Saturday, June 13, 2009

#63: Necronomicon (Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans, & Shusuke Kaneko, 1993)

I'm a sucker for television horror anthologies. I own bootleg copies of the complete "Tales from the Darkside" and "Monsters" TV series. I avidly watched both of those shows as a child, as well as reruns of "The Twilight Zone," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," and "The Outer Limits," and the then-current 1980s updates of "The Twilight Zone" and "Hitchcock," and new series like "Amazing Stories" and "Tales from the Crypt." I've added "Tales from the Crypt" and "Masters of Horror" to my Netflix queue. I like seeing what a director and some actors can do with a genre storyline and a limited span of time. Sometimes the results are excellent, especially with a good cast or director, but I have a weak spot for even the terrible stuff.

Horror anthologies for the big screen don't often fare as well as their TV counterparts. I'm not sure why. The charm often disappears. For every success like Creepshow, there are a handful of failures like Creepshow 2. Maybe the problem is that the filmmakers usually don't have enough television experience, so the strain of truncating a story appears onscreen. Necronomicon, a Lovecraft-inspired anthology film, is no cinematic masterpiece, and sometimes suffers from the pitfalls of the anthology film, but is ultimately a lot of fun for fans of horror and Cthulhu. It occasionally suffers from truncation and flat, perfunctory direction, but it's full of enough slimy-tentacled occult beasts, face-melting, and bone-marrow eating to bring a big smile to my face. Plus, lots of mentions of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon. They're both fun words to yell out, especially if you also happen to like metal.
The film opens in 1932 with H.P. Lovecraft, played by Re-Animator's Jeffrey Combs, visiting an incredibly awesome and heavily guarded library of occult books, overseen by a group of creepy monks. Lovecraft, who insists he writes non-fiction, pretends to be researching a project but is actually on the hunt for the Necronomicon, the ancient occult book of the dead, which he believes is secretly being housed in the freaky-deaky weirdo monk library. He swipes some keys and unlocks some doors, and finds the thing. This, of course, sets up our anthology film, as Lovecraft reads through the Necronomicon and we see what he reads.

An aside: I'm so glad Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have adapted so many Lovecraft ideas because it's so much more satisfying to see his ideas realized than it is to slog through his turgid prose. Like so many 12-year-old horror and metal fans, I went through a Lovecraft phase. That summer, my father bet me 12 dollars that I would have a cavity at my next dentist's appointment because I had been eating so many sweets. I knew the old man was going to be 12 bucks lighter. I won the genetic lottery in the tooth department. I have ridiculously strong teeth, and I have yet to get a cavity in my almost 32 years on earth. I also inherited a crappy thyroid, but what can you do? With my winnings fresh in my pocket, I went to the bookstore in the mall and bought a Lovecraft anthology with a sweet cover I had been eyeing for three years. Excitedly, I went home to read all about the call of the mighty Cthulhu. After struggling through the first three stories, I gave up, and I hardly ever give up on a book. "Holy shit," I thought. "This guy's a boring fucking writer." He was also a bitter, asexual white supremacist, whose racism was so intense that he alienated all his buddies, despite the style of the times dictating that a white person's patriotic duty included harboring racist beliefs. He still has a small army of rabid fans, however. In one of my college English classes, the professor asked the students mid-semester to each pick an author to cover for the remainder of the class. One of my fellow students shouted out, "Lovecraft. Either Lovecraft or John Updike." After suppressing my laughter, I soon started daydreaming about a Lovecraft anthology with the following blurb from a prominent literary critic: "Lovecraft. Exactly as good as John Updike."

Anyway, the Lovecraft library segment sets up three Lovecraft-inspired tales, each directed by a different filmmaker. "The Drowned," directed by Frenchman Christophe Gans, who later made the period werewolf movie The Brotherhood of the Wolf, opts for the flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback approach, which is maybe not the best idea when you only have twenty minutes to tell your story. The character development is thin, the story tries to do too much in too short a time, and the visual style is flat, but the horror elements are top-shelf, with bizarre squid-like creatures coming out of reanimated dead people's faces, and Cthulhu himself makes an appearance. Cthulhu! The next segment, "The Cold," directed by Japan's Shusuke Kaneko, is a better piece of storytelling and benefits from the thespian skills of David Warner, but also contains flat, anonymous direction. Also, there's a gratuitious boob closeup in a gratuitous shower scene. I don't really have a problem with that, but it's pretty shameless. Kaneko could not speak English at the time, so he's an odd choice for the most dialogue-heavy part of the anthology. I don't know much about him, but they still make Godzilla movies in Japan, and he directs some of them. I had no idea. The final segment, "Whispers," is the funniest, goriest, and most visually interesting. Directed by American Brian Yuzna, who also produced the whole shebang and directed the library introductory segments as well, "Whispers" contains the satirical message that Satan's minions might just be pro-life, not pro-choice. Current events certainly give support to that suggestion. Also, bone marrow tastes like candy to flying Satanic creatures in the bowels of the city. Yuzna produced many of Stuart Gordon's films, wrote the screenplay for From Beyond, and directed the killer dentist movie starring Corbin Bernsen entitled The Dentist, as well as its sequel. As a director, he seems to specialize in sequels in franchises started by other people. He's tackled sequels in the Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, and Silent Night, Deadly Night series. He also produced and came up with the story for the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movies, oddly enough.
Necronomicon! Cthulhu!

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