Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Bits O’ Lovecraft

By Brian M. Sammons

Welcome back, my fellow cinecephalophiles. This time, I thought I’d do a little something different with the old Cthulhu Eats the Movies and, instead of just talking about one movie, I’d cover a few, very quickly, because they have almost nothing to do with Lovecraft. Well, then, why cover them at all? I hear you ask. Because these films are sometimes linked to HPL, due to a namedrop or two, and to not cover them in some fashion may be seen by some as an oversight. I can’t have that messing up my Cthulhu street cred. So, without further ado, let’s get to it, starting with three of my favourite movies that have nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft, other than a famous reference to an infamous book.

The Evil Dead (1981); Evil Dead 2 (1987); Army of Darkness (1992). Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Bruce Campbell and a host of others. Country: USA.

Do I have to tell you the plot behind the Evil Dead movies? I mean, if you haven’t seen at least one of them already, why are you here? No really, why am I talking to you? You’re probably the kind of person I try not to associate with. But, just on the off chance that you’re a youngster new to this “horror thing”, or you’ve just awakened from a 30+-year coma, Dead-Zone-style, I’ll point you in the direction of some of the coolest, most beloved, influential, and completely…dare I say it…groovy movies ever made.

In the first film, a group of five college-age-looking kids go to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend. Once there, they discover in the basement a strange book and a tape recorder. Pressing the play button, the recorder starts the last tape from a professor who discovered the dreaded tome, Necronomicon Ex Mortis (In later films, it’s shortened to just Necronomicon), which he claims roughly translates into “Book of the Dead”. Then he does the incredibly stupid thing of reading aloud certain passages from the book. In no time at all, the “old ones that were and shall be again” start pulling an Exorcist act on the friends, one by one, until only mousy Ash is the last man standing.

Now, the above brief summary doesn’t do this awesome film justice, but it gets the point across. Again, if you have never seen the original Evil Dead, then you really owe it to yourself to see it. Not only was this Sam “Spider-man 1 – 3″ Raimi’s first commercial film, it was B-movie icon Bruce Campbell’s, too, as Ash. If that’s not reason enough to see it, I don’t know what is.

Evil Dead 2, made six years later, is more of a reimagining of the first film, through the eyes of the Three Stooges, than a traditional sequel, although it does carry the story on past the events of The Evil Dead. This time around, things are played more for laughs than screams. There are still buckets of gore and gallons of blood to be tossed around, but it is far more slapstick than splatterpunk. The Necronomicon is still behind all the woes, and the demon-possessed ghouls are back as well, and Ash once again claws and fights his way to become the sole survivor. However, this film takes a huge left turn at the end when the dreaded spell book opens up a portal to medieval times, sucking up poor Ash in the process.

The third and final movie of the trilogy ditches the Evil Dead name altogether and is called “Army of Darkness“. It picks up right where the last flick ended, with Ash trapped back in time, in some unnamed, roughly-England-like, land in the middle of the Dark Ages, beset by demons called “Deadites”. Luckily, while Ash is a bit of an idiot, he excels at kicking demon butt, so King Arthur (no, really) tells Ash that if he can get the Necronomicon back for them to use against the Deadites, they can use it to send him back to his normal time. Naturally, Ash screws things up, an army of the undead rises up, and it’s up to the man from the future to save the day.

Final Verdict: All three movies are great and each has its own flavour and style. The first film is a straight up-horror movie; the second is a gross-out comedy; and the third is a crazy action flick, complete with a barrel of one-liners. All three do have the Necronomicon in them, but, despite that, and the “old ones” line in the original movie that I quoted before, there’s not much Lovecraftian goodness in these films.

Now brace yourself, we’re about to go from three very good movies to one very bad one. You’ve been warned.

Cthulhu Mansion (1992). Director: Juan Piquer Simón. Cast: Frank Finlay, Marcia Layton and Luis Fernando Alvés. Country: Spain.

Don’t get your hopes up just because of this one’s title. Other than the name “Cthulhu”, appearing on an old book of black magic and on the iron gates leading to the titular mansion, there is nothing – and I mean NOTHING – Lovecraftian, or even remotely good, to be found in this tedious test of patience. While I really like other films on this list, I really despise this one. Worst of all, for me at least, is that this stinker was directed by Juan Piquer Simón, who made one of my all-time favourite silly slashers in 1982 with Pieces. I love that crazy chainsaw flick to…well, pieces, so it’s not like I went into this movie with anything against it. Hell, I was hoping for the best. Instead, I got this piece(s) of crap.

The story, such as it is, has a group of teen thugs and drug dealers taking a stage magician named “Chandu” hostage in his mansion. While doing so, the dimwits release an ancient evil from the basement, which starts to kill the “kids” (Yes, those are air quotes, as some of the teens appear to be in their thirties), one by one. I can only assume that Juan Piquer Simón was once again trying to dip into the slasher well, here, for this pedestrian stalk-and-slay with supernatural overtones. But lightning won’t strike the same place twice and here, the kills are just tired and silly. Eventually, Chandu reads from his book, called “Cthulhu”, and defeats the demonic force, but by that time, anyone watching this long, boring turkey of a film is long past caring.

Final Verdict: Not Lovecraftian, despite the blatant namedrop that makes absolutely no sense, and not good in the slightest.  It does border on being so-bad-it’s-good, so if you must watch this film, invite some friends over and give it the MST3K treatment. You might, just might, be able to make it through this flick without falling asleep. Other than that, avoid this one, at all costs.

Yuck. Quick, let’s get to something better, so I can wash the taste of fail out of my mouth.

City of the Living Dead (1980). Director: Lucio Fulci. Cast: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl and Carlo De Mejo. Country: Italy.

I love Italian horror movies from the 70s and 80s. While their plots can, at times, run from simply confusing to downright nonsensical, they have a very unique look and style. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more visually arresting horror movies from any country, at any point in time, than what the Italians were doing.  Horror maestros like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, to name only three that come quickly to mind, were hugely influential in fear cinema, if not just being ripped off wholesale. Really, watch Bava’s A Bay of Blood (also known under the far better title of “Twitch of the Death Nerve“), from 1971, and then watch Friday the 13th, Part 2, which came out ten years later, and try to tell me with a straight face that the latter wasn’t stealing from the former.

It is that third director in the unholy terror trinity I mentioned above who is the focus for this brief discussion. Lucio Fulci obviously had at least a flirting relationship with Lovecraft, as tidbits derived from HPL pop up, rather surprisingly, in two of Fulci’s infamously gory zombie flicks from the 80s. The first is 1980’s City of the Living Dead, AKA The Gates of Hell and about a dozen or so other titles. A priest in the small New England town of Dunwich hangs himself in a cemetery. This act throws open the titular gates to Hell and soon, the ghost priest is spotted by people, right before very horrible (and gloriously gory) things happen to them. Highlights include a man getting a drill press pushed through his head very slowly and a young woman barfing out all of her insides, reportedly in atomically correct order from start to finish. Yeah, by the time the rain of live maggots happens and the zombies start to walk, you’re either with this movie 100%, or you’ve run for the hills. Me, I was so with it, and I still am today.

Final Verdict: Other than the town this little slice of Hell is set in being called “Dunwich”, there is no connection to HPL or any of his stories. That said, I adore this over-the-top bloody bit of zombie fare. And Fulci wasn’t done sprinkling his movies with little bits of Lovecraft. He would return one year later to do it again in another of his zombie flicks.

The Beyond (1981). Director: Lucio Fulci. Cast: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck and Cinzia Monreale.

In The Beyond, AKA The 7 Doors of Death, an artist accused of being a warlock is attacked by an angry mob in a Louisiana hotel, right smack-dab in the middle of the Lovecraft era: 1927. The irate townsfolk say that the man was meddling with things he ought not to have been messing with, including reading an evil tome called “The Book of Eibon“. For this grievous offense, the mob whips him with chains until his flesh rips open, nails him to a wall in the basement, dumps hot acid-plaster over his head, and then walls him up alive. Yeah, you’ll get no simple witch-burnings in a Fulci film.

Jump ahead to 1981 and a young woman buys the rundown hotel. In the process of fixing the place up, a handyman inadvertently releases the zombie/witch/artist and thus begins the undead apocalypse. Along the way, a blind psychic lady portends doom; a county coroner joins the story as a possible love interest for the young motel owner; a woman gets her face eaten off by acid, right in front of her daughter, before the girl is stricken blind; a paralyzed man has his lips and tongue eaten off by a swarm of tarantulas; and plenty of other supernatural shenanigans abound before the weird, confusing and sort-of-Lovecraftian ending of this disturbing tale plays out.

Final Verdict: Here, Fulci uses The Book of Eibon, an evil tome much like the far-better-known Necronomicon. This book was created by Lovecraft buddy, and fellow author of weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith. As was the way with those in Lovecraft’s circle of writing friends, borrowing bits from one another was not only tolerated, but smiled upon, so the Book of Eibon eventually showed up in a few of HPL’s own tales. However, the book’s inclusion in this movie is the only Lovecraftian thing you’ll find in The Beyond, despite it also having a very Lovecraft-lite title. So, again, this isn’t an HPL-approved film, but it is another awesome example of Italian gore cinema. If that kind of thing is your bag, you’ll dig this flick.

Well, I hope you enjoyed these bits of random musings. I may do it again in the future, or I may not. Chaos is my copilot, after all, and Nyarlathotep often snatches the controls out of my hands. At least, that’s what I plan to tell the authorities when they come for me. Oh, well, I remain, as ever, your humble, amazingly insightful and oh-so-good-looking reviewer of all tentacly delicious movies. See you next time.