Monday, July 24, 2006

Movie Review: Necronomicon (1996)

I was flipping channels a few nights ago and saw that Showtime was playing Necronomicon this month. Necronomicon was released in 1996 and, although old, it is a movie I hadn't seen yet. And, since I went to the trouble of watching it, I thought I'd do a review...

Now, the whole Showtime thing is a source of contention in my crypt. Showtime comes with the HBO package and, in most cases, it’s absolute crap. Showtimes series' suck (with the exception of Penn and Teller: Bullshit) and they usually have the crappiest movies.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I found that they were playing a Brian Yuzna/Jeffrey Combs film I had yet to see. So, I DVR’d it and watched it this last weekend.

Now, let the good Doctor preface this review with my take on the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest writers form the 20th century. Seriously. And, beyond that, I feel he is one of the greatest horror writers to have ever lived. And many other horror writers; including Ramsay Campbell, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and endless others have also said as much. It could be said that he is responsible for many of the nightmares and horrors produced over the last 60 or so years.

So, with that circuitous explanation, I have to say that I am something of a purist with Lovecraft’s work. The movies that have been done based on his work have left me somewhat wanting. Yuzna’s first collaboration with Jeffrey Combs in Herbert West: Reanimator was one of the better adaptations. 2001’s Dagon was by far the best.

Most of the other’s, sadly, sucked major ass.

Unfortunately, Necronomicon falls pretty close to the category of ass suckage. This movie includes three vignettes around which The Necronomicon plays a part. The Necronomicon, by the way, was created by Lovecraft and represents the most evil book ever conceived. Supposedly written by the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazrad; it is the grimoire du jour of Lovecraft’s mythos. The three vignettes of the movie are book ended by an incredulous story about Lovecraft himself. To say that the stories were ‘inspired’ by Lovecraft is to be generous.

Let’s start with the framing story. Jeffrey Combs (whom I LOVE, by the way) is unrecognizable in makeup that is supposed to make him look like Lovecraft. In fact, if not for Combs’ distinctive voice, I would never have recognized him. It actually, oddly enough, gives him an almost eerie resemblance to Bruce Campbell. Anyway, the movie opens with Lovecraft going to a special library watched over by creepy bald headed monks. It is here that he sneaks into a secret area where he gains access to the dreaded Necronomicon. As Lovecraft explains, he sees it as his responsibility to bring the evil of the Necronomicon to light in his writings. As he accidentally locks himself in the room, he begins transcribing the three stories the rest of the movie consist of.

“The Drowned” – Loosely based on “The Rats in The Walls” in that its protagonist shares the last name of De La Poeur only. That’s about it. Bruce Payne (Best remembered as Passenger 57 in, well, Passenger 57) plays Edward De La Poeur who returns to his ancestral inn by the ocean. Having recently suffered the drowning death of his wife, he stays in the decrepit manor. The lawyer who shows him around tells the story of his ancestor, the sea captain Jethro (played by the incomparable Richard Lynch) who killed himself after the drowning of his wife and son during a stormy sea crossing. Through a letter left to his descendant, Jethro explains that he had gone mad after the loss of his family and had forsaken God. At his darkest moment, a Deep One (a frog-like creature featured in another HPL story) comes to him with a copy of the Necronomicon and an admonition that all is not necessarily lost. Jethro calls upon the dark magics of the dreaded book to bring his wife and son back from the grave. Jethro quickly learns that the reanimated corpses of his wife and son are not as they appear. When they try to kill him, Jethro kills himself. We then flash back to modern day, and Edward immediately searches for and finds the book, and performs the very same ritual. His wife returns from the grave and we learn that she, like Edward’s ancestors, are in fact human meat puppets wielded by a Lovecraftian creature that lives in the basement of the inn. I kid you not. It appears to be Cthulhu himself. Edward has a brief struggle, eventually killing the beast by a conveniently placed and wickedly pointy chandelier. The first story ends with Edward staring wistfully at a sunrise over the ocean.

“Cold Air” – This is the best of the adaptations in this movie. It is a modernization of HPL story “Cool Air”. A reporter goes to a house to question a woman there about a string of deaths over the years at the house. She tells him the story of her mother, a music student named Emily who rents a room at the boarding house in the 60’s. Emily meets the owner who lives on the top floor, a Dr. Madden (played by the great David Warner). We quickly learn that Dr. Madden is not what he seems. He lives in a room kept at arctic temperatures by various machines and is waited on hand and foot by a woman named Lena. After an attempt on Emily’s life by her sexually and physically abusive stepfather, she is saved by Dr. Madden. Any gratitude she might feel towards the good doctor quickly evaporates when she returns to find that the good and kind doctor has killed her stepfather and is using him for grisly experiments. When confronted, the doctor explains that he has come up with a scientific way of stopping death and aging, but at the cost of becoming a prisoner to the extreme cold that maintains his youth. The cold, and spinal fluid sustain his youth. Emily then SLEEPS with him. She becomes pregnant, and returns a few months later to find the doctor cutting up a kind old man who worked at the diner near the house. After stopping him, there is a struggle with the housekeeper Lena, who is jealous of Emily and the Doctor’s love. The doctor overheats, and melts. Emily is shot. The story returns to present time where the daughter reveals she is actually Emily, that she is still pregnant with the Doctor’s baby and hopes to someday deliver it. The reporter falls to the floor, drugged by tea she had offered him. His last sight is that of Emily and an aged and doddering Lena as they come to steal his spinal fluid and kill him.

“Whispers” – This section is based on “the Whisperer in the Darkness” and shares only the creatures (the Migos) with the Lovecraft story. In it we meet the world’s worst female cop, Sarah, as she and her lover/partner are chasing a serial killer named “The Butcher”. Their cruiser crashes and, while unconscious, The Butcher drags Sarah’s partner Paul into a labyrinthine warehouse. Sarah regains consciousness and begins pursuing the killer, following an extremely wide trail of blood deeper and deeper into the warehouse’s bowels. After much Three Stooges like stumbling about, Sarah runs into the owners of the warehouse, Mr. Benedict (played with great humor and aplomb by Return of the Living Dead’s own embalmer Ernie, or Don Calfa) and his wife Mrs. Benedict. Sarah forces Mr. Benedict to take her to The Butcher’s Lair and he does so, leading her into an underground tomb with ancient Indian pictographs. Too late, Sarah realizes that the Benedicts are the killers, but not before they cast her into a pit filled with human remains. Here, she is attacked by Migos, creatures that reproduce by stealing and using the brains of their victims and feed by sucking the marrow from their bones.

The movie ends with the conclusion of the bookend it started with in which Lovecraft must – using his trusty sword cane - fight his way past an evil creature, the even more evil monks, and out the door with the Necronomicon to a waiting cab.

So – what worked in this movie? The effects were good, to an extent. In The Drowned, there was some horrible painted-on-the-film glowing effects during the ritual. The same sort of effect that, truthfully, would have looked dated on a movie or rock video ten years earlier. Also, the creature effects were puppet like, which is unfortunately more noticeable in today’s world of clean and polished CGI. Ray Harryhausen was a genius, but computers made him obsolete. Take that as you will, but it’s true. The other effects, like the melting of Dr. Madden, and the beautifully rendered blood and charnel pit in Whispers were top notch and should appeal to all gore hounds. The scripts left something to be desired. Modernizing of Lovecraft’s works are inevitable and acceptable. I understand that. But some faithfulness to the source beyond a cursory mention should be the goal here, especially in a movie that so patently derives from his works. Truthfully, Whispers sucked. The story was horrible, and with the exception Of Don Calfa, the acting was something I would expect from a film school production. Cold Air was better, but I felt a love story in a Lovecraft story was the wrong way to go. Cthulhu and the Elder Gods care not for human love!

The first vignette, The Drowned, was the best of the bunch, but again, the scripting suffered. This would have made a great feature length movie. It had the right atmosphere, and the strongest Lovecraftian elements, along with the best actors. I would have loved to have seen more development before the quick summoning and subsequent killing of the evil that lurks in the basement.

One final thing that irks me is the whole Lovecraft bookend story. Lovecraft as some sort of sword wielding, adventuring Indiana Jones was downright silly. Those know anything about Lovecraft would know that he was a hypochondriac, agoraphobic, recluse. NOT the type to fight the mythos of his stories. He was a genteel writer with delicate sensibilities. I just wanted to mention that.

Overall, it wasn’t the worst Lovecraft adaptation, but it was nowhere near the best. It was disappointing that Combs and Yuzna, who’ve done so much to put Lovecraft’s works on celluloid, would release such a poorly put together film. It was obvious that this was a fun, “Hey, we need a paycheck!” situation. That being said, it IS still Lovecraft. It should be seen if only by fans of the genre. The effects were decent, the stories passable, if poorly written, and it is standard late night popcorn fare. If you need a horror fix, it will be a better choice than many of the other direct to video car wrecks out there.

Doctor Zombie’s Rating: 3 out of 5 Chomped Brains

Note: Doctor Zombie would give one of his rotting, undead limbs to see a big budget, non-modern, fatihful Lovecraft movie. With REAL effects. It's sad tha the two best potrayals of Lovecraft's works weren't truly Lovecraft films. The first was John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness as it perfectly captured the feel and creepiness of Lovecraft's world. And the best rendering of a Lovecraftian creature can be found in Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy. The creatures in Hellboy gave me chills and made me squirm in my seat. These guys both get it, as does Peter Jackson. There are rumors he'd love to do "At The Mountains Of Madness". Please. Make it so, Pete. Please!


Phronk said...

I thought it was Guillermo Del Toro that was rumoured to be doing Mountains of Madness. Although I'd love to see either him or Jackson do straight Lovecraft.

I agree that Dagon was awesome. That's one of those movies that people see in my DVD collection and say "what the hell is that?"

Never heard of Necronomicon. Too bad it ain't great, but anything with Combs can't be all bad so I might have to give it a rent (or buy, since it looks like a bargain bin movie :)

binoculars for night vision said...
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