Saturday, 31 October 2015

October Nightmares #31 Stuart Gordon Finale Special: From Beyond (1986), Re-Animator (1985), Dagon (2001)

Castle Freak (1995)

Whelp, is it Halloween already? Upon approaching the end of my October marathon, I realised that I like too many damn horror movies. I only had three or four days left to go, and my list of movies I wanted to review was still as long as Buzzfeed's sexist articles on why men are terrible. So I decided that I would balkanise the final review and focus on three films I really wanted to include elsewhere in the marathon but missed out. Three films all by one of my favourite directors - Stuart Gordon. As previously stated, this is a list of some of my favourite horror movies and as such it's not inclusive. I've deliberately tried to avoid highly mainstream horror movies that I like - such as The Shining (1980) - in order to spice up proceedings, like a couple trying to rescue their ailing marriage by vacationing in a spooky remote cabin in the woods. Additionally, there are favourites which, for whatever reason, I missed off - either because, like In the Mouth of Madness (1995) or The Thing (1982), I had already done them previously; or, I just didn't have the time to include, such as It Follows (2014), Kill List (2011), and You're Next (2011). Sorry guys, you're decent films but, as is often the case with desperate wannabe starlets, that blowjob just wasn't good enough for you to make the cut.

#1 From Beyond (1986)

Oh Stuart Gordon, we just can't get you away from Lovecraft's loving bosom can we? You're like the pungent smell from a malformed, parasite ridden poo. Oh, Stuart Gordon, I think you have an H.P.Lovecraft problem - perhaps we had better wean you off with a few August Derleth stories. I'm joking of course; Gordon is one of the more imaginative horror directors out there, and one of the few who can do Lovecraft's work genuine justice. I was undecided between this film, Dolls (1987), and Castle Freak (1995), for this spot, but I ultimately chose From Beyond because it features Jeffrey Combs being all hammy while a cock-like gland grows out of his face.

The plot follows that a device known as the Resonator - designed to allow its user to see beyond normal perceptible reality - has been activated by Dr. Crawford (Combs), who is the assistant to the film's soon-to-be villain Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel), and has unleashed inter-dimensional monstrosities. This understandably goes south, with Pretorius seemingly killed and Crawford committed to the loony bin. In the mental institute, Crawford meets Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) who, wanting to investigate the cause of his enlarged pineal gland (subtext! subtext!), has him released into her care and takes him to inquire into the Resonator. They are accompanied by Detective Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), a cool-headed cop who has had enough of this honkey bullshit but isn't afraid to wrestle giant Lovecraftian abominations dressed only in his underwear. Obviously it transpires that Pretorius not only isn't dead but that he has returned from the alternate dimension where all the liposuction fat goes.

A similar movie that comes to mind is The Thing; both are body horror films about strange entities that transform in grotesque, unnatural beings. By the time of his death two-thirds of the way through, Pretorius' mutations go from looking like he fell asleep on his handkerchief during an especially awful cold, to some kind of long-necked fiend with gaping holes in its chest and tentacle-like grabbers. The practical effects are wonderfully gruesome, especially the strange worm entities which have a Tremors vibe about them. What makes From Beyond such an enjoyable experience, is that it feels like a throwback to the Fifties' era sci-fi B movie. The laboratory is scattered with complicated machines with their many colourful lights and pointless handles and switches; the cheesy music has an inappropriately whimsical quality to it, and even the action feels a bit silly. Perhaps must glaringly of all, Dr. Katherine seemingly only exists to be the hot scientist lady who gets repeatedly sexed-up. Pretorius has a few good fondles, and she even ends up in bondage gear at one point. Can you imagine a movie doing that in today's overbearingly liberal climate? The feminist movement would lose its shit before you could even say "patriarchy".

#2 Dagon (2001)

The Shadow Over Innsmouth novella on which this film is based, is my go to Lovecraft story. It has everything you could possible want in a horror story: the lone heroic detective, a creepy town, paranoia, weird cults and secrets, sinister fish-people, and a series of horrific revelations. Therefore, I find it strange that it has largely been neglected by the film industry. As Lovecraft stories go, Innsmouth is perhaps the least visual and budgetary ambitious. There was Cthulhu (2007) but I'm not going to count that as a real adaptation. The now defunct video game studio Headfirst Productions made the rather excellent Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth though I specifically wanted to talk about the film industry.

So it's a good job that Stuart Gordon is ol' reliable for Lovecraft adaptations. You can always count on the guy; it's like getting praise from your girlfriend whenever you take the rubbish out. Gordon's 2001 Spanish adaptation of the novella is a somewhat faithful re-imagining of Lovecraft's work. For some reason, he chose to name it after an unrelated Lovecraft story. That short is about a man who is stranded on an island and watches the titanic Dagon dance around a ritual site - basically the warehouse scene in Footloose but with more gills. The plot for Dagon is as follows: young couple Paul (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Meroño) are holidaying off the coast of Spain with their friends after celebrating Paul's success on the stock market. However, during a storm their yacht comes into trouble, and Paul and Barbara flee the vessel and a life raft, heading to a neigh by coastal town hoping to find help for their trapped friends. One thing leads to another and Barbara is missing, and Paul is hunted by the town's residents. It happens - one minute you're criticising the local cuisine, the next you are the local cuisine.

Dagon is a wonderfully Lovecraftian movie. The town of Innsmouth (here, Imboca) genuinely feels old. We know Dagon is set around the film's release due to the protagonists' clothes and laptops, but Imboca is a shoddy little crumbling town with only one antique Ambassador-style car, and next to no technology. There's a strange moment were the town hotel has an American style neon hotel sign, but it's not enough to distract from the film's authenticity. Gordon carries the film at a deliberate pace, piling on the unsettling imagery straight-away, from the shadowy façade over the gloomy town to the grey-faced inhabitants with bags under their eyes and webbed hands. It's clear immediately that this isn't somewhere to that's going to throw out the welcome mat, or at least one that's not made of human skin. From the moment Paul is attacked at the hotel, forcing him to flee, Dagon becomes one continuous hide and seek movie. If only Paul could declare cupboards are off-limits and then proceed to hide in them for the next six hours.
There are a few things I don't like, some of the special effects are a bit ropey - such as the initial crash, and a few of the town's fish people look bit naff - with fake looking tentacles and such. The town drunk and sole human Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal) adds much-needed backstory (the town's people worship Dagon, who has established a murder and rape cult) but lowers the tone. At one point he talks about the fate of Paul's friend, stating that Dagon's "had her", and "he's fucked her", for what is supposed to be a big dramatic moment it feels a bit Father Jack Hackett. One fight scene between Paul, Barbara, and the cultists is rather old-school Adam West style Batman.

But Gordon does get the look and atmosphere of Lovecraft down. Dagon looks suitably imposing in his brief appearance, as does Paul's hideous 'true' father - who is one of the Deep Ones. And he's also pretty liberal with the tits too. With Barbara being stripped off as she gets sacrificed to Dagon, and Uxia (Paul's destined fish-person lover) (Macarena Gómez) spending less time with her clothes on than a life model stuck in a time loop.

#3 Re-animator (1985)

Herbert West (reanimator) feels like a role Jeffrey Combs was born to play. He's a larger than life maniac, whose disdain for the boundaries between life and death puts even Dr. Frankenstein to shame. One only has to look at his revival/death experiment with the cat Rufus to see that he is certifiably crazier than Shia LaBeouf. Re-Animator is based on Lovecraft's episodic novella, Herbert West-Reanimator, though the on-screen depiction brought to life by Combs' campy intensity is far superior. Whereas Frankenstein may have been a morally tormented figure, caught between advancing science and rationality, Herbert West (reanimator) is essentially the kid who goes "screw it, I'll try a bigger magnifying glass tomorrow" after failing to set an ant colony ablaze.

Re-Animator follows West's career as he begins dabbling in a strange liquid that once injected into the brain revives a corpse. He first revives his late professor Dr. Hans Gruber at the university of Zurich, and when that doesn't go according to plan he moves to the Miskatonic Univeristy in New England. What follows is West's attempts to prove his methods which has increasingly disastrous effects - producing raging undead. What pleases me about Re-Animator (and less so in the sequels) is that it feels like it's all like one long fuck up. There's a scene where Herbert West (reanimator) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) experiment on a corpse in the morgue and produce a zombie, which in turn kills Dr Halsey (Robert Sampson). Herbert hacks the zombie up with a saw and re-animates Halsey, which leads to the vile antagonist Dr Hill (David Gale) entering the scene. It's a cavalcade of fuck-ups, like Celebrity Big Brother.

Gordon perfectly captures the campy Lovecraftian-science, with brightly coloured formulas, implausible experiments, and pseudo-science. But beyond being an entertaining romp, there's definitely chilling imagery at work in Re-Animator. As a body horror film the gory practical effects are excellent; there's talking heads with pulpy flesh at the base of the severed neck, malformed, anatomically incorrect bodies; as well as good old fashioned gore - entrails, dismemberment. Gordon combines camp value with the genuinely horrifying, Hill's bumbling headless body is pure visual comedy gold, whereas some of the other zombies are wet-your-pants terrifying. And of course, there's the infamous cunnilingus scene where poor Megan Halsey's (Barbara Crampton, again!) naked flesh is felt up by Hill's body in the morgue, who then sticks his severed head betwixt her legs to give her the postage stamp treatment. Clearly Gordon recognised the camp value of Lovecraft's science and was able to extract genuine horror from it also. Herbert West (reanimator, and no I won't stop doing that) for all his B movie charm is a genuinely frightening figure. At least Frankenstein was remorseful. West simply carries on what he was doing in Bride of Re-Animator, and Beyond Re-Animator, he's essentially the guy who never changes the damn toilet paper. 

Well, I would like to thank you, the reader, for joining me on this lead-up to Halloween. An arguably enjoyable, yet fatiguing, experience and one which has allowed me to explore several films I likely wouldn't have otherwise reviewed. It has all been a bit too positive for my tastes, however, so perhaps next year I'll do October Shitemares instead.

Dolls (1987)