At the Movies of Madness

Cthulhu (2000)
There are a number of ways to make a Lovecraft movie. The easiest method is to take a couple of generic characters or plot points from Lovecraft's work — or maybe just pop his name over the title, as film-makers do so often with Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker — and then go on to do something utterly unrelated. This sort of Lovecraft-by-reference has give the world ridiculous turnips like Cthulhu Mansion or Jared Lee's The Slaughter; but on the other hand, it's also given us decent films like Evil Dead or 2007's well-intended if unsatisfying Cthulhu. Paradoxically, Lovecraft himself might have preferred this approach: he was frankly appalled at the idea of his work ever being adapted for film; yet he was famously generous with what we'd now refer to as his "intellectual property rights", allowing other authors to borrow freely from (and expand) the mythology he helped to create (just as he had borrowed from his friends and colleagues, like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith).

Another tenuously-connected way to bring Lovecraft to the screen is to use HPL himself (or a heavily-fictionalized version of him) as a character in a fantastic film. Here we find another paradox: though these films take the greatest liberties not only with Lovecraft's vision, but with his entire life, some of them are among the most highly regarded "Lovecraft films" of all: witness Cast a Deadly Spell (where he's "Harry" instead of Howard), Necronomicon and Out of Mind.

Moving closer to the man's actual writings, we find the movies that take the basic framework of Lovecraft's stories and use them as the basis for improvisation. Though the source material may be much more recognizable in these movies than it usually is in movies of the first two types, the result is still very far removed from the spirit of Lovecraft's work. At one end of this spectrum, you'll find Full Moon's Leering Furk — umm, Leaking Fur — no, sorry; Lurking Fear; at the other end, the classic example is Re-Animator, with the AIP co-production Die, Monster! Die! (based on "The Colour out of Space"), Dan O'Bannon's faintly ridiculous Bleeders (also taken from "The Lurking Fear") and the two Unnameable movies falling somewhere in the middle.

Then, finally, you have movies that attempt to retell Lovecraft's actual stories with as much fidelity and respect as possible. In these, the reader who is familiar with Lovecraft's work will have no trouble recognizing the source material.

But adapting Lovecraft faithfully is a very difficult task: even at its best, Lovecraft's writing isn't particularly well-suited for cinema, especially not the kind of horror cinema that's made today. His infamously heavy prose-style is usually better suited to atmosphere than action: take away the archaic adjectives and the rhapsodic passages about the Horror of it All, and you'll find there's surprisingly little left to film. Yet for all those words on the page, there isn't much dialogue. Almost all the normal conversation between characters has to be written from scratch. Then again, that "normal conversation" is likely to take the form of off-puttingly abstruse discussion of ancient books and forgotten lore, since Lovecraft's heroes are generally scholars (and often elderly scholars, at that). There are few women in his stories, and no opportunities for romance (or sex, either: reams of college theses have been written about the revulsion toward sex and reproduction that seems to come through in Lovecraft's work). As for Lovecraft's monsters... they generally fall into two categories: things that the heroes never quite manage to get a good look at; or creatures of such mind-bending, indescribable other-ness that the sight of them drives men mad. Either way, they're very difficult to bring to the screen convincingly, even with a decent special effects budget.

Still, film-makers do try; and like the other kinds of adaptations, the relatively faithful movies also run the gamut of quality. Among the best are Dan O'Bannon's exemplary The Resurrected, his version of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"; and the "H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society"'s brilliant fake-period piece, The Call of Cthulhu, which really deserves its own review. At the opposite pole, there's Dark Descendant, yet another failed adaptation of "The Lurking Fear"; and The Curse, aka The Farm, David Keith's woefully inadequate take on "The Colour out of Space". Solidly in the middle, you'll find the two other classic films AIP produced in the sixties and early seventies: Roger Corman's entertaining but puzzling Haunted Palace, also based on "Charles Dexter Ward"; and, of course, The Dunwich Horror, which managed to stay reasonably faithful to the original even if it changed Wilbur Whately from a towering goatish monstrosity into a swingin' Dean Stockwell1

1. The main failing of all three of AIP's Lovecraft films is that they all tried to shoehorn his stories into the templates of the popular "monster films" of their day: Haunted Palace, marketed as the sixth of Corman's eight "Poe" films, was the last of Corman's gothics to be shot in the US, and it shows clear signs of the stylistic fatigue that had begun to set in before he changed venues to the UK; Die, Monster! Die! turned Lovecraft's tale of rural Massachusetts into an English mad-scientist flick; and Dunwich Horror makes dread Yog-Sothoth seem like the far less interesting Christian devil, who was becoming increasingly popular in horror films and fiction as the seventies rolled in.

There's even one movie that manages to combine all four approaches into a single film: the 1993 anthology film Necronomicon. The first story is an improvisation on several barely-recognizable themes from Lovecraft's stories; the second is a straightforward adaptation of a single tale. The third episode bears no relationship at all to Lovecraft's work, other than in its depiction of a horrifyingly alien menace; while the wraparound story features Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) as Lovecraft himself. Oddly enough, the least-memorable segment of the movie is the one which is most closely related to Lovecraft's original story.

So to sum up: bringing the real Lovecraft to the screen isn't an easy thing to do, and is no more likely to result in a successful film than faking it. In a way, it reminds me of setting Shakespeare to music: it can be done; and some people have even done it well. But before you begin a project like that, you have to ask yourself: why am I doing this? What can I bring to this material that isn't there already? It's a question you have to face honestly, or you're likely to embarrassing yourself by falling short.

Which brings me to our movie for today.

If you're making an ultra-low-budget horror film, and you're absolutely dead-set on using Lovecraft as your source, it's imperative that you realize that some of his stories are beyond your reach. Want to film At the Mountains of Madness on a shoestring? You've lost the battle before you've even begun. That's why it should come as good news that the makers of the Australian independent film Cthulhu (2000; actual on-screen title,H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu) chose as their source one of Lovecraft's most readily-filmable stories: "The Thing on the Doorstep". In addition to being one of his better stories, "Thing..." features a limited cast of characters, a reasonably straightforward plot, few changes of scenery, absolutely no colossal shambling horrors from beyond time... and the gruesome moment celebrated in the title, which just cries out to be put on film. I can't think of a better Lovecraft story for a cash-strapped production team to work with.

But just because they chose a good source, that didn't mean they couldn't screw it up. Having made one good decision at the beginning of the project, the film-makers seem to have decided that no further good decisions needed to be made.


There are black zones of shadow
close to our daily paths,
and now and then some evil soul
breaks a passage through.

— HPL, "The Thing on the Doorstep"

Here, in brief, is the story of "The Thing on the Doorstep": Daniel Upton, a middle-aged man in Arkham, Massachusetts, has just shot to death his best friend, Edward Derby. The bulk of the tale is formed from Upton's explanation of the crime, and of the terrible events that led to his actions.

Derby had become infatuated with a young student at Miskatonic University named Asenath Waite, who though fifteen years Derby's junior was possessed of a brilliance and strength of character that overwhelmed the older man. Asenath had apparently inherited an appreciation of ancient arcane lore from her father, the notorious Ephraim Waite, an Aleister Crowley-type figure who had died just before Asenath entered University.

Derby eventually marries Asenath, but the union is far from happy. Asenath seems to dominate her weak husband... but occasionally, it seems as though their roles get reversed: Edward is seen carousing in town, while Asenath is glimpsed peering miserably & helplessly from the attic of their home. Asenath seems to age prematurely, while Derby seems to sink into childish helplessness. Derby becomes more and more distant from Upton, and when on rare occasions the two men do meet, the things Edward says (or hints at) make very little sense.

Then one day, Edward is found raving in the woods of Maine, and Upton is compelled to go and rescue him. On the way back to Arkham, Edward tells Upton that he'd suddenly found himself taking part in a hideous eldritch ceremony, being called by Ephraim Waite's secret name... and that Asenath had somehow, by some nameless magic, spirited him there against his will. He goes on to tell the incredulous Upton that Asenath is able to trade bodies with him — that she is disgusted with being a woman in a world where men hold all the power, and that by sheer force of will she can displace his entire personality. Even more horrible to contemplate, it seems Derby now believes that Asenath has never really been Asenath at all: that "she" is really the discorporated soul of old Ephraim Waite, now inhabiting the body of his daughter.

Upton finds this all too hard to believe. But shortly thereafter, Edward tries to take matters into his own hands; not reckoning on the extent of his "wife"'s power, he sets in motion a horror that climaxes with the ghastly "thing on the doorstep", and the killing of the man who appears to be Edward Derby.

There are plenty of problems with Lovecraft's original story, and most of them have to do with sex & gender. For example, he seems to accept a little too easily old Waite's belief that the world belongs to men, and that women are weak, insignificant creatures. Asenath, one of Lovecraft's very few female characters, seems to be noteworthy (and, by the way, attractive) only because she's really a man in disguise. And it never seems to have occurred to HPL that a man suddenly transferred against his will into the body of a woman would have anything meaningful to say about the experience, or would react with anything other than loathing. Still, "The Thing on the Doorstep" manages to be a compelling story, especially as the horrific Thing wobbles onto the scene. As you can see from the synopsis, "The Thing..." follows a single plot thread through a very gradual crescendo of unease; then the true horror is revealed, and the tale concludes in a spectacular burst of violence and tragedy. It's structured much more cinematically than, say, "The Dunwich Horror", with its two entirely separate climaxes, or "The Call of Cthulhu", which consists of three stories united by a framing device — or even "The Colour out of Space", which is a story that depends much more on the method of its telling than on its action to create its effect. "The Thing..." doesn't depend on confronting the unimaginable, as "The Music of Erich Zann" or "At the Mountains of Madness" do. What's more, with a little imagination, you can see how "The Thing..." could be expanded to feature length without adding very much padding.

What could possibly go wrong adapting this particular story for the screen?

Well, in this case, what happened was our film-makers decided to get ambitious. And in doing so, they forgot what made the original story so interesting; they lost focus, and botched what should have been the most effective parts of the movie.

DIRECTOR: This is a sort of a horror/sci-fi picture based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft...
He wrote "The Thing on the Doorstep".
ACTOR: The paper?
— Joseph Nanni's Casting Call of Cthulhu

A car pulls up to an industrial-looking building. In the car sits a nervous young man, smoking a cigarette. Eventually he gets out of the car and walks in; a crude cutaway reveals that this building is the Arkham Asylum. Actually, the Arkham Asylum sign makes the facility look like it's a third-tier consignment shop in a strip mall, but we'll just let that pass.

Arkham Asylum

Coming soon: an Olive Garden!

An orderly ushers the young man into a room, where another young man lies unconscious on a hospital bed. In full view of the orderly, who is still escorting him into the room, the first young man pulls a pistol out of his coat. Evidently they're not paying the staff very well at the Arkham Asylum, since the orderly just leaves him to his business... which is to walk up to the second man's bed, place the pistol to his sleeping temple...


Is that a gun in your pocket,
or are you just happy to see the patient?

... and show us why firearms are the bane of low-budget movies. As he pulls the trigger, there is a post-dubbed sound like a mousetrap snapping shut on a water balloon. I'm not sure if the effect is supposed to represent the gun going off, or the second man's brains being blown out, or both; but it's not very convincing, in spite of the trickle of blood that splashes out the other side of the recumbent man's head.

Having (cough) shot the other man, the first man puts the gun down carefully, far enough away that no one will think he intends to use it again, and sits wearily down on the floor. His voiceover begins: "It is true that I have sent a bullet through the head of my best friend," he says, "and yet I hope to show that I am not his murderer. Rather, that I have avenged him, and in doing so purged the earth of a horror whose survival might have loosed untold terrors upon all the Earth!" These words are an abridged and slightly re-arranged version of the opening of "The Thing on the Doorstep", with the original's six bullets being reduced to one out of budgetary concerns.

No sooner are we finished with this opening material, when the film goes to grainy sepia: the camera crawls along a stretch of wall, and the titles inform us we're at Arkham Penitentiary, where Dan Upton (evidently the man we just saw) is serving a life sentence for murder. The building we're shown doesn't look much like a prison at first glance: there are no bars on any of the windows, and the doors look awfully flimsy. But the camera keeps crawling, sticking close to the walls and plunging into deep shadows. Before long, we come upon a pair of dangling feet: it seems Dan Upton has hanged himself in his cell. The photography is claustrophobic and eerily effective here — but not quite claustrophobic nor effective enough to hide the fact that this "prison cell" is really an outdoor stairwell. You can see why they chose this particular location: there are enough bits of ironwork around to suggest bars, and the whole place has a feeling of drab austerity. But real cells are not open to the air, with plainly visible garbage cans where the barred door should be.

The prison officials find a manuscript left on the "table" — Upton's not-quite confession, a detailed explanation of the story he knows nobody will ever believe. The flashback begins...

Dan Upton and Edward Derby are a pair of college students at Arkham's Miskatonic University in New South Wales, just outside Canberra (ACT). Now, I believe in an Australian university called "Miskatonic" like I'd believe in the University of Wooloomooloo in upstate New York. "Miskatonic" is a place-name invented by Lovecraft to sound like an authentic New England river, and it sounds sufficiently Algonquian to seem out of place on a different continent in a different hemisphere. Nevertheless, Upton and Derby are students at Miskatonic University in New South Wales; take it or leave it. The two young men are evidently studying anthropology, since their joint thesis concerns the survival of ancient cults into the present day.

Viewers familiar with the original story may be amused to see that the characterization of the two men has changed just a bit from the original. Here it's Derby who's the relatively stable one, while Upton is frankly a bit of a whiner. Of course, in the story everything is told through Upton's own words, so the reversal can be seen as a reasonably sophisticated in-joke. Upton, like any good Lovecraft protagonist, is horrified to discover that Derby has a girlfriend — is, in fact, in bed with his girlfriend when he should be getting ready to hit the books. This unexpectedly normal and well-adjusted version of Derby has just brought home an unexpectedly normal and well-adjusted version of Asenath Waite, from the nearby town of Innsmouth; and this upsets Upton's sense of propriety enough that it puts him in a caustic mood...

...until he puts the name "Waite" and "Innsmouth" together, and remembers his research. Is Asenath, he asks, by any chance related to Ephraim Waite, the notorious cult leader from Innsmouth? Yes, says Asenath; Ephraim is her father, but the old man had all but disowned her when she was still a child. That's what's allowed her to grow up to lead a normal life. She's heard all the wild stories about him, but doesn't believe them; as far as she's concerned, he's just a harmless crank who took too many drugs back in the sixties. "I know he only has one head, right?" she giggles, "And it doesn't look like a giant dick."2

2. Maybe not; but I'm not sure I can say the same for whomever wrote that line...

Upton, Derby and Asenath pile in Upton's rattletrap car (Asenath virtually hidden from view in the back seat) and go off to a book shop, where the owner — a mysterious woman named "Anna" who fails to show up — has promised them first crack at a rare volume: Daemonolatriae libri tres by Remigius, which Upton intends to translate to help in his research3
3. Actually, Daemonolatriae is neither terribly rare (by antiquarian standards) nor magical: it's one of the few later witch-hunting texts that approached the popularity of Sprenger's infamous Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer of Witches", the standard text on trumping up charges against harmless old women). And Upton certainly doesn't need to translate it himself: Montague Summers did the job back in the 1920's, in a version called Demonolatry which is still in print today. Would you like a glimpse of this supposedly rare old book? Here it is; good luck with it.

. When they arrive at the book shop, they have a supposedly-funny run-in with the store clerk, who is a desperately broad caricature of the typical bookstore nerd: slouched, bespectacled, lacking in social skills, having no fashion sense whatsoever... me, in other words.

But Derby and Asenath aren't satisfied poring through dry old books: much to Upton's distress, they decide to start attending the "Intelligentsia", a regular meeting of what Derby calls "cult followers, researchers, weirdos..." ("You should come!" he tells Upton). But Upton is not a big believer in this thing called "field work", and begins to worry that his friend might be drifting into cult membership himself.

In the meantime, a series of dismemberment murders have been committed in the Arkham area. We get our first glimpse of the trouble when we see a man who's evidently a police photographer taking shots of a very bizarre crime scene. There's tape on the ground to indicate the position of a now-removed body... but from the position of the tape, it looks as though the leg of the body had been detached and left about a yard away. That's grisly enough; but the really odd thing — even odder, I suppose, than the fact these photos are being taken after the body has been removed — is the total lack of blood at the scene.

There may be no blood, but there is some kind of dark, foul-smelling fluid splashed on the nearby walls at a little above ground level. The splashes are found by another man, whom we assume is a police officer (even though he's not wearing a uniform; in fact, the only piece of insignia he's wearing is a Soviet badge of some sort on his big round Russian fur hat). The reason we have to guess at all this is that the scene is shot without sound, being accompanied only by some mournful music.

Our next indication that things may not be as tranquil as they seem in Arkham comes when we watch a girl (in what appears to be Peruvian garb) cross an open park alone. Something appears to be making her very nervous — a feeling, perhaps, that someone or something is following her — yet when she turns to look, there's nobody in sight. There's only the mysterious [sic] rustling of the leaves... The girl hurries across the park, when all at once an enormous flashing parallelogram appears and runs straight across her. It's as though the whole park had suddenly become an enormous Xerox machine or computer scanner, and had attempted to make a copy of her. In any case, the process fails to duplicate her. Instead, it simply knocks off her fuzzy alpaca hat, and sends her falling to the ground (and if you look very carefully at the fading afterimage of the glowing parallelogram, you'll catch a glimpse of a drawing of a monster, something like Ray Harryhausen's Ymir, superimposed on the screen).


It's only a model drawing.

But wait: I was mistaken. In spite of appearances, that was not her hat that was knocked off. It was her whole head. The reason she fell to the ground was that she had just been decapitated. (Sigh.) It's difficult to describe just how badly the park-attack scene is shot, but this should give you some idea: the beheading is shot from such a distance that the whole effect is ruined. It's only because the police are overheard later discussing the girl's death that we ever find out what we really saw.

That discussion, though, is eye-opening in other ways as well. We're told that the removal of the head (as well as all the blood) is typical for the spate or murders that's been occurring recently — in spite of the fact that it was a leg, and clearly not the head, that had been removed from the previous victim. We also find out that one of the detectives on the case (the guy with the Big Hairy Russian Hat) believes the killings have something to do with a crazy local cult — "Cthulhu" something-or-other. "They've go both the means and the access," he insists, though I haven't the faintest clue what he might mean by that. But his colleague disagrees: "I really don't think this is the work of more than one guy, though," he says... as though this made any sense at all (unless the local Cthulhu cultists had all been surgically joined at the hip). Besides, he continues, the Cthulhu cult operates out of Innsmouth, which is outside their jurisdiction (ummm, what was that again about "means" and "access"?).

i am through you so i

— e.e. cummings

Shortly afterwards, while Upton is still exhausting himself with his unnecessary translation of Daemonolatriae, Asenath is called home to see her estranged father. The old man is dying, and for some reason he seems anxious to patch things up with his daughter before he dies. This leaves Derby free to go with Upton to try and meet the elusive Anna, who has a lead on yet another book of forbidden lore.

Anna's still nowhere to be found; but the geekish clerk gives Upton her message. They should go work out a deal with the man who currently has the book — a fellow who goes by the name of "Dingo".

Dingo turns out to be a minimally-intelligent, shotgun wielding yahoo who apparently lives in a culvert (and is a noticeably lousy actor, even among lousy actors). How this guy managed to get his hands on a copy of the Saducismus Triumphatus is unclear; but he manages to work out a thick-witted bargain with Upton and Derby, and the two men leave with the book in hand.

And they leave not a moment too soon. Because no sooner is Dingo separated from the book, when something comes for him. Dingo sees it and panics, but a shotgun is useless against... against... well, whatever it is. The Colour Copier out of Space, let's say. We don't see exactly what happens to Dingo (or his head), but this time we're shown a great big splash of blood as he meets his demise.

And now, it's time to turn our attention back to Asenath.

Upton's sitting by himself in a lecture hall at the university, when a very pretty girl he's never seen before (and will never see again) decides to strike up a conversation with him4
Sorry, but even though this is a movie about transmigrating souls, ancient magic, and vast pan-dimensional beings from beyond time and space, this has got to be the least believable moment in the film.
. She then hacks up a big, undigested chunk of exposition about Asenath and her father: about the way he'd wanted his offspring to be male, and how he'd packed her off in disgust and boarded up the windows of his squalid old house.

The scene now shifts to Innsmouth, where Asenath is waiting by her father's bedside. The look of the film has shifted back to the silent, arty sepia of the opening "prison" scene. Now, we know from the original story exactly how important the death of Ephraim Waite is, and what it means for poor Asenath. We've never seen Ephraim before (though in an innovative bit of casting, he seems to have been played by the real-life father of the actress playing Asenath); he has no lines in the movie, and the most information we've got about him came from Exposition Girl a few moments ago. This makes the bedside scene particularly crucial in helping us understand what's going on in the rest of the movie.

And the movie bungles it.

Here's what we're given: the old man writhes a little, then closes his eyes and goes all limp — the way people do in the movies to show they've just died. The camera pans up to Asenath, who looks away and makes a little frowny-face of concern. Suddenly, her brow furrows. Next, she raises her hand to her forehead and grimaces in annoyance, as though she'd just got a nasty headache. The spasm passes in less than five seconds. Then, with sudden composure, she turns and looks down at her father's corpse: its moved, so that its now-open eyes are staring at the ceiling in horror. And that's it: that's the dreaded metempsychosis — Ephraim's imprisonment of his own daughter's soul in his own corpse, while he takes over Asenath's body. The entire process, from Ephraim's death to the final fade-out, takes about thirty seconds; it's over so soon that even if we've read the story, even if we know what to expect, it's still hard to follow.

Coming straight from her father's death-bed, Asenath finds Edward, who approaches her car with a warm smile. But Asenath merely opens the front door of the car, gestures coldly for him to retrieve her bag, and stalks away without a word. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our first and only indication that Asenath Waite has transformed into a hard-hearted monster. That's it. That's half of chapter two and all of chapter three of Lovecraft's five-chapter story, condensed into a single wordless gesture.

I keep on wondering if I sleep too long,
Will I always wake up the same,
or so?                    
I keep on wondering if I sleep too long,
Will I even wake up again,
or something...?      

— Cat Stevens, Sitting

Time passes. Upton's narration tells us that he has seen little of Edward Derby after Asenath's return; Derby says that her involvement with the cults and their forbidden knowledge has brought him more information than any scholarly research. And then one day, Upton gets a call that sends him off to a police station at the far end of town. According to Inspector Legrasse, they found Derby running out of the forest in the hours before dawn, half-mad and screaming about Cthulhu. Legrasse wonders if Upton knows anyth

Wait a minute.

Inspector Legrasse? That's the name of the central character in the second part of "The Call of Cthulhu". What's going on here? Have we switched stories all of a sudden? Since Legrasse turns out to be the Russian-hatted policeman who's anxious to connect the brutal dismemberment murders to the Cthulhu cult, it seems that's exactly what's going on. Rather than be content with adapting "The Thing on the Doorstep" (in which they seem to be losing interest), the film-makers have decided to weave part of "The Call of Cthulhu" into their narrative. Considering how poorly the movie's handled something as basic as the transmigration of souls, it doesn't seem advisable for them to turn to a far more elaborate tale to pad out the running time.

Anyway. Upton has little to tell Legrasse, so Derby is released into his care. Poor Edward is distraught: he babbles to Upton about shoggoths and secret ceremonies (in language lifted directly from Lovecraft), and eventually summons the nerve to warn Upton that Asenath has the power to take over his body and leave him imprisoned in hers. Upton think's he's nuts, and when Edward warns him not to let him sleep too long — Asenath takes control more easily when he's sleeping — Upton ignores him and lets him get some rest as the car speeds through the night.

Bad idea.

Edward's dreams take him to a spot he's never actually been: it's daylight, and a group of people who are evidently the Innsmouth Cthulhu cultists are standing stock-still in an open field. Inspector Legrasse and his men approach them quietly — apparently standing around looking like idiots is a serious crime in Australia, because Legrasse and the other policemen have come heavily armed. The leader of the "ceremony", a very young man wearing robes that make him look like the Master from Manos, gestures to have a man and a woman brought forward. It looks like these two people are about to be sacrificed, so Legrasse chooses that moment to raise his weapon and challenge the cultists. Without changing his blank expression, the cult leader pulls out a pistol of his own and starts firing at the policemen. His aim is awful, but the fact that he's only able to shoot his own followers as he empties his gun doesn't seem to concern him at all.

The police take down the trigger-happy Master, but this just serves as a signal for the assembled cultists to charge them. There is something deeply disturbing about the oncoming cultists: they bear down on the policemen with unhurried determination, unconcerned by the shots being fired at them. Still, it looks like the action quickly degenerates into a massacre, as the police direct most of their fire at cultists who are obviously unarmed. It's true that one of the policemen is killed by a shot, but we don't really see where the shot came from: the one cultist we know is armed (the one who picked up the Master's pistol after he was killed) had just been gunned down himself a few moments before. He seems as likely to have been killed by stray police bullets than by the cultists' attack.

This scene is extremely confusing: it's shot in very dim light, and the police (not being in uniform, and wearing clothes very much like the cultists' own) are hard to distinguish from their opponents. What's also unclear is why we're even watching this: if the viewers are not acquainted with the Louisiana segment of "The Call of Cthulhu", the whole episode is likely to leave them bewildered. The main point of the scene, aside from referencing "Call", seems to have been to show that they could handle bullet effects on a low budget after all.

Things are even more confusing when we try to relate the episode back to the dreaming Edward Derby. Derby wasn't there at the scene; furthermore, it's unlikely he's having a vision of something that's happening elsewhere at the moment, since it's daylight where the battle is taking place and night-time in Arkham. The "dream" goes on even when Derby wakes up screaming: after a brief return to the scene in Upton's car, the action switches back to the cultists... and stays there, even when the dialogue between Upton and Derby begins again.

We don't even see Derby as we hear his whole demeanor change. He screams (off-camera); the car screeches to a halt (off-camera). Derby dashes from the car (off-camera), and Upton (off-camera) rushes to help him. But Edward is curiously calm: he greets Upton coolly (as on screen, we watch Legrasse taking the surviving cultists into custody), and even offers to drive. Earlier, the script had taken pains to establish that Derby couldn't drive, so I was expecting something like this at some point: after all, Derby's driving ability is a plot point in Lovecraft's story as well. But I wasn't expecting this revelation to occur off-screen, through voice-overs, while something from a totally different story unfolded in front of our eyes. In any case, not only can Edward drive a car now, he gets in (off-screen) and starts driving away (off-screen), almost leaving Upton behind (off-screen) before reluctantly pulling over (off-screen) and letting him back in his own car.

When — at last! — the action does switch back to the two men in the car, things don't improve. Here we have one more chance for the movie to show us Edward Derby's transformation into Asenath Waite... not just to tell us about it, or expect us to read something into the action from our knowledge of the short story. But here again the movie stumbles: Derby delivers most of his Asenath-flavored dialogue with his back to the camera. James Payne, who plays Edward Derby, is one of the stronger members of the amateur cast; but if he's modulating his performance to show the difference in the two Edwards... who could tell?

The following morning, Upton barely escapes from some sinister cultists, and decides that either Edward or Asenath needs to do some explaining. He arrives at Asenath's house just too late to catch Edward (still driving — in fact, he seems to try to run Upton down). Upton fails to notice Asenath peering sadly and furtively from the window of the house. All at once, Inspector Legrasse shows up: he has some innocent questions for Asenath about her father, but before he can explain any further the two men are distracted by the sound of nearby screaming. As Upton and Legrasse watch in horror, something big and invisible reduces two people to hamburger before their eyes (though for some reason it leaves them studiously alone). Legrasse immediately forgets all about Asenath. I think he also forgets about the two victims... but that's standard behavior for a policeman in a horror film. With Upton tagging along, Legrasse heads for the place he thinks the invisible menace will show up next: old Ephraim Waite's abandoned farmhouse in Innsmouth.

Except (are you ready for this?) it turns out that in spite of everything we've seen or been told in the movie so far, the Waite farm isn't in Innsmouth after all. It's just across the border of the next town over: Dunwich.

Certainely, there was Noth'g
but ye liveliest Awfulness
in that which H. rais'd upp
from What he cou'd gather onlie a part of.

— HPL, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

If we were perplexed by the big invisible monster up until this point, it's now become very clear what's going on. Writer/director Damian Heffernan has decided it's not enough to adapt "The Thing on the Doorstep" with a generous chunk of "The Call of Cthulhu" thrown in. Now, having apparently lost interest in both previous stories, he's decided to stretch things out even further by adding "The Dunwich Horror" to the mix.

Legrasse brings us up to speed with a few details from "The Dunwich Horror", as he and Upton wait for something they can't see to make its way back. Legrasse doesn't seem to wonder why the unseen creature was prowling the neighborhood around Asenath's house, but he seems pretty certain it will come back to the farm. He explains they'd searched the farm before, first after seeing the possible connection between Waite's strange livestock purchases and the mutilation of other animals in the area, and later after responding to some unexplained disasters involving Waite's neighbors. But back then, the police hadn't been looking for something invisible.

Eventually, when the invisible creature (you'll pardon the expression) fails to show up, Legrasse decides the answers must lie with Asenath. You know: the woman he'd gone to see earlier, outside of whose house the monster killed two people (who are never mentioned again), and from whom he could have tried to extract information hours earlier if he hadn't abandoned the crime scene. Unfortunately for Legrasse, it's too late to backtrack. Edward's driven home in the meantime... only to pull out again a little later in a terrible hurry. He's in such a hurry, in fact, that he seems to have forgotten how to drive. Somehow he manages not to attract attention from the dozens of policemen that (cough) certainly must be all over the area in the wake of that brutal double murder. Edward barely manages to make his way to a lonely river bank, where (in an inexplicable and poorly-edited scene) he proceeds to blow up the car.

Hours later, Upton and Legrasse run into him as he walks back from the demolition job. When they ask him where Asenath is, he replies that they've had a terrible argument, and that she's left him and gone back to the cult in Innsmouth. Legrasse dashes back to Innsmouth to stop her; when they're alone again, Edward tries to explain to Upton once more about Asenath's body-snatching habits. Upton — who, let's remember, has just seen two people torn to bits by an invisible monster — finds his friend's story difficult to believe. Derby stalks off, swearing to have revenge on Asenath and her cult. When Legrasse returns, complaining that all the police roadblocks (the very ones which failed to prevent Edward from riding off and destroying Asenath's car) have failed to prevent Asenath from disappearing.

The next day, Upton and Legrasse go off to see Miskatonic's Professor Armitage, who's reported to be a fount of knowledge about the Cthulhu cult. Armitage manages to include a throwaway reference to Lovecraft's "Shadow over Innsmouth" before getting to the heart of the matter: his studies suggest that the cultists need to summon an extra-dimensional entity called "Yog-Soggoth" in order to awaken Cthulhu from his aeons-long rest. No sooner has Armitage explained all this when Legrasse gets an urgent call: Edward Derby has been taken into custody again, and taken to the Arkham asylum. Upton promises to bring Professor Armitage his own personal copy of the Necronomicon (!!) later on, and he and Legrasse rush off to see what's become of poor Derby this time.

Edward is raving when they finally reach him. He's become so violent that the hospital has no choice but to sedate him... though the thought of going to sleep makes the poor man even more frantic. "I can't sleep! She'll get me!" he screams, as the drugs kick in; "She's still out there... I've killed her! Yog-Soggoth! He'll... call... his father...!"

Legrasse and Upton shake their heads sadly, and promise to come back later when he's had a chance to calm down. The doctor assures them (in the most unintentionally funny line of the movie) that "he's sure to be more communicable later."

...the shape in the corner does not reappear in his tale as a moving object.

— HPL, The Colour out of Space

Meanwhile, down by a lonely riverbank, a ghastly thing that was once a woman sits up in a shallow grave.

This might come as a surprise to anybody who's come to the story "cold", without having read "The Thing on the Doorstep". In fact, it's Asenath's body. Edward Derby, after being sedated in Arkham Asylum, has suddenly re-awakened in the corpse of the woman he killed... while miles away, Asenath has taken permanent residence in his body. This is the big moment of Lovecraft's tale: when poor Derby, imprisoned in the decaying body of Asenath, manages to scrawl a letter to Upton explaining everything, and then drags himself to Upton's house to deliver it before finally falling to bits on the front porch. You know: the Thing... on the Doorstep. Without a Thing on the Doorstep, the story loses its climax.

Our first problem here is that Asenath's body, being dead less than a day, is much too fresh to be in the shape it needs to be in to capture the full horror of the story.

Sure, Asenath's remains look worse than we might expect; but she might have been in the car when Edward set fire to it (which leaves us to guess how she got buried)... that could explain why the Thing that site up in its grave is so badly deteriorated. But this bring us to another problem: the corpse doesn't look much like Asenath. The fact that it's a crude puppet prop is only half the difficulty here: the body's all wrong. If the viewers are not already familiar with the story, and expecting the body to be Asenath's, they're going to be totally lost at this point:

Asenath living

Asenath dead

And then we have the biggest problem of all: the whole "thing on the doorstep" sequence is omitted from the action.

We see Upton sitting on the front stair of Asenath's house, reading Derby's letter, which he then hands to Legrasse; we hear the contents of the letter in Edward Derby's voice-over. But at no point do we see how the letter got there, or have even a single word about the Thing that wrote and delivered it.

That's right: after all the buildup, and all the literal quotes from Lovecraft's own writing, the single most powerful moment in the original story is glossed over. The rest of the movie is taken straight from "The Dunwich Horror", with a few necessary modifications: Asenath stands in for Wilbur Whately as the human-ish half of a pair of twins. The brother, less human, is the invisible creature that's been murdering people and leaving splashes of foul black liquid. Professor Armitage explains that he/it is "Yog-Soggoth", the son of Cthulhu, and the only being in the universe that can prepare the way for Cthulhu's return. Fortunately, there's a chant in the Necronomicon that should send him/it back to the depths of hell, etc., etc., but honestly: what's the point of watching any further? If this movie couldn't be bothered to bring to the screen the most effective moment in Lovecraft's most easily-adapted story, how good a job do you think they're going to do with the climax of "The Dunwich Horror"? Hmmm?

(OK, I think I know what you'd like to ask at this point, and since I've dragged you along this far I guess you have a right to an answer. Do we see anything? Are there any Lovecraftian horrors on display before the end? Does the Powder of Ibn Ghazi have any effect in this version? Well, the answer is a qualified "yes": we do get a momentary glimpse of "Yog-Soggoth", and though he bears no resemblance to the Dunwich Horror itself, its dim outline does suggest that it is the Spawn of Cthulhu:)

Let me give Damian Heffernan a little credit: in building his narrative, he does a better job uniting the three different Lovecraft tales than I would ever have thought possible. That's not to say he did a particularly good job, or that it should ever have been done in the first place; it's just he did better than I'd have expected.

If you don't know H.P. Lovecraft's stories, Cthulhu is likely to leave you disoriented. If you do know Lovecraft, it'll probably make you mad. Ultimately, Heffernan has created a movie that's unlikely to make anybody particularly happy. His commitment to Lovecraft is admirable, and I can't blame him for wanting to do something ambitious. But I can blame him for missing so many obvious opportunities, and for allowing himself to get so distracted by his ambition that he failed to execute any of the story elements well. The inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents may be the most merciful thing in the world; but the inability of a movie to correlate all its contents... is agony.

(I wonder what ever happened to Anna?)

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