Monday, March 15, 2010

Dan O'Bannon's The Resurrected (1992)

"'I say to you againe, doe not call upp Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you.'"

The above quote is from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," one of the longer and best pieces of literature from one of the twentieth century's most creative fiction writers. Lovecraft's protagonists are scholars. Dialogue is sparse within his prose. Description is heavy. Mystery is high: what exists behind closed doors often stays there: muffled noises, fleeting glances, and horrors too unspeakable to describe are what the reader encounters. A brilliant prose stylist combined with an extremely fertile and creative imagination, Lovecraft demanded of his readers the latter. Likewise, his readers have demanded a lot from film makers when adapting his works, and Dan O'Bannon's The Resurrected (1992) is held in high esteem by Lovecraft fans.
Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon) has moved out of the house and away from his lovely wife, Claire (Jane Sibbett). Claire has sought the services of private investigator, John March (John Terry), because at Ward's current dwelling, a secluded farmhouse in the New England countryside, there was a police raid. The police discovered among Ward's possessions several long boxes, specifically delivered and signed for by Ward, containing human remains. Claire reveals, however, that Ward's strange behavior began with a genealogical discovery with the papers of a predecessor, Ward's five-times grandfather, Eliza Ward, and his notorious contemporary, Joseph Curwen. These papers began an obsession for Ward and began his withdrawal from his wife and his duties of everyday life. When he begins curious experiments at his homestead, a neighbor calls the police when odd noises at all hours of the night are heard from the Ward property. Ward flees to the country to continue whatever he has began and leaves his wife and the rest of his life behind.
Despite having only directed two features in his career, Return of the Living Dead (1985) being his other credit, Dan O'Bannon is quite legendary in cult filmdom. Return of the Living Dead is much loved by horror fans, but his screenplay for Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) is perhaps his most notable work. Alien is an excellent script: a haunted house story set in outer space aboard a space vessel where a lurking alien is hunting its crew. From the set up, an investigation of a derelict spacecraft on an uninhabited planet, to its main story to its finale, Alien showed a command of mystery, atmosphere, and perfectly-timed, over-the-top set pieces that had its viewers' hearts beating fast and their stomachs churning during its run time.

Unfortunately for The Resurrected, O'Bannon didn't pen the script. For the first half of the film, for the viewer unfamiliar with the source material, it is likely that the mystery behind Charles Dexter Ward will be too distant to be engaging. Lovecraft kept his readers at bay, and O'Bannon attempts to keep his viewers at a distance as well (for the revelations in the final act). Lovecraft masterfully dropped clues for his readers, however (the above quote is an important one within his story. The quote appears in a written letter and is itself extremely cryptic but is connected with the other clues in the story.). When O'Bannon makes a plot revelation for his viewer, it feels manufactured. For example, after March and Claire make an impromptu visit at Ward's farmhouse to confront him, it goes poorly as Ward takes the upper hand and dismisses the two. In the car on the way back to the city, March makes an observation to Claire about Ward's behavior and recalls an extremely esoteric story to back it up. While Lovecraft might wink his eye at the esoteric nature of March's observation, it seems too convenient that March would know this bit of information, as his character is set up as a slick and successful private eye who knows the tricks of the trade as to how to gather information. Information analysis, however, especially at the level which March is detailing, is just not a credible trait of his character.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment within The Resurrected is the little screen time which is devoted to Chris Sarandon. Sarandon is a phenomenal actor from his early standout performance in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to his iconic role in Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985) to his brilliant comedic turn in The Princess Bride (1987). Extremely handsome and charismatic, Sarandon is reminiscent of Vincent Price, who played a character named Charles Dexter Ward in The Haunted Palace (1963) incidentally, who brought an air of elegance and added a depth to any role he played. Sarandon is nearly perfect in his role as Ward in The Resurrected: from wide-eyed and curious to aloof to sinister, Sarandon could have carried this film alone had his character been central; as it stands however, he almost steals the film.

The screenplay for The Resurrected is by Brent V. Friedman and his script moves Lovecraft's story set at the beginning of the twentieth century (with a history detailed going back hundreds of years) to modern day. Changing the setting of the story isn't a fatal flaw; rather it is the choice to make an investigative mystery by a private eye the thrust of the story. Stuart Gordon's previous Lovecraft adaptations, most notably Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), were phenomenally popular with genre fans; and Gordon's take on Lovecraft, adding camp humor, over-the-top gore, and some perversity and kink, became signature Gordon and less reverent towards the source material. Friedman's script, and O'Bannon's direction, bring a focused serious tone to The Resurrected with the end result being a serious yet very conservative film. While Sarandon's performance and certain set-pieces, such as the descent into Ward's catacombs, are faithful and effective Lovecraft flourishes, the film's pacing and structure are just perfunctory. Although O'Bannon's film keeps a heavy dose of FX and gore like Gordon's previous works, The Resurrected lacks Gordon's creativity and his willingness to take a risk.
My inherent bias towards the source material and serious love and admiration for H.P. Lovecraft's fiction has undoubtedly clouded a viewing experience which could be enjoyable for many. To be fair, The Resurrected is a low-budget horror film which boasts a terrific performance by Sarandon and has some creepy set-pieces. Some may find the mystery behind the enigmatic Ward engrossing rather than tedious. Nonetheless, The Resurrected stands as an imperfect Lovecraft adaptation which occasionally hints at the brilliance of Lovecraft's imagination.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I love this movie, even with its flaws, which are a few.

The main problem for me was the cheesy private detective angle. Are there guys like this one in real life I kept asking myself while watching this film. The guys office is way to nice looking for a guy in his line of work. What dose he make millions doing this? I doubt it.

But Sarandon is awesome on this one with all his talk about the universe, and how horrifying it is. Those scenes of him in the hospital, love them! The scenes down in the catacombs? Love them!

I just wish OBannon had not used the cheesy cheap detective angle.

But otherwise, this is one of the good Lovecraft movies.

Emily said...

I still have yet to read any Lovecraft, and your review of this film helps to sum up why. From my understanding, Lovecraft is so much about atmosphere that his work just isn't meant to be read while chugging on a subway to work or waiting in a doctor's office. Same, I would imagine goes for his film adaptations. It takes a certain kind of director to bring that to life.

Don't know that I'll get to this one. It's been on my queue for a while (along with 400+ other films) and the fact that Sarandon--a total crush of mine--doesn't get enough screen time won't have me bumping it up anytime soon.