Hands down, the most disappointing movie I have ever seen with a Lovecraft title attached to it was the 2006 film Beyond the Wall of Sleep. Any relation to the short story of the same name—one of the author’s better ones in my view—was superficial at best. How many of us have had our hopes raised by the Lovecraftian title of some film, only to be appalled by its actual execution. Why is this so? Why does this happen so often?
Visually, Beyond the Wall of Sleep is interesting at times, aping a film noir look by switching back and forth between black and white scenes and color. There were also mildly interesting sequences of visual montages combined with a fairly decent musical score. But the writing is terrible, and the acting consisted largely of the actors screaming their lines at each other. The plot is incomprehensible, a montage itself of scenes loosely linked, giving the impression of a poorly translated foreign film.
There are a number of scenes and effects that have no obvious connection with each other, and which do not advance the story, such as it was. At times the film appears to be merely a collection of special effects in search of an actual movie. There is a complete lack of proportion or taste. The film looks as though someone combined an old MTV video with a remake of the 1959 film The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.*
Overall, it is just plain awful, though I admit that here and there are elements that showed promise. Inevitably in the middle of some B, C, D or even Z movie there is some cleverness or the germ of an idea that could have been developed further. This film, though, is definitely filed in the second half of the alphabet.
As in Lovecraft’s original story, most of the movie takes place in an asylum, which provides an opportunity for the film’s creators to put on what amounts to a freak show. A new patient, Joe Slaader, is admitted following the brutal murder of his family. He is a “mountain man” who bears an unusual deformity on his back. So far, the movie does not stray too much from the original. Incredibly, the doctors in this institution fight over how best to abuse this man. Much is made of the struggle between Dr. Wardlow and the hospital’s administrator, as well as between Dr. Wardlow and the young intern, Dr. Eischel.
All of the physicians are mad doctor types, cruel to their patients, and constantly engaging in power struggles with each other. Being mad, they are liberated to emote and growl out their lines out of all proportion to what is going on dramatically in a scene, (often nothing).
Avoiding hospital politics, the maverick Dr. Eischel frequently descends to the basement of the hospital to carry out his unauthorized research into the electrical nature of the brain. He has connected electrodes to the brain of a female patient, whom he keeps tied to a chair in the basement during the entire film, her scalp pulled back to expose her brain. Sadly, she is offered little dialogue in the film. Observant viewers will note at this point that there are relatively few patients in this asylum and a dearth of nurses or orderlies. This is probably due to budget cuts at both the hospital and the movie studio, and perhaps the substandard quality of care. As in real hospitals, the special effects get all the funding.
Through a series of repetitive montages and Dr. Eischle’s interminable soliloquies, we learn that the mountain man, Joe Slaader, actually has two brains, his own and that of an evil fetal twin. He is a ‘vessel’, or perhaps a doorway for the demon Amducious, (‘the Destroyer’) to come into the world and take control of it.
Amducious is either one of Satan’s minions or is a remnant of an elder race of all powerful beings. Judging by his appearance—standard issue demon—he is more likely one of the former. To help him become manifested requires that the mountain man’s brain be hooked up to an electrical circuit that includes nine freshly decapitated heads impaled on metal spikes. This is a difficult and tricky procedure to pull off—you have to get the timing just right—which is why this business probably needs to take place in an insane asylum. Lovecraft traditionalists will be mouthing the acronym ‘WTF’ at this point.
Just as Dr. Wardlow is about to become the ninth brain on a stick, one of the good doctors (!) takes an axe to the wire and cuts the current. Amducious collapses in the center of this paraphernalia, and the plot is foiled. Dr. Eischel, who has now been transmogrified into a twitching, psychotic geek, becomes an inmate in the asylum himself, kept always awake with powerful stimulants. If he sleeps, bad things will happen, for he is the new vessel now, and the evil powers of the demon are released when he dreams.
This movie could have been a whole lot better. It is dismaying that so much attention was given to special visual effects that might otherwise have complemented an interesting film if used in moderation. There were several arresting scenes that with more judicious use might have created a more powerful impact. Of course, a coherent plot, suspense, and interesting characters would have helped greatly.
Is it that hard to make a decent movie out of a Lovecraft story? Lately, there have been many effective and respectful treatments of his work in graphic novels and stories. See almost anything published by SelfMadeHero, for example. Admittedly, graphic depictions are far from an actual moving picture. Yet the artful blocking out of scenes frame by frame in a graphic novel or story seems just a preliminary step towards animating those scenes with characters and props. Can quality graphic novels lead the way here?
Mr. Del Toro, take us away from this sanitarium! Take us to Antarctica!
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*Also known as The Head That Wouldn’t Die, a classic in bad taste, and quite possibly an inspiration for this film.