Eldritch Adaptations: ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ (2014)

Eldritch Adaptations

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.

(0) PosterIndependent directors with little or no budget have to work hard to cover their lack of resources. Working in a genre like horror is particularly tricky, because to invoke true dread requires the audience to get lost in the film, and without a studio, achieving that is difficult. The writer and director of The Thing on the DoorstepMary Jane Hansen and Tom Gliserman, respectively—probably know this better than anyone. Yet, they still don’t avoid the pitfalls that most low-budget genre directors continue to fall into. Gliserman tries to capture the seamless visual style of mainstream cinema and use the same beats as big-budget horror flicks, but doing so only welcomes the comparison and reveals how subpar and derivative the film is.

The cinematography tends to be one of the biggest culprits in poorly-executed low-budget horror, and the lighting of this film embodies the flaws. Every shot is either too dark or over-saturated with sunlight. Each scene is lit, but not well enough to capture the visual cleanliness of any major film. The color palette varies widely as a result (and possibly due to an abuse of filters), which took me out of almost every scene. The shots also have a distinctly amateur quality, with occasionally jarring cuts connecting scenes framed boringly or bafflingly. This is par for the course for low-budget horror, but no less disappointing here. The director has a lot of room to grow, but I actually sympathize with him. Knowing where to place the camera is difficult, but I think there just needs to be more thought put into how it will connect with the surrounding shots, and whether it captures the proper effect for that moment.

There are moments of promise, though. When Marion Upton (Susan Cicarelli-Caputo)—the wife of protagonist Daniel Upton (David Bunce)—finds a woman tied to a chair, the cuts and effects are combined so well as to mask any budget, and they reflect some truly disturbing visual horror. There are also some interesting shots of a woman standing in the desert; however, Gilserman is too dependent on these for their symbolic and shocking value to truly utilize the concept. These exist in contrast to most of the “scares,” which depend on an obtrusive soundtrack to get even a blink from the viewer.

Midnight Pulp

Midnight Pulp“Is what we wrote not scary? Add one of those spooky violins or something.”

I focus so much on the camerawork and its attempt to mimic mainstream horror because I think it reflects where most low-budget films go wrong: they want to be mainstream horror. But in these situations, less is more, and if you aren’t going to be able to get big scares out of your audience, I think it’s your job to do something more interesting. I feel similarly about adaptations of Lovecraft, actually: if you can’t capture the terror of his stories with movie magic, then you should do something interesting with the text. This is where The Thing on the Doorstep truly disappoints.

Lovecraft’s story of the same name is actually one of his most interesting. While rarely considered one of his better works, it stands out from most of his bibliography due to its focus on characters, a romantic relationship, and human intimacy. The story is largely the same as the film’s: Daniel Upton recounts what led him to murder his friend, Edward Derby, who had recently married a magnetic woman named Asenath Waite (played in the film by Hansen). Slowly, Daniel reveals that Asenath has been swapping consciousnesses with the buffoonish Edward. Worse, though, Asenath has never really been Asenath; her body is inhabited by her father Ephraim Waite, who is, quite plainly, an evil bastard. When you consider the obsessive nature of Edward’s affections and the obvious sexual implications, it’s hard not to find the sex and gender stuff interesting, especially when you consider that it was written by someone who was likely borderline asexual.

Midnight Pulp Well, he did have a thing for old-fashioned houses, but you can't prove anything.

Midnight Pulp
Well, he did have a thing for old-fashioned houses, but you can’t prove anything.

Anyway, my point is that “The Thing on the Doorstep” is ripe for re-writings or adaptations due to the numerous ways it can be read.  Considering the numerous haphazard, brainless adaptations of Lovecraft, there is potential here for an actually interesting film. But Hansen and Gliserman don’t tap into it at all. They threaten to: the addition of Marion, Daniel’s wife, adds to the connection between Edward and Daniel. Both are married to a woman with whom the romance is fading. Both begin to lose a sense of self. The notion that marriage can consume your identity would be great to explore here.

But the relationships don’t go anywhere, and ultimately we get no sense of who Derby is, and thus don’t have many reasons to care about the loss of his (lack of) identity. I actually hoped the film would draw parallels between Lovecraft and Derby, since it’s so focused on showing how Derby is considered selfish and unable to change himself—a major criticism of Lovecraft in his failed marriage to Sonia Greene. The loss of identity would feel more personal if they connected with the emotional resonance in Lovecraft’s own life, but the chance wasn’t taken.

Midnight Pulp Not to mention the chance to write an actually engaging female character.

Midnight Pulp
It’s almost as bad as the missed chance to write an actually engaging female character.

The only subtext that Hansen and Gliserman attempt to add is dubious. Marion assumes Edward is abusing Asenath because he appears to have her locked up inside and under watch. Daniel contends that it’s Edward who is being abused, and seems frustrated that Marion can’t picture the male being the victim—that she assumes Asenath is the victim due to her being a woman. Further, Asenath appears to prey upon Marion’s assumption. This fits a modern discourse, where people argue that men are underrepresented as victims of abuse because everyone always assumes the woman is the victim. It reflects this weird mindset where the relatively reasonable Marion can’t see Asenath as hostile, and Asenath is an evil woman who abuses this. While the conversation does have points that should be discussed, The Thing on the Doorstep doesn’t address them with any nuance. It feels weirdly fitting of a modern criticism of discussions of domestic abuse, without adding anything to it.

Maybe I’m over-reading the message, here, and Hansen and Gliserman didn’t intend to say anything with the characters’ actions, but that actually represents part of the problem. Why adapt Lovecraft mindlessly? You’re only contributing to the blasted heath that is Lovecraft pastiches. You are actively hurting the state of Lovecraftian works by pushing forward this image of him as a subpar horror writer. And when you take one of Lovecraft’s most horrifying moments in all of his stories—the fate of the consciousness of Edward Derby—and make it as close to a classic horror scene as spam is to a fine slice of pork chop, you soil it even further. “Spam” defines The Thing on the Doorstep quite well, actually. It’s a poor imitation of something much better, and I want to delete any reference of it from my inbox.

The horror! The horror!

The horror! The horror!

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