Film Festival Highlights 2015

Our 125th birthday tribute to H. P. Lovecraft extends to movies and TV episodes adapted from his classic pulp stories. Amazingly, it took four decades for Hollywood to discover HPL: the first Lovecraft film, 1963’s The Haunted Palace, flashed on the nation’s big screens fully 40 years after publication of his first story in Weird Tales. And relatively few of the Master’s yarns were translated to celluloid until the late Nineties, when the floodgates opened. For this year’s Windy City Film Festival we’ve assembled a representative sampling of HPL movies. Friday’s lineup is devoted to the Lovecraft-themed output of writer-director Stuart Gordon, who brought mainstream attention to the creator of Cthulhu with his 1985 hit Re-Animator, nominally based on “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Saturday’s lineup is a cross-section of other notable adaptations.

It should be noted that most of the films we’re running this weekend are either R-rated or unrated and contain occasional scenes of gore and nudity, making them potentially unsuitable for attendees with children.

FRIDAY

Dagon_312:00 pm — Dagon (2001) 98 minutes.

Despite the title, this Spanish-made film actually adapts HPL’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” A boating accident off the coast of Spain finds Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono) looking for help in the ramshackle fishing village of Imboca. As night falls, people start disappearing and a shroud of unseen menace hangs over the community. Paul and Barbara, pursued by the entire town, learn Imboca’s dark secret: that its residents worship Dagon, a monstrous sea god of ancient origin. The film got mixed reviews, although AllMovie critic Jason Buchanan said, “Lovecraft fans will most likely be willing to forgive Dagon‘s shortcomings in favor of a film that obviously shows great respect and appreciation for its source materials.” And Film Threat‘s K. J. Doughten opined, “While not a perfect movie, Dagon crams its wild, over-the-top concepts down our throats with so much conviction that we can’t help but get swept along for the ride.”

CastleFreak01:45 pm — Castle Freak (1995) 95 minutes.

Stuart Gordon’s version of HPL’s “The Outsider” was produced by the father-son team of Albert and Charles Band, whose Full Moon Entertainment supplied most of the direct-to-video horror movies that flooded rental-store shelves during the Nineties. In a nod to that market, Gordon included some elements of the “splatter” school, including one surprisingly brutal sequence that Lovecraft would have abhorred. But the film is not without merit; in fact, it’s more serious and mature than the lurid VHS packaging would have one believe. After inheriting a 12th-century castle that belonged to a notorious Duchess, John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs), wife Susan (Barbara Crampton), and their blind teenage daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) relocate to Italy. The family is a troubled one: Susan blames John for the death of their son in the drunk-driving incident that also cost their daughter her sight. On the advice of the executor, the Reillys decide to stay at the castle until the estate can be liquidated. Unbeknownst to them, a freakish monster remains locked in the basement. This was the third and last HPL-inspired feature film on which Gordon, Combs, and Crampton collaborated.

FromBeyond03:30 pm — From Beyond (1986) 85 minutes.

Following the surprise success of his first Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon was inspired to make a series of HPL films with the same stars, along the lines of American-International’s Edgar Allan Poe series directed by Roger Corman. From Beyond, loosely based on a short story of the same title, reunited Re-Animator cast members Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. It centered on a pair of scientists attempting to stimulate the pineal gland with a device called “The Resonator.” An unforeseen result of their experiments is the invasion of Earth by creatures from another dimension. They capture the head scientist and whisk him away to their world, returning him as a grotesque shape-changing monster that preys upon others at the laboratory. Shot in Italy to save money, From Beyond boosted the previous film’s the gore quotient and included some S&M content that the MPAA objected to. Gordon was forced to re-cut several sequences and completely eliminate some five minutes of footage. The missing scenes were restored in 2007 and we are running the original director’s cut.

DreamsImmediately Following Auction — Dreams in the Witch House (2005) app. 50 minutes.

One of Lovecraft’s most memorable yarns gets fine treatment by HPL aficionado Stuart Gordon. It originally aired on American TV on November 4, 2005 as the second episode of Masters of Horror. University student Walter Gilman (Dagon‘s Ezra Godden) moves to a cheap room in an old boarding house. He hears shrill screaming and rushes to help his neighbor, Frances (Chelah Horsdal), when she is menaced by what appears to be a large rat. Walter becomes close with Frances and even lends her money to keep her in the boarding house. A neighbor warns the student that the house is evil—and that his room houses something unspeakably evil. Gordon’s adaptation streamlines the story somewhat and gives it a contemporary setting, but the essential elements remain intact and overall Dreams in the Witch House is quite effective.

SATURDAY

Haunted_Palace10:00 am — The Haunted Palace (1963) 87 minutes.

We’re running this American-International release starring Vincent Price because it was the first feature film that brought Lovecraft to the screen. Ostensibly another of Roger Corman’s popular and profitable Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, it’s actually derived from HPL’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” In their book Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write: “The Haunted Palace is a seminal film for Lovecraft lovers; it is the first major motion picture to introduce [Lovecraft’s] creation[s]—the Necronomicon, and those cosmic abominations Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth—to a general audience. [Lovecraft’s] obsession with the past is clearly presented, and in a heartfelt passage at the end of the film, so is his belief that mankind is a minor species adrift in a malevolent universe. The film strikes a good balance between narrative and action, and Vincent Price is, well, priceless as Ward/Curwen. The supporting cast is solid and the art direction by Daniel Haller is really quite good for such a low-budget film. Roger Corman did an admirable job as the first American feature-film director to stake out some cinematic high ground for the cosmos-crushing adaptations of [H. P. Lovecraft] to follow.” We’re also running Dan O’Bannon’s 1992 take on “Charles Dexter Ward,” The Resurrected, but the two movies are strikingly different, though each excellent in its own right.

Necronomicon11:45 am — H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon: To Hell and Back (1993) 96 minutes.

An American-made anthology film, Necronomicon was produced in 1993. It was directed by Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans and Shusuke Kaneko and was written by Gans, Yuzna, Brent V. Friedman, and Kazunori It?. It stars Bruce Payne , Richard Lynch, Jeffrey Combs (who plays Lovecraft himself in a newly devised framing story), Belinda Bauer, and David Warner. Three segments are based on a trio of Lovecraft classics: “The Drowned” comes from “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Cold” from “Cool Air,” and “Whispers” from “The Whisperer in Darkness.” A film-festival favorite released in home-video formats, Necronomicon did quite well in America but was even more profitable in European and Asian markets. Truth be told, two of the film’s three segments leave a little something to be desired, but we’ve included Necronomicon because it enables us to present three Lovecraft tales for the price of one, so to speak. And “The Drowned” really is quite good.

Dunwich_horror01:30 pm — The Dunwich Horror (1970) 91 minutes.

This drive-in favorite released by American-International Pictures attained considerable notoriety for a supposed topless scene featuring top-billed Sandra Dee, the screen’s original “Gidget” and a squeaky-clean teen idol. (Actually, a body double was used for the shot.) But Dunwich Horror also familiarized American audiences with key elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and therefore warrants inclusion in our lineup. The film opens at the fictional Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, where Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley) has just finished a lecture on the sinister Necronomicon. He gives the book to his student Nancy Wagner (Dee) to return to the University library. She is followed by a stranger, who later introduces himself as Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell). Using his hypnotic gaze, Whateley persuades Nancy to give him the terrible tome, with which he hopes to unleash ancient and malevolent forces. Clearly an AIP attempt to capitalize on the phenomenal success of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, this neatly turned out Lovecraft adaptation takes liberties with the original but replicates the oppressive, unwholesome atmosphere of timeless horror.

Resurrected03:15 pm — The Resurrected (1992) 108 minutes.

Directed by Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter of Alien and long-time horror/SF filmmaker), this is an adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett) hires private investigator John March (John Terry) to look into the increasingly bizarre activities of her husband Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon). Ward has become obsessed with the occult practices of raising the dead once practiced by his ancestor Joseph Curwen (Sarandon in a dual role). As the investigators dig deeper, they discover that Ward is performing a series of grisly experiments in an effort to actually resurrect his long-dead relative Curwen. In their book Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write: “The Resurrected is the best serious Lovecraftian screen adaptation to date, with a solid cast, decent script, inventive direction, and excellent special effects that do justice to one of [Lovecraft’s] darker tales.”

Call_CthulhuImmediately Following Auction — The Call of Cthulhu (2005) 47 minutes.

This lovingly crafted adaptation of the seminal Cthulhu Mythos story was produced, written, and directed by the team of Andrew Leman and Sean Branney for distribution by the HPL Historical Society. In a bold but inspired move, Leman and Branney filmed it as a black-and-white silent movies and employed for its special visual effects only such techniques as would have been available to filmmakers in 1926, when the yarn was published in Weird Tales. Extremely faithful to HPL’s original, The Call of Cthulhu has found almost universal favor with Lovecraft lovers. Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write: “The Call of Cthulhu is a landmark adaptation that calls out to all Lovecraftian film fanatics—from its silent film form, its excellent cast, its direction, and its wonderful musical score … this is Cthulhuian cinema that Howard would have loved.” We ran the film several years ago but feel it’s worth repeating as a superb HPL adaptation.

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