Written by: Brent V. Friedman, Christophe Gans, Kazunori Itô, Brian Yuzna, H.P. Lovecraft (stories)
Directed by: Christophe Gans, Shûsuke Kaneko, Brian Yuzna
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Payne, David Warner, Millie Perkins, and Signy Coleman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
From the master of terror comes a chilling tale of unspeakable evil.
The odyssey of the direct-to-video market has taken some wild twists and turns during its 35-year existence. What started as a platform for enterprising, DIY filmmakers to peddle their homespun wares straight to video stores has blossomed into an integral part of Hollywood’s ecosystem, so much so that the lines have virtually blurred in terms of quality. At this point, many films that debut on a streaming service carry the same kind of cache as a theatrical release, if not more. It’s a far cry from the days the format spent wandering in the wilderness, gathering a negative stigma once studios (major and minor) started using it as a dumping ground, a trend that still persists to this day. But there was also a golden period before that downturn, one that’s for my money the absolute golden age of the DTV market. Stretching roughly from the late-80s to the mid-90s, this halcyon era saw the rise of specialty studios like Full Moon Pictures and a willingness by major studios to use the market as a space for solid genre fare.
By 1993, the DTV market was such that you could wander into a video store and stumble upon the likes of Necronomicon, an anthology that let some of the genre’s reigning effects titans run wild in a Lovecraft sandbox overseen by Brian Yuzna. Even though horror was entering a bit of a waning phase at the box office, something like this could have surely been an event befitting a theatrical release: a trio of filmmakers tackling Lovecraft with an all-star effects crew headlined by Tom Savini at their disposal? Seems like a big deal! Instead, this bad boy showed up with little fanfare when New Line decided to send it straight to video, and it’s undeservedly languished in obscurity ever since. It turns out, Necronomicon probably should have been a big deal; at the very least, it holds up as the platonic ideal of this era of DTV, where outrageous gore showcases alone were enough to earn a rental.
But it’s also got a pretty clever hook with its frame story, which finds Lovecraft (Jeffrey Combs, who looks more like Bruce Campbell) visiting a monastery that supposedly houses the fabled Book of the Dead. Seeking to take inspiration from the forbidden tome, he clandestinely cracks the book open to record a trio of ghastly tales that Lovecraft aficionados as loose, hazy adaptations of some of his famous work. Taking inspiration from “The Rats in the Walls,” Christophe Gans’s “The Drowned” sees a forlorn widower (Bruce Payne) inheriting a family hotel with a sordid history. Yuzna’s “The Cold” (based on “Cool Air”) likewise tells a tragic tale of a woman (Bess Meyer) reckoning with her mother’s bizarre history when a journalist comes knocking with the accusation that a rash of murders can be tied back to her house. Finally, Shusuke Kaneko’s “Whispers” twists The Whisperer in Darkness into a cop’s (Signy Coleman) otherworldly fever dream as she tracks down a suspect known only as “The Butcher.”
With anthologies--or any movie, really--it’s rare that an effects crew overshadows the directorial talent, but that’s the case with Necronomicon. While Yuzna and Kaneko were known genre quantities at the time and Gans has gone on to have a solid career, Necronomicon was (and remains) noteworthy for the murderer’s row of talent applying latex and slathering on karo syrup to produce one of the era’s slimiest, grosses, and wettest dreams for gorehounds. Savini--officially serving as a consultant--joins the likes of Screaming Mad George, John Carl Buechler, and Christopher Nelson in an effort to break the meter on the vomit scale with gross-out gags and hideous creatures. Every segment has multiple effects outbursts that leave an impression, whether it’s a Cthulhu-inspired squid beast, flayed flesh, or even a full body melt. More films should have all of these things, but especially full body melts. In fact, Necronomicon features one of the all-time great body melts at that in a show-stopping sequence in a movie that’s full of show-stopping sequences. It’s also the type of movie that boasts gags involving two separate fetuses. I don’t know if the spirit of competition and gamesmanship amongst the effects maestros guided the production, but it sure feels like a case where everyone involved knew they had to bring their A-game.
And, holy shit, did they ever bring it. Necronomicon is especially a throwback to those days when DTV fare remained tactile and mostly practical. This was the Goldilocks zone, where the budgets could sufficiently match a vision and digital technology hadn’t progressed enough to let filmmakers take shortcuts. With the exception of a couple of brief CGI embellishments, the production is astoundingly well-mounted. Each segment convincingly transports the audience to a different time and place, and the sets for Gans’s and Kaneko’s segments especially are exquisitely realized. The former unfolds in a decrepit seaside hotel that constantly feels as if it’s going to sink into the ocean, while the latter tunnels through a decaying apartment building to reveal an ancient, grotesque den possibly belonging to the Old Ones themselves. Necronomicon doesn’t shy away from Lovecraft’s vision of a universe populated by filth and slime, and marrying this era’s preoccupation with all things goopy and gross is an inspired match. The anthology format is also a natural fit allowing the filmmakers to offer up a disgusting cornucopia to eager viewers whose VCR often doubled as a portal to another, fuzzy dimension of fucked-up shit.
It’s hard to imagine that crowd feeling slighted as they returned Necronomicon to their favorite video store, especially since the directors don’t just lean exclusively on their impressive effects crew. All of the segments have a little something to make them compelling beyond the face-melting business, be it a genuinely affecting performance by Payne as the tortured widower who knows he shouldn’t use the Necronomicon to raise his wife from the dead but can’t resist anyway, or David Warner popping up as a scientist with a horrific secret. There’s the nightmarish logic of the final segment, which blurs the line between nightmares and reality as its protagonist grapples with her own personal tragedy. And you absolutely can’t discount the novelty of Combs playing Lovecraft himself, especially when the frame story lets him get in on the gruesome carnage and rip some faces off.
Necronomicon speaks to the appeal and power of the anthology format, which operates on the same principle as a candy variety pack. Each bite delivers a little bit of a different flavor, and you&襊re mostly here for the sugar rush of goopy gore and cool creatures. But like the best anthologies, this one also finds a unity in tone and spirit, not to mention its terrific wraparound tale. Anthologies don’t necessarily need a frame to be completely effective, but I’ve always appreciated the ones that go the extra mile like this one does. The Necronomicon itself is the lynchpin intertwined in each tale, and the screenplay cleverly reveals that the book can peer into the past, present, and the future, which explains how some segments are set in modern day even though Lovecraft died in the 30s. More than that, it’s a cool, subtle wrinkle that implies the book’s horrors will stretch on forever, its tales already woven into the cosmos of fate and now bound in blood and flesh. At the end of the movie, Lovecraft catches a cab driven by Yunza himself, a nice little wink that suggests Lovecraft the author has simply passed down the baton through the years for other storytellers to spread the book’s tales.
Not only would you have expected Necronomicon to be a bigger deal at the time of its release, but you’d also think it’d have a bigger presence now, especially since the cult crowd is all about relitigating and championing everything. Instead, it remains fairly obscure, probably because it’s yet to make it to DVD, let alone Blu-ray in the States. It’s been released a handful of times in other regions, including in the UK, where Wicked Vision released a region-free Blu-ray earlier this year. That’s your best bet for now because who knows if a U.S. release is even in the cards for this one. You’d have to assume some kind of rights issues are hanging it up here because much more obscure movies have been released and/or licensed. Whatever the case is, I hope it gets sorted out: Necronomicon is another one of my dearly loved 90s horrors that deserves a chance to represent its era and provide further proof that the decade was much better than its reputation often suggests. Say what you want about the 90s, but it’s hard for me to think of it as anything less than a magical time when video stores seemingly conjured stuff like this out of thin air and onto their shelves.
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