|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Sep 27, 2004)
Alternate Titles: H.P. LOVECRAFT’S NECRONOMICON – THE BOOK OF THE DEAD; NECRONOMICON: BOOK OF THE DEAD; NECRONOMICON: THE FORBIDDEN BOOK.
Color by Fotokem; Dolby Stereo SR.
RT: 96 mins.
Pro Co: Necronomicon Films/Davis Film/Pioneer LDC/OZLA Pictures.
Dirs: Brian Yuzna; Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko.
Wrs: Christophe Gans, Brent V. Friedman (The Drowned); Kazunori Ito, Brent V. Friedman (The Cold); Brent V. Friedman; st: Brian Yuzna, Brent V. Friedman (The Library, Whispers);
Pros: Samuel Hadida, Brian Yuzna; Co-Pro: Aki Komine;
Line Pro: Gary Schmoeller;
Exec Pro: Taka Ichise.
Phot: Gerry Lively, Russ Brandt;
Pro Des: Anthony Tremblay;
Sup Film Ed: Christopher Roth; Film Ed: Keith Sauter;
Mus: Joseph Lo Duca (The Library, The Drowned); Daniel Licht;
Costume Des: Ida Gearon.
Pro Consult: Shingo Miyauchi;
Viz Consult: George Fromentin; Thierry Segur, J.K. Potter, John Rheaume;
Creative Consult; Rick Fry.
2nd Unit: Thomas c. Rainone, Brent V. Friedman, Taka Ichise (dirs); Jerry Watson (Phot).
Stunt Co-Ord: Gary Paul.
Post Pro Sup: Andy Horvitch.
SFX: Rodd Matsui, G. Bruno Stempel, Dave Domeyer, Thomas C. Rainone, Lee Scott, John Vulich, John Carl Buechler, David B. Sharp, Mike Joyce, Steve Lebed, Michael Miscal, Screaming Mad George, Chris Robbins, Dave Barton, Christopher Nelson, Tom Savini, Everett Burrell, Bart J. Mixon, Todd Masters; David L. Hewitt, Optic Nerve Studios, Title House, Special Effects Studio, Perpetual Motion Pictures.
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Tony Azito, Juan Fernandez, Brian Yuzna (The Library); Bruce Payne, Belinda Bauer, Richard Lynch, Maria Ford, Denice D. Lewis, Vincent Lewis, Peter Jasienski (The Drowned); David Warner, Bess Meyer, Millie Perkins, Dennis Christopher, Gary Graham, Curt Lowens (The Cold); Signy Coleman, Don Calfa, Judith Drake, Obba Babatunde (Whispers).
The 1985 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator, based on the author’s 1922 short story “Herbert West – Reanimator”, proved to be one of the most impressive sleeper hits to emerge from the independent sector during the 1980s, managing to secure over $2,000,000 in box office receipts on its initial US run.
Helping establish the careers of both director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna, the movie also played a part in making, for a time anyway, Charles and Albert Band’s Empire Pictures a key player in independent, especially genre, filmmaking. More importantly, it significantly raised the profile of the creator of the source material, allowing his name to become a brand name, not just at the cinema but also in its original field of literature.
Both Gordon and Yuzna have returned to Lovecraft for inspiration for several of their subsequent productions, working together some of the time but also working with other parties outside of their partnership. Yuzna, in particular, has found that the author’s largely (some co-authored works are still under copyright) Public Domain canon is actually most popular in territories outside of the United States, particularly in the Spanish-language and Far Eastern markets. The film under review here, Necronomicon, therefore is one of several independent genre productions from the 1990s that managed to take advantage of funding and co-production opportunities offered home entertainment corporations based abroad, especially those from Japan.
In the Autumn of 1932, occult writer H.P. Lovecraft learns that a copy of fabled font of mystical arcane knowledge, the Necronomicon, has found its way to America and is being guarded by a the monks of an esoteric order. Under the pretence of researching material for his writings, Lovecraft manages to gain access to the monks’ secret library in order to retrieve vital information from the tome. The author manages to steal a set of keys from one of the monks and makes his way to a room hidden within the confines of the monastery. Entering the room, he finds an antechamber secured by iron bars that he manages to negotiate. The antechamber appears to be located over a body of water possessing strange properties and from which some very odd sounds emanate. Undeterred, Lovecraft, manages to open a safe in the wall from which he removes the Necronomicon. Unfortunately, while doing this he drops the key into the water below the floor and the strange sounds from within becoming louder. Also within the safe an inner door slides open revealing a further sealed panel. The writer sits down at a desk and begins to take notes from the volume, detailing three episodes from some point in the future…The Drowned: The last of the Delapoer line, Edward, returns from Sweden to the United States to accept an inheritance from his uncle, a large cliff top mansion that many years previously has served as a hotel. Edward is also trying to get over the death of his fiancé in a motor car accident for which he feels responsible. Delapoer is shown around the derelict property by a female estate agent who tells him that the property has something of a sinister reputation amongst the locals. At one point the realtor nearly falls through a hole in the floorboards and it is revealed that beneath the building is a huge chamber filled with weird artefacts and swamped by the sea. The nephew is told that his uncle had apparently committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, his dead body being found on the rocks below a bedroom balcony. On the bedroom wall of the room hangs the portrait of his uncle’s beautiful wife, who died in a shipwreck along with their son. The estate agent strongly suggests that he leave the property and sell it. As she leaves she hands him a sealed envelope which he later discovers is from his long dead uncle, who relates the events that led up to his death…Cold Air: During an intense heatwave affecting the city of Boston, an investigate journalist calls at guest house located in an old part of the town. He demands to talk to one of the occupants of the building, Emily Ostrameyer, about a series of murders that occurred in the vicinity some 40 years previously. He is let into the property which proves to be freezing cold. The journalist is informed that Ms Ostrameyer has a rare disorder requiring the rooms to be maintained at a very low temperature. He then enquires as to the fate of a Dr Madden who was registered as the owner of the house more than 80 years previously and for whom there is no record of a death certificate. When she claims not to know anything, he threatens to go to the police with all the information he possesses about Madden’s link with the murders. Amy relents and agrees to tell her story. Twenty years previously, Amy’s mother had come to Boston to study music and rented a room at the guesthouse. The only other tenant in the property is a recluse named Dr Madden who lives on the floor above her. The housekeeper warns her never to contact Madden. That night Amy’s mother takes a shower where it is revealed that her body bears the marks of a severe beating. Outside someone is watching the house from a car parked in the street. After she emerges from the shower, the young woman discovers what appears to be ammonia seeping into her room from upstairs. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man who turns out to be her abusive stepfather, demanding that she return home with him. In the ensuing fight, which ends up outside Madden’s apartment, the doctor emerges from within and stabs the stepfather, who falls down a flight of stairs, whereupon Amy’s mother faints. She regains consciousness some time later in Madden’s room, which is freezing cold due, he claims, to a rare genetic disease. He says that her stepfather has gone and doubts whether he will return. As she returns to her apartment Madden asks that she come to visit again, sometime. After she leaves, the doctor skin begins weeping a strange fluid… Whispers: In a run down city, a serial killer called the Butcher is being pursued in a patrol car by two cops. The woman is angry and upset and driving erratically while arguing with her boyfriend, a fellow officer and father of their unborn child. The killer abandons his car next to a derelict building, causing the police vehicle to overturn and crash. A figure soon appears and drags off the male officer. The female cop manages to escape from the wreckage and tries fruitlessly to contact her station, hearing only bizarre static. She then makes up her mind to follow the trail of blood from her partner that leads to an entrance to the building. The officer manages to gain access to the property, just in time to see him being dragged further into the confines of the building and into a lift. She manages to disable the lift and makes her way down to the lower floors, only to fall into a makeshift trap. Eventually escaping from it she encounters a man claiming to own the building and who seems to know a lot about the Butcher…
Aficionados of H.P. Lovecraft’s work consider much of the author’s material to be unfilmable, due to his tendency to concentrate on matters like atmosphere, setting and characterisation, rather than plotting which is the dynamo for most Hollywood product. Another drawback for filmmakers is that the horrors contained within his writings are very rarely described in any great detail.
Most cinematic adaptations of his writings merely employ the basic premise of the short story or novel claimed to be based on, and then largely abandon all other elements contained within the work, as illustrated by the likes of Daniel Haller’s Die Monster Die/Monster of Terror (1965) and Vernon Sewell’s Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). Some opportunist filmmakers seem content to merely employ key words or phrases from Lovecraftian literature, perhaps as a form of lucky charm, rather than actually having anything to do with his works, as typified by Juan Piquer Simon’s La Mansion de los Cthulhu (1990).
The makers of Necronomicon have claimed in interviews to be more faithful in spirit, tone and content of the author’s canon than many of their fellow filmmakers. Using what is arguably the most famous element in Lovecraft’s prose, the Necronomicon book of the title, this assertion is at least partially justified.
Interestingly, the most problematic element within this anthology happens to the presence and purpose of the titular book within each of the three main segments of the movie.
Usually a weak point in multiple story format pictures, the wrap-round plot featured in this work, whereby writer H.P. Lovecraft attempts to secure a copy of the Necronomicon from the library owned by a group of mysterious monks, proves to be a very effective hook, easily capturing the audience’s attention and drawing them into the main body of the production, as Lovecraft records information he finds within the publication.
The presence of the Necronomicon is very well integrated into the first of the three episodes, The Drowned, that make up the main part of the film. Here, it replaces the traditional Holy Bible as a source of faith and inspiration, following the death of the family belonging to Jethro Delapoer. Unlike conventional religion, this tome appears to offer genuine resurrection and salvation, the phrases and rituals contained within its pages allowing the fulfilment of his greatest desire, namely that he be reunited with his wife and child. This is indeed granted, but the act has consequences. The mother and son are now merely vessels for some enormously evil occult force, which force Jethro to self-destruct.
Jethro’s descendent, Edward Delapoer, rather than learning from his his uncle’s experience, and overcome with grief and guilt, believes that he can control the forces contained in the book and gain some sort of salvation. This assumption of course proves completely unfounded as he is terrorised by a monstrous demon, in the form of his dead fiancé.
The presence of the Necronomicon within this story segment is so important that it fits easily into the movie’s overall concept of a powerful artefact affecting all those who come into contact with it, to the extent that it can be considered a character in its own right.
With the second instalment, The Cold, the book is shown on a couple of occasions in the hands of one of the characters, the reclusive Dr Madden, but really only in passing, since this story is more concerned with the relationship between individuals, than with the dark possibilities offered by the pages within the Necronomicon. In this instance, the volume is employed by Madden as a source of arcane scientific knowledge which allows the doctor to live far beyond his normal lifespan. It should be noted that the book shown here does not seem to differ much from similar publications found in the library of other mad scientists, both literary and cinematic and therefore incidental to the movie’s overall concept.
In the final segment, Whispers, the Necronomicon is effectively reduced to being a decorative item, seen lying in the corner of a room and never referred to throughout the course of the tale. Given that the elusive mass killer, terrorising an apparently near-future metropolis, labelled the “Butcher” has attained, according to the script by Brent V. Friedman (Hellbound 1993), some recognition as a deity, it is possible that in some earlier draft of the screenplay his philosophy was based on the contents of the Necronomicon, while his church was located in the ancient catacombs created a long-dead race, located beneath the city streets. Unfortunately, this is merely alluded to and soon gets lost among the welter of elements found in the finished product.
Regarding the various segments’ affinity with their purported source material, probably the closest to its inspiration is the second, The Cold, written by Japanese anime and manga specialist Kazunori Ito (Gamera 3- Advent of the Legion 1996), with Brent V. Friedman. Adapted from the 1926 work “Cool Air” (which had previously done service as part of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery anthology teleseries at the start of the 1970s), the writers have made some significant changes, notably changing the gender of some of the characters as well as their relationship to each other and the change of location from New York to Boston, but the basic story remains the same, with much the same outcome, although the movie version has its own macabre twist.
If The Cold has single tale as its source, the first entry The Drowned, scripted by its French director Christophe Gans and Friedman, owes its presence to several. Ostensibly a reworking of “The Rats in the Walls” from 1923, viewers will also recognise elements from several other entries in the H.P. Lovecraft canon, including “The Strange High House in the Mist”, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (filmed by Roger Corman as The Haunted Palace in 1963) and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.
Gans imports a stylistic device from the original author’s work to his screenplay, that of having to separate narratives within the same plot, usually involving a character reading of some past events in a journal, and then a second individual either experiencing the consequences of those events, or foolishly re-enacting them, as is the case here.
Producer Brian Yuzna’s own entry into the main body of the work, Whispers, scripted by Friedman from a scenario from by him and Yuzna, is probably the farthest removed from the writings of Lovecraft. Supposedly based on “The Whisperer in Darkness” from 1930, it actually seems to have more in common with the 1921 publication “The Nameless City”, although the Lovecraft elements soon become mere trappings, as the story develops its own agenda.
The way that H.P. Lovecraft himself is presented in Necronomicon’s wrap-round footage may well offend some purists. . Visually, thanks to outstanding prosthetic make-up by John Vulich (Night of the Living Dead 1990), Jeffrey Combs (The Frighteners 1997) does indeed provide a close approximation of the author (although in some shots he in fact resemble fellow performer Bruce Campbell, Army of Darkness 1993).
However, for the purposes of this picture, his character is presented as a confirmed believer in the occult and supernatural, unlike the real-life Lovecraft, who was considered a rational pragmatist. At the end of the film, the author suddenly becomes an Indiana Jones-style man of action as he attempts to escape from the monastery, using a sword concealed in a walking stick to hack at the tentacles of an unseen subterranean monster, and brawling with one of the monks (Tony Azito), who is revealed to be some sort of alien creature when Lovecraft rips his face off during the fight.
While inspired by the same author’s writings, the various elements contained within Necronomicon are actually fairly eclectic in terms of content, tone and quality of execution.
The first part of the trilogy proper, The Drowned, marked the English-language debut of Christophe Gans who, prior to this assignment had worked as a fanzine, and latterly prozine editor and publisher in his native France. There, he stood out from his colleagues in the mainstream press by championing horror, exploitation and cult cinema, areas that they chose to largely ignore. Gans actually managed to gain a foothold in the film industry itself with the critically acclaimed macabre short Silver Slime (1981).
When watching this episode, it quickly becomes apparent that one filmmaker whose work particularly impressed Gans in his career as a reviewer was Roger Corman, especially his series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, beginning with The House of Usher (1960).
This becomes apparent very early on with the appearance of a venerable building seen perched on a cliff top location, above crashing waves, a common feature not just in the Corman vehicles but in spin-offs like Jacques Tourneur’s City Under the Sea/War Gods of the Deep (1965). The connection is underlined by the interior of the building of the property, where the production design by Anthony Tremblay (Return of the Living Dead Part III (1993) echoes Daniel Haller’s oversized, expressionist-tinged sets used for the AIP works. It should be stressed that Tremblay’s own work for this production is impressive in its own right, with very effective use made of space and architectural features like the convoluted staircases, stained glass window and elaborately carved balcony.
Muted, yet still lurid colours along with a prowling camera and the contrast between light and shadow, meanwhile, recall the efforts of Corman regular collaborator Floyd Crosby, although Russ Brandt (The Haunting of Hell House 1999) proves to be very much his own man when injecting conveying the corruption of the former hotel through creative camera angles, composition and low-key lighting tricks.
It could also be argued that the music score by Joseph LoDuca (Moontrap 1989) is a direct homage to that created for the Poe adaptations by the likes of Les Baxter and Ronald Stein, while the rarefied lead character, here played by Bruce Payne (Ravager 1997) is a recurring character not just in Poe but Lovecraft as well, since the former was one of the latter’s biggest influences. In this particular case, Payne seems to most closely resemble Vincent Price’s character in the final Corman Poe adaptation, the Robert Towne-scripted The Tomb of Ligeia (1965), with his reluctance to venture into the sunlight, his almost constant wearing of sunglasses in order to hide his true feelings and his actions being governed by his guilt-ridden obsession with a dead woman.
Yet another link with Edgar Allan Poe is the significance of a portrait of a beautiful woman providing a direct link to the past, with it concealing an important artefact in the form of the Necronomicon book.
It is to Christophe Gans’ considerable credit that he not only makes this very familiar material appear fresh and interesting, but he also manages to recreate H.P. Lovecraft’s bleak vision and mounting sense of dread, all the while keeping the narrative moving at a rapid pace. He also succeeds in obscuring some apparent plot holes, such as why the Delapoers always seem to be running from some unidentified threat, the nature of the building and why it contains an apparent shrine to Cthulhu and its relation to the tainted family along the significance of the images in the stained glass window located in the roof of the hotel. These flaws, in fact, suggest that at some point in its development, The Drowned may have been considered as a feature-length project.
The director is ably assisted by an excellent cast led by Payne and Richard Lynch (Scanner Cop 94) as his late uncle, whose despair and psychological collapse when he learns the fate of his family carry a genuine emotional punch, rare in a film of this kind. Payne is especially effective because of his suppress his tortured grief, adding considerable power to his scenes.
Things take a distinctly chilly turn when a representative of the dark god Cthulhu appears during a thunderstorm and presents Lynch with a copy of the title book. The creature itself is a superb achievement from Tom Savini (Two Evil Eyes 1991), Everett Burrell (Meet the Applegates 1991) and John Vulich, being an imaginative melding of human, reptile and amphibious features, resulting in a unique life-form.
Upon Lynch’s character reciting the incantations found within the pages of the tome, Gans suddenly veers off into the realms of Italian horror filmmaker Lucio Fulci, when the son (Peter Jasienski) and wife (Denice D. Lewis, End of Days 1999) are resurrected as rapidly decomposing zombies. Gans recreates a particularly notorious scene from Fulci’s Paura nella Citta dei Morti Viventi (1980), another Lovecraft-inspired movie, where the boy is seen graphically vomiting up his insides onto the floor. This sequence ends with an octapoid creature erupting from within the child’s mouth, a truly startling image, although not as disturbing as the low-key optical effect where Lynch’s family’s eyes suddenly burn bright green in a darkened room.
The most elaborate effects work in this segment takes place when Bruce Payne’s character manages to retrieve the maggot-ridden book from behind a portrait of his ancestor’s wife and, failing to learn from his experiences, uses it to restore his fiancé to what he believes is the land of the living. Appearing to him totally naked in his bedroom, and with strong evidence of her prolonged submersion, his love (Maria Ford, The Unnameable Returns 1993) attempts to go down on him. Sensing something is terribly wrong he pushes her away only for her body to be revealed to form part of a tentacle of some monstrous entity. Then dozens of other, smaller tentacles burst out of her eyes and mouth.
Necronomicon was made before CGI technology became a staple of the movie industry and only really obvious use of computer effects work, courtesy of Perpetual Motion Pictures (Shadowzone 1990), is where Ford morphs into a giant tentacle. The overuse of CGI actually marred a number of later genre productions, the Brian Yuzna/Stuart Gordon collaboration Dagon (2001) being a case in point, so it is refreshing to see more traditional model, animatronic and optical effects work so well employed here as the god Cthulhu makes an appearance, breaking out of the confines of his chamber located beneath the Delapoer property, to soundly wreck the interior of the place as it attacks Bruce Payne.
Cthulhu itself is an impressive creation from the workshop of Bart J. Mixon (Pet Sematary 1989), appearing as a huge multi-tentacled entity with row-upon-row of razor-sharp, shark-like teeth. Although never really described in H.P. Lovecraft’s writings, this is probably as good a representation of the dark god as is likely to appear. Special mention should be made of the spectacular destruction of the interior of the Delapoer house, replacing the usual Roger Corman conflagration, which involves some super miniature work from a team that includes David B. Sharp (Fortress 1993), Mike Joyce (Johnny Mnemonic 1995) and Steve Lebed.
The Drowned ends on a surprisingly upbeat note as Payne’s character breaks through the glass skylight and escapes into the sun, its rays burning the creature chasing him. The final shot of Payne facing the sunrise and apparently coming to terms with his remorse and guilt, sets this apart from Loecraft’s work generally and the other two main segments.
Overall this probably marks the highpoint of the film.
Like Gans, the director of the second episode, The Cold, Shusuke Kaneko here makes his English-language motion picture debut. Sharing a background in anime and manga with fellow countryman Kazunori Ito, Kaneko really established himself with a series of uniquely Japanese teen sex comedy-dramas known as roman porno, with titles like I’m All Yours (1985) and The Last Cabaret (1988) amongst his credits. He also occasionally ventured into other genres, notably the horror comedy From Dracula with Love/My Soul is Slashed (1991).
In terms of sytle and atmosphere, Kaneko’s entry is very different from Gans’, instead adopting a much more low-key and naturalistic approach to the story. This segment is much more character-driven than any of the other material in Necronomicon, with the characters appearing there considerably altered from H.P. Lovecraft’s source writing. The story now effectively becomes a tragic romance between the reclusive, rarefied figure of Dr Madden (David Warner, In the Mouth of Madness 1995) and emotionally scarred music student Emily, later developing into a triangle involving the jealous guest house owner and Madden’s assistant, Lena (Millie Perkins).
Of course, being inspired by Lovecraft, there are macabre elements, including that Madden is hiding a very dark secret. Using the Necronomicon as a manual, the doctor has developed a medical process that not only controls the effects of a rare genetic disorder but also limitlessly extends his natural lifespan. The major drawback to all this is that he is unable to tolerate even minor increases in room temperature from the normal freezing point, forcing to live out his days confined to his room, and more importantly, to maintain the properties of the process, he needs regular supplies of human spinal fluid, for which Lena lures potential donors to her the guest house.
For the most part, Kaneko and Ito tend to play down the more horrific elements, choosing instead to let the actors dominate the proceedings, which they do superbly. David Warner is particularly impressive as Dr Madden, managing to evoke a great deal of sympathy for his character’s plight, even though he is engaged in terrible atrocities. Especially affecting is the way the relationships develops between Warner and Bess Meyer, when the doctor lets down his emotional guard and allows himself to make love to the young woman, experiencing long-forgotten sensations. Special mention should be made of Millie Perkins who succeeds in conveying angst of someone who has repressed her own sexual emotions, in order to assist in the work of a man she worships from afar, eventually succumbing to murderous jealousy.
The understated approach adopted by the makers serves not only to highlight the interplay between the various characters, it also makes the more violent and horrific elements in the story to have more impact, such as is the case when Emily’s abusive stepfather (Gary Graham, Robot Jox 1990) assaults her.
Dr Madden’s climactic demise (only alluded to by Lovecraft) is a truly spectacular and harrowing sequence, as he catches fire following a struggle with an unwilling potential donor (Curt Lowens, Mandroid 1993). In a truly spectacular piece of effects work engineered by Bart J. Mixon, the doctor’s skin, muscle tissue and organs disintegrate, falling off his body until all that is left is a pile of bones and assorted thick body fluids.
Since the gender of some of the characters has been altered, the writers have introduced a macabre twist into the proceedings. Lena shoots Emily in a jealous rage but finds that she cannot be killed since her lovemaking with Madden has resulted her being pregnant. As a result she has absorbed some of his DNA along with his genetic disorder and for the last 20 years has been carrying his unborn child, needing a constant supply of spinal fluid in order to be able to feel the foetus stir inside her. The inquisitive journalist (Dennis Christopher, Circuitry Man1990) interrogating her has arrived at a very opportune time.
The rest of The Cold’s production values are generally excellent with an ornate, heavily decorated lounge dominating the drama, the ornateness in Anthony Tremblay’s set apparently meant to offset the sterility and coldness of Emily’s day to day existence. The art direction is well complemented by crisp, natural cinematography from Gerry Lively (Waxwork 1988).
Whispers, the final part of the trilogy, unfortunately shows something of a decline in overall quality from the rest of Necronomicon.
Although featuring Lovecraftian elements, Brent V. Friedman’s screenplay is in fact adapted from an original treatment from Friedman and producer/director Brian Yuzna. From the evidence shown here, it seems that the writers originally intended to rework basic plot material from the John “Bud” Cardos horror/sci-fi/thriller hybrid The Dark (1979), in which a serial killer is revealed to be an alien.
This basic premise is followed for the most part, with cop heroine Signy Coleman (The Dark Mist 1996) follows the kidnapper of her lover (Obba Babatunde, Multiplicity 1996) into the bowels of a derelict factory, and literally stumbles into the apparent lair of a serial killer. However, Friedman’s script turns out to be far busier than that, with the added complication that she is pregnant, and that her experiences in the building may, for the most part, in fact be drug-induced hallucinations she undergoes while in hospital, recovering from her car accident.
Added to this is the presence of two characters that could be best described as “pro-lifers” from hell, in the form of Don Calfa (Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town 1989) and Judith Drake (Rumpelstiltskin 1996). Continually contradicting each other and wilfully confusing Coleman with taunts about her pregnancy, they could be servants of the serial killer named “The Butcher”, or indeed, it is implied, Drake herself could be some sort of alien creature. Another possibility is that Calfa is a hospital doctor trying to help the heroine come to terms with her injuries, and the death of her lover, following her car accident, while Drake is in fact Coleman’s mother, comforting her daughter after the loss of her daughter.
Other elements introduced in to the mix but quickly abandoned are the significance of the interracial relationship between Coleman and Babatunde, the former’s experiences as a cop causing her to lose all spiritual faith and descend into nihilism and the reappearance of a long-dead and blood-thirsty religion, discovering new purpose and relevance in a dystopian, near-future urban sprawl. These are all potentially fascinating elements and subplots but are never developed coherently, resulting in a decidedly messy piece of work. The fact that the makers have tried to explain away the many inconsistencies in the final product, by overstating the relevance of the hallucinogenic content in the script shows not imagination, but artistic desperation.
The director originally assigned to helm The Dark was Tobe Hooper, a fact which has some bearing on the work reviewed her, since Signy Coleman undergoes much the same trials and tribulations as those experienced by Marilyn Burns in Hooper’s controversial breakthrough project The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), with both heroines being subjected to a campaign of terror and generally brutality, resulting in their being traumatised. This impression is reinforced by a sequence where Coleman is thrown into a pit under the foundations of the derelict factory, to find evidence of dozens of victims of the killer she is chasing, very much echoing the charnel house Burns encounters in the Hooper picture. What is unique about the location Yuzna’s character finds herself in is that pit appears to be a living entity, acting as a stomach/and or womb, complete with its own eco-system, assorted winged creatures seen hurtling through the air to gorge on unwary victims.
While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be a major inspiration for this sequence, cinematographer Gerry Lively’s use of lurid primary coloured filters and spot lights suggests that a major debt is owed to Italian horror cinema, especially the efforts of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (Inferno 79).
Yuzna’s main objective with Whispers seems to be providing simple gross-out entertainment for easily amused gorehounds. For that audience, he succeeds to a large extent, thanks largely to the involvement of Todd Masters (The Resurrected 1992) and his crew, providing a variety of creatures (both optically and mechanically created) as well as a range of body parts and prosthetic appliances, such as the appendages the aliens use to suck bone marrow from humans. A strikingly executed piece of work has Coleman’s lover resurrected as a drooling zombie with his brain and most of his vital organs hollowed out of his body. The foetuses seen contained within the alien creatures, and later sported by Judith Drake at the story’s conclusion, are less impressive.
Whispers shows a sharp decline in production values compared to the rest of this enterprise with very basic production design, garish but otherwise generally undistinguished cinematography and crass, sledgehammer-like direction from Brian Yuzna. Having said that he does create the odd frisson such as where Coleman tries to contact her headquarters by radio, only to receive a mixture of static and strange guttural sounds, and when Calfa suddenly appears at her back.
If there is a redeeming feature about the episode it is the quality of the performances by the cast, easily better than the material they have to work with. Particular attention should be paid to Judith Drake, who brings a real intensity to her role that is sometimes quite disturbing.
Yuzna should also be commended for conveying most convincingly of all the filmmakers involved in this project the air of dread and despair that pervades much of the original author’s work, as evidenced by the final scene where Coleman lapses into insanity as the aliens begin feasting on her.
Yuzna’s wrap-round story is a different proposition altogether, with stylish direction and excellent production design from Anthony Tremblay, particularly the large, open-plan main hall of the monastery/library, featuring strange ornamentation and designs. Lit in most creative manner by Gerry Lively, the interior of the building possesses a most unique aura, both visually and aurally.
The special effects here, mainly by regular Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George (Society 1988) and John Carl Buechler (Arena 1991) are varied and generally well engineered, with an alien monk squeezing his whole body through the bars of an iron gate, a spectacular face ripping and a brief appearance by Cthulhu. The only shortcoming is some inept optical work when Steve Johnson’s monsters are seen hurtling through a dimensional tunnel to consume one of the priests.
With H.P. Lovecraft managing to escape with a copy of the Necronomicon, the potential for a sequel is very apparent. Unfortunately, although the film did very respectable business in overseas territory, it did not secure a US release until 1996 and then only as a Direct to Video (DTV) product. It is still to find its audience in North America, but it has attracted a fairly vocal cult following.
As part of his tenure at the Barcelona-based production house Fantastic Factory, Brian Yuzna has recently returned to H.P. Lovecraft for inspiration, with Beyond Re-Animator (2003), a sequel to Stuart Gordon’s film and his own Bride of Re-Animator (1990).
©Iain McLachlan 2004
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