavelli, who again aren’t given overmuch to do, there’s John Finch (Bennett) and Paul Mantee (Father Poole). The latter is best remembered as the lead of Roberson Crusoe on Mars, while Finch was the star of Hitchcock’s serial killer film Frenzy, as well as several other British horror and sci-fi films. They are both pros and give it what they can, but the flick just doesn’t afford them much to work with.
“Good lord, Carrot Top! What have you done to yourself, man?!”
Lovecraft fans reeling from Lurking Fear’s suckitude may somewhat assuage their disappointment by seeking out another, and far better (admittedly, faint praise there), film inspired by Lovecraft’s tale; 1997’s Bleeders.
Perhaps to avoid comparisons to the dismal Lurking Fear, made just three years earlier, Bleeders (a.k.a. Hemoglobin) doesn’t credit so much as Lovecraft as an inspiration. Even so, it’s much closer to Lovecraft’s tale in tone and to his trademark themes in general. And it is, in contrast to Lurking Fear, an actual film. It’s shot on film instead of video, and features a ton of exterior and location shooting, and just seems a much more opulent production. Again, that’s not saying much, but all in all it’s pretty decent, and the island setting is outstanding. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder why Syfy movies so rarely hit what is, after all, largely just the level of general competence.
To further disassociate themselves from Lovecraft, here the Martense analogue clan is named the Van Daams. Fleeing from Europe hundreds of years ago when interfamily marriage and inbreeding was outlawed, the, shall we say, highly insular Van Daams settled in the American colonies.
In the present day, we meet one John Strauss. Strauss is a seemingly strapping fellow, yet a visibly pale figure of a man tragically beset by various ailments, such as seizures and nosebleeds. Most notably, he wears dark glasses to protect his weak eyes. Strauss thus suggests, I would think purposely, the attenuated aristocrats played by Vincent Price in the Corman Poe films.
In search of relatives who may know something of his disease, which is growing worse, Strauss and his wife Kathleen are just arriving outside the island fishing community of Van Daam’s Landing, Maine. However, even before setting foot on land, Strauss has an attack, his nose gushing blood as he seizes up with fragmentary visions of a subterranean nature. Kathleen (played by genre vet Kristen Lehman) rushes to his side, but his medicine is knocked overboard and lost.
Since the town itself lacks a doctor, the couple is taken by boat to the other side of an island. There they find the recently arrived Dr. Marlowe (Rutger Hauer, in fine form), a broken, somewhat bitter figure who has settled there to live in seclusion. It’s fun watching Marlowe come back to life throughout the film, as he grows increasingly captivated by the mystery of Strauss’ disease. It’s he who proposes that Strauss might actually be (surprise!) the last of the Van Daam clan. The possibility is most strongly suggested by Strauss’ mismatched eyes, a trait common in inbred families. (And a key detail lifted from Lovecraft’s tale.)
Meanwhile, a bit of a local scandal is going on. Byrdie Gordon, the town’s shrill, money-grubbing miser and a veritable distaff Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, has been in charge of the local cemetery. However, she has recently been dunned by the state for burying her charges in flimsy, substandard coffins. Her license has been revoked, and the bodies are disinterred for proper burial on the mainland.
Indeed, I really don’t want to go much further into things than that. The film is well executed enough that people may want to check it out for themselves. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a nicely done flick made by people who clearly strove to produce a good movie. The acting is uniformly good and nicely naturalistic, the characters tend not to do stupid stuff just to advance the plot, the settings are, again, quite fetching, the film is fairly brutal in terms of killing likable characters, and the script is actually *gasp* fairly well thought out, with one event actually leading logically to the next.
In the end, it’s nicely instructive to run Bleeders back to back with Lurking Fear, as the two aptly illustrate how far ranging the results can be when starting from the same point.