Considering the incredible pedigree of the people involved – directed by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote “Dark Star” and “Alien” and directed “Return of the Living Dead”; starring Chris Sarandon, from “Fright Night”; it’s a bit of a surprise how this film managed to go under the radar. It’s also based on one of Lovecraft’s best stories, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” so…no, I got nothing. It’s clearly the film’s fault I’d never heard of it before yesterday.
A guy called Charles Dexter Ward has become obsessed with a long-dead necromancer called Curwen who bore a striking resemblance to him, and has abandoned his old life in order to continue Curwen’s experiments. Mrs Ward is distressed by this, so she goes to visit a private investigator, John March (John Terry, aka Hawk the Slayer) and asks him to track her husband down and find out exactly what he’s up to. This gradually reveals how far down the rabbit hole Ward has gone, but it’s when he suddenly develops rotten teeth and a rather bizarre old-fashioned way of talking that things really get strange.
Although this film is very definitely of its era (the PI’s office is bright and ugly) it manages to capture the spirit of Lovecraft remarkably well. Sarandon is fantastic as Ward, that archetypal quester for dark truth, And Jane Sibbett (from “Friends”) is also great as his wife Claire. There’s lots of touches, like the blackboard with maths and occult symbols side by side, and the repeated use of “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Goya, which indicate the people behind this film spent a lot of time on it. Even though the original story is about a doctor investigating Ward, the change to a PI makes sense and the atmosphere is excellent. And the effects! Some of Ward’s failed experiments are incredibly grotesque and look fantastic, right out of a really horrible nightmare.
But, there’s weirdness to it, and to setting the story in the modern day. Ward transports the bones of other dead necromancers to his home in order to perform experiments to create resurrection powder. But, I just get the feeling it would be fairly difficult to both find, steal and transport those bones to the US, and would take a bit more than the < 6 months the film tells us. At one point, the PI just breaks into Claire’s home because he’s had an idea where some old document is hidden – hey mate, you know they have phones, right? Or you could wait til the morning and ask?
O’Bannon was never really a director – aside from a student short, this and “Return…” are his only films, and this shows in the lack of connective tissue to too many scenes. Ward is arrested a little over halfway through the film and locked up in an asylum, but there’s no real indication why the police would suddenly decide to raid his house in such force. Most strangely of all, when the PI visits Ward in the asylum to trigger the film’s climactic battle, he’s able to just stroll into his padded room and be left there unsupervised while carrying a suitcase full of human bones. Really? Also, the PI continues on the case long past the point where the wife would have said “you know what, my husband’s been found and he’s stopped his experiments, bill please”.
Talking of O’Bannon, apparently, he and writer Brent Friedman (now a TV writer, and responsible for ISCFC favourite “American Cyborg: Steel Warrior”) had separately been developing this story for years, and combined their efforts for this. Although O’Bannon isn’t credited as a writer, a lot of his ideas made it into the finished film.
I really wanted to like this film. It has a great atmosphere, a strong cast, one of the all-time great Hollywood iconoclasts as director…but it just didn’t quite work. You can see O’Bannon knows his horror, just think of all the classic horror trappings – dark / stormy / foggy nights, an asylum, old books full of mysterious diagrams, grotesque paintings, dark cellars and tunnels, torches that keep going out, family secrets, oh and exploded human bodies – but…although it’s only 100 minutes long, it feels a lot longer, and like so many of the Lovecraft-based films we’ve seen so far, it would have benefited enormously from being a TV special, like an hour-long episode of “HP Lovecraft Presents…” (which is fantastic idea, actually, I ought to try and sell it to a TV company).
I’d definitely recommend watching it, though. Available in HD, for free, on Youtube, and if you’ve got a passing interest in Lovecraft or O’Bannon you’ll get a lot from this film.
Rating: thumbs in the middle
PS. While seeing what other reviewers thought (and to see if I missed anything big), I happened upon Video Junkie’s review, and we seem to have had very similar ideas about the “horror trappings” bit, although his flows better than mine. Anyway, please visit his site and read some of his stuff, because it’s great.