Wednesday, September 9, 2009

288) Necronomicon (1993)

288) Necronomicon (1993) Dir: Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko and Brian Yuzna Date Released (VHS): October 1996 Date Seen: September 9, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

I'm not entirely sure that it's possible to make a successful film adaptation of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. His florid writing style does everything it can to prevent the reader from being able to visualize what's going on, which is a good part of the fun that any adaptation, film or otherwise, usually willfully ignores. I mean, let's face it, his most memorable creation is a space-alien-God thing with an unpronounceable name--Lovecraft's narrator makes a point that he can only approximate the name because it stems from a fair coarser and more guttural language--and an unimaginably hideous chimera-like body. His monsters are intentionally unfathomable so it stands to reason that reproducing their images and the context within which they were created is a hard sell.

Necronomicon, an omnibus film of Lovecraft adaptations, is a valiant effort and serves up some intriguing mixed results. Its first segment, "The Drowned," directed by Chrisophe Gans, is the weakest of the four stories though its also the only one to faithfully reproduce the atmosphere of Lovecraft's story. In it, a man comes home to his long-abandoned inheritance--a moldering mansion with shelves full of cob-web covered books and a waterlogged, sunken cellar. Gans' Byronic anti-hero lusts after a particular tome in the house that harkens back to the original owner's supernatural activities. That kind of gothic, single-minded quest for Faustian knowledge is key to Lovecraft's stories but Gans doesn't really make much of that solid foundation of atmosphere.

The monsters in Gans's short look like something Clive Barker would come up with if he were working with the Jim Henson Workshop. They're the the product of a mind that has tried too hard to literally incorporate and visualize key concepts and tenants of what constitutes "Lovecraftian horror." The fact that the squid monster at the end is vanquished by sunlight shows that Gans, who also wrote the screenplay for "The Drowned," is overthinking things and as a result, prevents his moody story from delivering when it needs to most.

Shusuke Kaneko's "The Cold" also dips into more Barker-esque than Lovecraftian horror but provides more exciting and consistently atmospheric chills than "The Drowned." Based on Lovecraft's short story "Cool Air," Kaneko's segment follows a young woman as she becomes entangled with a mad scientist, played by the ever-game David Warner, who kills people for their spinal fluid. When it comes time to show the toll that working with arcane science has had on Warner's character, Kaneko delivers with a scene of skin-melting body horror worthy of a B-grade Cronenberg. It's lurid enough to be Lovecraftian and its framing story has a pulpy moral pay-off worth of a Tales from the Crypt yarn.

Speaking of B-grade, probably C-grade, Cronenberg, producer/director Brian Yuzna provides the strongest segments of the film with his wrap-around story and adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness." Yuzna's segments don't try to be Lovecraftian but rather they appropriate bits of his style--the wraparound segments starring Jeff Combs features some nifty Gaudi-esque architecture, grisly creature effects and pronounced Orientalism, to boot--to create two campy, Joe Dante-esque horror pastiches. 

Yuzna's segments stand apart because Necronomicon was not the first time he had dabbled with body horror--his superbly silly Society is both moody and effectively satirical of the suburban slashers du jour. His voice and style had already developed by the time he made "Whispers," making it only natural that it has a more clear idea of where it wants to go than either of Gans's or Kaneko's segments . Yuzna's work here confirms that he and collaborator Stuart Gordon were on the right track with their questionably raunchy re-appropriation of Lovecraft's stories. Neither Yuzna nor Gordon made strict adaptations and in the process, their films are both faithful and flippant, which may be the best way to recreate such unapproachable source material.


  1. Well done.

    I count myself as a long time Yuzna-Gordon-Colmbs fan (and of Barbara Crampton who stuck around for a couple of those great slocky but brilliant films), and its nice to read this. If nothing else, its reassurance that I'm not crazy. This movie really exists!

    I thought "Dagon" was a pretty successful effort as well.

  2. Thanks, Jamie.

    Mmm...Barbara Crampton in FROM BEYOND.....

    Haven't seen DAGON yet but I should. Is CASTLE FREAK any good?