From Beyond (1986)

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It’s something of a surprise to see a film based on a Lovecraft story that captures the spirit of Lovecraft’s writing – not content to hint at the horrors behind the slightly open door, he wanted to throw that door wide open and let you gaze on the creatures he conjured up. This is a story about the opening of that door.

Jeffrey Combs is the guy you call if you want your Lovecraft film to have some pop- after I paused the film to find out, I discovered he’s been in at least 8, and probably more like 12, films based on the work or life of the good ol’ New England racist. He’s Crawford Tillinghast, working at the weird mansion at 666 Benevolent Street on an experiment to stimulate the pineal gland. This gland is, he believes, a former sense organ, and if we can get it going, then we can see…well, beyond. His boss is S&M loving full-on oddball Dr Pretorius (presumably deliberately named after the fantastically camp character from “Bride of Frankenstein”), and unfortunately with their special machine on, the two of them summon / can see a bunch of space-eels, then something else which eats Pretorius’ head.

Because people can’t leave well enough alone, Tillinghast is taken out of Arkham hospital by Dr McMichaels (Barbara Crampton, who was also in “Re-Animator” along with Combs), a famous researcher who is seen as something of a stunt-merchant by the hospital staff, ignoring patient well-being to get big results. Accompanied by cop Bubba Brownlee (the great Ken Foree), the three go back to the mansion to turn on the experiment again, to see if it really works or not.

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Your response to what happens after the first time they turn the machine on will colour your enjoyment of the entire film. It works, but rather than leave – because they proved what they set out to prove – they hang around. Pretorius may not be as dead as his headless corpse would have them believe, the pineal gland stimulation increases McMichaels’ sex drive, Tillinghast gets sicker and Brownlee seems to get a mild headache, although there’s one scene where he runs through a water-filled room in his underwear and we all see rather more of Little Bubba than we ever expected.

While the humans are driving themselves harder, the machine seems to become more powerful, and apart from a too-long detour back to the hospital, this is the main thrust of the film. The really great thing about this film is how it manages to capture the nature of a Lovecraft story, where reality shifts and humanity is seen as a tiny candle in a very very large, very scary darkness. The three central performances are excellent, with top marks going to Barbara Crampton, who has to go from repressed to wildly over the top and manages to nail it all. The special effects, being “real” rather than CGI, are a bit ropey at times, but the transformation of Pretorius is surprisingly gross and well-done. What makes all this more odd is this is the from the director of “Dagon” and producer of “Lurking Fear”, two other Lovecraft adaptations that I really didn’t care for that much.

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So, aside from way too long spent in the hospital in the middle of the film, it’s definitely the best of the Lovecraft adaptations the ISCFC has reviewed so far. Strong acting, good plot, and suitably gross special effects make this a winner.

Rating: thumbs up

 

PS. This is yet another Charles Band / Full Moon film. Those guys really did produce just about every film you could get from a video shop in the 1980s, didn’t they?

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Dagon (2001)

This bloke is an extra and barely in the film, in case you were wondering

This bloke is an extra and barely in the film, in case you were wondering

I like dreaming up weird conspiracy theories for films, like they were made with the entire cast and crew at gunpoint, or the director was an alien. Quite a few films are secretly the result of two different films mashed together, or footage filmed and then abandoned being added to by a different crew years later; “Dagon” really seems to be a film that was started in Spanish, then they ran out of money and had to put a few Americans in it to get international funding.

 

Paul (American) and Barbara (Spanish) are a couple on a rather nice yacht, holidaying with another couple. Barbara is one of those free spirits who seems fun when you’re a teenager but a heck of a lot of work when you’re in your late 30s; after seesawing between happiness and bitter anger a few times, she throws his laptop into the ocean because he shouldn’t be checking how much money he’s got, he should be enjoying life. Seriously? How do you think you ended up on that boat? Do you think they just hand out yachts to vaguely attractive women and their pasty white boyfriends? Actually, how the hell did the two of you end up together?

 

Paul’s been having dreams about a large undersea structure, a giant eye-shaped thing, and a beautiful woman with odd features – when she opens her mouth, she’s either got multiple rows of razor-sharp teeth or tentacles emerging from it. He’s not got tons of time to ponder the most recent dream because the yacht is shipwrecked in a storm, luckily a short dinghy ride from a small Spanish fishing village.

 

People just love opening their mouths

People just love opening their mouths

My first thought was “if any tourism developers had seen this village, it’d be covered with hotels” but luckily for the film, it’s thoroughly dilapidated and there’s only one. Paul and Barbara make their way to the village and start encountering the locals, who all look mysteriously pale and are covering their faces. They get split up, then Paul goes back to the yacht and finds his friends have disappeared, then things really start going strange.

 

It’s a rare criticism to make, but this film moves too quickly. There’s no time to think “hey, this village is a bit creepy” before everyone starts losing their minds and attacking Paul, and while there are some decent little set-pieces, his chase feels weird to watch because they’ve not bothered to establish why everyone wants to chase him. Besides, you’d think with their Lovecraftian activities that they’d kind of want to not draw attention to themselves, rather than skin and slaughter anyone who wanders along (perhaps an okay idea when the story was written, but in the days of radios and GPS, not so much). Saying that, the discovery of the “tannery” is a genuinely creepy moment, and well done.

 

I think HP Lovecraft has been treated pretty badly by filmed adaptations of his work. That this is regarded as one of the best ones tells you all you should need to know, from the old Spanish actor with the thickest, most incomprehensible accent I’ve ever heard English spoken in, to the horribly annoying main characters. What it does have is a strong main story. Paul literally meets the woman of his dreams, and he discovers the history of the little village he’s found himself in. Also, a lot of other adaptations of his work just assume his “Elder Gods” are Satan, and make it a black magic thing, when in reality his fiction was about creatures which long predated humanity and any ideas of God or the Devil.

 

What a smug douchebag

What a smug douchebag

A new word was coined during this movie – “bloil”. It’s that mix of blood and oil you get in horror films, and is used liberally in this one. Booting a fish-human-monster hybrid where the sun don’t shine is now “kicking him in the caviar”…that my friends and I had time to dream up a bunch of new words and phrases may give you some indication of how good this film was. They had the atmosphere nailed, but the film itself was a weirdly paced confusingly acted mess.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

PS. Fans of one of the greatest computer games of all time, “Resident Evil 4”, may notice a few similarities between that game and this film – okay, it’s more “ganados” and less fish-men, but the vibe is there. I think it’s safe to say the game developers saw this film before they made theirs.

Lurking Fear (1994)

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The thing with a film called “Lurking Fear” is you might reasonably expect there to be some lurking fear in it, but this is a film from our friends at Full Moon and the rules are a little different. On the special features at the end of the film, there’s an interview with the writer/director, and he casually dismisses the original HP Lovecraft short story, which he turned into the B plot to an A plot of criminals congregating on a church to find buried loot. Screw you, Lovecraft fans!

The ISCFC has covered a previous version of the exact same short story, 1989’s “Dark Heritage”. That was one of the murkiest, dullest films we’ve seen in many a long day, and this one is both very different and much better. John Martense is a guy just getting out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and to get back on his feet he goes to visit Skaggs, an ex-con friend of his Dad’s who has the other half of a treasure map to his Dad’s last “score”. It’s buried in the grounds of an old church, the same church where generations of Martense family members are buried; a few steps behind John are a group of criminals who are probably owed some money, or respect, or something. The cast is rounded off with a group who knows more than us – Cathryn, a young woman attempting to avenge the death of her sister; a pregnant woman from the local village; and Dr Haggis, who I guess is the local doctor.

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The cast is pretty strong. Skaggs is played by Vincent Schiavelli, who you’ll recognise from a thousand things (most notably for me, one of the teachers in “Better Off Dead”); Cathryn is Ashley Laurence, who was in the “Hellraiser” films and really ought to have been a bigger star; and Dr Haggis is Jeffrey Combs, who admits in the interview video at the end that he’s played a bafflingly large number of doctors in Lovecraft films. The guy playing John Martense is sort of okay, but is very much like a low-rent Josh Holloway (Sawyer from “Lost”).

The original story is about a family who’ve been isolated for so long that they’ve inbred and devolved into ghouls. This keeps the ghouls, but jettisons most of the rest – that John is the last of the Martense line is pretty much incidental to how things turn out. It feels like a very low rent version of “From Dusk Til Dawn” (which it actually predates by a couple of years) more than it does a Lovecraft story. In fact, it’s so unlike the source material that the only reason to keep the name was to draw in rubes like me and my friends, which is a bit bad of Full Moon I think.

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There’s lots of little things which conspire to do this film in. The criminal gang aren’t great, with the female of the group choosing the most weirdly inappropriate times to make her cool quips, and the boss’s London accent slips from time to time. The ghouls are rubbish, not being particularly powerful or scary, more a minor distraction than a worthy foe. People we’re supposed to be cheering on use “faggot” and “queer” casually as insults, which sounds horrible now and must have raised a few eyebrows back then too. Jeffrey Combs, you can tell, did this for a quick buck and you can catch him not giving a damn in the background of a few scenes.

All in all, this is a curious film. There’s a huge amount of potential here, I think, with the cast and source material, and Full Moon at the time making some pretty strong low-budget horror films. I’m going to have to hang this one on the writer / director’s door. This was C Courtney Joyner’s last film as a director, (although he did keep writing, mainly for Full Moon, for years). His cavalier attitude to what is a fairly strong source story is quite amusing, but it would only really be justifiable if he’d made something decent at the end. Sadly, he didn’t.

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Rating: thumbs down

Lovecraft Movies: Cthulhu Mansion (1992)

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Three good friends came over last night and, for some reason, I subjected them to this. So, anything that seems smarter than usual will no doubt be me ripping off something one of them said. On to the review!

Right off the bat, I felt like we’d made a mistake. The title I bought it under, “Black Magic Mansion”, is immediately contradicted by the title you see above in the opening credits, and our “I wonder what story this is based on?” question is answered by “Inspired by the writings of HP Lovecraft”. What writings? His shopping list? According to the room’s resident Lovecraft expert, and later confirmed by a quick search, most of Lovecraft’s most famous work is now in the public domain, as are the concepts behind them – so you, me or anyone else could write a story about him, inspired by him or featuring his creations and you’d be absolutely fine.

Frank Finlay, a great actor with a long and distinguished career, better known as Porthos from the original “Three Musketeers” films and Casanova from the 1971 British TV version, must have had some gambling debts he needed to pay off. He’s Chandu, a magician plying his trade at a funfair (not as ugly as the one from “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies”, but close).

At some point in the past, he killed his wife / assistant during a trick…it’s kind of difficult to know if you’re in a flashback or not, because wife and daughter are played by the same actress. Anyway, at some other moment in what I presume is the past, but may not be, he goes to a bookshop during a romantic holiday and buys an old pamphlet that just has “Cthulhu” written on the front; it’s full of diagrams and stuff written in a weird language. Later, his daughter becomes his assistant too, which just seems a terrible idea. If I’d killed my wife doing magic, I’d probably think about finding a new career.

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So, funfair. Chandu is doing his thing at the same time as the nicest, cleanest-cut group of drug-dealing murderers you’ve ever seen are there too. They look like the average group of fun teens you’d see in a film, but their leader stabs someone to death on a Haunted House ride and steals a huge bag of cocaine, one of the others beats a cop half to death, and the main woman in the gang is sleeping with everyone and was clearly told by the director that over the top wasn’t crazy enough.

These two groups come together when the gang need to sneak out of the funfair, and kidnap Chandu, his daughter, and my favourite character in the film, the magnificent Felix (Frank Braña). Felix is best described as a camp bodybuilding grandpa, with his sweet moustache, tight vest and old-man muscles – he never speaks, possibly due to him being Spanish and not even being able to mouth English dialogue in order to be dubbed later (as many of the people in this film are). Anyway, they decide to take Chandu and friends home in their car, then steal it, but they decide to stay at Chandu’s, which has a wrought-iron gate that reads above it “Cthulhu”.

Here’s where I need to stop for a moment. Chandu doesn’t seem terribly thrilled at his Cthulhu experience, so why he’d pay to have the Elder God’s name put above his gate is a true puzzler. Did he buy the house with that sign already there, then get lucky when he found the pamphlet later? Sadly, the film chooses not to answer these questions.

As the drug-stealing murderers seem quite happy to relax in the house, wandering around, having sex, raiding the fridge, they’re gradually picked off by a series of weak special effects, all the while Chandu telling them no-one is safe in the house (why do you live there then?). They’re not locked in the house, the car works, they’ve got money to make, but no-one seems in any sort of rush to do anything, a spirit which bleeds out into the film itself. Nothing really happens before the 55 minute mark and not a great deal happens after then either, to be honest. The dialogue is sort of reminiscent of a really cheesy 70s “message” movie, with the 90s teenagers talking like old-fashioned gangsters.

One thing that does happen is maybe the stupidest C-story in all of film history. I won’t spoil it, but keep your eye on the film’s only black character. If you don’t want to throw something at the screen when his story’s…resolved…then you’re a better person than I.

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For a film called “Cthulhu Mansion”, inspired by the writings of HP Lovecraft, you might reasonably expect there to be a bit of stuff about Cthulhu in it, right? Wrong. The people who made the film seem to think it’s all just a bit of Satanism, so there’s upside down crosses and a few goat drawings and pentagrams, none of which have the remotest connection to Lovecraft’s work. You’d then think they just called it that name to trap in a few fans, and it was always intended to just be a film about Satanism, but the Cthulhu references are front and centre. It’s a curious one, that’s for sure.

Throw in one of the weirdest most nonsensical endings I’ve seen in a long time, and you’ve got yourself a film. It wasn’t so much rubbish as it was boring and annoying, and without the Lovecraft connection I’d have never even thought of watching it. Sorry, Frank Finlay, you deserved better than this, but hopefully the paycheque was decent.

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club – Dark Heritage (1989)

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Our Youtube Film Club reviews are a bit more spoiler-heavy than our other ones, so we recommend you watch the film before reading on. It’s worth it!

Cult film websites tend to either try and go respectable and get interviews with big stars, or go for the gutter with reviewing the worst films they can find. We’ve already gone about as far down into the gutter as we can manage (ONE MORE TIME, which is barely above the level of a poor home movie), but I don’t think this review will be propelling us into the big time either.

The opening scene caused some debate – are the couple on holiday, or is that crappy looking caravan their home? To be honest, either could be true, as although it’s supposed to be a holiday, they’re in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, with no evidence of a car nearby to move the caravan when it’s time for the holiday to end. Anyway, they get offed, along with a remarkably large number of other people (information given to us in an on-screen news report), which takes us to the meat and drink of the film, where a newspaper editor sends his best man, Clint, out to get to the bottom of all those murders.

I don’t like to rag on the technical shortcomings of low-budget films, but there’s a couple in this scene that stick out like a sore thumb. One carries on all the way through the film – please, people, spend a few quid on some lights because every scene that’s not in daylight looks murky at best; and the other is eyelines. It’s one of those things you only notice when it gets messed up, that when two people are having a conversation their eyes either need to be on the same level, or angled so they appear to be looking at each other. The editor appears to be staring over the top of Clint’s head, then when they fix it so he’s looking at the chair, Clint’s already stood up so he’s now staring at his crotch.

Clint and his two buddies, who work for the paper I suppose, go off to the site of the killings, and stay for the night at the large derelict mansion nearby. One of them gets spooked by a loud noise (seriously) so they set up a camera to record all goings-on and take shifts to guard each other. Clint wakes up in the morning to find his two friends have vanished and everyone thinks he murdered them. No evidence is found that they were ever in the house, although Clint (for some reason) chooses not to share the videotape he has, which shows the beefier of his two friends getting knocked to the ground and dragged off by persons unknown, with a comical expression of fright on his face. The film really likes his expression, because they play it over and over again, too.

This all feels odd, as the film has spent too much time on the group to then kill two of them off, off-screen no less. Anyway, after being given three weeks paid leave to recover from the stress (wow, this really was some golden age of journalism, they’d have just sacked him and replaced him with press releases nowadays), he goes off to research the mansion and makes a couple of other male friends, both of whom are also interested in the house.

The Martense family lived there, and tragedy continued to strike them until the house was apparently abandoned over a century ago. Clint and his two new friends decide to go and investigate further, and while exploring the surrounding woodland come across the caravan from the beginning of the film, which they explain to us the police just didn’t get round to towing away yet. In case this made you scratch your head a bit, in the original story this is actually a cabin, and presumably the filmmakers just couldn’t afford to build one or find one in similar-looking forest.

Unfortunately, one of Clint’s new friends gets his face chewed off, in what is by a huge distance the best special effect in the film. Rather than doing anything sensible like reporting it to the police, so the man’s family can at least know, Clint begs his remaining friend to help him bury the dead guy in the woods so no further suspicion will be raised, re: him. This triggers maybe the least convincing use ever of the following line: “What you say makes sense”. No it doesn’t! He wants you to help him bury your friend! Two of his other friends died in mysterious circumstances! You’ve known him for about ten minutes! Run!

Amazingly, they both make it back to civilization alive, and after a rather well-done “Carnival Of Souls” inspired dream sequence, Clint and Jack (I’m not sure that’s his name, but he’s second billed and I’m sick of typing out “his friend”) decide to go back again and dig up the grave of the patriarch of the Martense clan. This kind of makes sense, I suppose, and it ultimately leads them to the secret passage which ultimately leads them to the big secret of the film (that the hideous monsters living underneath the house are members of the Martense family, separated from humanity for so long that they’ve mutated). Jack dies, of course, but Clint figures out that the last surviving member of the Martenses is someone he knows quite well…okay, it’s the editor. I had to reveal that to make the questions I’m about to ask make sense.

This film is bonkers. Cheapness is a given, but through the murk that most of the film exists in, a few slight problems bubble to the surface. If the editor was so desperate to keep the real reason for the murders under wraps, why didn’t he send his dumbest reporter and tell him not to bother doing too much work? Why did he send the best guy he had?

Also, I’m not sure how deliberate it is, but the film is absolutely laden with gay subtext. The only woman in the film walks in on Clint and the editor, with their guns out, and says “this has to stop”. Men seem to sleep in the same room, or next to each other, as a matter of course. There’s a lot of focusing on mens’ behinds too…now, I may just be reading a lot into nothing, as the rest of the film is so dull that my brain needed something to focus on, but it seems if they’re going to spend the time to put that in there, why didn’t they use the time to make the film a bit better? Anyway.

It’s a gem, for sure, and when you watch it, it will give you a newfound respect for the cheap-o films you see every other day.

03

The Last Lovecraft (2009)

Directed by: Henry Saine

As you’ve probably already realised by now we’ve moved, and changed our name; mostly in fear of getting sued by the legal might of Poundland, now we are the International Syndicate of Cult Film Critics. Still, Poundland is likely to continue to supply a significant proportion of my films, and ‘The Last Lovecraft’ (UK DVD Title) was purchased alongside a roll of kitchen foil and a pack of notepads that I’m supposed to be using to scribble down a rough draft of my upcoming assignment on the differences between psychodynamic and person-centred counselling. Instead I find myself writing about another low budget straight-to-DVD movie.

Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos ‘The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu’ is a cheaply made homage, somewhat similar in style to ‘Shaun of the Dead’. In this movie our Shaun is named Jeff, and he works for the SQRLY Squirrel gift delivery company. Jeff (Kyle Davis) is sensible, albeit a tad naïve. Jeff and his confident slacker co-worker, and aspiring comic book artist friend Charlie (Devin McGinn) suddenly find themselves after a dull day at work on an adventure quest when a mysterious grey haired professor turns up in their apartment. The Professor, a member of The Council of Cthulhu tells Jeff that he’s the last living descendent of Lovecraft, and must therefore become the guardian of one half of the relic of Cthulhu. Jeff’s duty is to prevent both pieces getting put back together. If that happened then Cthulhu would rise from deep beneath the ocean and wreak havoc upon Mother Earth.

The gore is hilariously gungey, reminding me more of the classic kids show ‘Get Your Own Back’ then a nasty slaughterhouse horror. After an over the top bloody double murder on board a boat we are introduced to the villainous Starspawn, Cthulhu’s General. Half man half squid, big red and pretty evil looking; Stawspawn, assisted by the devious Cult of Cthulhu possess the other half of the relic. Unfortunately the ‘deep ones’ Starspawn’s violent mutant piranha-like creatures are quite literally plastic and rather pathetic looking despite contributing towards a significant proportion of the films body count.

Jeff and Charlie are joined by Lovecraft nerd Paul (Barak Hardley), a bespectacled overweight manchild who lives with his potty mouthed Grandmother. The trio takes their half of the relic on the road, fleeing from Starspawn in search of the only man who can help them – Captain Olaf, a gnarly sea dog who had encountered the ‘deep ones’ up close, and some might say personal, as his “fish raped” quip suggests . Olaf lives in an RV somewhere in the desert reminiscent of the one featured in the first season of ‘Breaking Bad’, an unlikely place for a showdown that will determine the fate of the world.

My biggest gripe with the film is that some of the cast are hamming it up, and some blatantly can’t be arsed because they knew the film was going to end up as a festering bag of shite. In a film like this everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction, if you’re going to be outrageous I want Klaus Kinski levels of madness, or if you can’t quite reach that level aim a little lower on the crazy scale, like Ben Foster’s performance in the otherwise woeful ‘Alpha Dog’. Low budget films demand acting on a scale of extremes, varying from terrible to dramatically am dram Shakespearean. You can’t really phone in the performance.

The biggest enemy of a movie that could be categorized as “so bad that it’s good” is ‘boredom’ and ‘The Last Lovecraft’ contains several scenes that go nowhere, not to mention the anodyne plot; and though the creators may dream of cult status, this is one DVD you’re unlikely to lend to a buddy, or put on during the final hours of a drunken gathering. Although it feels a lot like ‘The Last Lovecraft’ was cobbled together after a late night session descended beyond the “I love you, man” point to a “Dude, let’s make a movie”.

There are some fun moments in what is actually quite a short and painless film experience, the brief cameo of Martin Starr as Paul’s equally hopeless pal Clarence and the animated sequence which tells the tale of Cthulhu are meagre highlights, there just isn’t enough here to recommend.

– RJW

3/10

The Last Lovecraft on IMDB
Buy The Last Lovecraft [DVD]