It has not been a big secret hereabouts that I'm a Lovecraft fan. That state of being condemns one to a peculiar pocket of film-going: just as you know there is no way in hell the cosmic creepiness oozing from the page can ever be successfully translated to the screen, you still find yourself watching every attempt, just in case. Just in case.
The way I feel about Lovecraft is probably due to the way I first encountered him. I was a sickly child, and couldn't participate in the usual rough-and-tumble children's play. Not surprisingly then, I read a lot. I had tunneled through everything Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had to offer by the time I was 10; I had discovered them through the then-ubiquitous Classics Illustrated comic books. You could generally find me, on a summer's day, in the public library: I was the little guy in the big person's section. There wasn't much in the youth section that interested me.
No, that adult section held Ray Bradbury, H. Hunter Holly, and the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies. And there was one thick gray book that held a simple legend on its spine: A SCIENCE FICTION OMNIBUS. This was paydirt. This was a worthy investment in time. The book held a treasure trove of stories I had never read before, and many I haven't seen since. A few have stayed with me, through the years. Most have not.
And one of the stories, sandwiched in between tales of experiments gone awry and the unforeseen consequences of progress, was "The Colour Out of Space". Though it seemed lengthier than most of the others, I settled down to read it late one night.
Big mistake. Not reading it; reading it late at night.
I can look back on that terrified little boy contemplating the walk down a darkened hallway to an equally dark bathroom with some bemusement and not a little pang of regret: ah, lad, how I envy you the ability to have mere words on a page affect you so.
Well, I was sold on this Lovecraft guy, but in those days, his work was a little harder to come by. In an incredible anthology called Sleep No More (illustrated by Hannes Bok!), I found "The Rats in the Walls". Then a book from Scholastic Press, of all places, contained "The Dunwich Horror". Then paperback reprints began coming out again, and I tracked each and every one of them down.
Inevitably, one night, Project:Terror showed Die, Monster, Die!, and even at that young age, I was prepared for the worst. I knew the movie was based on my inaugural Lovecraft experience, but also had a feeling that, since they had changed the title, they had surely changed a lot more. I may have been sickly, but I was working on a brain I fancied to be like Victor Von Doom's.
I mentioned in our examination of The Dunwich Horror most of the AIP attempts at Lovecraft took Corman's Poe films as a template for adapting weird literature to the screen, with the central device of an outsider arriving at a decrepit, antiquated house that contains, ooooooooo! Secrets! Die, Monster, Die takes this so to heart, it almost forgets to put some Lovecraft into the mix.
The Outsider in this case is American Stephen Rinehart (Nick Adams), who arrives in the rural English hamlet of Arkham, only to find that everyone there immediately gives him the cold shoulder once they find out he is traveling to the Whitley place. Okay, so this part isn't really cribbed from the Poe flicks, it's more like the Dracula pictures - the villagers do everything but hiss, "Nosferatu!" before they scamper away. Unable to even rent a bicycle, Rinehart is forced to walk to the Whitley estate. Along the way, he passes increasingly blighted and brittle vegetation, and a large crater.
Rinehart eventually finds the eternally fog-enshrouded Whitley house - the gates are locked, and the one breach in the wall surrounding the manse contains a bear trap. Being a bull-headed American, Rinehart finally makes it into the house, only to be rebuffed by Nahum (Boris Karloff), the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the family, who first insists that he leave, but once his lovely daughter Susan(Suzan Farmer) discovers her college buddy (and lover) has arrived, Nahum's protestations fade into the background.
Especially when Rinehart meets with Nahum's wife, Letitia (Freda Jackson), who's the one who actually sent for the American. She tells him weird things have been going on, culminating in the disappearance of their maid, Helga. Letitia is also falling prey to some bizarre wasting disease which also makes her sensitive to light; she spends all her time in her darkened bedroom, her bed surrounded by thick netting. She asks Rinehart to take Susan away, and to that end, he agrees to stay for a while(?).
At an uncomfortably silent dinner that evening, Rinehart asks about the Blasted Heath outside the mansion, and is answered, "There was a fire." Similarly, an odd howling outside the house is pointedly ignored. The butler, Merwyn (Terrance de Marney), who has been none too steady, collapses. Nahum insists he knows how to care for him. Later that night, while investigating odd howls inside the house, Rinehart is told by Nahum that Merwyn has perished.
Ignoring Nahum's order to retire for the night, Rinehart sees the old man wheel a trunk outside in his own wheelchair. In Merwyn's room, he finds the bloody outline of a human body. Outside, he watches Nahum bury the trunk. He also discovers the greenhouse is locked, despite the eerie green glow within...
Susan helpfully remembers a way into the greenhouse she used as a child, when she wanted to hide. Inside, she and Rinehart find plants grown outlandishly large. The aforementioned strange howling is coming from the potting shed, which has been converted into a "zoo in hell", where mutated animals bathe in the light of some strangely glowing rocks. Rinehart finds shards of the same rock buried in each plant's soil; the radiation from these fragments is causing the plant's growth while at the same time killing them, as evidenced by the smell of decay permeating the greenhouse. Susan is attacked by an animate vine, and she and Rinehart make a hasty exit through a door he smashes through.
Rinehart finds that the crater outside was caused by a meteorite, which Nahum dragged into the cellar. He has been experimenting with the effects of its radiation upon plants and animals; unfortunately, Helga and Letitia worked in the greenhouse constantly. Helga has gone insane and is lurking about the grounds, wearing a black funeral outfit, complete with veil (and butcher knife!), and Letitia trashes her room and vanishes during the requisite thunderstorm.
After searching for the missing matriarch for a bit, Letitia is found, but the radiation has made her go all lumpy and homicidal. After a short chase and a bashed-through door, Letitia misses a rush at Rinehart and stumbles out into the rain. For some reason, the radiation has made her water-soluble, and she dissolves into a gooey mess.
This leads to a moment of clarity on Nahum's part - he begs Rinehart to take Susan away while he destroys the meteorite. The elderly man manages to get in one good whack with a battleaxe before he is interrupted by the murderous Helga. They struggle, with the result that they fall onto the shattered meteor. Helga is destroyed, but Nahum changes into a silvery glowing agile dude with ears that stick out farther than Jeremy Brett's. After a semi-exciting fight scene (and another smashed door), Nahum falls from the second floor balcony and shatters. The radiation from his body sets the carpet afire, resulting in the requisite fiery end for the Old Dark House. The end.
As I said earlier, Die, Monster, Die! relies quite heavily on the Gothic clichés to pad out its running length. When Rinehart makes his clandestine journey down to the cellar to find out What's At The Bottom Of All This, he may not run into the usual jump-out-and-go-boo device, the Spring-Loaded Cat (aside: thank you, Jabootu), but he will encounter The Skeleton Behind A Door For No Good Reason, and the terrible Bat On A String (My wife is particularly afraid of the Bat On A String) . Also in attendance is another standard, the 300-Watt Candle®.
After a while, it seems, somebody seems to realize that this is supposed to be based on a Lovecraft story, so they throw fans of the old fellow a few bones, here and there. Aside from Arkham , inexplicably translocated to England (well, perhaps not so inexplicable - shooting at Shepperton Studios was doubtless cheaper than shooting in Hollywood*) (at least doors are cheaper - no fewer than three are smashed though by various characters. You almost expect to see Suzan Farmer smash through one, just because she's the only major character who hasn't gotten to, yet) (Crap! Where was I?), we have a strange bulltwaddle backstory involving Nahum's father, Corbin, who is generally passed off as having "gone insane" after dabbling in some heavy-duty diabolism. Heavy-duty as in "The Great Outer Ones". Letitia (and a sadder, wiser Nahum, by the end) blame Corbin and his demons for the arrival of the meteorite. A final fade to Corbin's portrait, burning in the climactic conflagration, seems to bear this theory out. Yeah. Whatever.
Past that, I seem to recall the story taking place on a backwater farm, not an English estate, nor did the inhabitants experiment with the meteor (didn't they drop it down a well?). Once again, the filmmakers did not trust the source material sufficiently to even attempt to meet it on its own terms; instead, they remade a hundred other movies and took the central device, the MacGuffin, the Bear, and slipped it in under cover of that constant fog.
The picture also relies heavily on the fact that its villain is, after all, B*O*R*I*S K*A*R*L*O*F*F*. Frail and ailing, the horror legend really was confined to a wheelchair at this point in his life, which makes it awfully hard to project an aura of menace. Instead, the picture opts for a misguided, single-minded antagonist who lets his vaunted "purpose" blind him to the harm he is doing to all about him. When you see Karloff rise from his chair to feebly dig at the ground because he must bury the trunk concealing his dismembered manservant, or to single-handedly destroy his radioactive discovery, you feel not only the driven quality of the character, but more than a little admiration for the actor. Karloff acted right up until his death in 1969, rising from his wheelchair, hitting his mark, saying his lines, and then collapsing back into the chair.
Nick Adams appeared in this before what could be called his career's slide into oblivion. The next stop after this was a trio of Japanese films, including Frankenstein Conquers the World and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, then Mission Mars, a space exploration movie made in '68 and felt like it, to a final, fatal overdose in '69. As Rinehart, Adams is called upon to do little more than be American, i.e., loud and angry most of the time.
Director Daniel Haller would attempt Lovecraft again, five years later, with The Dunwich Horror, which deviates even farther from its basis, with even worse results. Then again, another attempt was made to bring "The Colour Out of Space" to screen with a somewhat more faithful adaptation, called The Curse, a movie which is spoken of in terms usually reserved for serial killers, tax collectors, or....well, Wesley Crusher. Even I am loathe to watch this movie. So much for keeping faith with the source material.
It's interesting to note that probably the most successful Lovecraft movie to date - Re-Animator - was based on the least of the author's works, which even he did not like, a series of short shorts that had no chance to construct or establish the mood Lovecraft did so well. Film is a visual art, and at his best, Lovecraft either kept his boogey men in the dark, or they were so monstrous that upon seeing them, the narrator was driven mad. So perhaps it is a good thing that a truly successful Lovecraft movie has never been made.
Lots of formula with a dash of Lovecraft.
- October 10, 1999