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.
The go-to book for a comprehensive outline of film adaptations of/homages to H. P. Lovecraft is Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft by Andrew Migliore and John Strysik. In the book, the authors claim, “The Resurrected is the best serious Lovecraftian screen adaptation to date, with a solid cast, decent script, inventive direction, and excellent special effects that do justice to one of [Lovecraft’s] darker tales.”
This might be the saddest sentence I have ever read in a book related to Lovecraft, and that includes his biographies—which chronicle anxiety and depression with surprising depth—and critical studies—which tend to fall under that adjective because they are about as nuanced as your average Stuart Gordon film. The Resurrected (a 1991 movie in the worst ways) is not an atrocity, but it is pretty bad, if only because it is so excessively average. There is nothing special here, which makes the bad moments stand out all the more. There are your pointless, uninteresting voice-overs; terrible effects*; highly questionable camera-work; lazy character writing; and an aimless story. There’s just so much that made this movie sub-par, and not even in the sense of, “Oh, that was delightfully bad and silly.”
I’ll start—to give myself more direction than Dan O’Bannon (who wrote Alien) had—with the framework of the story. The film opens with a generic “The prisoner has escaped!” scene followed by the protagonist John March (John Terry) narrating his incredulity to everything that has happened into a tape recorder. Instantly there is a reference to Double Indemnity, which is considered a hallmark and harbinger of film noir in the ’40s and ’50s. That contextualizes the entire film as a noir, which is carried further by March’s profession as a private investigator. I have no idea why O’Bannon and writer Brent V. Friedman thought this was a useful framework with which to update Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (also the source for The Haunted Palace, my review of which is linked above), and I don’t know because they don’t use it otherwise. Sure, you have March as a PI who descends into a labyrinth of craziness. There’s also the element of Charles Ward’s (Chris Sarandon) wife, Claire (Jane Sibbett), approaching March with a case. But the visual style of the movie, as well as the themes and plot besides what I just mentioned, do not utilize the foundations and possibilities laid out by noir at all. It’s just a few references designed to make the film appear smart without it actually putting in any of the legwork.
The writing does try to use some sharp one-liners à la noir, but they are laughable at best. There is one scene where March’s assistant takes several minutes of dialogue to tell two different people he has quit smoking; a half hour later, he smokes a cigarette, and responds to the question of when he started again with, “Since I quit.” This never comes up again, didn’t come up in between those two scenes, and does not reveal anything about his character, who is so nondescript and unimportant to the plot at large that the focus on him is pointless anyways. Who thought that was a good idea? That is the definition of extraneous writing, not to mention bad writing in general.
The writing else-wise is equally terrible. Voice-overs as they are used in this film are the reason that screenwriting teachers outlaw the technique: they reiterate what we already know or substitute for what should be communicated in-scene. They’re also as boringly narrated as Harrison Ford’s VOs in the poorer Blade Runner cuts. But even beyond the line-to-line writing, the plot is lost and confused; there is actually a whole twenty-minute sequence where March, Claire, and the smoking guy explore some catacombs for reasons that are barely justified by the plot. The context is lacking. I mean, I could guess that they wanted to know what Ward was doing, but those motivations are barely communicated. The characters make decisions with no rationale whatsoever, and March’s transition from stoic skeptic to terrified believer could be called a twist all on its own because it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t line up with what we know about him so far.
The supposed “twist” of the movie is one of the lamest I have ever seen: SPOILER we hear tell of a Dr. Ash, who is a sketchy looking dude that works with Charles Ward in his weird experiments. Supposedly, he’s a big deal, but we see him maybe twice before Ward is arrested. Then, we see him in a rear-view mirror, apparently a hallucination of March, and he’s not mentioned again for over a half hour until Ward (now possessed by Joseph Curwen, an ancestor of his from a few centuries ago) says that he was dressed up as Dr. Ash in disguise, which doesn’t matter to us because he was barely a part of the story in the first place. Also, they treat it like a big surprise that Ward is now actually Curwen, or that the two are related at all, despite the fact that the audience figured that out halfway through the film; early on, the characters make a huge fuss about a painting they find of Curwen which looks exactly like Ward, and then find it odd that Ward is speaking in the language (well, what the writers think is the language) of the time period Curwen is from. At the end, there’s a genealogy scroll or something that reveals Ward is related to Curwen, and this is apparently supposed to shock the viewer, but we knew that already because of the painting that they took so long to emphasize. It’s like having a big reveal at the end of Toy Story 3 that the toys can actually move and talk. END SPOILER I think the only conclusion I can make about this movie is that the writer forgot everything he wrote halfway through the scripting process.
And another thing about the stupidity of this plot: why would you have the primary antagonist arrested halfway through the movie so that the characters can explore his lair and all that? There is no immediacy to the story because the threat is safely locked up. Sure, later on we learn that the padded room cannot hold him, but only in the last ten minutes of the movie, where it is immediately resolved. How is that a good idea in what is supposed to be a mysterious and tense horror movie? There’s no threat, and thus no mystery, no tension, and no horror. The only mystery is for the characters, but since the audience knows everything already, the slow reveals are boring, which is the last feeling that you want to pass through the audience during a horror movie.
Beyond all the poor storytelling, which lacks any sort of theming, The Resurrected doesn’t even default to some of the most basic principles from Lovecraft’s stories. Ward is supposed to be one of Lovecraft’s arrogant protagonists, someone who foolishly explores the truths of the universe, only to learn that reality is far too much for a human being to comprehend. Instead, we learn that he’s looking to work with Curwen to control time and space, becoming immortal and holding dominion over life. That’s a direct contradiction of Lovecraft’s sense that humans cannot know all there is to know, and in fact would be driven crazy by it. They’re not supposed to control all of time and space; that takes away the root of the horror in the first place. Instead, you have some guys who might become All-Powerful, but since the only guy who might do so is locked up in jail and rarely shown on screen for the last half or third of the movie, that’s not anything the audience cares about.
Maybe, just maybe, this would all be okay if the writing and filmmaking were solid. As if the basic narrative qualities of the writing weren’t poor enough, though, the actual dialogue reads like a transcription of someone playing the video game Silent Hill. They have two directions they can head, and one character asks, “Which way should we go?” When the character decides left, they go left, only to find it blocked off. “Huh, this is blocked off. Guess we’ll have to go the other way.” Why even have them go left, then?! Like the smoking “punchline,” the point is never returned to! After that, March and Claire approach a door and say, “Oh, this door is locked,” and repeat the process until they find one that is unlocked, making note of the fact aloud and then going inside. This scene could have been improved by putting the script in front of a two year old who had access to white out and scissors.
Perhaps the most laughable moment in this whole movie, though—surely a gold medal-worthy achievement—occurs during the voiced-over flashback where Claire describes to March her husband’s weird behavior. While we watch her argue with her husband, she narrates, “I told him he was going to have to find another place to do his experiments.” Then, the audio shifts to Claire and her husband talking in the flashback, and we hear her say, “You’re going to have to find another place to do your experiments!” I laughed out loud at this. How can you write it and not realize how stupid and superfluous it is?
Compound that with the hilarious decisions like a quick zoom-in on a decomposed corpse, and you have a story that is so poorly told that it pulls you out of the movie at every turn. Everything is just for oogie-boogie’s sake, but even those can’t shock or interest what is likely an already forgiving audience.
The only good thing I have to say about this movie, and it’s more of a matter of confusion than anything, is that Chris Sarandon gives a quiet and surprisingly dedicated performance as Charles Ward. In the midst of black seas of stupidity, Sarandon gives it his all, and can be surprisingly eerie, but sadly the dialogue and camerawork do everything they can to undermine his talent. The Resurrected is a movie that wants to succeed, that has potentially interesting possibilities; yet, it cannot help but soil them on the most basic of levels. If this is the best serious adaptation of Lovecraft to date, then I don’t know what I fear for the most: the status of Lovecraft adaptations, or the critical capacities of authors who have publications about Lovecraft.
*Don’t give me that “It was 23 years ago!” argument; you and I both know that there are movies made with smaller budgets decades prior that look better.