Friday, 18 January 2013

Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Directors: Thomas Maurer, Barrett Klausman
Writers: Thomas Maurer, Barrett Klausman
Producer: Koko Polosajian
Cast: William Sanderson, Tom Savini, Kurt Hargan
Country: USA
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener

I am not, I should point out, an HP Lovecraft fan. That doesn’t mean I dislike his work or the movies that are based on it, but it doesn’t hold any special place in my affection. I’m not obsessed with it. I’m no more or less passionate about Lovecraft than I am about Lord Dunsany or Edgar Allan Poe or any other classic author of the weird and mysterious. I’ve read a few of his stories (none recently, I admit) and quite enjoyed them.

Some people are Lovecraft fans. For some people that whole ‘mythos’ holds as much attraction at the universes of Star Trek or Star Wars have for more regular fanboys. They treasure ‘nameless dread’ and ‘indescribable monstrosity’ as one would treasure a favourite Doctor Who episode or a popular soccer player. They are fans. Lovecrafties if you like.

It’s no mere happenstance that Lovecraft is the only author to have an annual film festival devoted solely to movies based on or inspired by his work, nor that he is the only person identified by name in the thematic index on this site. Lovecraft is his own genre.

So I may not be the best person to review this film which seems, to my untutored eye, very Lovecraftian.

Based on an HPL story of the same name, the action takes place in the Catskill Mountains in 1908 where an inbred yokel, Joe Slaader (William Sanderson: Blade Runner’s JF Sebastian, also in Skeeter, Phoenix, Mirror Mirror 2 and The Low Budget Time Machine), is arrested for murder and committed to Ulster County Asylum, a Bedlam-like institution where the inmates receive no treatment and serve no purpose except as experimental subjects. The Asylum is managed by the weak Dr Fenton (Marco St.John: Frankenfish, Monster, Friday the 13th Part V, Cat People remake) but the dominant figure is visiting ‘alienist’ - an archaic term for ‘psychologist’ - Dr Wardlow (Kurt Hargan, who starred in Klausman and Maurer’s previous feature, The White Room). In conflict with both of them - and with the idealistic, rich uncle who finances his position - is a passionate, obsessive intern named Edward Eischel (played by the brilliantly named Fountain Yount under an extraordinary bouffant wig which puts one in mind of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970).

Slaader has, it transpires, a deformity on his back which resembles a face and which may be another being. Eischel is the only one in the Asylum who seems to think this is valuable and worth studying. But then he is slightly bonkers, as evidenced by the female patient (Rachel Mellendorf) whom he keeps strapped to a chair in the basement. The top of her head has been sliced off (and carefully replaced) allowing him to insert electrodes into her brain and apply sensations directly. These include orgasms and the implication seems to be - or at least, the inference is - that Eischel is getting some sort of sexual kick from this himself.

But it’s Slaader which is the problem. The being in his back turns out to be called ‘Amduscious’ and is some sort of demon, presumably one of HPL’s ‘dark ones’. The influence of Amduscious on the asylum is deadly, leaving inmates in other cells stripped of their flesh and blood. Eischel’s attempts to communicate with the demon lead to his expulsion from the Asylum and, eventually, after he has made his way back within its foreboding walls, Amduscious’ escape from its fleshy prison.

Or something.

Because I’m not a devotee of Howard Philips Lovecraft I found the story difficult to follow and the situation was not helped by the film-maker’s over-reliance on disorienting and flashy post-production. There are innumerable flashbacks, flash forwards, cutaways and dream sequences (or some combination of all four) which jump and jitter about. My suspicion is that this makes the film authentically Lovecraftian in its distortion of narrative and unnerving of the audience. But unfortunately the main thing it induces is a headache. In fact two headaches: one from trying to work out what is going on and one from all the jumping and shaking.

This is particularly prevalent at the beginning and it was quite some time before the film actually settled down enough for me to discern an actual story. It also took some time to discover whether the film was in black and white or colour, which is not a situation that one encounters on a regular basis. And even now, I’m not certain if this was a colour film with black and white sequences or a monochrome film with colour sequences. Or possibly a sepia film with both colour and black and white bits.

It’s a shame that the film is so heavily overproduced because the story seems to be engrossing, the horror is bloody and the acting, though stylised, is good. This is a well-directed, professionally made film. I just wish that somebody had maintained a tighter hand on the production while it was in post.

Or perhaps, true devotees of the church of Lovecraft will enjoy the film precisely because it is like that. Perhaps such disorientation is deliberate and makes the movie authentically ‘Lovecraftian’. I don’t know.

Despite my reservations, I would still recommend this movie as fine example of how evident talent and today’s technology can join forces to produce something startlingly ambitious. The artistry on display is sometimes breathtaking, from the production design to the cinematography and especially the special effects. The eventual appearance of Amduscious is gobsmacking and there are some gruesome and gory set pieces and images scattered throughout the film.

The writing/directing team of Klausman and Maurer have worked hard here, aided by producer Polosajian, and between them they have created a unique film which sets an impressive standard for indie Lovecraft adaptations.

In an impressive cast for a film of this scale, Tom Savini is very visible in the early scenes as a Sheriff hunting for Slaader. For a make-up artist, he’s been a busy actor recently, making at least 15 films in the past five years including Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Forest of the Damned and Bundy. Also on screen are Rick Dial (Sling Blade, Secondhand Lions), Greg Fawcett (Nautilus, Sucker: The Vampire) and Robert Jayne (Tremors I and III, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II, Meet the Applegates, Night of the Demons II, Dr Alien). Cinematographer Bill Burton has almost made a career out of photographing Tom Savini, lighting this film and two by Matt Green: Vicious (also starring Marco St.John) and Blood Bath.

MJS rating: B
Review originally posted 1st September 2005

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