Thursday, April 12, 2012

Resurrecting some Lovecraft

I love to chat about forgotten films that I've taken a liking to. I like it even more when they are that rare film that puts together two of the genre's best:  H.P. Lovecraft and Dan O'Bannon. 

A rather faithful adaption of the Lovecraft tale, 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' (note: many people try to add “strange” in there, but they are mistakenly thinking of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), The Resurrected tells the tale of a man obsessed with a mysterious ancestor who was delving into the forbidden dark arts, including re-animating the dead.

Widely known as being the screenwriter of such films as the incomparable Alien, Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall, this particular film was one of Dan O'Bannon’s few times in the director’s chair. It certainly seems like a B-movie when it starts, but to me it’s part of its charm.  So what’s it about, you ask?

Christian Shephard (Whoops! LOST reference, sorry) John Terry stars as John March, a private detective who is hired by the wealthy yet despondent Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett) to look into her husband’s exceedingly bizarre behavior. Seems Charles Ward (genre fave Chris Sarandon), married less than a year to Claire, has moved out of their happy home and into a house a bit further out of town – unsurprisingly the ancestral home of one Joseph Curwen – a man with a dreadful hobby. He has found a way to regenerate the dead using the ash of corpses and some dark magic.

The search for answers makes up most of the movie, but the getting there is half the fun. After Charles opens an old chest filled with an ancestor’s (Curwen) personal belongings, he becomes driven to discover just what it was Curwen was working on. At first Charles camps out in his own home’s carriage house, but eventually he has to move his “lab” (dude’s front is that he is a cosmetics scientist, and is always perfecting the next best thing. How ironic.) to the house out in the country because the neighbors were starting to complain about the smell and the noises emanating from the house. (Never a good sign.) So he moves his operation away from town and away from his wife.

During March’s investigation, he finds that long boxes (um, coffins for the clueless here) and loads of blood and animal parts are being delivered from the slaughterhouse at the edge of town on a VERY regular basis.
When confronted, Ward denies any wrong-doing, but it is so blatantly obvious he’s flipped his lid.
He tells some bogus story about a confidant of his, a Dr. Ash, who has been helping him with his work. Later, Claire receives a cryptic phone message from Charles telling her to stay away from Dr. Ash. It’s here where things take a turn for the worse. As if it wasn’t already weird enough.

Eventually able to corner Ward at the house and remove him in a straitjacket, it becomes obvious that Charles is no longer actually “Charles’. Anyone paying close attention can figure this out, but when Ward tells them (from his stretcher as he’s being loaded into the funny farm wagon) that they’ve made a “damndable mistake” (and no, I’m not sure that was ever a word), it’s fairly clear he’s off his rocker.

With Ward safely tucked away in his padded cell, John, Claire, and John’s right hand man Lonnie (Robert “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” Romanus) return to the house in the country to delve into Charles’s work. They end up finding a labyrinth of tunnels under the house, with one branch leading to the river (easy access to dump unused ‘parts’, you see). Seems Curwen had been using the underground lair to try out his handiwork.They discover the journal of Joseph Curwen, and the movie sidesteps a bit to a flashback from the past to tell the tale of Curwen and the Ward family, which does help to explain the story a bit more clearly.

Even worse though, they stumble upon a pit of “mistakes” – a hole full of writhing things that seem to be part human, part total fuck-up. After they notice a wall full of shelves containing the remains of some of the most renowned alchemists in history, March dabbles a bit himself, pouring the ashes of one of them onto the table and mixing it with some blood that is already there, you know- just to see what happens! It generates into one of those fuck-ups but they kill it before it can harm anyone.

Getting out of said lair however, becomes an unenviable task after their flashlight batteries die (if I only had a dollar for every time that happens in a horror film!) and they drop their only lantern (yep, seriously). Using a pack of matches (!), they attempt to make their way to the exit, only to be chased by a few of the monstrosities created by Curwen. Do they make it out? And what happens to Curwen/Ward – locked up in the psych hospital? Will the experiments continue? What will become of Claire’s perfectly coiffed yet utterly ugly hairdo? And hey, are those explosives in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

As mentioned, this film is one of the better Lovecraft adaptations, in my humble opinion. A few details have been changed to bring it up to date a bit (after all, the novella was written in 1927), but the major plot points are kept intact, and for me, the movie portrays quite well the sense of dread and unease surrounding Charles Ward and his unique brand of life-science. The family doctor in the original story is replaced by the private investigator in the film version, and I think this is quite suitable and makes a bit more sense for these times. No doctor I know would pursue the truth so diligently unless of course, there is a giant monetary compensation – in particular after seeing that house in the country. March’s character in fact exclaims in the movie that he’d require at least five figures to go there after dark. True that.

The movie progresses at a circumspect pace, careful to address all the weirdness going on, but never dragging to the point of boredom. There are some unnerving scenes, such as when Detective March finds himself at the door of the country house for the first time and is greeted by a menacing dog and then shunned and told to leave initially by Ward’s henchman (a creepy Asian dude with a wonky eye) then by Ward himself – who proceeds to explain away the strange smells by saying it is decaying laboratory animals… as if that’s okay. The second time March comes back he brings Mrs. Ward, and is allowed access into the house. But Ward has changed.
He has major inexplicable physical changes, as well as the fact that when he speaks he sounds like he belongs in the 18th century. So very disconcerting.
If we didn’t know better already, we’d be wondering just what the hell was going on, but the film isn’t exactly cryptic, at least not to me. Then again, maybe it would be to someone who hadn’t read the novella (and if you haven’t, you should. Now.)

So how does the film fare as far as the logistics of it all? Well, I can’t say it’s a stellar production, in fact it even reeks of straight-to-video lameness. But you can’t help but like it, it’s so darn freaky and unorthodox. All the deviant occult overtones make for some good gore and an interesting plot line to be certain.

Acting. Hmm… It’s overacted in many places, but again, it didn’t kill the film for me.
That said, I don’t really care for Jane Sibbett in any capacity. She is very much a “Lifetime Movie of the Week”-kind of actress, and the part severely lacks because of it. Overly dramatic in all the wrong places, she is just barely passable here, if even that.
The rest of the cast fairs okay, in particular Sarandon (who incidentally was an Oscar nominee at one point). He embraces the dual roles fervently, and has a tight hold on just how far to go with it. Holy balls is he scary as the back-from-the-beyond Joseph Curwen. The way he talks in that antiquated accent is shuddersome enough, but the way he looks - Ahhhh! If I saw that answering the door I’d run. With rotted teeth, sunken eyes, darkly disturbing fingernails not unlike Frankenstein, and funky outfits from waaay back? Gah!

Plot. Do I really have to sing the praises of H.P. Lovecraft?
Nope, didn’t think so.

Effects. Minimal special effects make more sense here, and what is there works sufficiently enough.  The ghastly look of Sarandon as he ‘becomes’ his nefarious alter-ego are practical and just enough. Less is more, and certainly is in this case. The hideous mistakes in the pit are the most ambitious part of the movie, save for perhaps a few scenes at the end which I won’t spoil for anyone. After all, I’m not sure most people reading have even heard of the film, much less seen it.

And to that I say – see it! Matter of fact, it was streaming on Netflix before I dropped that part of the red envelope company. So it still may be available for free!  Instantly! And you might as well check it out there, because damn if it isn’t nearly impossible to find for purchase anywhere. It does make an appearance on eBay: two copies available on DVD, starting at $89.75! You can get it on VHS, however, but as a big fan of this Dan O’Bannon obscurity, I was lucky enough to get it on DVD as soon as I saw it for sale several years ago.

(On a side note:  This film was also known as Shatterbrain.  Why, I have absolutely no idea.  It’s original title makes worlds more sense.  But if looking for the film, you may run across it under this name.)


The Film Connoisseur said...

A very atmospheric film, I love it and have actually seen it a bunch of times. I love how it gets so much into the cosmic horror, Sarandon's character is just so hungry for those cosmic secrets of the universe!

It does get a bit campy with the whole detective narrating thing...but I can live with it, the film is spooky, and has Sarandon chewing scenery away from everybody. Plus, I love the cheesy 80's effects. Glad to see some love for this one!

I also have it on DVD, it sits proudly in my collection. One of the best Lovecraft films out there.

Doug Brunell said...

As someone who has seen a ton of obscure movies, I have not seen this one ... and now I have to. Danke!

Christine Hadden said...

TFC: I first saw this years and years ago, have it on VHS even. Always thought it was creepy. And you're so right, Sarandon just chews that scenery to pieces, haha!
It IS cheesy in parts, admittedly, but for atmosphere, you can't go wrong! That house in the middle of nowhere? Eerie! And that basement....

Doug: Let me know what you think after you see it. I do believe it is available on Netflix..

Will said...

I've re-read Chares Dexter Ward many times, and saw this movie on cable many years ago and recently re-watched this on Netflix

Doug Brunell said...

But of course. If I hate it, though, I'm going to set myself on fire in Target. Don't feel any pressure, though.

James Gracey said...

I've not seen this, but some of those stills look familiar. You've posted the one of the house before somewhere (maybe as a black and white one?). Anyway - your enthusiasm for this (and Dan O'Bannon's involvement) makes me want to see it. Lovecraft's material is usually pretty difficult to translate to screen, in fact I think the best adaptation I've seen was made by the HPL Historical Society - they filmed The Call of Cthulhu in the style of an old silent black and white movie. They even had glimpses of a stop-motion Cthulhu!

Christine Hadden said...

James, I think I might have used the house in one of my black & white posts, you're right.
Even though this one does have a campy feel to it, its "over-the-top" feeling is one part corny, one part atmospheric.
I think you'd like it. Give it a go! As others have stated, it is a pretty good adaptation of Lovecraft, which is certainly hard to come by.