Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
I am pretty annoyed with The Unnamable (1988). If it had been as poor as I expected, then I would have had so many opportunities for a snarky title. I could have joked that this film is an unnamable atrocity to both Lovecraft and cinema. If this movie were another pile a la Stuart Gordon’s affronts to decency and taste (see reviews above of Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon), then I could have commented on how the only thing more indescribably terrible than the titular monster is the direction and writing. There were so many opportunities!
But instead, I got a flick that is, in many ways, what every movie I have criticized in these reviews so far has attempted to be: a combination of some contemporary horror style and the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
In this case, we have schlocky 80s horror flicks as the contemporary genre, but even that is played with. First, though, I have to commend the way that these two styles are melded. After a weak opening (one of the guys’s name is Mr. Craft; seriously?) that takes place a couple hundred of years prior, we see Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) talking to his friends; he has been telling this story to the impressionable Howard (Charles Klausmeyer) and unimpressed Joel (Mark Parra). The dialogue here is incredibly stinted and unrealistic, almost approaching caricature: Joel disputes Carter’s claims that there is an “indescribable” and “unnamable” evil, arguing that, “Everything can be conceived and described, either through scientific prose or mathematical equation.” Basically, it’s classic Lovecraft. The characters speak idealistically in a manner reminiscent of 18th century English, which is how Lovecraft himself tended to speak.
This doesn’t last for long, however, as—after the characters pass around some Lovecraftian philosophy about ideas outside of the realm of science—the film transitions into the writing and style of 80s horror flicks, as the Miskatonic University kids argue about whether they should stay in the supposedly haunted house from Carter’s story. Immediately we understand that The Unnamable is rooted in Lovecraft, but ultimately of the 80s horror ilk, and that’s okay, because the movie knows what it wants to be. The Lovecraft roots are established with the dialogue and caricatures (Joel is the skeptic scientist archetype that Lovecraft adored; Carter is Lovecraft himself, in a sense; and Howard is the kid who would do well to curb his curiosity), but they are also quickly reshaped into the contemporary style.
The use of 80s horror tropes is also exceedingly clever. While there are the two jocks who want to get laid, and two girls who want to be popular and take a liking to the sporty guys, all of these people are fully realized and fleshed out characters. The jocks, we see, are actually kind of lonely and desperate; the girls have conflicting views and interests that make them want to pursue college social statuses but also maintain their individuality. The 80s horror stock characters are inverted and altered, so that when things start to go down, we actually care about what’s happening. Add on top of that the fact that the script up to that point avoids cliches and has clever, funny, and surprising moments, and you have yourself something that’s above the very genre it emulates.
When the climax begins to approach, the script and excellence do not falter. First of all, every character acts the way that we expect them to based on what we know about them, and each has their own mini-arc that makes the pursuit of an unnamable creature immediate. That’s not even mentioning the delightful Sherlock Holmes/John Watson chemistry between Carter and Howard. The shocks are, well, shocking because we actually care about what happens to these people. Moreover, some Lovecraft is brought in by the amazing set of the haunted house itself; the geometry is slightly off, as are the colors, and the characters often get lost within and confused by the building. This reflects Lovecraft’s Horror of Disorientation, wherein what we expect is not in keeping with reality. Ironically, with all of this excitement, the only disappoint is the monster, who is captured very directly despite supposedly being indescribably and inconceivably.
Seriously though, everyone, while this movie might not be horrifying in the way that Lovecraft is, I am amazed to say that it’s a good movie. Although The Haunted Palace (see review above) is a fun example of contemporary horror (read: Vincent Price movies), it does not really incorporate Lovecraftian elements in the same way that The Unnamable does. Without the Lovecraft elements, this is still a great movie that works with and subverts the cliches and tropes of its contemporaries. With those elements, it adds a dimension of fun and intrigue for Lovecraft fans and the public in general. I won’t call this a great Lovecraft movie, but I will say that it’s a great movie, and I had a blast watching it. I recommend that you do the same, especially if you get as disheartened with adaptations of one of America’s best horror writers as I do.