Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why Monster Why

The 1965 movie Die Monster Die credits H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Colour Out Of Space for its source material.   In fact the film is really a combination of this tale with The Dunwich Horror.  In several film adaptations of Lovecraft stories, elements are often borrowed and assembled to serve the needs of the screenplay writer, who takes considerable liberty with the source material.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the quality of the film.  Jerry Sohl, who wrote the script for Die Monster Die, in essence created an entirely new story cobbled together from details taken from Lovecraft’s two tales.

(Jerry Sohl was a colleague of Charles Beaumont, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson, among others.  He contributed scripts to many popular science fiction and horror TV shows of the 1960s, for example The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Star Trek. An interesting history and profile of his work is available at .)

Die Monster Die takes place near the village of Arkham, as in the story, but this is Arkham, England, not Arkham, Massachusetts.  Steve Reinhart has been invited to the Whitley’s gothic mansion by the mother of his college sweetheart.  No one in the village will help him with transportation from the train station to the estate, nor even talk about the Whitley family.  He walks to the mansion and along the way passes by the “blasted heath”, a charred and lifeless stretch surrounding a mysterious crater.

The enormous house is occupied by just a handful of people.  These include Steven’s beautiful girlfriend Susan, her ailing mother, her father, Nahum Whitley, (played by the iconic Boris Karloff—he was 77 when he made this film), and two servants.  Members of the household have been succumbing to a mysterious illness, and one of the servants apparently has disappeared.  When they are alone together in her sick room, Susan’s mother begs Steven to take her daughter away from the manor, before it is too late.  This is essentially the crux of the movie:  “Get my daughter out of this terrible house.”  It is a familiar theme in gothic fiction.

Night Gallery style paintings along the stair case profile the history of the family patriarchs, beginning with the respectable Elias Whitley, who founded the estate, his son Corbin Whitley, the evil grandfather who conducted unspeakable cult practices in the basement, and the well intentioned but clueless Nahum Whitley, Susan’s father.  In one scene, Nahum’s debilitated wife Letitia warns him that he is following in his father’s footsteps.  “I haven’t uttered any incantations,” he complains.  “I think I see the future…a richness we have never known.”  The Whitley clan is shunned by the people of Arkham because of the occult activities of Nahum’s father, Corbin.

Alert readers of Lovecraft will notice that the Whitleys of Arkham are reminiscent of the Whatelys of Dunwich fame.  It is Nahum Gardner and his family who succumb to The Colour Out of Space, while it is the fearsome Whatleys—the grandfather, his daughter Lavinia, and grandson Wilbur—who bring about The Dunwich Horror.  In the movie, Steven discovers one of Corbin Whitley’s forbidden books, Cult of the Outer Ones. In the Dunwich Horror, both Old Man Whately and his grandson Wilbur rely on the dreaded Necronomicon for procedural guidance.  To be fair, both of Lovecraft’s stories contain a “blasted heath”, but the heath is blasted for different reasons.

Following a freak show tour of the estate’s conservatory, containing various animal monstrosities and mutations, Steven and Susan discover that her father has been using pieces of a radioactive meteorite in genetic experiments with plants and livestock.  Nahum wants to restore the good name of the Whitley clan by bestowing on humanity the benefits of his research.  But his pride and hubris prevent him from seeing the terrible deterioration of his family members and himself.   Frequent cutaways to the portrait of Corbin Whitley, his eyes glowing sinisterly, lets us know that his spirit, combined with the meteorite’s radioactivity, is a malevolent presence.

Whitley Manor would be an average, wholesome English country estate except for the black mass paraphernalia and glowing, humming meteorite in the cellar.  A final confrontation with the strange power of the meteorite creates a special effects monster and the eventual destruction of the mansion.

While the story line is interesting, the film has several flaws, including poorly edited fight scenes, and problems with believability.  Despite several cases of serious illness and insanity, no one in the house goes to a doctor or contacts the authorities.  Perhaps this is because of the Whitley name.  The moody setting of the story, on a foggy, gothic estate is diminished by hokey TV startle effects.  Nahum at one point is frightened by a large tropical tarantula in the cellar, and Steven is attacked by enormous artificial bats whose wings do not move.  Susan is menaced by shadowy veiled figures at windows; these vanish when others investigate, then reappear.  Oddly, when there are sudden bloodcurdling shrieks and howls nearby, the characters barely react.

Near the end of the film, at the graveside of his wife, Nahum has had a change of heart.  He had believed that the meteorite was a gift, but in fact it had brought terrible evil, an evil he could not see at first because of his pride and ambition.   This is a classic theme in tragedy, and the irony makes this scene the most powerful in the film.

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