Tuesday, May 11, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: THE UNNAMABLE films

Thanks to the successful Empire productions (RE-ANIMATOR; FROM BEYOND) and a little thing called public domain, the stories of H.P. Lovecraft became hot film properties in the mid-to-late 1980s. Quick to jump on the trend was director Jean-Paul Ouellette (pronounced Well-lett), a Boston born filmmaker who had been toiling around in Hollywood's low budget world. Ouellette's biggest claim to fame is that he directed second unit on THE TERMINATOR (1984) starring some musclebound nerd and directed by some geek (both men went on to do nothing). When given the chance to leap into the director's chair, Ouellette settled on childhood reading fave H.P. Lovecraft to make a pair of low budget shockers.

THE UNNAMABLE (1988) - Wow, talk about lazy filmmakers - they couldn't even be bothered to come up with a title. Oh, that is the title! Published in 1925, Lovecraft's short story "The Unnamable" has Randolph Carter terrorizing friend Joel Morton with a graveyard spook legend about an unnamable monster that haunts a nearby house in the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. The duo are subsequently attacked by this beast but survive with enough wounds that tell their tale. It is a quick 7-page story that will leave you wondering, "How the hell did someone turn this into a movie?" Surprisingly, director-writer Ouellette does faithfully adapt this short story as everything that happens it happens in the movie. It is just that he needed to add another 80 minutes to bring it up to feature length.

THE UNNAMABLE focuses on Miskatonic University students Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) and Howard Damon (Charles Klausmeyer, billed as Charles King). Carter indeed tells one Joel Morton the story of the haunted house with its unnamable monster and, when Morton ends up missing, the detective duo head to the house to check things out. What they don't know is that two jocks and their respective prey, er, the ladies they would like to get to know are already there to make sure the house is safe for some pledge initiations (smooth line). Once there, everyone encounters The Unnamable (Katrin Alexandre), a monster created in the 17th century by Joshua Winthorp as he was fooling around with the Necronomicon.

I can remember seeing this when it first hit video and being disappointed. Of course, I was a Freddy and Jason obsessed teen so maybe the lack of showing the monster until the last half did me in? The film is incredibly cheap (you can see the set walls shake when folks kick doors) and is basically a dead teen (they are supposed to be college freshman although everyone looks mid-20s) flick sprinkled with some Lovecraft lore. Yet THE UNNAMABLE does have a few things going for it though and there is something charming about it when I revisit it some 20 years later. Released on video in R-rated and unrated versions by Vidmark Entertainment, the film does at least have the gore factor going for it. The throat slashing and head bashing are quite graphic in the un-truncated form. A decapitated body leads to the best line of dialog as Howard sees the HEADLESS body and exclaims, "Oh my God! It's Joel!" Female lead Laura Albert also supplies the required nudity, which leads to another funny exchange:
Tanya: "Why do boys like Wendy so much? Is it her big boobs?"
Howard: "Uh, yeah, I guess so."
Tanya: "Damn."
Perhaps the single best thing about this film (and the subsequent sequel) is lead the performance of Mark Kinsey Stephenson as Randolph Carter. A recurring character that appeared in 7 Lovecraft stories, Carter is pretty much a surrogate for the author himself. Stephenson, who somewhat resembles Lovecraft, plays Carter as kind of a nerdier version of Jeffrey Combs' Herbert West. He has the same strain of dogged intensity, but without the arrogance or desire to kill. His steadfast geekiness also reminds me a bit of Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966). So Jeffrey Combs mixed with Don Knotts - wrap your head around that. The slightly odd performance just really seems to fit in Lovecraft's world. And the film seemed to do well enough that Ouellette was able to get a sequel financed a few years later. So we then turn our attention to...


H.P. LOVECRAFT'S THE UNNAMABLE II: THE STATEMENT OF RANDOLPH CARTER (1993) (aka THE UNNAMABLE RETURNS) - Try saying that five times fast. Yes, that is how the full title for this sequel reads on screen. And, believe it or not, I actually enjoyed this more than the first one. Director Ouellette brings back his two leads and rightly begins his sequel mere hours after the first one ended (a trick I tend to love).

Following the slaughter at the house, Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) and Howard (Charles Klausmeyer) notify the police of their horrible night. Surprisingly, the cops aren't shocked by this carnage ("Remember what happened in Dunwich," says the corner) and try to keep a lid on the happenings. But while Howard (whose is inexplicably renamed from Howard Damon to Eliot Damon Howard!?!) is in the hospital recovering from his wounds he has a visitation from Winthorp's ghost that warns that the unnanamble beast is still still alive and in the tunnels under the house. So Carter, Howard and mythology expert Professor Warren (John Rhys-Davies) head back to the graveyard to try and kill the beast once and for all. Of course, they screw up and release the monster's human half Alyda Winthorp (Maria Ford) and this leads to the monster half (former Penthouse Pet Julie Strain, completely hidden under the monster costume) hunting Carter, Howard and Alyda all over the campus of Miskatonic University.

This might be the only Lovecraft movie sequel to actually adapt a Lovecraft story ("The Statement of Randolph Carter," which actually preceded "The Unnamable") and is a superior follow-up. As with the original, Ouellette does completely adapt the short story on which it is based. "The Statement of Randolph Carter" first appeared in 1920 and has Carter recounting the tale of how he and a companion took the Necronomicon (never mentioned by name) to a graveyard to open a portal to the underworld. The duo keep in touch via a crude telephone device as Carter heads into an underground tomb. Like I said, Ouellette puts everything from that story in here. And, like the previous film, he has to fill out the rest of the running time. Which is how we end up with scenes like Carter and Warren separating the demon from the girl using some insulin and candy (both of which Warren had readily available...really! Fat bastard!).

Ouellette has a noticeably larger budget this time around and definitely makes use of it. There are lots of locations and the monster suit by R. Christopher Biggs gets an revamping. As with the first film, it is suitably gory with the original severed head from the original even making a cameo appearance (I'm easy to please apparently). Stephenson is again the unusual lead. He is great and even more nerdly focused on the task at hand to the point that he is oblivious to the advances of his 17th century charge. Klausmeyer, who has decided to accept his real name, is also good and reminds me of William Ragsdale from the FRIGHT NIGHT films. In fact, this reminds me a bit of the college-set FRIGHT NIGHT PART II (1988). In the "Completely Underutilized" department we have David Warner, who has one scene as the college chancellor, and Rhys-Davies, who manages to make the most absurd lines sound plausible. The real star, however, is B-movie actress Maria Ford. This might be her strongest acting role as the displaced 17th century girl (and I'm not saying that because she spends 50% of her screen time nude). Sure, I bet Ouellette told her to "act like a cat" but you can't deny she is good, especially since she has to pretend to be in love with Carter.


This one hit VHS in 1993 via Prism Entertainment and I'm sure it was a success. By far the best thing to come out of it is this video promo featuring Stephenson doing the hard sell of the film for distributors. Now which one of you will confess as to having written him a fan letter?

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