Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Unnamable (1988) & The Unnamable Returns (1992)

Many, many moons ago, younglings,  there was a thing called VHS. And VHS did transformeth  the world in many ways. And greatest of all was the rejoicing among the slightly grubby guys called Lou or Bubba who diddeth the porn flicks. But many other lords of creativity were also wondrously inspired...

Right that's enough of this fake fantasy intro monologue - a phrase that, oddly enough, never occurred to people in the Eighties making straight-to-VHS movies. Once it became possible to make a movie that people would buy in a store (or via mail order), a lot of people decided to make cheap movies that would never get a cinema release in the US. Hence an Eighties mini-boom in films of all kinds, but especially in sci-fi and horror.

Which brings us to not one but two my favourite Lovecaftian horror films. Writer-director Jean-Paul Ouellette is not a well-known figure in the genre, but perhaps deserves to be. These two films are a good example of how a low-budget effort can still work well, and while they have their faults they are still very watchable.

As you may recall, Lovecraft's story 'The Unnamable' is a vignette with no actual plot. All that happens is that three blokes sitting in a graveyard discuss spooky old stories. One mentions that, in a particular house in Arkham, an attic window is said to bear the imprint of a bizarre creature that was born of a shameful and blasphemous union (yes, we're talking the sort of livestock shagging the guys who wrote the Bible were so emphatically against).

The film treatment fleshes out (and in at least one sense radically alters) Lovecraft's premise. We see old Joshua Winthrop, looking rather charming in dressing gown and night-cap, trying to calm a screaming entity that's locked in his attic. We gather that old Joshua has been tinkering with unholy tomes of eldritch lore, and as a result his wife gave birth to a demon and not the cute little girl they'd decorated the nursery for. In a fairly decent bit of suspense filming we see from the monster's POV as, maddened by a thunderstorm, it emerges from its lair and gives Joshua a less than daughterly mangling.

There then follows a truly naff moment in which three guys with radically different accents pretend to be New England Puritans. They take Winthrop's body, bury it in unconsecrated ground, and the preacher - who looks truly ludicrous - places some kind of holy curse on the house, forbidding whatever lurks within from straying outside. Why the nameless thing doesn't just mangle them as well is not clear, but it's sort of implicit that they are safe because it's daylight.

The plot proper begins like the story with three students at Miskatonic University discussing horror. One of them, Randolph Carter, is a folklorist and writer of scary tales. He tells the story of the nameless thing that lived in the attic of the notorious Winthrop house, then reveals that it is in fact the derelict property a few yards away. One of Carter's friends, Joel, scoffs and says he will explore the house. The other, Howard Damon, is not so keen and accompanies his friend back to campus.

Needless to say, Joel gets his, and we get a glimpse of the monster - basically, claws. Later, in the MU library, Carter is studying hard but Howard is worried that Joel hasn't come back. We are then introduced to the other characters, basically the two girls and two jocks who feature as monster fodder in this sort of thing. Predictably the jocks claim that staying a night in the old Winthrop House would be good practice for the girls, who want to join some asinine sorority that does 'hazing'. (Why US universities actually prime their students to join bizarre cults in this way is beyond me.)

So, that's the set-up. Jocks and chicks go to the house, start messin' 'round in the usual manner, and before you can say 'The busty girl takes her top off' the real carnage commences. Then Carter and Howard arrives, looking for Joel, and a bit more intellectual analysis of the situation can begin. In the meantime the Unnamable stalks the rather long corridors of the multi-storied Winthrop House, bumping off intruders in what is (as the last surviving Winthrop) her property. What makes her a monster, perhaps, is that she doesn't use a gun like a good Christian, preferring to rip 'em up and eat 'em later.

You'll note that I write 'she' and 'her', because this monster is definitely female. With nipples. This is qute a nipple-heavy production, reflecting straight-to-VHS culture. It also reflects the horror movie convention that the nice girl who doesn't put out survives. As if to spite the man himself, this film offers in its monster one of the most compellingfemale characters in Lovecraftian cinema. The monster is played by the French-Canadian dancer/choreographer Katrin Alexandre, who moves with menacing grace. When we actually see her in full costume she is very impressive (always taking budget into account). 

Anyway, while the dim bulbs scuttle about upstairs trying not to be disembowelled, beheaded, or whatever, Carter himself (played by Mark Kinsey Stephenson, who looks a bit like a young Lovecraft) figures out what Joshua Winthrop was up to and tries a few spells. Of course he finds the Necronomicon of the Mad Arab etcetera. People really should be more careful with that thing. The finale, when he discovers how to bind the monster, is a bit absurd, as it involves 'tree magic' of all things. It's too Tolkien for my taste, but at least it allows them to stop the monster rather than kill her, thus leaving the way open to a sequel. The cunning devils!


Even here Katrin Alexandre's performance shines, especially since during the showdown there's a hint that she can't at first decide whether to kill the handsome (if somewhat mulleted) Howard or snuggle up for some monster nookie, then kill him. When she's injured I actually flinched because she's more credible than any of the human characters. Oh, and I should have mentioned that we find out that her name is Alyda. So she's not, in fact, Unnamable at all. This is one of the many cock-eyed things about the film that just make me like it all the more. I'm incorrigible.

And so we come to The Unnamable Returns, aka The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter. Yes, they do nod to Lovecraft's story of that name, or at least the business with the phone line down the catacombs. The opening credits might as well be stamped 'We've Got a Bigger Budget' in big red letters, because it's one of those classy jobs that involves someone turning the pages of a certain book to reveal the cast. 

The sequel follows on directly from the first film, with Carter and Howard outside the Winthrop House trying to explain to the Sheriff just what's happened. It seems that, what with this being ghoul-haunted Arkham, law enforcement is aware of That Sort of Thing. Later we discover that they have no idea how to handle That Sort of Thing, but there you go.

Anyway, in TUR Howard is hospitalised after being slashed by Alyda during the big tree magic scene. While drugged up on morphine he sees a vision of Joshua Winthrop telling him that Alyda is in fact two beings - Joshua's regular human daughter, and a demon that possessed her in the womb. Blimey! Carter, meanwhile, is getting a bollocking in the dean's office, and the dean is David Warner, so it's great. Warner's only scene doesn't advance the plot, really, but never mind.

When Howard tells Carter about Alyda's dual nature the latter goes to a leading folklorist for help. (No, I'm not clear on this either.) Professor Warren is played by the splendid John Rhys-Davies, who was evidently available for longer than David Warner. Warren and Carter discover that Alyda is trapped in catacombs under the graveyard by the Winthrop house, held by the old magic roots. They obtain a blood sample and discover that, yes, she is in fact two beings, the demon being somehow superimposed on the human by some kind of hyper-dimensional weirdness. And yes, the tunnels under the graveyard were made by Alyda. She was supposedly confined by enchantment within the walls of the Winthrop House in the first movie, but was in fact burrowing away so she could feast on corpses. This is a plot hole but surely also a nod to 'The Lurking Fear'.

Having located the dimensional hybrid girl-monster, here comes the obligatory Horror Movie Plan That A Bright Nine-Year-Old Would See Is Very Stupid. Warren, Carter, and Howard set out to free human Alyda from the demon. Warren's trick for driving the demon out is quite interesting, and I won't spoil it here. Suffice to say that it works and the creature is apparently banished in an underwhelming flash of primitive CGI. Now Warren and Carter have a naked young woman on their hands, played by Maria Ford, whose hair is so abundant as to cover all questionable regions. Well, she had had nearly three hundred years to grow it. Sort of. 

So human Alyda is free and quickly focuses on Carter (the quintessential Lovecraftian bachelor scholar) as her saviour. Cue some embarrassment. As the dynamic duo realise they'd better get this woman a. some clothes and b. checked by doctors, a distant scream reveals that demon-Alyda is still very much around. Who could have guessed? Carter rushes human-Alyda away, but Warren reaches the end of his contractual obligation by staying behind to try and get a few Polaroids. He thus becomes the first victim of Alyda Mark II, the new version of the creature.

Maria Ford and Julie Strain, chillin'

Katrin Alexandre was only available for a day's filming as the original monster, so the whole 'liberating the demon' thing let them to cast a new actress, the wonderfully-named Julie Strain. A statuesque Penthouse Pet, towering over her victims here in hoofed boots, Strain is a less graceful but much more imposing monster, and this suits the plot. In the first movie we had an ambush predator, lurking in shadows in an old house. Here Alyda is a monster at large, cutting a swathe through local law enforcement in an attempt to recombine with her human half. 

Cue a fair amount of running around and panicking as Carter tries to keep human Alyda from the monster. Various students are slaughtered with gusto, and at one point demon-Alyda flies on a wire to attack a female sheriff's deputy. Distilled essence of Lovecraft is captured in one scene that involves the good guys trying to stalk the monster through library stacks. Needless to say guns can't stop the monster, but brains can. There's a finale that wittily nods to the first film, and Randolph Carter is left with a girlfriend who likes to run around naked. Or is he? 

These are movies to enjoy alone when you need to cheer up, or with friends when you want to have a good convivial evening of vicarious bloodshed. Just serious enough, just intelligent enough, and just good-looking enough to work, these are neglected minor classics. 

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