Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Watching The Lurking Fear During "No TV Week"

Years ago, when the children were younger, they suffered a dreadful initiative promulgated by the local school system.  They were forced to sign contracts in which they promised to omit television from their lives for five days.  The intention was to encourage more active forms of entertainment, to foster reading and family interaction.   As with all good intentions, this one certainly inserted a cobblestone or two into the emerging road to Hell.  But there was a bright spot along that wide boulevard:  I was able to watch an evening of television on the Friday of that week without competition or controversy.

My selfishness was justly and deservedly rewarded.  What was on TV that night was The Lurking Fear, (1994), and because parental discretion was advised, I could banish the entire family from the basement—where television belongs—and watch this film without interruptions.  At least not from them.  The network—can you guess which one?—provided generous commercial interruptions, so many that soon the movie resembled one of the victims of the ghouls it depicts.  

The Lurking Fear was very loosely based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name.  It would be more accurate to say it contained elements of several of his stories, a pastiche of several Lovecraftian themes and settings:  hereditary horror, the corruption and devolution of isolated communities, a monstrous elder race, a defiled church, and subterranean tunnels of filth, terror and decay.   The original story is one of a number of Lovecraft stories that contain ghouls.  You probably have read Pickman’s Model, for example, or seen the Night Gallery episode that features this story, (second season, eleventh episode).

Produced by Full Moon Productions, and similar to other products of that company, The Lurking Fear is pretty low budget, which does not necessarily mean dreadfully acted and awfully written, as was the case here.  However, the film did contain occasional moments of cleverness.  The ghouls show evidence of intelligence and problem solving ability.  They are not just blood thirsty brutes.

Basically, what happens in the movie is this:  the last member of the Martense clan is released from prison after serving time for a murder he did not commit.  He returns to his home town and meets with an old crony of his father’s.  His father had been a criminal of some repute.  The father’s friend, once a petty thief, but now an undertaker, asks the younger Martense’s help in locating a huge sum of stolen money that his father had buried. 

A cryptic map reveals that the money is buried in the grave of the policeman who set his father up, in the cemetery of Leffert's Corner.  The young Martense reluctantly agrees to help.  He finds out later that three old associates of his father are also after the money.  These include Benton, their leader, one of his henchman, and his evil blond gun mall.

It is sometimes the case that a tedious crime drama can be enlivened by the appearance of an occasional flesh eating ghoul.  But the reverse is rarely true.  Ghouls are a distraction, as are hardened criminals, and with both competing for attention, the film quickly loses focus.  Perhaps the intent was to bring about the unholy matrimony of crime and horror in order to produce even more unspeakable offspring.  One of the earliest precedents for this that I can recall is Roger Corman’s Beast from Haunted Cave (1957).

Meanwhile, holed up in an ancient church adjacent to an old cemetery are several of the townspeople, among them an alcoholic doctor, a laborer, an expectant mother, (possibly carrying the evil spawn of one of the ghoulish subterranean creatures), the parish priest and a female demolitions expert who is reminiscent of the Ripley character in the Alien movies.  She is by default the leader of this group. 

They are hiding in the church because Leffert’s Corner has been under increasing attack by subterranean ghouls who feed on the townspeople and steal their babies.  Evidently this has been going on for some time now, and they have had enough. The townspeople want to blow the creatures up.  At this point, boomers may want to sing the old disaster song, “There’s Got to Be a Morning After”.

Unfortunately, what Lovecraftian elements are present are frequently eclipsed by the film noir inspired gangster characters, who goofily lose control of the situation, then regain it, then lose it again after several spur of the moment scuffles with either the good guys or the inconvenient ghouls.  Because the gangsters are so nasty, (and, relatively speaking, the better actors as well), they are often scarier than the ghouls, and steal the show.  The ghouls are offered few lines.

In the film, the character of Martense is a brawny, tan young man who speaks with a pronounced southwestern accent.   Almost no one in a typical Lovecraft story would have a tan.  The character’s demeanor and dialect would outfit him better for a country western music video or an advertisement for barbecue sauce.  He was wildly incongruous with the setting of the film, and with Lovecraft’s fiction in general.  Lovecraft’s protagonists tend to be pale, emaciated scholars from old New England families. They would never take off their shirts, nor involve themselves in physical fights.  Horrors!  Nor would they have been drawn from the criminal classes.

The film was choppy due to the careless editing for television—admittedly not the best place to view any movie.  At the end, the audience will not be sure exactly what happened to the characters assembled in the church, and how Martense, the pregnant woman, and the female demolitions expert escaped all of the explosions and flames at the end. 

Movies of this kind rely on a lot of explosions to move the plot along—typically in all directions, along with the debris.  But there is an inverse relationship between the quality of a film and the number of explosions it contains.  Increase one and the other is diminished.  This film contains a fair number of explosions.

It was disappointing how little was done with the revelation that Martense is related by “bad blood’ to the ghouls in the tunnels beneath church and cemetery.  This is often a key point of a Lovecraft story:  the protagonist discovers an evil he has in fact inherited, that is a part of his identity, and from which he cannot escape.  The news is usually either shattering psychologically or queasily reassuring to the character at the end.   

According to tradition, Martense should have eventually converted to ghoulhood, but nothing actually follows from his discovery of the dreaded “Mark of the Martense.”   He makes some desultory remarks at the end about being afraid of what was “inside him”.  Typically there is at least a change in dietary preferences at this point.

The film’s strongest point was the attention to details of the setting:  the run down little town, the decaying church, the building storm clouds.  The underground tunnels with openings in the walls or floors of homes, all ineffectually boarded up—these were effective in creating a chill.  A town under siege from something below—think of Tremors (1990)—is deeply unsettling and a powerful source of suspense and horror.

The makeup and costuming of the ghouls was pretty convincing, although the creatures were shown in their entirety too early in the movie.  The film, though not satisfying, was not boring. With the exception of some old Night Gallery episodes from the early 70s, and some very recent films, it is difficult to find movies that respect the integrity of Lovecraft’s work.  Somewhat older films, such as Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) were fairly true to the original, but lost some of the flavor of the original stories by incorporating elements of more modern horror and thriller films.  (Both of these films from the 80s featured the talented Jeffrey Combs in key roles; he is completely underutilized in The Lurking Fear). 

To be fair, it is probably very challenging to film a Lovecraft story, since so much of the action is research, discovery, rumination and marveling at—or fleeing from—awesome and frightful entities.  Lovecraft is effective at establishing setting and mood in his stories, as well conceptualizing what is truly and supernaturally horrifying.  His settings and ideas are unfortunately often relegated to mere ingredients to be sprinkled into films that are otherwise more action based.  While it would be difficult to make a purely Lovecraftian movie, he clearly has influenced many films by contributing a vocabulary of settings, creatures and mythologies.

“No TV” Week ended the Friday night that I watched The Lurking Fear.  However, before returning the basement and television to the children, I felt the need to examine the walls and floor for signs of disturbance…

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