Lurking Fear (1994)


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.

  • fish eye no miko

    Before I read the review of the film, I just wanna comment on this:

    Yes, it occasionally descends into the exaggeratedly purple prose […] However, it also ably builds suspense and Lovecraft’s literary trademark, dread

    While discussing Lovecraft on a forum somewhere (it’s been ages, so I don’t quite recall where), one fan said (paraphrasing here), “He’s a bad writer, but a great storyteller.” I can’t think of a better way to describe him, really. His prose is often really tough to get through, and I don’t blame anyone who bails on reading him, cuz damn… But if you can get through it, he tells some really amazing stories… “Lurking Fear” is a good one, but one of my faves is “Pickman’s Model I also like “The Outsider”; it’s about one of his a pretty standard monster types (similar to the beings in “Lurking Fear”, I imagine)–but it’s from the monster’s POV.

  • Rock Baker

    I do find it odd that there weren’t more Lovecraft movies in the 60’s, what with its rash of Vincent Price films adapted from literature of the fantastic like the Poe films, Twice Told Tales, Diary of a Madman, etc.

  • Petoht

    There were a series of short, independent films based on Lovecraft’s (and other’s) works that are quite faithful and quite good. They’ve been released by Lurker Films. I’ve seen Cool Air and Chambers’ The Yellow Sign. The DVDs also have neat little shorts included; The Hapless Antiquarian is probably one of the best little shorts I’ve ever seen and a great tribute to Ed Gorey.

    Sadly, I’ve also seen Lurking Fear. If I wasn’t such a huge fan of Lovecraft’s work, I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a pity that Hollywood can’t figure out how to bring his stories to the big screen.

  • Pingback: Pardon my smirking sneer… « The B-Masters Cabal()

  • Reed

    I’m not a reader of Lovecraft, but being a gaming geek I have had many friends over the years who were avid Lovecraft readers. Ken’s example paragraph above may be the most Lovecraft text that I have ever personnally read. However, now that I have seen it I will find a way to work the phrase “polypous perversion” into conversation at least once a day.

  • BeckoningChasm

    “Pickman’s Model” is probably the most readable of HPL’s work, since it’s very conversational in tone (in fact, it’s one half of a conversation at a bar). It really is an odd duck, though, since it’s so conversational. (I honestly susspect Lovecraft pal Robert Block did a quick polish. It reads like one of his.)

  • Sandy Petersen

    I just saw a film “Dark Heritage” whose quality is so high that on the DVD title page it’s mispelled “Drak Heritage”. The film is awful video quality, the sound is bad, the acting is bad, the special effects are bad, but it is an uncredited re-do of “The Lurking Fear” which is after all in theory one of the easier Lovecraft tales to film.

    Despite the film’s many flaws, I actually liked it a lot – it was the closest to Lovecraft’s storyline I’ve seen, closely reproducing each shock moment. The strong story managed to carry the film at least for me.

    I’m not recommending it, mind you, unless you’re a Lovecraft completist. But if you are, like me, then keep it in mind.

  • Sandy Petersen

    Robert Bloch did not assist in Pickman’s Model in any way. He was 10 years old when it was published. Lovecraft began corresponding with Bloch in his late teen’s (Bloch’s teens, I mean) and encouraged him mightily to spread his wings and find his voice.

  • Ugh, and I have “Drak” Heritage coming in the mail from Netflix. It’s arrived too late for the article; maybe I’ll just send it back.

  • Ernst Bitterman

    I think what angered me most about “Lurking Fear” is the item of odd marketing that appeared on the VHS version following the movie proper, a sort of making-of feature, in which the writer or director (or was one person wearing both hats?) boasted at some length about how clever he was for adding the whole heist plot to what he described as the very flimsy, inadequate little story offered in the source material. Puffed and complacent as a toad, he was!

  • Ernst: Yes! That was ported over to the DVD as well, and I turned it off a few minutes in, for the reasons you describe. What a putz. It’s worth noting that the guy, one J. Courtney Joyner, never directed another film after that. He did go on to continue writing scripts for Full Moon, however, and one can only hope they’re better then the one he wrote here.

    Those little promo shorts were actually one of the trademarks of Full Moon movies on VHS, basically DVD extras before DVDs had come about. Some of them are pretty entertaining, but as you note, not that one.

  • The Rev.

    I saw this years ago and was very unimpressed with it. It is, as you say, a very mediocre and dull film.

    I figured you’d be going for Beyond the Wall of Sleep, which I understand is pretty terrible. Either that or do a “Films I Like” with The Whisperer in Darkness. (Granted, I don’t know if you did/would like it, but frankly I couldn’t see why you wouldn’t.)

    Surprised you didn’t mention The Resurrected from the early ’90s; not only is it a good film, but it’s one of the better Lovecraft movies out there, and even manages to do a good job of hewing close to the story while modernizing it (although it’s one of Lovecraft’s less esoteric tales, so that isn’t too surprising). I had the good fortune to see it in college, thanks to the guy who also got me into Sandy’s own CoC and, indirectly, HPL himself.

  • Sandy Petersen

    I note bemusedly that when I actually praise Dark Heritage for some solid scenes and its Lovecraftian storyline, Ken’s immediate reaction was “ecch, maybe I can send it back.”

  • Actually, one of the reasons we went with Lovecraft this time is because we were told we could get screeners for Whisperer in Darkness, but we didn’t end up getting that. That was a double whammy for me, as I was going to do a Films I Like for Cast a Deadly Spell, but I didn’t get that in, either. Hence Lurking Fear.

  • Sandy Petersen

    Sadly, Beyond the Wall of Sleep is almost literally unwatchable. The only worse HPL adaptation I know of is The Tomb.

  • Sandy Petersen

    Screeners for Whisperer may well be on the way. The movie was only finished on monday.

  • I note bemusedly that when I actually praise Dark Heritage for some solid scenes and its Lovecraftian storyline, Ken’s immediate reaction was “ecch, maybe I can send it back.”

    Oh…didn’t I ever mention that I never read more than the first sentence of anything you write? Which is fine! The first sentence of you Wizard of Gore review, for instance, was great.

  • Petoht

    I’ve seen Dark Heritage, and it wasn’t too horrible. Definitely a low budget affair, though, but it had the feeling that they really wanted to do it; they just couldn’t afford to do it well.

    I found out about it thanks to “The Lurker in the Lobby”.

  • D-Man

    One reason for the brevity of the film is, according to one actor involved in the film, one full can of film was lost after filming, and Charles Band refused the request for money to reshoot the missing scenes.

  • The Rev.

    Sandy: Ah, I forgot The Tomb. Mostly because I struggled through the first 15-20 minutes, started fast-forwarding, and then just gave up all together. I didn’t even pay for it; it was free on On Demand a couple of Hallowe’ens ago. It was so bad, I couldn’t even finish it despite it being free. It’d be a good choice for this site, except I don’t think I’d want to inflict it on someone I dislike, much less a good friend.

    I think that was my first attempt at a Ulli Lommel film, and it’d be my last except that I still have an interest in seeing Boogeyman someday.

  • Reed

    Boogeyman is probably great, presuming it’s a Lovecraftian twist on the Avenging Disco Godfather. Is it? No? Oh, that’s too bad. :(

    This review and associated comments inspired me to read 3 Lovecraft short stories on the link thoughtfully provided by Ken. I read Lurking Fear, Music of Erich Zann (which I keep thinking of as the Music of Timothy Zhan (possibly misspelled)), and Pickman’s Model.

    Even though that is a pretty small sampling, I now concur with Fish Eye’s comment that Lovecraft was a good storyteller and a bad writer. Pickman’s Model, for example, was also listed by a couple of people as their favorite Lovecraft. I found it the best written of the 3, but by far the least interesting story. Lurking Fear has a great story, although for my taste he could have totally eliminated that bit about “why did it take the other 2”? If you’re going to go on and on about a question like that you need to at least pretend to answer it, because the guy is correct that it makes absolutely no sense. Antiquarian’s battle death exemption? I’m pretty sure that’s part of the CoC RPG, right? Music is my favorite story of the 3. Also makes no sense, great concept.

    Although it’s perhaps a weird parallel to make, I can see where filming Lovecraft is kind of like filming William Gibson. The power of Gibson’s novels is in the language he uses to tell the stories, not the stories themselves. When you take out the language and put it in a visual format you are left dissatisfied. I remember reading a graphic novel of Neuromancer years ago and thinking that it was not good, where as I absolutely love the book. In Lovecraft’s case the attraction is not in the language itself (unless you love obscure adjectives), but in the concept.

    I think I’ll read more. Suggestions for my next Lovecraft story? Where do the fun guys from Yuggoth come in?

  • The Rev.

    Reed: The Whisperer in Darkness has the mi-go in it. They’re mentioned in, of course, The Fungi from Yuggoth, although that’s not a story but a collection of related sonnets (I think; I’ve not read it). I don’t know of any other appearances in HPL, although I’m sure Sandy can correct me if there are. There are probably newer stories with them in them as well but I can’t think of any off-hand.

  • The Rev.

    Whoops! Wasn’t done.

    Stories I like include “The Outsider,” “The Hound,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and “The Rats in the Walls.” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and “The Colour out of Space” also get mentioned a lot (I like them as well).

  • Honestly, Ken, I’m surprised you didn’t snag “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.” All records indicate that it is indeed the absolute bilge-swill of Lovecraftian adaptations.

  • Petoht

    The Fungi From Yuggoth is indeed a collection of sonnets, and few of them have anything to do with the Mi-Go. Whisperer is the way to go for them.

    Personally, I rather liked the Thing on the Doorstep, Memory, the Loved Dead, the Terrible Old Man, and Nyarlathotep.

    In the Walls of Eryx is also worth reading, even though it’s out of genre for him, being just a straight sci-fi story, but I still liked it. Purists may scoff though, as it (and Loved Dead) are revisions, even though Lovecraft’s “revisions” often ended up being 90%+ his work anyway.

    The fragment Azathoth is also quite good, even if in a just a “I wonder where this would have gone” kind of way.

    Finally, it’s worth considering the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. However, you need to like his style to attempt it. Liking Lord Dunsany’s stuff would also help.

  • Hadn’t heard of it before. I should have checked with you guys!

  • In Lovecraft’s case the attraction is not in the language itself (unless you love obscure adjectives), but in the concept.

    Yeah, that’s how I feel about Lovecraft, too. In fact, I’d go a bit farther and say that I don’t even think his actual stories are all that good. However, I’m a big fan of his worldbuilding. The creatures and cosmic horrors he created are wonderfully imaginative, and forged a whole new subgenre of horror. He was terrific at coming up with strange and creepy entities and implications, and frankly some of his alien monsters (the Elder Things from Mountains of Madness, for example) are actually better conceived and more convincingly alien than most extraterrestrial beings from science fiction before or since. He had a lot of great ideas. He just… wasn’t very good at putting them into stories.

  • How about That Which Shall Not be Mentioned? Some call it…Cthulhu Mansion.

  • Marsden

    Well, a really good reason there might have been no earlier Lovecraft adaptaions was he was considered a failure and really didn’t get any kind of popularity until quite a while after his death when August Derleth started republishing his stories.

  • Well, it’s less that he was “considered a failure”, really, than that he just wasn’t considered at all. Saying he was considered a failure implies people actually knew about him and actively thought about him. There are plenty of obscure writers with stories published in the pulps whom almost no one nowadays recalls, but you wouldn’t say they were considered failures. They just weren’t remembered.

    But yeah, it wasn’t till Derleth posthumously championed his work that he really became known.

  • sandra

    According ri IMDb “Skelton Knaggs ( 1911-55) was a diminutive, emaciated-looking actor who more or less picked up where Dwight Frye left off in the early forties “. You have to wonder what his parents were thinking when they named him.

  • Sandra, you’re correct, of course. I knew Knaggs was an actor, but forgot to mention it. It was a weird in-joke in any case, as Knaggs was a very minor figure, most famous for his craggy face. Just another of the director’s “improvements” to Lovecraft, I guess.

  • Sandy Petersen

    I have lost faith in your site, Ken. Not one defender of HPL among your viewers? Instead I see all these snarky “i’m too good for Lovecraft” remarks, doling out crumbs of praise while damning him in the same breath.

    I have recently started re-reading HPL and have once again been impressed by the breadth and depth of what he performed. I’d put “Cool Air” or “The Outsider” up against any of Poe’s prose, and “The Rats in the Walls” or “Shadow Over Innsmouth” can still stand down Clive Barker. Hell, there wouldn’t be any modern horror without Lovecraft – no La Blue Girl, Stephen King, or Ramsey Campbell.

    He combined science and horror in a way not seen since Frankenstein, and raised the bar for all previous authors. He is often condemned for being prudish, but almost all his stories are about sex – not the act, but the results. He wrote a story about a man who mated with a GORILLA, for Pete’s sake.

    As one viewer did remark, he almost alone among authors knew that alien life would probably not resemble Earth life in the slightest. Even Larry Niven has humanoids – a body form that is IMO exceedingly unlikely (How many humanoid or even semi-humanoid species have ever livbed on Earth? Surely actual aliens would be as likely to resemble an echinoderm or slime mold as the peculiar ape-things we represent).

    Incidentally I would recommend “Nemesis” as my favorite poem by HPL.

  • Sandy — I don’t know, I don’t think anyone was trying to take away from Lovecraft. We acknowledged that he was a great storyteller, which is rather harder and rarer than being a good writer. And yes, he did in fact create an entire universe that has radically altered pop culture in general and arguably the majority of all science fiction and fantasy in the years since he wrote his stuff. In his own way, Lovecraft was a legitimate genius, and way, way ahead of his time. Of course, he was also nuts, but it’s probably part of the same thing.

    At the same time, I also think it’s possible to believe that others have done better work (although such judgments would be naturally subjective) with Lovecraft’s concepts in the years since. Admittedly, they did so by standing on the shoulders of a giant, so Lovecraft still gets the bulk of the credit. Sort of like Bram Stoker, maybe?

  • 6Written by James Machin Published on 12 Feb 2011When it was that Guillermo Del Toro s long held ambition to adapt HP Lovecraft s to the big screen had been not only green lit but has the backing of James Cameron and names like and associated with the project Lovecraft fans didnt know whether to fall off their chairs with excitement or sneer. Throwing out the with the protoplasmic pool so to speak.Although the author himself was already 15 years dead by the time that first attempt was released it s difficult not to squirm and shudder in sympathy at some of the truly execrable results subsequently offered by second rate schlock directors looking to trade on the Lovecraft name for a quick buck.

  • It gives me an excuse to spend my free time focused on all things spooky and scary so that s what I intend to do for the next few weeks. Lovecraft film adaptations The Crimson Cult aka Cult of the Crimson Alter 1968 ..This moody British horror movie has recently become available through the Netflix instant watch program that allows subscribers to view films online or stream them at home.

  • Instead I see all these snarky “i’m too good for Lovecraft” remarks, doling out crumbs of praise while damning him in the same breath.

    If that’s how my post came across, it wasn’t my intent. I’m definitely a Lovecraft fan. (And heck, old Howard and I share a birthday.) I may not be all that fond of his prose (though that’s a matter of taste), but, like I said, I’m a big fan of his worldbuilding and the creatures he created, and in my book that counts for a lot.

  • To expand a bit on that: I guess when I read a story it’s important to me to have interesting characters. I don’t think many people would disagree that characterization was not Lovecraft’s strong suit. Mood, setting, atmosphere, absolutely, but characters and dialogue not so much. Which is probably why, as much as I love the world he created and as much as I admire some aspects of his writing, his stories, qua stories, don’t do all that much for me. I do enjoy reading them (well… mostly; some of them do drag a bit in places), but for the setting and mood, not generally for the story, per se.

    It’s not just Lovecraft. Lord Dunsany, for example, is another author I may enjoy reading for his settings and atmosphere, but whose actual stories tend to leave me a bit cold. And, again, this is no doubt largely a matter of taste anyway.

    I should perhaps also add that due to various factors I have had less than four hours of sleep most nights of the last few weeks, and that anything I’ve written in that time period may be affected by this. It’s entirely possible that I’d write something entirely different were I not so sleep-deprived at the moment, and that once I finally get caught up on my rest I’m going to look back on the posts I made in this thread and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote them.

  • Okay, one more thing to add, and then I’ll shut up: Lest it seem like I’m trying after-the-fact to backpedal on my earlier condemnation of Lovecraft, I should perhaps mention that I own, in addition to the requisite collections of Lovecraft’s fiction, copies of such more esoteric works as the Encyclopedia Cthuliana, A Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography & Concordance, and a rather obscure, out-of-print paperback called Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonici University Library. (As well as, of course, a sizeable collection of sourcebooks for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.) What I said about my feelings about his prose and his stories notwithstanding, I’m definitely a genuine Lovecraft fan.

  • The Rev.

    Sandy: Sorry, I didn’t know I was supposed to be defending him. Fell asleep at the wheel, I guess.

    I quite like his style of writing, as well as the stories and concepts he created. I enjoy his use of multisyllabic adjectives and flowery language; I think it adds to the antiquarian feel he gives so many of his stories, and also I just think it’s fun to read.

  • Reed

    A follow-up: I have been fascinated for years by the concept of “At the Mountains of Madness”, but could never get through Lovecraft’s prose in order to actually read it. Well, I finally read the dang thing start to finish. It did nothing to change my impression of Lovecraft as an author.

    It has a fantastic concept, wonderously realized creatures, and a good narrative arc. The history of the Old Ones makes enough internal sense for me to accept it on its own terms, including the eventual fall of their civilzation. I really liked that the narrator eventually comes to empathize with and even admire the Old Ones; that was the single most surprising thing in the story for me. It includes many words no longer in common usage (if they ever were), but is much less overblown than the short stories that I read.

    For all of that, I do not like Lovecraft’s prose and found it as difficult to read as always. I am no literary critic, but like the man says I like what I like and Lovecraft’s writing style just hasn’t really done it for me so far. I have the same problem with many authors prior to about the 1940’s. I love HG Wells’ stories and concepts, but find his books tedious and hard to read. I tried to read Earl Der Biggers’ “Mr. Moto” books, and while I found the stories (and peak into relations with pre-war Imperial Japan) to be interesting, the writing style was again just difficult for me to slog through.

    I have now experienced enough Lovecraft to understand what others see in his writing, but for me I probably get more out of reading the Call of Cthulhu RPG and other works which distill the source material into something more modern. Plus, you know, RPG. I’ve played a lot of the Cthulhu RPG over the years.

  • Dr. Whiggs

    You know, if Clint Eastwood had played the Terminator, you’d have your love interest there.

  • zombiewhacker

    My biggest problem with Lovecraft is that in real life he was a racist and an anti-Semite. That undercurrent runs through several of his stories (“… Charles Dexter Ward” comes to mind, also IIRC “Dunwich Horror”).

    But his writing style itself never bothered me. “The Dreams in the Witchhouse” and “Shadow over Innsmouth” are some of his finest examples of fiction. “Witchhouse” was a marvelously frightening tale that was unfortunately butchered as the lackluster “Crimson Cult” movie with Steele, Karloff, et al. And “Innsmouth” is pretty much the only Lovecraft I re-read over and over today. Not frightening per se, but rich in atmosphere and suspense.

  • Petoht

    Well, Rats in the Walls probably has the most obvious example, with the name of the character’s black cat…

    Still, I’m amused that on one hand you decry is rampant racism while praising Innsmouth. Innsmouth, along with “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, both concern the mixing of blood, a common fear of racists.

    Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy both stories, but… well… if one is to get hung up on the politics of the author, they should be difficult reads.

  • zombiewhacker

    Um, well, I suppose one could interpret the narrator’s fear of murderous, Dagon-worshipping fish-men hopping down dark alleys as somehow being a treatise for Lovecraft’s real-life views on blacks, Arabs, and Jews.

    But you’d really have to read into it.

    I came away from my initial reading of “Innsmouth” completely ignorant of Lovecraft’s views on race, and trust me, I’m nobody’s fool. Nor does one need to share the author’s unfortunate real-life prejudices to appreciate his tale. I’d be horrified, too, if Dagon’s otherworldly henchmen came for me in the middle of the night, and I’m no racist.

    By contrast, when in “The Horror at Red Hook” one comes smack up against a quote like this:

    Suddenly the leader of the visiting mariners, an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth, pulled forth a dirty, crumpled paper and handed it to the captain.

    or this in “… Charles Dexter Ward”:

    Here his only visible servants, farmers, and caretakers were a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood.

    and it becomes painfully evident that Lovecraft’s distaste toward ethnic deviation stretches far beyond his stated antipathy toward salty-smelling sailors who don’t blink.

  • Petoht

    With Innsmouth, it’s not the cult aspect or the underwater monster aspect.

    Remember, the “Innsmouth Look” is caused by women mating with the Deep Ones. The people with the Look were mixed-breed people who eventually would succumb to the inhuman, tainted blood that coursed through their veins and join their bestial cousins, worshiping their improper god.

  • zombiewhacker

    My friend, nothing you said contradicts anything I said. There is blatant disparaging of blacks and other minorities in other Lovecraft tales. There is none (IIRC )in “Innsmouth” or “Witch House.” That’s what I was referring to, and I stand by my earlier statement.