Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: The Necronomicon: Book of the Dead

By Brian M. Sammons

The Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. Directors: Christopher Gans, Shusuke Kaneko and Brian Yuzna. Cast: Jeffrey Combs, David Warner, Richard Lynch, and Bruce Payne.

One of the problems so many filmmakers have when adapting Lovecraft for the movies is the fact that, for the most part, HPL wrote short stories, often around a single theme, usually with a limited number of characters, and with a good majority of the words used devoted to either dense history or purple prose. You add all that together and what it means is that there’s not a whole lot of meat to spread over a 90 minute runtime. So, what often happens is that the moviemakers add a lot of unnecessary bits as filler to pad the runtime, which only serve to further dilute Lovecraft’s vision. With that in mind, an anthology of a few short movies based on the works of HPL seemed like a great idea. So, in 1993, a group of filmmakers decided to do just that and boy, did it look like the stars were right for a great bit Cthulhu Mythos moviemaking. Yet, sadly, the end result was a mixed bag, at best.

Things start off with a very weird wraparound story, starring that bastion of two-fisted pulp action: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Yes, HPL, the genteel author from New England will be our badass for this story. As silly as that sounds, and it is, Lovecraft is well-played by Jeffrey Re-Animator Combs with the aid of a thoroughly ridiculous-looking rubber chin. Howard, the intrepid investigator, goes to a mysterious monastery to consult the dreaded Necronomicon. Each of the three short films that follow are tales Lovecraft reads from the evil tome, but as he does so, an extradimensional portal is slowing opening up and the monks…well…they’re not what they seem either. Good thing Lovecraft has his trusty swordcane and considerable combat expertise. Yeah, you read that right. However, before the big monk beatdown, there are the three stories the Necronomicon has to tell.

The first short is not directly based off of any HPL tale, but it is a hodgepodge of Lovecraftian ideas mixed together in an original blender of insanity. Called “The Drowned” and directed by Christopher Gans, who directed the memorable Brotherhood of the Wolf and the forgettable Silent Hill movie, the story begins with Edward “the last Delapore” (Bruce Payne) returning to his rotting, ancestral home perched precariously atop a seaside cliff. If, after reading that name, you’re thinking about Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls”, well, surprise, this movie has nothing to do with that. No, in this tale, the last Delapore is mourning the recent loss of his wife and, in an incredible coincidence, upon moving into the deserted estate, he finds his long-dead uncle’s journal that tells him that Uncle Jethro was also mourning the loss of his wife and child many years back. But that old codger was determined to do something about it. Jethro, played by veteran bad-guy actor, Richard Lynch, just so happened to have a copy of the Necronomicon. Through the use of horrible magic, he brought his wife and son back to life. Or did he? Of course he didn’t. You knew he wasn’t going to. And after reading about such horrors, you would think that Edward would know that, too. But no, in his grief, he’s determined to bring his drowned wife back to the land of the living, no matter what. Yeah, I’m sure they will all live happily ever after once she’s back.

Highlights of this short film include Richard Lynch doing his usual fine job of being gruff and offputting, a few eerie moments that work surprisingly well, and several new approaches to Mighty Cthulhu itsself. Yes, the Big Green Machine makes an appearance here as he lives under the very cliff the Delapore house sits upon. Who knew? While this tale takes several liberties with Lovecraft’s ideas, and not all of them work, it was still good, silly, monsterific fun.

The next movie is called “The Cold” and is based on a real Lovecraft story. Three guesses as to which one. Yes, “Cool Air” gets the movie treatment here and, despite having never before heard of the director, Shusuke Kaneko, who appears to have made his bones directing a bunch of Gamera films, it is not only the most faithful to HPL but the best of the trio of tales. Because it’s a good retelling of Lovecraft, I’m going to be light on the details so as to not ruin the ending. If you’ve already read that story, as you should, then you know the gist of it. If not, go read that tale, then watch this movie. However, that isn’t to say that this movie doesn’t take certain liberties or make outright changes to the source material. It does both, but such things actually work and added to the creep factor, especially at the movie’s climax. The protagonist likewise changes from a man to a woman, to good effect. Certain modern touches, like a lecherous stepfather and attempted rape, which really don’t add much except for some ickiness, are also new additions. There’s also a bit about spinal fluid that seems unnecessary, but all in all, this was a good adaptation of Lovecraft’s classic. Lastly, look for perennial villain David Warner turning in a chilling performance as the cold-hearted doctor.

The last tale probably had the most things going for it to make it the best of the lot and yet, it is easily the worst. It’s directed by Brian Yuzna, who also directed the wraparound story, not to mention the Re-Animator sequels and producing a bunch of other movies with ties to HPL. He is easily the most Lovecraft-savvy of the film’s directors, and yet here, he gets things oh-so-wrong. Worse yet, this segment, called “Whispers”, is a very loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”, which is one of the Old Man from Providence’s best stories and one that HPL actually liked quite a lot, himself. Yet, despite all this, the freaky flick is sort of a mess, not the least of which for replacing actual creepy elements with gratuitous gallons of goopy gore. Now, I like blood and gore. The Friday the 13th flicks always make me giggle, no matter how many times I see them. But the sticky red stuff can’t make up for a silly story, nonsensical plot twists, and truly cheesy-looking alien special effects.

Since this movie only has a passing resemblance to the story it is sort of based off of, I will give some things away, if only to serve as a warning. A young, pregnant female cop and her baby-daddy police partner are racing in their patrol car after a serial killer with the oh-so-original moniker of “The Butcher” when they crash their car. Cop mommy-to-be is dragged out of the wrecked car by a very weird couple who promptly light her on fire and dump her down a slimy pit filled with body parts and strange…things. I won’t say what the things are, just in case you’ve never read the Lovecraft story, but let’s just say that they don’t really look like the beasties they’re supposed to be, nor do they act like it. Instead of discovering new truths to the cosmos, they are more interested in our heroine’s unborn baby and sucking the bone marrow out of people (What’s with all the spinal fluid and bone marrow-munching in these movies?) This means that Brian Yuzna has effectively taken one of Lovecraft’s best expressions of the cold, uncaring, and horrific universe and reduced it to a slasher sans the cool Halloween masks.

Final Verdict: The Necronomicon: Book of the Dead runs the gambit from silly and funny, to kind-of-creepy but weird, to pretty darn Lovecraftian with a few new twists, to a sad disappointment with buckets of gore but very little else.

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