It’s weird to think that HP Lovecraft was such a cerebral and understated horror writer when the his cinematic translations are mostly filled with big slimy monsters. Considering what an uptight know-it-all Lovecraft seemed to have been, he would probably have hated the work of his greatest champions Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Where Lovecraft was all about the unknowable ancient evils he can barely describe, such is their horror, Gordon/Yuzna like nothing better than getting a one-eyed tentacled shoggoth to wrap it’s extensions around a semi naked starlet. But then if these filmmakers have mined Lovecraft’s work for countless stories on film and TV then surely, no matter what the results, the author owes them unending gratitude for reminding the public that he even existed.
H.P. Lovecraft is a legitimately great horror writer but until Stuart Gordon directed and Brian Yuzna produced Re-Animator he was all but forgotten outside a very small circles of weirdos. His short stories were difficult to get hold of and his novella next to impossible. It’s not like Re-Animator set the world on fire, but the wider public suddenly remembered who Lovecraft was and even I could pick up At The Mountains Of Madness at my local WH Smith.
Gordon and Yuzna continued to mine his work over the years but it was whilst Gordon was moving more into scifi territory (with the likes of Fortress and Space Truckers) that Yuzna decided to take on the bible of the Lovecraftian universe, the oft mentioned but never seen Necronomicon, also known as the Book of The Dead. It was a spectacular anthology with three great directors, three classic Lovecraft stories and more monstrosities than you could shake a severed tentacle at. It was such a celebration of all things Lovecraft that the star would be the great man himself (played by Jeffrey Combs obviously).
And so Necronomicon was made. Nobody saw it.
Well I’ve finally seen it now. We begin with Jeffrey Combs as HP arriving at a monastery’s library to casually do some research for his latest work of “non fiction”. Really he has the ambition of finding the Necronomicon and copying some stories from it. Two questions arise from this. Firstly, only one of the stories seems to be partly set in the past, another I’m not sure when it’s set and the final one is about a couple of cops in the nineties. I know the book is meant to be magical but why would it want to tell you about a police car chase from the future? It would just be gobbledegook to most readers up to and beyond when Lovecraft is meant to copying them (the 1930s). Secondly, is Yuzna suggesting that Lovecraft basically plagiarised his work from old manuscripts? Hardly a homage to the great man!
Of he’s not. Yuzna is trying to present the literature accurately. Hell, the three stories presented here are barely related to their origins at all. Not that it matters as they’re special in their own weird ways.
Once Lovecraft has found the Necronomicon were off into the first story. Based on The Rats in the Walls it is the closest thing to what you’d hope from a Lovecraft story. It’s got tragic regret, rejection of God, water logged sea people and a massive tentacled ancient God living in the basement. Really it has got it all. Directed by Christophe Gans with a huge amount of style and ambition it defies it’s meagre budget to deliver one of the best Lovecraft adaptions ever filmed. The story is pretty straightforward but it fits a lot in its twenty minutes or so including a wonderfully hammy flashback starring Richard Lynch and a fish man with a massive seaweed covered hat. By the time you get to the heroe’s dead wife coming out of the sea to give him a water logged blow job you think things can’t get any better. That’s when we meet the giant Lovecraftian being under the floorboards. Beautifully realised with miniatures, it may not look perfect, how could it with such limited means, but Gans goes for it anyway, and packs in some good action beats and stunts to boot. If anything it’s the perfect ending to the three stories and in some respect it’s a shame it’s the first one. I guess that Yuzna wanted to get his audience gripped with an exciting yarn. Well he and Gans certainly did that.
That’s lucky because the next story isn’t so special. Basically a mix between a vampire story and Re-Animator it’s set in one location and you can guess the ending a mile off. On the flip side it also has David Warner in it which automatically makes any film five times better. He’s an old school character actor who will take this kind of nonsense as seriously as he would Shakespeare, so makes it much more interesting than it really is. This story has a hilariously long winded body melt with the victim tearing his skin and flesh off for about five minutes before collapsing on the floor in a pile of goo and eyeballs. It’s a testament to Yuzna and his dedication to special make up effects. Necronomicon came out (well, barely came out) at the tail end of the Fangoria-lead eighties horror boom when make up effects ruled. Yuzna clearly understood that: him and his co directors made sure that a substantial amount of the money was set aside for prosthetics, fake blood and KY jelly – ooh sounds like a party I won’t be attending.
The final story is directed by Brian Yuzna himself. He goes for a completely different approach to the story telling, starting off as if we are in the middle of the climax of a different film. A male and female cop are giving chase to some unknown criminal, screaming their heads off at each other. When they crash their car the male, injured and dying is dragged away underground and his regretful, angry and pregnant partner has to go in and rescue him. This chase leads down into what I guess is the depths of hell with a very annoying old couple with no eyes, some weird rubbery bats and lots of bloody surgery. What it has to do with the short story The Whisperer in the Darkness is beyond me. It is still called Whispers so I guess that’s something, but no one actually whispers in the film or even eats a Whisper chocolate bar. The short story was about extra terrestrials removing peoples brains for interstellar travel. This seems to be about hell babies. By this point though it doesn’t really matter. Yuzna is clearly more caught up in throwing gore and weird images about that homaging Lovecraft and it’s a lot of fun for that.
Things then all wrap up with all manor of Lovecraft vs killer monk mayhem with the book of the dead itself having a big old light show to finish things off. If you wanted a serious representation of Lovecraft’s work then you’ve come to the wrong place. The first story is as close as it gets, maybe as close as anyone has got. Not that it is that easy to tell from the picture I watched because, once again, I am watching a film on a DVD that is copied from a VHS and in 4:3 ratio. Could someone release this properly please? There’s a French Blu ray out there somewhere (in France most likely), which I might get if only to see if that monster in the first story is as good as I like to think it is.
I also like to think I would have seen Necronomicon in the cinema if it had been released but it never got a cinema release over here (it was shown at the London Film Festival – what must of the arty-farty crowd thought of that?!?!). It never even had much of a video launch either and limped onto USA as a “video premiere” (ooh fancy) three years after it was completed. There was probably some distribution rights problem or company folded which meant it got buried. Or maybe it was an anthology movie which are notoriously hard to market*. Whatever the case, if you can find it, then like the book itself, its worth having a little look at.
*I call bullshit on that and all so called difficult to market films. Its a bad marketing department who can’t work out how to sell something, not a bad film. If its too hard to market then go get another job. If someone can make The Greasy Strangler** a hit then you can make anything a hit.
** I have no idea if The Greasy Strangler was a hit or not.