Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: The Lurking Fear

H.P. Lovecraft is, as has been noted over and over (and over and over) in this livejournal, a difficult author to adapt for screen. His stuff relies too much on atmosphere than action, and straight adaptations usually come off as silly. More action-oriented versions of his stories tend to pack in extra gore and nudity, and come off as silly in a completely different way. It's really, really difficult to do justice to Lovecraft on film.

One of the many (many, many) poor cinematic Lovecraft adaptations is 1994's The Lurking Fear, which I've often heard referred to as "just about the worst adaptation of Lovecraft that anyone's ever seen." That's like calling Plan 9 From Outer Space the worst movie ever; there are much worse specimens out there, but a movie can only be so bad before it stops being fun and starts being tedious. The Lurking Fear is more on the fun side, and though it could have been so much better, but it could also have been so much worse.

The original story was written in 1923 for a magazine called Home Brew which ordered four chapters to be printed over four issues. Lovecraft responded with a tale about an amateur ghostbuster who visits a remote, rural town which is being terrorized by a murderous creature that no one's been able to explain. Our hero does some detective work, and discovers that the creature is actually a race of cannibalistic, subterranean midgets who were created by a couple of generations worth of inbreeding. People tend to regard it as either a bad story written too well, or a good story written badly. I used to be on the former end of that spectrum, but having read it twice, I now believe that it's a bad story written in almost comedically purple prose. Lovecraft was displeased with it, and he was especially displeased with the fact that Home Brew required him to contrive a climax at the end of each chapter. You'd think that these "shock" moments would make it an ideal story for screen, and in fact, Dan O'Bannon, who wrote Ridley Scott's Alien adapted it much more successfully in the late '90s under the title Bleeders, but the movie I watched tonight misses every opportunity.

The Lurking Fear was written and directed by C. Courtney Joiner, whose resume is a mess of low-budget horror films produced by Full Moon Entertainment. Full Moon is a studio/distributor that specializes in direct-to-video B-movies, and their films are like Harlequin's romance novels, or Sierra's adventure games: there's a lot of chaff, but they market to a demographic that's much more interested in getting an immediate and frequent fix than savoring the occasional opus. Full Moon's pictures are never superlatively good or bad, but they deliver on the promise of sleazy, cheap entertainment. Their posters and DVD cases always have lurid, weird artwork that tells you exactly what you're in for, and the quality, if not excellent, is at least adequate -- they're professionals.

Not that you'll find The Lurking Fear on DVD, unless you're willing to shell out $ to buy the big Full Moon box set, which includes such non-classics as Dollman and Subspecies III.

So, what's it about? The film begins as John Martense gets out of jail and heads back to his hometown, Leffert's Corners, which is full of Lovecraftian in-jokes that place it in New England, even though it's Christmas Eve and there's not a snowflake in sight. Papa was also a criminal, it seems, and John learns from an old family friend that there's a corpse in the churchyard that was stuffed full of cash before burial. All John has to do is show up and dig.

And that's great, but somebody else is already planning Big Doings at the church -- Cathryn and Dr. Haggis (Hellraiser's Ashley Lawrence and every Lovecraft movie ever's Jeffrey Combs, respectively. It's never really clear what their relationship is, nor was I sure exactly who that pregnant lady in the background was. At any rate, they're here to blow up the church because of the fear evil lurking underneath. The priest isn't thrilled about the idea, but he's resigned himself to it -- them things is evil. The movie hasn't bothered to explain what Them Things is yet, but we get the sense that there's something wrong with the place that requires them to kaboom the cathedral. Matters are complicated when three criminals from John's past show up, take everyone hostage, and demand to know where the money is.

I don't know about you, but if I showed up to collect money from a church only to find the place wired with dynamite, I'd probably turn around and come back some other day. Then again, these are people who nonchalantly keep their cool even with one of their members is BRUTALLY DISEMBOWELED BY -- WTF IS THAT, A BLOODY, WHITE APE-THING WITH A SCARY SKELETON FACE? I can't even type that sentence without using caps. Clearly our priorities are incompatible.

Stuff blows up, people get savaged, and there are guys in BLOODY, WHITE APE-THING WITH A SCARY SKELETON FACE prosthetics. It's actually a pretty good time. I've seen this movie twice now (first time was around 2006 or so, on a tiny screen at work when I was not supposed to be watching movies), and found it impossible to follow. Indeed, most reviews manage to describe it as incomprehensible, but it's really not so hard to follow, and I blame the fact that I was half working for not having understood it the first time. The story is weird and week, but that's my only real complaint, other than that the adaptation is so poor. The music is good (the main title reminds me a lot of "Mars, the Bringer of War", FWIW). There are no stand-out performances from the actors, but everybody does well enough. Jeffrey Combs doesn't get enough to do, and Ashley Lawrence has only ever played one character with different names, as far as I know. But I have a tendency to forgive films that are so unpretentious.

And hey, if nothing else, this is the only instance in memory where the monster on the box pales in comparison to the one in the movie. I mean, JUST LOOK AT THAT THING.

Fun fact: Stuart Gordon wanted to direct this one. I can only assume that his version would have focused like a microscope on the inbreeding aspects of the plot.

Here's the trailer, but really, the whole thing is on YouTube, if you have the patience for low quality video.
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