Saturday, March 18, 2023

American Gothic Week: Fragments as our universe must needs disown


Directed by Daniel Haller
Written by Jerry Sohl (based on "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft)

Spoilers: moderate

Back on 1963's The Haunted Palace, I remarked that I didn't know if it was its director Roger Corman or its writer Charles Beaumont who originally came up with the idea of sneaking an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation into an "Edgar Allan Poe" adaptation.  There's evidence for each: Corman was on a much-needed break from Poe, while Poe's poem "The Haunted Palace" had only ever been AIP's imposition anyway; whereas Beaumont had written a remarkably similar story for television already, which resembled Lovecraft's novella, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," about as much as his screenplay for Haunted Palace did, which as we discussed isn't that much.  But what I did not consider at that time was that maybe it was its art director, Daniel Haller, who first suggested Lovecraft.  And there is ample evidence to assume this instead: he art directed The Haunted Palace; he produced 1965's War-Gods of the Deep, which owes something to Lovecraft; and later, he directed what I assume is the first Lovecraft adaptation to actually use one of Lovecraft's titles, 1970's The Dunwich Horror.  So he must've liked Lovecraft.  But in between (but also in 1965), he made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space," and that makes me think again: no matter how much everything else points to Haller as AIP's resident aficionado, it's terribly hard to imagine that this movie was the work of a Lovecraft fan.

When people say the Corman Poes are loose adaptations of the author's work, they really just mean they're not slavish.  They're close in sentiment even when obliged to do wholesale invention, like in Pit and the Pendulum or Premature Burial, and when they're not close, like in The Raven, they're doing it on purpose to lampoon Poe, or at least the previous Poe movies.  Somehow, even The Haunted Palace, "based on" Poe's poetry solely to the extent that poetry gets recited therein, winds up more in accord with Poe's themes and sensibilities than this avowed Lovecraft adaptation is of his (and somehow it's still better Lovecraft, even though it's fundamentally just a Corman Poe with a "Case of Charles Dexter Ward" overlay).  We don't need to dwell much on the title that Haller's Lovecraft adaptation took, Die, Monster, Die!, because while there's not really the kind of monster in "Colour" that you'd scream such a thing at, the fact is that Die, Monster, Die!, the movie, doesn't have that kind of monster either.  It's obviously lacking in class, but it is, after all, just a title; it probably wasn't "chosen" but foisted upon it by AIP's marketers (in 2023, Lovecraft might well be more famous than Poe, but this was hardly the case in 1965), and this was simply 60s schlock horror's way.

It is, then, not even indicative of why it's such a supremely bad adaptation, but when I call this "bad adaptation," I do not mean this in the way that The Haunted Palace apparently sincerely believed that "Charles Dexter Ward" was about a magical painting, nor even the way that Stuart Gordon would later inflict upon Lovecraft the most unnamable and indescribable horror of all, sexuality.  And though I am not a great lover of 2019's adaptation, the "u"-less Color Out of Space, the worst of that film's bad adaptation is simply how it repeats the inexplicable and pervasive sin of Lovecraft cinema, that is, setting it in the present day rather than in the 1920s or 1930s, when the gulfs in human understanding opened up by science were larger, more mysterious, and riper for Lovecraftian exploitation.  Die, Monster, Die! commits this sin, tooit's set in 1965, which is somehow a bigger problem with the content of this adaptation of "Colour" than the other Color being set in 2019but it's not the only sin.  Die, Monster, Die! cuts Lovecraft's heart out; it does this in numerous ways.  The thing that irks me the most is that thanks to AIP's ongoing co-production agreement with Anglo-Amalgamated, this adaptation of "Colour" is set in Arkham, England.  I realize it shouldn't even bother me that mucha big part is simply "shooting location" has never actually had to mean "story location," and it's just so unnecessarybut "Colour" is at least the Lovecraft story set in northeastern America (New England, I think it's called) that least requires Lovecraft's rendition of his own corner of the world to appropriately function.  Though since "the Lovecraft that least requires New Englishness" is akin to saying "the resident of Innsmouth who least likes to swim," of course "Colour" should still be set in Massachusetts, and you'd think this would be obvious.

But it wasn't.  And so we have our one American as allowed by British tax law, Stephen Reinhardt (Nick Adams).  Stephen's a recent college graduateI think the film wants us to think he's graduated with a degree in a hard science, but this is unlikelyand even more recently he's arrived here in Arkham, sigh, England, to reunite with his university-days girlfriend, Susan Witley (Suzan Farmer), herself presently having returned to her father Nahum (Boris Karloff) and mother Letitia (Freda Jackson) on their forbidding estate outside town.  (So what we have so far is just dusting off the story engine from House of Usher.)  Stephen blunders about in Arkham trying and failing to get transportation, and in a series of repetitive scenes he discovers that the Witleys are so feared and despised by the townsfolk that the bike shop proprietor won't even sell him a bicycle to get there.

Accordingly, he walks the several miles, and basically has to infiltrate the compound to get to the front door, and when he gets in, he has to wander around before finally he runs into wheelchair-bound Nahum, who tells him to beat it, though he doesn't.  Stephen has questions about the blasted something-or-other between Arkham and here, and while Nahum will not discuss it (maybe the black-clad figure following Stephen that he didn't notice would've been more forthcoming), the old man is prevailed upon to let Stephen stay, outvoted by his daughter and his bedridden and it seems disfigured wife.  Things get worse when the Witleys' servant (Terence De Marney) has an episode in the middle of dinner; later awoken by screaming, Stephen is perplexed byand suspicious ofthe body-shaped stain on the floor of the servant's room and Nahum's cagey explanation of what exactly happened to him.  Something is bad at the Witleys', and once Stephen and Susan break into the greenhouse, beholding the monstrous plantsand even more monstrous animalsthat Nahum has grown, they discover exactly how bad, catching up to where we were back when we saw Nahum skulking about around the emerald glow of the giant pit he has in the basement, or, at the latest, when Stephen and Susan discussed the portraits of her ancestors, which included a very "AIP Gothic horror" painting of her grandfather (the likeness of Karloff) staring out at us with a malevolent gaze.

Here's the thing: we're ahead of anywhere the story itself is ever going to get.  It's like some kind of anti-spoiler; you keep waiting for a Lovecraftian trapdoor to open where you fall into a shoggoth, and it doesn't happen.  There is, for a while, a reasonably intriguing mystery, but that's only perception, an artifact of a narrative that looks bizarrely more like a sequel to "The Colour Out of Space" set almost a century after the main events of "The Colour Out of Space," paying off on the dreadful portents of the 1927 story's ending.  I initially even assumed it would be told in flashback, as the blasted heath already exists, and "Colour" is itself principally told in flashback, but you pretty quickly realize this isn't this movie's game.  I may even be overrating the story, then, because I spent the vast majority of the runtime of this 80 minute film incapable of imagining that it really could be content to take one half of one character name, one half of one place name, and the vaguest outline of its concept, "it's the one about a meteorite," and call itself a movie, and while I've complained ad nauseam about it not doing Lovecraft it should at least do something.

And, in fairness, it is, but it's even more frown-inducing; I say "a meteorite," but this meteorite delivered unto Nahum a radioactive metal, and he's been using it to do things that are not especially well-explicated, such as make giant plants and mutant octopodes, the former of which at least alludes to one phase of Lovecraft's colour whilst the latter is exactly the lame "hey, do you like Cthulhu? what do you mean it's 1965 and unless you read August Derleth you've never heard of Cthulhu?" fan reference it sounds like, though I will admit that it's at least off-kilter and odd to discover a menagerie of cephalopod puppets just hanging out in Nahum's rural English greenhouse never doing anything.

This is basically fatal: after several decades of rediscovery and his inevitable domestication, it's easy to forget that Lovecraft is supposed to be weird, and it's hard for Cthulhu to be weird when they make plushies out of him (I listen to Lovecraft stories to fall asleep, for goodness sakes), but one nice thing about watching something like Die, Monster, Die! is that it serves as a reset, because as a narrative it's so aggressively ordinary.  It reinvents "Colour" as the laziest mid-century sci-fi atomic horror cautionary tale anyone might have ever made, with a pointless Mythos gloss that's barely parsable anywaysomething-something Nahum's father prayed for a gift from the Great Old Ones (or as screenwriter Jerry Sohl would have it, "the Outer Ones," which, speaking precisely, is something else), and I guess there was a backlog of pending requests, as sometime after his death they sent him some cartoon plutonium.  It does a mighty disservice to "Colour," removing the veil of metaphor and Lovecraftian madness that let the malign colour be something evocative of radiation, without just being radiation.  I wonder if Sohl, upon being confronted with one of the most unadaptable-for-cinema stories ever tolda story that is literally about a new huejust said, under his breath, "fuck you, you're getting meteorite-makes-mutants and you're lucky I'm writing that."  Yet you keep expecting something remotely Lovecraftian to occurthe material turns out to be an alien egg, maybe, or an invasion vector, but that would almost be "The Colour Out of Motherfucking Space," so nobut it keeps going, being pretty much nothing, right through its non-twist twist.

It's almost superfluous to mention that 1965 is too late for this, toothe twist is radioactivity? just radioactivity? you can't be seriousbut as it's part of what makes the viewing experience irritating above-and-beyond "wow, this is a really shitty version of a story I love," it's worth complaining about briefly, with the way its narrative revolves around dimwits, fully twenty years after Trinity, apparently having heard of radiation solely in passing.  Stephen's aware enough to know "radiation is bad," but is never too precious about picking up radioactive materials that he's seen mutate things with his own eyes and inspect them extremely close to his nose and mouth.  Later, a plan to "get rid" of the material involves smashing the material into small pieces, which, as we all know, teaches unstable atoms who's boss.

So the weaknesses aren't limited to "bad Lovecraft" by any means.  The story is faintly terrible on its own terms, being extremely undermotivated (I actually don't know why Nahum would mind his daughter getting married, as you keep expecting some blasphemous secret to be revealed, and it never is, but I don't know why Nahum's doing any of this), and it's rather badly-paced (lots of shoeleather for Stephen sneaking around the estate and marching back and forth between the estate and Arkham, most of it resulting in narratively-unrewarding interactions).  The acting is limited: I like Adams because he's in a couple of my favorite Toho kaiju movies, and while he's worse here than he was acting against people who couldn't speak English, there's still something modestly appealing about his "man, get off my back" late 50s cool guy vibe; but if you have a movie with Boris Karloff and more than one other person where Adams can reasonably be said to be giving the second-best performance, that's not good, and it's even possible you could say Adams is first-best, Karloff having basically no actual character to play, just a set of glowers delivered from a wheelchair that he spends approximately one scene complicating into "overprotective father with a secret" but no more than just that one scene.

As a movie, though, if it's not good, then Haller at least makes it interesting, and it's not a bad first try.  Haller had clearly learnt at Corman's feet: you wouldn't mistake this for a Corman moviewell, not a Corman-directed onebut the family resemblance is there, and not just in the Cormanesque firebug finale.  But it also does feel like a movie directed by an art director, just as War-Gods had felt produced by one.  Thus is the Witley house wall-to-wall gaudy bric-a-brac, just emptying AIP's whole prop department out to decorate this home, with the exteriors defined by evil trees and blanketed in so much fog that if you open a door, that fog is just going to pour right in.  Likewise, Haller was either willing to permit, or lacked the experience to stop, the CinemaScope photography getting diabolically strange, every vertical line in his set becoming a curve and every figure populating it becoming a noodle person as he sweeps his camera across his new haunted mansion.

I think there's a vision to this, at leastit makes the Witley abode look bizarre and grotesque, and "weird-looking" is the closest this ever comes to any source material fidelitybut there's not a lot of discipline, not even the kind of discipline where you can be certain in any given shot that it looks weird-on-purpose rather than weird-on-accident.  There is, for instance, a split-diopter shot where the first focal plane has Adams in it and the second focal plane has nothingunless Haller really was that proud of his bric-a-brac.  And it is impossible to determine if this isn't just an actual mistake, though as it feels like it's trying to bring something "visually impossible" to this unbearably basic-ass "Colour" adaptation, one wishes this nonsense were pursued more diligently.  Likewise, I don't know if the AIP "fake dark" is meaningful, though the aesthetic (bright lights/high contrast black backgrounds) is pushed right up to its breaking point (the approximation of candlelight by the brighest arclight cinematographer Paul Beeson could find, complete with quasi-subliminal clumsiness, has to be intentional, right?); in the same vein, the matte shots to create giant flowers have an uncanniness that works, and I believe you're definitely supposed to notice, even if it could be just "bad special effects"; and this goes just as much for the Dr. Cyclops green-as-fuck radioactive glow.  Whatever it all was, I can compliment it: it never occurred to me to wish that Floyd Crosby were shooting it instead.

But there is the climax, which makes me think I'm being unfair even questioning it, because it's kind of great, a minor masterwork of small-budget schlock horror psychedelic photography, delivering us a monster after all (until this point, we've had to make do with gross-out radiation burns, though one winds up being extravagantly gross indeed for 1965).  Through a trick of selective filters and reflective foil, it does a tremendous job of personifying the idea of "an impossible color," and while this is, again, not good adaptation, it's a hell of thing to witness Haller translate that idea into the unfortunate but not therefore completely unfulfilling form of an AIP B-minus horror flick.

Score: 5/10


  1. Is there a reason it's American Gothic _Week_? I take it you're rewatching the AIP horror movies, but over a condensed period?

    1. In any themed week I do the "week" is always sarcastic, maybe especially so in this case, as I started this one in 2021.

    2. It's like the 100-post series I started (on another site) as a one-year project back in 2014 that took a total of... well, I'll probably finish it someday!