Let me be clear, David Bruckner’s new Hellraiser does a lot of things well. The expansion of the Lament Configuration’s design, while unnecessary, is fun. The puzzle-box effects as the Cenobites arrive are great (there’s a sequence in a van that, as Trevor Henderson points out, is worth the price of admission) and the Cenobites themselves are well-designed and nicely performed throughout, even if they also all look like they’re already NECA action figures.
But, underneath all that, the film is so sterile and not even remotely horny, which are such weird things for a Hellraiser movie to be. As I said on social media, “I don’t know how to explain it but, despite having several sex scenes, this new Hellraiser emphatically does not fuck.” There is no passion underneath this machinery.
Ironically enough, David Bruckner’s last film, The Night House, which was, itself, rumored to be a repurposed Hellraiser spec script, is actually probably a betterHellraiser movie. Sure, it still doesn’t fuck either, but at least it kind of understands what fucking is. It’s not as grand as this film turned out to be, and if it had been released under the standalone title Hellraiser, as a reboot of the first film, as this one was, the fanbase would have been rabid. But it had a better handle on obsession, which is what you really have to get, even more than passion, to get Hellraiser.
This will necessarily contain major spoilers for both Nightmare Alley (1947) and GDT’s remake. These are also raw reactions, fresh off watching the remake for the first time. They may soften as time goes on, as has been the case with many other GDT films.
Well, Nightmare Alley (2021) looks great, anyway. And normally, in a Guillermo del Toro film, the looks are more than just skin deep. GDT’s films are generally crammed with what he calls “eye protein,” and the visuals typically do more narrative heavy lifting than the script or the characters. With Nightmare Alley, though – a movie he has been talking about remaking for probably a decade or more – he is shackled to a narrative that already exists. A story that has already been told, better and more economically than it is here, which makes all the show-stopping visuals feel strangely superfluous, rather than integral.
For those who don’t already know, Nightmare Alley is a remake of the 1947 film of the same name – which is, itself, an adaptation of a novel from 1946 by William Lindsay Gresham, which I have never read. There are a few things holding the 1947 original back from genuine greatness, but it is built around one of noir’s more dynamite central premises, following a carnival performer turned mentalist named Stanton Carlisle as he teams up with a femme fatale psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
In the original, Carlisle is played by Tyrone Power, while the psychiatrist (with the very good villain name Lilith Ritter) is played by Helen Walker. In Del Toro’s version, they are Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, respectively. Honestly, the casting in the 2021 Nightmare Alley, like the visuals, is mostly great. The problem comes from that story.
As I mentioned, the story of the 1947 original is one of the better ones in noir. Del Toro and his collaborator Kim Morgan know that, and stick close to it. Perhaps too close, turning this new Nightmare Alley into a fascinating study of why modern movies are insufferably long, as it hits all the same beats as the original, but takes almost a full hour longer to do it.
It doesn’t help that the places where the remake chooses to deviate add little – and sometimes detract. Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle is not a patch on Tyrone Power’s, but that has less to do with any deficiency in his acting and more to do with how the character is written and directed. Given a traumatic backstory from literally the first scene, Cooper’s Carlisle is too much a damaged child to ever be the man with a hole where his soul should be that Power played so well.
In fact, one of the few places where the original film missteps is in not rolling credits soon enough. There’s a moment, near the end of the film, when Carlisle has fallen as far as he ever will, and is offered a job he once swore he would never take. When asked if he thinks he’s up for it, he replies, “Mister, I was born for it.”
Had the original rolled credits there, it would probably be unassailable. As it is, it runs on a few minutes more. Del Toro learned the original’s lesson, though, and does cut the film at those fateful lines – except that when Cooper’s Carlisle finally utters them, they hit completely differently than when Power’s Carlisle did.
More than anything, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a film that struggles to justify itself. Why this, when we could just be watching the original? The production designs are certainly better here – the carnival looks great, as you might imagine, and Ritter’s office is a triumph of the production designer’s art – but they seem to add little of substance. And for all that Del Toro has been itching to make this movie for years, he only seems to come alive when the ghoulish parts are happening.
There’s a moment, in the last act, when a bloody “ghost” appears in a sequence that harkens to his work on Crimson Peak. It comes after a long span of relative “normalcy,” in which the carnival and its oddities have been left behind. There’s almost an audible “pop” when the moment happens, as the film suddenly snaps back into sharp focus, as though it’s been on autopilot for minutes and is only now paying attention once more.
All of this is extremely hard on Nightmare Alley, which isn’t quite fair. Del Toro has certainly made worse movies in his career, and I can’t shake the feeling that – had I never previously seen the original – this might have worked a lot better for me. In fact, as much as I love the guy’s work, Del Toro has a few movies that I kind of hate. But usually, with his movies, it’s one or the other. I love them or hate them, and even when I hate them, I’m drawn into them. Nightmare Alley may be the first time I just felt… indifferent, which is possibly more damning.
Ironically, Wikipedia identifies this 2021 version as a new adaptation of the novel, rather than a remake of the 1947 film. If it had been that, it might have been spared some of these problems. While the novel and both movies have the same central premise and most of the same broad story beats, the novel goes several places the movies never do. If Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley had followed the novel instead of the film, maybe it could have better carved a niche for itself where it felt less uncomfortable.
This is one of those movies that was never going to live up to how long it had been sitting on my watchlist. Directed by Tobe Hooper; very loosely adapted from a short story by Mr. Rear Window himself, Cornell Woolrich; starring a who’s who of supporting players including Twin Peaks‘ Madchen Amick, Anthony Perkins, R. Lee Ermey, Dee Wallace, and others. The pedigree of I’m Dangerous Tonight is what makes it a curiosity, but the plot is what initially got my attention.
That plot is simple enough. Devil Fish‘s William Berger is a professor of something-or-other and he’s really into macabre stuff, including an Aztec sacrificial altar, which he has delivered to the museum at the university. The altar contains a hidden compartment holding the mummified remains of the Aztec priest, who is wrapped in his (still pristine) red ceremonial robes.
Knowing their power, the professor dons the robes, goes on a murderous rampage, and then offs himself. The robes are sold at an estate sale by accident, and bought by a mousy college student (Amick) who turns them into a red dress that renders her sexually uninhibited, and we’re into low-key erotic thriller territory in short order.
I’m a sucker for cursed objects, and the notion of Tobe Hooper doing a made-for-TV movie about a cursed dress made from the robes of an Aztec mummy was pretty appealing. With Woolrich’s name on the credits and nothing to go on but some of the key art, I was honestly expecting something more like a noir and less like the cozy Fear Street-adjacent plotting that we got.
Which makes a kind of sense. The movie is pretty different from Woolrich’s story. (The two writers credited for the teleplay were regulars on a variety of TV shows including Murder, She Wrote and Highlander.) For example, in Woolrich’s story, the whole Aztec robe idea isn’t there. In fact, the origins of the dress in that instance more closely resemble a more recent film about a cursed red dress, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric.
The synopses of the movie also all make it out like Amick’s character is the main focus of the various malfeasance caused by the dress, but she really only wears it once, and all she does during that time is try to steal her cousin’s shitty boyfriend, pretty much. (She also sort of kills her grandma, who is played by Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, but it really is an accident, albeit one that wouldn’t have happened if not for the dress.) Most of the rest of the movie involves other people getting ahold of the dress, which unlocks in them much more nefarious – and murderous – impulses.
Of all the legendary horror directors of the ’70s-’80s, there may be none with a more unlikely filmography than Tobe Hooper. From the elemental terror of Texas Chain Saw to the borderline-satire of Texas Chainsaw 2, from the scope and scale of something like Lifeforce to the exact opposite of something like this.
I’m Dangerous Tonight is certainly among the lesser entries in his canon, with only a handful of horror scenes that really pop (the introduction of the Aztec priest’s mummified body; flashbacks to the professor’s murder spree), but that unusual pedigree I already mentioned makes sure that it’s a singular one. It’s also a surprisingly cozy movie, filled with nooks you want to curl up and have tea in, and people wearing overlarge sweaters. And the university is yet another horror university that I really wish I could attend, and not just because it has not one but two professors who seem to specialize in cursed objects.
Like I said, this one has been on my watchlist for some time, and the only reason I finally got a chance to see it now was because Kino Lorber recently put it out on Blu-ray. If you haven’t seen it, you’re really not missing anything but if, like me, that’s never stopped you before, you probably won’t regret your time with this oddity.
What if House on Haunted Hill had been made without a trace of camp, and shot like a cheap industrial film?
Anything I can say about Ghosts of Hanley House is going to come off as overselling it. Largely absent anything in the way of effects (or plot, or acting, or action), this regional riff on the Haunting/Haunted Hill formula is pure vibes. And if those vibes don’t hypnotize you right away, it’s dull as dishwater.
Let’s turn to some modern reviews to give you an idea, such as this one from The Spinning Image, which calls the film “so inept it turns Edward D. Wood Jr into Stanley Kubrick.” Reading on: “The acting, photography and lighting are wretched in the extreme, with talking heads gazing uneasily past the camera, uttering inane lines of dialogue while the plot lurches from the sublime to the painfully ridiculous, using visual references to The Haunting in search of any vestige of credibility.”
Ouch, right? And I can’t really say that he’s wrong about… any of that. So why the hell am I writing about it? It hypnotized me, like I said earlier. And you don’t have to look any farther than Letterboxd to see other people who had the same experience.
“Ghosts of Hanley House wasn’t made by professionals,” begins one review, from Bleeding Skull. “But for me, this movie does something that the big-budget majesty of The Haunting never could – it makes me believe in midnight seances, eerie lights escaping from under darkened doorways, and a determined woman named Louise Sherrill who made a movie that no one else could.”
Making a movie, telling a story, is about more than mere competence. It’s even about more than the story. There is an (often accidental) alchemy that transforms the raw stuff of words, pictures, sounds, etc. into something more. Always has been. And I’ve written before about how sometimes even movies that are, undeniably, badly made contain a potency that would have been denied them had they been made any better.
Manos is a terrible film, but its very awkwardness contributes to its unease. The Zapruder-esque quality of Curse of Bigfoot makes it feel genuinely cursed. Similarly, Ghosts of Hanley House captures a sense of the uncanny more effectively than many better films simply by dint of that very rough-hewn unprofessionalism we mentioned before.
The sound effects grate and rattle, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. The score sounds like it is being performed deep underwater. The overblown lighting, the lack of any visual effects, the incoherent edits, and the fact that the actors aren’t really doing very much acting all give the film a different sort of verisimilitude, one that renders the events genuinely eerie, even when there… aren’t really any events, to speak of.
It’s not a movie that I necessarily loved, and it’s certainly not one I can recommend without hesitation. It’s not very good, by any traditional measure, if you haven’t figured that out yet, and basically nothing happens. But if, like me, you’ve been tuned to pick up these kinds of uncanny vibes and vibe with them, well, there’s definitely something here…
The fact that a movie like this can still exist without my ever having heard of it before now is one of the things that keeps me alive. Conceived as a pilot for a supernatural TV series that never happened (it would have been called The Haunted), The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a made-for-TV movie created by Joseph Stefano, best known for penning the screenplay to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
As such, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre combines elements of horror, hauntings, paranormal investigation, crime, and film noir. As with many of my favorite pictures from the era, a genuine haunting is juxtaposed against (and informed by) a noir-ish tale of very human greed, gaslighting, and murder.
A young Martin Landau plays the delightfully-named Nelson Orion, an architect and amateur ghost hunter whose own past plays into the mystery at the heart of the story. Diane Baker, who was also in Marnie and William Castle’s Strait-Jacket the same year, delivers a stellar performance as both the film’s femme fatale and also perhaps its greatest victim.
The real star of the show, however, is the breathtaking cinematography by the great Conrad Hall, coupled with some impressive fades and transitions, and a soundscape that keeps everything feeling eerie and just a little unhinged, even while the unfolding of the plot is predictably talky.
Let’s be clear, if you’ve been following along here for very long, you’ll know that there are few things I love more than ghostly movies from the 1960s that feel a little like they were made for TV, and this is one of the best of them that I have ever seen. The ghost itself looks genuinely spooky, and the actors’ descriptions of it as drenched in blood, “a thing half born, half dead” are suitably evocative.
The mystery is interesting and complicated, the kind where the supernatural element never overwhelms the human crimes that inform it, nor the other way around. It’s always a rare gift when a movie can make its naturalistic subplot as interesting as its supernatural one without one or both feeling anemic.
Despite all this, I had somehow never heard of this film until Trevor Henderson RTed a tweet by Guilherme Gontijo in praise of it. The simple images he shared combined with my affection for this type of thing were enough to settle it immediately at the top of my “to watch” list, and the fact that it was on Tubi meant that I could do so sooner rather than later.
Discovering a new film like this is one of the great joys of doing what I do, and sharing it is an almost equal pleasure. So, do yourself a favor and watch The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre and then spend some time imagining the TV show we almost got but didn’t…
What feels like a lifetime ago but was, in actual fact, only a decade, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I co-edited a little anthology called Fungi that was about, well, I think the title makes it fairly clear. This was the culmination of a pretty much lifelong fascination with fungal creatures, on my part, and was specifically kicked off by Silvia and I chatting about Matango.
As part of the process of putting Fungi together, we created a database (now likely lost to the mists of time) of fungal stories, movies, and so on. It contained a few of my favorites, including William Hope Hodgson’s germinal short story, “The Voice in the Night,” as well as various adaptations of same, such as the aforementioned Matango. It also included more obscure favorites, such as the moldy corpses of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin alongside things I had never read or seen.
Of those latter, the one that jumped highest on my personal list was The Unknown Terror, which has the distinction of maybe being the earliest fungal horror film, even beating the “Voice in the Night” episode of Suspicion by a year. What’s more, the fungal horror of The Unknown Terror is far from incidental. Not only is there a fungus-filled cavern, there are multiple fungus people, before all is said and done.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Unknown Terror was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, a guy best known for making Westerns. In fact, most of his other feature film credits occupy that genre, and he also helped to co-create the TV series Rawhide. Before he became a director or a screenwriter, though, Warren wrote stories for the pulps – a place where the plot of Unknown Terror would have been right at home.
Warren didn’t write this picture, however. The sole screenwriting credit belongs to Kenneth Higgins, whose only other horror credit is the jokey 1943 flick Ghosts on the Loose, starring Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids. Nowhere in the film’s credits or background is any reference to Hodgson, and yet any story that involves fungus turning people into things owes something to “The Voice in the Night.”
Though it was released as the front-half of a double-bill (with Back from the Dead, also directed by Warren), Unknown Terror was always going to be a B-picture. It was a product of Robert Lippert’s Regal Pictures, a production unit under 20th Century Fox created exclusively to shoot B-movies in Cinemascope, as a way to assure theatre owners that there would be plenty of features in that format.
As such, The Unknown Terror spends an unfortunate amount of its time on colonial fears of “native superstitions” or on lengthy caving sequences that call to mind MST3k jokes about rock climbing. Once they do finally reach the fungus cavern, however, it’s pretty great. Not only is the cavern itself full of cobwebby fungus that’s delightfully rubbery, it’s also home to several fungus people, who look sort of like lumpy Morlocks.
And all of that is before the fungus itself begins pouring down. It seems that the villainous doctor character, played by film heavy Gerald Milton, has discovered a type of fungus that grows incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, that you can watch it happen, represented in the movie by what look like thick soap suds being poured down the cave walls in what is actually one of the better set-pieces in all of ’50s horror.
The other interesting thing about The Unknown Terror comes far from the fungus cave, at the very beginning of the film, when we are treated to performances (including a theme song of sorts) by the “King of Calypso,” Sir Lancelot.
Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard, better known by his stage name Sir Lancelot, will be familiar to longtime readers and vintage horror fans for his appearances in several of Val Lewton’s classics from the 1940s, perhaps most notably I Walked with a Zombie. Here, he is performing a similar role more than a decade later, doing much of the heavy lifting required to convince us that this film takes place in the Caribbean while also providing exposition about the MacGuffin at the heart of the narrative.
“Down, down, down in the bottomless cave,” Lancelot sings, “Down, down, down beyond the last grave / If he’s got the stuff of fame / If he’s worthy of his name / He may get another chance but he’s never more the same / He’s got to suffer to be born again.”
“Movies like this aren’t totally worthless. They provide employment for a number of people.”
– Vincent Canby
John Hough directed one of my favorite haunted house movies, The Legend of Hell House, which somehow manages to have a PG rating while still containing all of the lurid, sweaty sexuality of the book upon which it is based. So, I had both high hopes and reservations when it came to watching his adaptation of Incubus, taken from Ray Russell’s 1976 novel of the same name, which is essentially a slasher movie if slashing was replaced with raping.
This is not a sensitive movie, is what I’m saying. Incubus has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the rapiest films ever made, and the sexual assaults that occur within its runtime are always distinctly brutal, even when they take place off-screen. Despite all that brutality, Incubus is also a slow movie, which is where most of the complaints that I’ve seen come in. (No one who is going to be too put off by the sexual assault probably makes it past the logline, to be fair.)
It certainly showcases more blood and nudity than Legend of Hell House but, like that film, it manages most of its luridness through suggestion as much as shock. This is a movie where the implications are as disturbing as anything seen, and a film that is absolutely drenched in what Letterboxd user nathaxnne identifies as “windswept dread” and gothic family secrets, which should come as no surprise from either Hough or Russell.
Incubus also features more recitations of the word “sperm” per minute than probably any other film released outside a medical context. John Cassavetes plays one of the sweatiest, most uncomfortable protagonists in horror movie history, a guy who, at one point, utters the phrase, “I swear to God, there’s gonna be a rape tonight,” and yet he is certainly the “good guy” compared to many of the people around him.
I didn’t love Incubus. The subject matter alone kind of guaranteed that. But I loved the atmosphere that Hough and company conjured. This is small-town gothic at its finest. The witch museum is great, and so are the gothic houses, and so is the incubus itself, when it shows up at the end for all of two seconds. Also, I love that this is apparently supposed to be Wisconsin, a state that is definitely known for its rich witch hunting history.
Not that long ago, I wrote about the original Universal Mummy sequels of the 1940s for Unwinnable. Specifically, I wrote about the odd fact that they are (inadvertently) set in the future. You can read the beginning at that link and buy the issue to get the whole story, but the short version is that the first sequel is set contemporaneously, and then the subsequent ones jump ahead by about a generation every movie or two, meaning that, by The Mummy’s Curse (1944) it would be around 1995.
I love that shit, so imagine my surprise when I discover that there’s a movie from 1958, that’s set in 1970, starring Boris Karloff as an aging descendent of the original Baron Frankenstein, who was tortured and disfigured by the Nazis during World War II and who is now continuing his deceased forebear’s experiments. Now compound that surprise with the fact that the movie’s plot concerns a film crew who are shooting a TV special to commemorate “the 230th anniversary of Frankenstein,” and who are using Karloff’s castle so that he can afford to buy an at-home nuclear reactor, which is definitely a thing we had by the ’70s.
If that sounds like a lot, well, you’re not wrong. Crammed into 83 minutes, fully 40 of which are Karloff flipping switches and looking at dials, Frankenstein 1970 feels, at times, like three or four screenplays, none of which were even remotely finished, all jammed together into one movie and then still not finished. I loved it.
What the hell is Karloff’s character’s plan? It is unclear, at best, and he never seems to have even the beginning of an endgame. At one point, when his creature doesn’t yet have eyes, he apparently sends it out to fetch somebody for him, and is then disappointed when it brings back the wrong person.
“You fool,” he says, or something to that effect, “I sent you to bring me Row.”
“Boss,” I wanted the monster to reply, “maybe you forgot, but I don’t have eyes.“
Several times in the film, there are what seem to be missing scenes that might illuminate some of the confusion, but unlikely anywhere near all. The 1970 conceit is meaningless outside the existence of at-home nuclear generators, and, frankly, so too is the film crew conceit. Any excuse – up to and including the old saw of their car breaking down in a storm – to get some fresh bodies into the Baron’s castle would have served as well.
Yet, the film crew thing is great, and not just for the metatext of it all. There’s a nicely-shot cold opening that could only ever end with the director shouting cut, in-movie. As for the 1970 idea, it could have been any year at all, including 1958. In fact, working titles for the film included Frankenstein 1960 and Frankenstein 2000.
As it stands, everything looks just like 1958 – or, rather, like 1958’s idea of what an old castle would look like, using sets mainly leftover from John Barrymore’s house in Too Much, Too Soon, the biopic of his daughter Diana, adapted from her memoir.
Karloff, of course, steals the show, reminding us of his range as he is as sadistically sinister here as he has ever been warm and grandfatherly in any other picture. Under some impressive facial makeup and performing a dramatic limp and hunch, he oozes just enough charm to allow you to maybe buy that people wouldn’t just run screaming, while still casting a long, dark shadow over every scene he’s in.
And as for the monster, it’s the coup de grace. Before I even knew that this movie existed, I had seen a shot or two of the monster, and that’s what ultimately made me dig up the further information that was more than enough to justify a purchase. Played by 6′ 8″ actor Mike Lane – who also plays the actor playing the monster in the movie they’re making within the movie – the monster looks a bit like the mummy of an astronaut.
Always depicted in head-to-toe bandages, wrapped around a piece of headgear that makes it look like a robot, the monster is very different than any other Frankenstein monster you’ve ever seen. Lane’s considerable height, towering over even Karloff, certainly helps. Also helping this along is that the Baron apparently just lets it wander around, eyeless, which seems like a very poor way to keep your elaborate secret.
But then, see above about the Baron not being really amazing at planning.
“A story like that, a pain like that, it lasts forever.”
It would be more dramatic to say that today was the first time I set foot in a movie theatre since February of last year, when I went to see Underwater, blissfully ignorant that it would be my last movie before the pandemic. But that’s not wholly accurate. I went to a very socially-distanced Nerdoween last October, and I’ve been to a couple of Analog Sundays over the past few months, since I got vaccinated and they started up again.
It is true, though, that Candyman is not merely the first new-release movie of 2021 that I’ve seen, it’s the only first-run movie that I’ve caught in a theatre since that fateful showing of Underwater. In a way that even Analog Sunday hasn’t quite, it felt like a homecoming.
Since whenever the hell it first got announced way back before the plague times, I have been excited to catch this new Candyman. I am not as familiar as I maybe should be with director Nia DaCosta, but Jordan Peele’s other horror efforts have been some of my favorite films of the past decade, and I was extremely excited to see an #ownvoices take on this material.
More to the point, though, Candyman is one of my favorite films. It is, for my money, the best screen adaptation to date of anything by Clive Barker, himself one of my favorite creators. This is, in no small part, because it actually improves upon the source material, by moving the action from the projects of London to Chicago’s Cabrini Green and changing the race of the eponymous urban legend, thereby also changing the socio-political heft of the story for the better.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Peele’s name in the credits, this new Candyman takes that added heft and runs with it. What is more surprising, for me, is how well the movie seems to get what the original Candyman was all about. Better than many fans of the movie seem to. Certainly better than any of the other sequels ever did.
There are going to be mild spoilers from here on in, so read at your own risk.
Tony Todd is in this movie. I don’t feel like that’s a surprise, at this point. He’s not all over the trailer or anything, but they also haven’t exactly kept it under their hats. But he’s not in it much. Instead, the legend of Candyman has… expanded. Candyman is no longer just Daniel Robitaille – but then, he never was.
What this movie nails that so many don’t get is that Candyman isn’t a ghost. He’s not even the more tangible revenant that slashers like Jason and Freddy represent. He is the tragedy itself, not the person the tragedy happened to. “It is a blessed condition, believe me,” he says to Helen Lyle. “To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”
That quote, which is also lifted more-or-less whole cloth from the original Clive Barker story “The Forbidden,” as many of the original movie’s best lines are, always resonated hard with me. It’s why I used it as the epigraph for my story “Ripperology.”
Candyman is not the person, Candyman is the myth. It’s true for him in a way that it isn’t for any of the other slashers, even while there’s an element of the urban legend about all of them. It is that element of the original’s power that this movie gets, and runs with, and exploits for its own purposes to very interesting and satisfying – at least for me – ends.
This new Candyman is not the picture that the original was – it can’t be and, mostly to its credit, it doesn’t try. It’s messier and more ambitious. It’s the rare movie that I actually think would have benefitted from being longer. Giving its characters, its mysteries, its recursions and inversions more time to breathe. Writing at the AV Club, Anya Stanley argued that the film would have been better served as a TV series and, for once, I don’t necessarily disagree.
Even at a brisk 91 minutes, however, and amid not-infrequent missteps, DaCosta and company have crafted a haunting, complex, sometimes funny, often gruesome puzzle box movie that simultaneously serves as one of the better things to grow organically out of Clive Barker’s extensive and often very organic oeuvre, and also very much its own creature.
In a world of largely unnecessary remake/sequels (requels?), the others could stand to take notes.
Long ago, I owned this movie on VHS, where I had bought it, sight unseen, because it had the word “Cthulhu” in the title. (Those were simpler, stupider times.)
I remembered basically nothing about it besides the cover, which featured a spooky house in the eye socket of a skull, and one half-recollected gloppy makeup effect. What I did remember was that it didn’t have Cthulhu in it and that it was more than a little disappointing. So, of course, I also picked it up when Vinegar Syndrome recently put it out on Blu.
When I posted shots of the spine and an image of the carnival opening sequence to Instagram, I got a variety of responses, including one person who just replied, “Oof.” That was more-or-less in keeping with what I was expecting when I delved into Cthulhu Mansion. Adam Cesare, however, in true Adam Cesare fashion, tweeted at me, “This movie rules.”
To my own surprise, I found myself more in agreement with Adam than with that “oof.” Not that there isn’t a lot of oof in Cthulhu Mansion – far more of it than there is of Lovecraft, to be sure.
The unlikeable gang of petty criminals who take the aging magician and his daughter hostage in the eponymous mansion (it even has the word “Cthulhu” above the gate) are generally as mono-dimensional as one might expect, though one guy (Paul Birchard, who had previously shown up in Tim Burton’s Batman as a reporter and would reappear in The Dark Knight as a cop) spends pretty much all of his screen time making the weirdest goddamn faces and also, at one point, rubbing a chili dog all over his mouth.
One review on Letterboxd called the flick “all mansion, no Cthulhu,” which is also accurate enough. Fortunately, as much as I may like Cthulhu, I probably like mansions even more. And when that mansion belongs to a stage magician (played by Frank Finlay) with a tragic past and a supernatural secret, well, I am far beyond sold.
Is it good, though? I was all prepared with an “of course not” kind of response here, but it comes closer than I was expecting. If it doesn’t quite grab the brass ring, well, it pretty much does for me, and that’s all that really counts. Sure, the film’s best creature effect is in a dark ride at the beginning and the closest we get to Cthulhu is a water-damaged book with a drawing of a pentagram inside, but this is a flick that starts out in a carnival and ends up in a magician’s creepy mansion during a thunderstorm. How could I do anything but love it?
Director J. P. Simon also made Slugs (unsurprising), The Rift (unsurprising), Pieces (not incredibly surprising), Mystery on Monster Island (getting a little bit more surprising), and the MST3K “classic” Pod People (okay, what the hell?), among others, so … yeah, do with that information what you will. Of that bunch of movies, I haven’t actually seen Pieces but otherwise this would definitely be my favorite.