Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Resurrected

I hate to say the book is better than the movie, but "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft is better than the movie adaptation it inspired, The Resurrected by Dan O'Bannon.

The novella chronicles the descent of the main character into black magic and madness as he delves deeper into his family legacy. Lovecraft writes in the style of a psychiatric report by the young man's doctor. At first, I thought all the detail and exposition to be excessive, but as the paranormal crept in, the story felt plausible and thus more effective. When you take out all the back story and details, you're left with a series of events that feel unconvincing and unsupported.

The Resurrected opens in film noir fashion. Mental Patient Charles Ward (Chris Sarandon) has escaped from the insane asylum, leaving a gruesome mess in his room. Meanwhile, injured private investigator John March (John Terry) narrates into a tape recorder how he was hired by Ward's wife Claire (Jane Sibbett) to investigate why her husband spent time in an isolated cabin. The film flashes back to show how Ward developed a fascination with the black arts, a mysterious ancestor, and raising the dead while March's investigation brings him closer to the truth.

It could be argued noir is the best style to bring Lovecraft to life. Lovecraft mythology concerns people being driven insane by the horrors they find lurking beneath everyday reality and how puny the human race is. Noir involves deep shadows, Expressionist imagery, world weary protagonists, a cynical outlook, psychologically neurotic villains, and plots in which the hero uncovers a labyrinth of betrayal and corruption in the criminal underworld and respectable society. That almost describes Lovecraft perfectly; the only difference is the addition of gruesome monsters. John Carpenter accomplished this merger in In the Mouth of Madness, in which Sam Neil located a missing horror writer whose work allowed beings from another realm to enter reality.

But in The Resurrected, the plot just feels hokey. John Terry as John March is no Sam Neil; he doesn't have the same craftiness, cynicism, humor, or smugness. While Neil is reminiscent of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, Terry is a plot function. That's fine in the story when the psychiatrist is analyzing his patient and not really involved with the main action, but in film noir, your main character should not be bland. Similarly, Sarandon is not very convincing as the driven scientist or his evil ancestor. He captures the physical decline of Ward well, looking gaunt and haggard, but his performance doesn't feel inspired (although his final confrontation with Terry is effective).

I think the problem is the adaptation tried to be faithful to Lovecraft's plot while working in the investigator aspect to give it narrative drive. It might have been more effective to stick with Ward and watch events unfold chronologically, so we empathize with him and his loved ones. The private investigator business feels like an excuse to explain everything. These two tracks feel half-hearted when put together instead of supporting each other.

Ugly monsters turn up in the end. The exploration of a subterranean dungeon where undead creatures are being kept in darkness for experimentation was probably the creepiest section of the story. In the film, it feels tacked on to provide some action and unconvincing makeup effects.

The Resurrected has all the ingredients for a winner, but they don't come together. O'Bannon incorporates Lovecraft's ideas and is mostly faithful to the story, but the overall effect just doesn't carry the punch it should. I guess I'm disappointed because O'Bannon's work in The Return of the Living Dead, Alien, and Dead & Buried shows he had a solid grasp of Lovecraft's sense of cosmic horror. The movie just feels meh.

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