HP Lovecraft, much discussed pulp horror author and Woodrow Wilson lookalike, was either born or transferred into this world from a watery beyond in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a traveling salesman, went insane as a complication of syphilis when young Howard Phillips was but three years old, and the elder Lovecraft was confined to a mental hospital until his death in 1898. Sickly and somewhat unstable as a lad, HP Loevcraft showed a knack for writing (poetry, mostly) despite the fact that he spent little time in school. He was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather, and it was his grandfather who first read old gothic horror stories to HP. His mother disapproved, fearing that the stories would upset the child, who already suffered from, among other things, night terrors. Lovecraft’s academic studies, such as they were — he dreamed of becoming a professional astronomer — were stymied by his inability to do well in higher mathematics. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1908, the Lovecrafts hit upon hard times. The family moved into a smaller home, and Lovecraft led a nearly hermetic existence, his mother being more or less the only person with whom he spent any time.
HP’s first experience as a published writer came after he wrote a cranky letter to Argosy magazine, complaining about how crappy their romance stories were. A debate flared up in the pages of the magazine, letter columns being the online discussion forums of the day. Through that, Lovecraft caught the eye of the United Amateur Press Association, who invited him to become a member. Shortly thereafter, Lovecraft wrote his first professionally published story, Dagon (which isn’t very good, as I said when reviewed the movie Dagon), which appeared first in 1919 in the publication The Vagrant, and then was reprinted in 1923 in Weird Tales. Weird Tales would become the home for the bulk of Lovecraft’s writing for his entire career.
Although it’s easiest to drop Lovecraft’s writing into the genre of horror, anyone who has read his stories know that they are far more complicated than simple horror. Lovecraft’s interest in science and astronomy led him to explore a far more abstract realm of horror, and ultimately, Weird Tales seems to have been the perfect title not just for the magazine that published so much of his work, but also for the genre of fiction he wrote. Most famously, Lovecraft created a pantheon of ancient… not even evils… ancient things that existed beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. Referred to collectively as the Cthulhu mythos, these legends caught the imagination of other pulp writers, including Lovecraft’s long-time correspondent Robert E. Howard, who when he wasn’t busy writing Conan or Soloman Kane stories, penned a few tales in the style of Lovecraft, alluding to Lovecraft’s ancient gods.
Also made famous through Lovecraft’s writing was the fictional cursed tome, The Necronomicon. Invoked frequently in Lovecraft’s stories, the Necronomicon was a book containing such foul and maddeningly evil knowledge and rites that to even know of the existence of the book — let alone read something in it — was enough to terrify a man into insanity. The Necronomicon took on a life of its own, being used as a prop in countless books and movies (the bets known of which is probably Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead). Although the book was a fictional invention of Lovecraft’s, many believed that it existed, or that it was at least based on a very similar actual tome. Pranksters and hucksters both saw an opportunity. Phony card catalog entries for the book, under the purported author’s name Abdul Alhazred, started popping up in libraries. Sometime in the 1970s, an alleged “true” copy of The Necronomicon surfaced. It was printed in trade paperback in 1980, suckering generations of would be occultists who thought they’d stumbled upon a tome of unspeakable power sitting next to the Edgar Cayce paperbacks on the shelves of Waldenbooks. And here is where the tale, for me, gets curious and personal.
I grew up in a part of Kentucky with a curiously high interest in the occult, be it grown from the ancient superstitions of Appalachia or from the popularity of Dio. As kids, mounting expeditions to find devil worshipers was par for the course, even among the saner members of the population, which I can say I probably was not among. Ground zero for all the spooky legends about my home town was Covered Bridge Road, because everyone knows that covered bridges attract ghosts and ghouls like ants to sugar. I didn’t live anywhere near Covered Bridge Road, though we did have our own fair share of ghouls down near Crybaby Lane where my grandparents lived. But I did live near a creek which, if followed long enough, would lead you to the accursed bridge and the Satanists who lurked in the hollers and caves around it. An enterprising and probably stupid couple of kids could claim to be spending the night with whoever’s parents were the least responsible about keeping track of children, stuff some backpacks full of camping and survival equipment (including, of course, those L-shaped Army flashlights with the changeable lenses), then set out through the woods, following the creek until one of the branches led you to Covered Bridge Road. It was a full day’s hike for young ones, or about a ten minute drive by car, but really — which one is better for the scares?
Then, you could pitch camp somewhere in the shelter of trees, near where someone’s older brother knew someone who was hunting down there and found the remains of a sacrificed goat and/or young virgin from the high school. Then you waited. And once dark fell, you realized what a horrible, stupid, terrifying thing you’d done. Hunting devil worshipers and ghosts was great through the planning stages, and the hike to the location was fun as well, usually filled with lots of crawdad catching and singing of “Sixteen Tons.” But once night fell, and every sound was a dagger-wielding cloaked spirit most malign, all the day’s adventures melt away into a flurry of “what was that?” and “did you see something?” Plus, seriously, what were going to do with the devil worshipers if they actually did show up? And what would be more dangerous — actual devil worshipers, or drunk, violent teenagers who liked to spray paint pentagrams and swastikas on things?
Anyway, when I was in high school, there were but a few freaks, punk rockers, and weirdos at my school, so we all hung out together, even if we didn’t like each other. Among the people with whom I kept company was a shuffling punk rocker named Stewy, who looked like Judd Nelson, and a rail-thin, frail goth kid named Gabe, who spoke in a high-pitched, croaky voice like a southern queen on cocaine — possibly because he was a southern queen on cocaine. Because we had nothing better to do out there in the country, we dabbled in the occult. Who didn’t? Silly stuff, mostly, and being an atheist even back then, I didn’t have any more faith in these various demons and mystic powers than I did in any other religion. But while i was there mostly to try my charms on whatever spooky girl had caught my fancy that month, Gabe and Stewy took the occult seriously.
Well, one day I was poking around the mall with Gabe, as we tended to do back in the day. We were in Waldenbooks, of course, and I was probably doing something like flipping through Dragon or Heavy Metal magazine, or cleverly holding a copy of Penthouse inside a copy of Newsweek (or just lingering in the photography section looking at “glamor photography” guides — the young pervert’s greatest friend). Anyway, Gabe comes stumbling up to me, all spastic and freaked out and clutching a little black paperback.
“O mah Gawd, I cain’t believe it!” he croaked. He had in his hands a copy of The Necronomicon. “They have no idea what they’ve got here!”
He rushed to the front to buy it, lest some more knowledgeable clerk suddenly realized that the most powerful and forbidden book in the history of man had somehow ended up on their shelves in trade paperback format for $3.99 or whatever it cost back then. What followed were multiple weekends wasted out in corn fields or woods as Gabe, Stewy, and a couple other true believers tried to perform the rites described in the book. This would have been, I don’t know. 1988, I think. I don’t think any of the rites ever came to a satisfactory conclusion (Gabe was often convinced otherwise), though as proof of the book’s power, I will point out that shortly after we procured The Necronomicon, Slayer released South of Heaven.
So one day, Stewy borrowed Gabe’s Necronomicon, because when he’d gone to the bookstore to buy it himself, there were — mysteriously — no copies available. Gabe had been hesitant to loan the book to Stewy, for two reasons. One, he assumed that because the book had been there for him and no one else, he was meant to own it. Two, Stewy was bad at returning things (he still has my AD&D Dungeon Masters Handbook, Unearthed Arcana, and my beloved Fiend Folio). And as it turns out, Stewy never returned the unholy book. Some weeks later, I was once again poking around the mall, this time with Stewy, and we ran into Gabe, most likely outside that weird store that sold pipes and swords and seems to have been in every mall during the 1980s.
“Stewy!” Gabe yelled in his lilting yet froggish voice, “Stewy! Give me back mah Necronomicon!”
Rather than just admit that he’d forgotten that he’d borrowed it, Stewy took the route of, “I’m not giving it back. You can’t handle the knowledge that’s inside it!”
The exchange went on for some time, much to the amusement I’m sure of sane thinking people around us and everyone who wanted to buy a sword or a pipe shaped like Sherlock Holmes. Finally, Gabe withdrew, saying something to the effect of, “You’ve made yourself an enemy out of a friend, Jason Stewart. You’ll regret this! Maybe not in this life, maybe not in this existence… but you’ll regret this!”
After Gabe had departed, off to go be evil out front of Manchu Wok or whatever, Stewy scoffed at him. “Gabe thinks he understands what evil is, but he doesn’t know anything. You know what evil is?”
And then Stewy proceeded to flop his long bangs down in front of his face, affect a studied scowl, and point that point to which I know I’ve referred before, where the wrist is limp, the index finger and thumb are extended, and the other fingers curl slightly. “That is evil.”
So where were we?
In 1923, Lovecraft got married and moved to New York. He and his wife fell on hard times almost immediately. She moved to Cleveland to seek employment, and Lovecraft stayed in Red Hook. His inability to secure a decent job amidst all the gainfully employed immigrants contributied greatly to the undercurrent (and sometimes overcurrent) of racism that mars some of the author’s work but was not out of character for most pulp writers at the time, be it manifest in the form of Sax Rohmer’s raging paranoia over Asians, Howard’s frequent description of blacks as possessing “ape-like sloping foreheads,” or Lovecraft’s use of man-fish creatures as an allegory for the evils of race mixing. Lovecraft was raised in an environment that seems to have been equal parts hysterical insanity (his mother was eventually committed to the same asylum his father had died in) and the arrogance of entitled Anglo-Saxons who have fallen from grace. Such personal disaster generally either causes the person to see that they are really not that different from the non-white masses around them, or it causes them to retreat into a somewhat paranoid delusion of white pride and anger at others over the perception that is their fault that the highborn white man is not getting all the privilege to which he should be entitled. Lovecraft, sadly, seems to have opted for the latter (though the racism present in some of works disappears later in his career, as he moved on to more and more abstract, science-fictiony horrors).
Lovecraft eventually moved back to Providence, and though the return to his place of birth marked the beginning of his most prolific and successful period as a writer (most of his best known stories come from this time), he was unable to do anything other than eke out the most meager of existences. Although well regarded amongst the Weird Tales crowd, Lovecraft was relatively unknown, and what success he did achieve was marginal, at least at the time he was alive. In 1936, his long-time friend and correspondent Robert E. Howard (himself no bastion of mental stability, and also with a particularly intense relationship with a depressed mother) committed suicide, casting Lovecraft into an even deeper pit of depression. Shortly after that, Lovecraft was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. His remaining few months were spent malnourished and in constant pain. He died in March of 1937.
It’s not hard to detect Lovecraft’s tortured life in his writing. Pervading almost everything he wrote is the looming sense that the universe is completely uninterested in you, to the point that your greatest triumph, your worst suffering, is not even a trifle concern to the greater world around you. For many, including myself, the idea that the universe is an uncaring and disinterested thing over which we hold no real influence, isn’t particularly terrifying (I find other aspects of Lovecraft’s writing to be much more chilling). But one can see how, raised as he was under the assumption that his station as a direct descendant of the original pilgrims entitles him to something more, Lovecraft’s actual lot in life might have embittered him to the world and filled him with a sense of dread. Such a wretched and depressing existence would, in itself, make an interesting story.
Even though his works have since been embraced as exceptional, and even though many of them have been adapted into movies, Lovecraft himself remains a little used character in film — especially compared to, say Edgar Allan Poe, who pops up as a character (sometimes in movies based on his own writing) with some frequency. In 1993, after a successful partnership with director Stuart Gordon that yielded two well-regarded Lovecraft adaptations (Re-Animator and From Beyond), producer Brian Yuzna began work on a solo Lovecraft project, Necronomicon, in which HP Lovecraft is an actual character, though the Lovecraft of Yuzna’s creation bears little resemblance to the actual man.
Necronomicon is an anthology film — as mentioned in my review of Alien Zone, a format that never really clicks with me. But considering the names behind this anthology — besides Yuzna himself producing the movie and directing two segments (the final story as well as the wrap-around story that features Jeffrey Combs as HP Lovecraft), two other directors were called in for the project, both of them relatively unknown at the time of the film’s production. But they would both make names for themselves years later, and since I didn’t see Necronomicon until years later (its distribution in the United States has been, at best, spotty), I already knew and had high expectations for the names Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill) and Shusuke Kaneko (the Gamera films from the 1990s, of which I think the second is one of the greatest giant monster movies ever made). The fact that I liked both directors so much, coupled with Yuzna’s track record with Lovecraft (even when he makes a bad movie, Yuzna doesn’t make an un-entertaining movie) was enough to get me over my initial dislike of the anthology film.
Like all anthology films, this one features a framing story, one in which Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond) plays HP Lovecraft, come to the library of some esoteric monastic order in search of The Necronomicon. While perusing its pages of evil, Lovecraft is inspired to write three short stories which, miraculously, all take place in time periods that came years long after Lovecraft’s death. If you were going to pick someone to play Lovecraft, it might as well be Jeffrey Combs. After his turn as the delightfully cracked and amoral Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator, Combs was (and is) as identified with Lovecraft as Yuzna and Stuart Gordon — perhaps more so, since he was the face in front of the camera. And although Combs plays Lovecraft with all of his signature twitchy quirkiness, there’s really very little of the morose, haunted, and perpetually defeated author in the depiction. Instead, Lovecraft is slightly unhinged, and uncontainably enthusiastic about unlocking the incomprehensible truths of the universe (presumably so that he might sell them to Weird Tales for a pittance and buy himself a can of beans).
The first tale is “The Drowned, “directed by Christophe Gans. It’s supposedly based on the story The Rats in the Wall, but that’s an extremely loose “based on,” which I guess is nothing out the ordinary for Lovecraft. The written story is of a man and his ill-named cat who purchase and rebuild the ancient family estate in England after World War One. As is always the case, the locals shun the place with manic terror that the new owner scoffs at. As the renovations near completion, the man and his cat hear scurrying behind the walls, presumably caused by rats even though there’s no history of a rodent infestation, even when the estate was in disrepair. They eventually trace the sound to an underground catacomb, where, after assembling a team of academics to excavate this exciting new site, a nightmarish discovery awaits them.
“The Drowned” film version is about a man who inherits an old ancestral home. And that’s about the sum total of what it has in common with The Rats in the Walls.
Set in what looks like sometime in the 40s, despite the framing story being set in Lovecraft’s lifetime, “The Drowned” tells the story of unfortunate Edward De Lapoer (Bruce Payne), who inherits a decrepit old manor perched atop a cliff overlooking the tumultuous sea. You know the place. You all wish you could inherit one, too. I know I do. Actually, no. I wish a friend of mine would inherit one. Because owning a haunted manor is like owning a boat. It seems like fun, but if you’re the owner, you have to deal with all the pitfalls of ownership. However, if your best friend owns the boat or haunted manor, all you have to do is show up with some beer. Anyway, the real estate agent implores De Lapoer to sell the place before the entire foundation crumbles into the sea. De Lapoer seems hesitant, and he spends the night in the old property, reading a letter left to him by an ancestor.
The letter is a fever dream of horrors, telling the story-within-the-story of Jethro De Lapoer (cheap movie staple Richard Lynch), whose wife and son were drowned. Avowing that no God would let such a tragedy happen, he swears off Christianity. Later, he’s visited by a bizarre fisherman who gives him a mysterious tome: The Necronomicon (cue dramatic musicial sting). Jethro De Lapoer uses it to resurrect his loved ones, but soon discovers the price of meddling with such dark and arcane knowledge. Faced with the unspeakable horror of what he has done, Jethro throws himself from the ledge. Edward De Lapoer, who lost his own beloved in an auto accident, seems to take the wrong lesson from this cautionary tale.
Although not directly based on any Lovecraft tale, “The Drowned” does feel suitably Lovecraftian. Gans certainly puts effort into cramming as many Lovecraft tropes into the short running time as he can. There’s the mysterious, crumbling New England location, the sea, fish monsters and squid things, and of course, at the center of it all, the book that unlocks secrets so dark that the human mind that seeks them can never hope to comprehend the true cost of delving into such things — at least until it’s too late. I think this is a pretty effective segment. Paine’s acting tends toward the melodramatic. Richard Lynch is great as always. This one generates some creepy stuff, as well as a decently action-packed finale. The scene in which Jethro realizes how little he understood about the resurrection process is superbly chilling, and though Edward’s same mistake results in a more monster-fight oriented finale, it’s very much in keeping with the spirit of Lovecraft. Even this early in his career, Gans was a director of exceptional talent, and “The Drowned” is a nice blend of atmosphere, melodrama, action, and gigantic icky squid-monsters.
Savor it, because the next segment, Shu Kaneko’s “The Cold”, will leave you cold when it should be chilling. Har har. Believe me, as bad as that sentence was, this segment is worse. Based on the Lovecraft tale Cool Air, Kaneko’s segment is about a reporter who confronts a young woman (Bess Meyer) about her mysterious past, which includes the disappearance of a local scientist and the discovery of a number of bodies around her neighborhood. Once again, this is a basically modern setting despite the framing story placing Lovecraft’s discovery of it in the 1930s. But really, what are you gonna do? Just let it go at this point (otherwise the third segment of the movie is going to drive you bonkers). The woman tells the reporter about her mother, who moved into a boarding house and befriended the reclusive Dr. Madden (David Warner — you can call him Sark). Madden is reclusive not because he doesn’t like people, but because he suffers from a rare ailment that requires him to stay in near-freezing temperatures lest he burst and boil, or something to that effect. He and the woman strike up a friendship which turns into a romance, much to the consternation of the landlord (Millie Perkins), who also loved the afflicted doctor. Of course, this is a scientist in a Lovecraft story (sort of), so it’s not like he’s working on anything sane or a project that doesn’t require a fresh supply of bodies.
It’s hard to believe that the man who breathed such life and energy into the moribund Gamera series, then did the same thing for Godzilla, could have been responsible for such a lifeless slog as this. There’s no Lovecraft about the tale. The twist is more of a Twilight Zone twist. No, scratch that. It’s more of a Tales from the Darkside twist. I think Kaneko was aiming for something relatively high, relying on characters and melodrama instead of gross-out outrageousness. But whether because of the script or because of the language barrier, everything the story attempts falls flat. There’s not really any character to the characters, and thus there’s no real reason to invest oneself in their situation. Where as the first story certainly relies on its share of head-clutching melodrama and howling in terror (as befits a Lovecraft story), the characters are broad enough for it to work. There is nothing subtle about them. But this second segment seems to think it possesses subtlety. It doesn’t, and that leaves us with a thin, unengaging failure. I’m willing to chalk this up to the language barrier (I have no idea if Kaneko was familiar with Lovecraft), since Kaneko is a good director, and his screenwriter, Kazunori Ito, has written some really incredible stuff (including Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, and Dirty Pair). He has what it would take to write a good Lovecraft story. But either through a lack of English or a lack of familiarity with the source material — or a simple difference in culture — the end result here is a disappointing misfire.
Perhaps sensing the lackluster quality of the middle segment, the final story goes to Yuzna himself. As I’ve said in a previous review, Yuzna benefits greatly from having someone around to reel him in. Otherwise, his enthusiasm and fondness for the outrageous can get the better of him, causing his directorial efforts to collapse in a delirious mess. His story, “The Whisperer,” seems like it’s about to go totally off the rails at any moment, with Yuzna perched atop it clutching the reigns in a desperate attempt to keep some sort of control. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but if nothing else, his wildly careening insanity is a welcome injection of energy after Kaneko’s dry corpse of a story.
To say that this segment is based on Lovecraft’s The Whisperers in the Darkness is to stretch the meaning of “based on” even more than the first segment did. The Whisperers in the Darkness is both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories and one I find intensely irritating. It’s the story of a young academic who associates with an aging man who is convinced that his remote farmhouse is being stalked by strange creatures from deep within the woods. In time, the young academic sees and hears the physical proof of what the professor fears. The story is slow but well paced, building effectively up to… one of the stupidest “we’re just doing this because the author says to” moments I’ve ever read. The academic is terrified as he watches his aging friend being driven mad by these mysterious creatures. The correspondence he receives becomes increasingly panicked and hopeless. And then all of a sudden, a new letter arrives, written in a completely different tone, typed instead of hand written, assuring the young academic that everything is cool. He should come out for a visit. Also, bring every shred of evidence he has about the existence of the creatures. And the idiot falls for it!
Yuzna’s adaptation makes brief mention of one element of the original story’s plot — something about brains being transferred into canisters that would allow a person’s consciousness to travel immense distances through space — but that’s about it, and that occupies about fifteen seconds of time in a story that is such a parade of manic insanity that it’s easy to miss. Yuzna’s version of the story is about a female cop, Sarah (Signy Coleman), who is chasing a bizarre serial killer. When her squad car crashes and her partner/lover (and the father of her unborn baby) is dragged out of the wreckage by the killer, Sarah is launched into a bizarre netherworld beneath the city, where dwells a goopy, disgusting “monster” (more like the entire series of catacombs is the monster) and a completely insane couple, one of whom is Don Calfa (Ernie the embalmer from Return of the Living Dead). Like I said, Yuzna has totally lost control of his story by the time it concludes, but after the drudgery of Kaneko’s middle segment, the unabashed insanity is welcome, and although the manic tone of the story is far from the brooding menace of Lovecraft, Yuzna’s story still manages to identify with the author by presenting viewers with a near incomprehensible horror.
After that madness, we return to Jeffrey combs’ HP Lovecraft, finally realizing the horror that reading The Necronomicon has unleashed beneath the monastery library…
So, a mixed bag. It seems like the middle story is always the crappy one, and while I understand that dropping the bad story in the middle means you can start and end strong, it also kills momentum. Instead of putting the weakest story in the middle, why not just avoid having such a weak story in the first place? If only Yuzna had been able to nab Stuart Gordon for a segment instead of Kaneko, who just seems out of his medium (not to mention language). Oh well, like Meatloaf says, two out of three ain’t bad, and while Necronomicon isn’t strong enough to make me change my mind about anthology films, it’s still worth tracking down and watching. It’s mostly good, giddy fun. Jeffrey Combs is a delight, as always, and the good of the first and last outweigh the crumminess of the middle section.
Release Year: 1993 | Country: Spain, United States | Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Tony Azito, Bruce Payne, Melinda Bauer, Richard Lynch, Maria Ford, Denice D. Lewis, David Warner, Bess Meyer, Millie Perkins, Signy Coleman, Obba Babatunde, Don Calfa, Judith Drake | Writers: Brent V. Friedman, Christophe Gans, Kazunori Ito, Brian Yuzna | Director: Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko | Cinematographer: Russ Brandt, Gerry Lively | Producer: Brian Yuzna, Samuel Hadida