Monday, October 25, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #80: Die, Monster, Die!

Link to Die, Monster, Die and The Dunwich Horror on DVD
So after a theoretical Monsterfest entry dried up the project kind of stalled, but going into the final week before Halloween I’ve finally managed to come up with an acceptable alternate. (I won’t spoil the offending monsterless film by naming it, though those keen on anagrams are directed to DOWN OF LOON FLESH.) I wanted something to contrast with Gamera’s atomic-powered city-destroying antics, and I’ve found it in DIE, MONSTER, DIE, a surreal Boris Karloff vehicle that’s also a rare early attempt to try and bring H. P. Lovecraft’s work to the screen. Loosely adapted from his “The Colour Out of Space”, this 1965 B-movie is as much gothic mystery as creature feature, and while there is something of an identity crisis at work, it delivers an engaging and unique experience for the short time it runs.

Nick Adams is American student Stephen Reinhart, who travels to the small quaint village of Arkham (which is now in England for some reason) to visit the Witley estate- which, naturally, is one of those places that the townsfolk refuse to go or provide directions or transport to. So he walks there, for two reasons- to visit his fiance Susan (Suzan Farmer), and to respond to a request for help from her mother, Letitia (Freda Jackson). It seems the maid, after having taken ill, has gone missing, and strange things have been happening around the house. Susan’s father Nahum (Karloff) resents Stephen’s presence and tries to make it clear that nothing that could be going on concerns him, but there’s the mysteriously blasted earth outside the estate, the strange illness that has spread to Letitia herself, odd noises in the night, a mysterious glow from the greenhouse...

A lot of Lovecraft’s material is held to be difficult to film, as he specialized in vaguely described blasphemies that defied normal description, but “Colour Out of Space” strikes me as a particuarly odd choice; the menace there is literally a shade, a colo(u)r that saps the landscape and doesn’t resemble any recognized hue on our spectrum- and as such is nearly impossible to visualize. However, screenwriter Jerry Sohl finds an interesting analogy to Lovecraft’s living and corrupting color in radiation, with Reinhart becoming convinced that what’s landed in the countryside is a giant hunk of uranium. Which would be kind of mundane, which is why the film hedges its bets a little by introducing hints of the possibility of a supernatural element at play, something studied by the late Corbin Witley in his research into ancient outer gods; research which Nahum believes called down a curse on the family and the estate. The film never quite establishes what the truth is, which may be cheating, but a little ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing.

The structure of Lovecraft’s story is more or less completely abandoned in favor of a more traditional gothic narrative, where weird things are happening and nobody is willing to tell the protagonist exactly what. For monsters we get people who have been exposed to the mysterious whatsit and contracted an illness that ultimately renders them deformed, deranged monstrosities (as well as a brief peek inside a surreal menagerie of other mutations, though the effects there aren’t very good and it’s probably best forgotten.)

The whole thing is sometimes a bit aimless plotwise, with the mystery unfolding an an infrequent pace and the central danger often shifting from one monstrous problem to another. For the most part the picture relies on its style to carry it, but this is to its benefit; though the film is cheap, it’s also colorful and imaginative, drawing on contemporary fads for surrealism and neo-occultism to add a consistently weird atmosphere. It’s not often very scary, but it is unsettling. Karloff is very good playing a character who is not really the hero or the villain of the piece, and Nick Adams holds his own for the most part. (I was legitimately surprised to find that Farmer is in fact English, because her accent seems kind of faint.)

DIE, MONSTER, DIE is a nice oddball picture, albeit one with a lot of shortcomings. It’s very clearly rushed, with not a lot of time spent developing the story, but it creates a convincingly spooky environment. It delivers just enough in the creature department to qualify for Monsterthon, and while it’s not essential Halloween viewing, it’s not the worst choice either. I don’t want to pick on modern horror too much, since I’m really not that up on all the latest trends, but a film like this does make me miss the days when a horror film could be something weird and colorful, instead of having to be bleak and hardcore. That this movie works proves that a little imagination goes a long way.

Based on the story “The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Jerry Stohl
Directed by Daniel Haller

Grade: B

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