Don’t say it: A critical review of “The Unnamable” (1988)

A look back at this year’s end cosmic horror experiment, and it can feel like this blog has been picking the low hanging fruit: cheesy old horror flicks, shoestring imports, cringy indies. You’ll have to trust me for the moment, tonstant weader, but we haven’t even hit the worst of it. Still, in the interest of fair play (it being the holidays and all), let’s go after something that approximates a sacred cow, at least within the realm of budget cosmic horror.

If anyone mentions 1988’s “The Unnamable,” it’s typically in the same paragraph as 1985’s “Re-Animator.” Not that “Unnamable” has anything like the “Re-Animator’s” cult appreciation, but rather that it is part of the 1980s and 90s wave of Lovecraft films that proved so profitable for both VHS manufacturers and Eastern European location scouts. “The Unnamable” was filmed in Southern California though, which probably explains why New England looks suspiciously like Topanga Canyon.

The film starts in American’s nascent past, when Arkham was just a blip on the cosmic map. Some old dude is keeping a yowling thing in his attic. He takes a break from his reading room – which comes with mysterious beakers for atmosphere – to let it out for a walk because he’s never seen a horror film before. We shouldn’t blame him. There weren’t a lot of movie theaters in 1706. Naturally the critter tears his still-beating heart out and tosses it on his chest. The next day, some Renaissance festival workers show up to clean the floor, and a clergyman wearing the world’s most outrageous Pilgrim costume (God, that collar! The socks! The socks!) has the old dude’s body buried in the world’s most conveniently located cemetery and the house sealed shut.

Fast forward 400 years or so and the house still stands, although it’s fallen into disrepair, at best a local legend and at worst a place where nearby Miskatonic University students go to perform stupid dares and make out. Guess what this movie is going to focus on? Naturally, when the 1988 remedial class stumbles onto the estate, they’ll learn that the creature that spilled out of the attic centuries ago hasn’t mellowed with age.

“The Unnamable” takes the cake for “films that probably should have known better.” It was clearly made with love, and there are genuinely reasons to watch it, but they’re buried under such a veneer of tedium that it becomes difficult to recommend it to anyone but Lovecraft completionists and haunted house horror junkies.

For starters, there a ton of problems that a budget could have cured, and while it feels unfair to single them out, they’re impossible to ignore. There are rather obviously only a handful of locations, photographed frequently to fill time. The sound effects seem to be coming out of a shoebox. The cast is blatantly inexperienced – for some members, this was their first or only credit on IMDb – and the crew is not too different.

Then there are things that can’t be excused with a dollar sign. Writer-director Jean-Paul Ouellette’s script contains gratuitous amounts of filler that boils down to “teens wander around the old dark house.” When they bother speaking, they have little of interest to say. Philosophy or psychology students these ain’t. Likewise, the film’s attempts at college humor are somehow both old fashioned and juvenile at the same time (it doesn’t help that the students all look a little old to be freshmen). I imagine Ouellette was trying to reach a particular page count – not to mention offer an excuse for the inevitable sex scene – but his frequent solution was to throw someone into the house and have them stumble around in the dark. Likewise, editor Wendy Plump seems to equate mounting tension with jerky montage. The score, by David Bergeaud, is endless and uninspired runs on a synthesizer. These flaws do not arise from lapse of budget but from lack of vision.

The camerawork is typically solid but boring (the photography was by Tom Fraser, then a music video and budget thriller veteran); it’s best when it’s whimsical or inventive, seeking odd angles that suggest odder perspectives, but too frequently it’s stagnant and as sedate as the cast and sets it displays. The house itself is interestingly lit (I’ve said it before, I’m a sucker for offbeat monochromatic lighting), but unimaginatively dressed and clearly smaller than it’s playing.

The cast approaches being a mixed bag. The film’s hero is Mark Kinsey Stephenson as Randoph Carter, a role he was perhaps born to play (he has seven credits on IMDb, and two of them are Carter; you do the math). He looks thoroughly comfortable as the character, portrayed as a kind of king nerd who’s as at home in a mausoleum as a university library. Everyone else in the cast is never better than an overeager community theater player. I suppose Charles King as sidekick Howard has a kind of dorky charm, and Laura Albert as pouty bobby-soxer Wendy shows the most range, but everyone else is thoroughly replaceable, with one exception.

If there is a single spot where some cash was clearly dumped into “The Unnamable,” it was the costume design of the titular creature. It’s a practical costume, all layered latex and sheepskin, resulting in a kind of demonic gargoyle look. It’s not bad, and after a movie’s worth of playing coy, the final 10 minutes of the film are not shy about showing it off. There’s a thinness to it, as if it’s always threatening to reveal some blatant budgetary flaw, but it somehow works, giving the creature the feel of something caught between worlds. It doesn’t hurt that she’s portrayed effectively by Katrin Alexandre – notably her only film role as well, and no extra info this blog could dig up on a hurry – a captivating dance between animalistic rage and wounded tragedy.

Unless there never was an Alexandre, and that wasn’t latex at all. Hmm…

“Unnamable” does not lack interesting moments, but they are simply too few and far between. There are atmospheric shots – a flash of a dirty window, a suggestive shadow around a glowing blue corner – but they must be hunted down by wandering around the same three rooms. There are some choice lines, but they’re all directly from Lovecraft and delivered by Stephenson (“Well Joel, you’ve seen it. It’s right there”). Even the gore is done is weird bursts, relative anemia punctuated by excessive slasher splatter as if making up for lost time.

The film’s first 10 minutes look like utterly enjoyable cheese; then there are 70 minutes of disposable haunted house high jinks; then the final 10 are surprisingly competent budget surreal horror. Then we get played off the stage by “Up There,” credited to Mark Ryder and Phil Davies in some circles, which sounds like a more laid back version of the “Phantasm” theme. That pilgrim clergyman was portrayed by the delightfully named Colin Cox. What is this movie? Why does it toy with me? I suppose the title is accurate. There really is no name for a film like this.

The witch is back: A critical review of “Wicked City” (1987 or 1993)

In keeping with the notion that not all bad cosmic horror is terrible, 1987’s “Wicked City” is probably not the worst cosmic horror anime out there (it’s also not that “Wicked City,” not that you had asked). It is probably one of the most controversial though, still remembered for its over-the-top content even by old school anime standards. Contemporary reviewers noted the graphic violence, casual sexuality and atmosphere of self-seriousness. One reviewer also noted undercurrents of Aldous Huxley, which you’ll have to figure out for yourself, Tonstant Weader, cos this blog sure didn’t see it. What I saw instead was a story that bounced frequently between cliché and convoluted.

Five minutes in the future, Earth has been in a state of constant, albeit uncertain, peace with the mysterious Black World, presumably a kind of shadowy sister dimension to our own populated by demons that can take human form. The time has come to renew the treaty between the two realities, and a radical demonic faction has emerged to see that it doesn’t go through. The key to the treaty is Giuseppe Mayart, a soothsayer who has traversed the worlds. Tasked with guarding Mayart is Taki, a studly human enforcer, and Makie, his fey and fetching distaff counterpart from the demon world. The pair will have to learn to work together if they want to guard their charge, as well as learn the motivations of both the deadly radicals and their own mysterious handlers.

There is little that’s original in “Wicked City.” The film opens with some pulpy detective dialogue, like a junior Raymond Chandler penning dark fantasy fan fiction, describing: “A world of darkness out there, beyond time or space… Within that world, there things that run wild.” Stirring stuff. Full disclosure, I watched the 1993 dub because that what was what available to me. Purists may scoff, but, whatever. I’m an old-ish anime junkie, and awful dubbing is part of that experience.

To be fair, most of the voice acting is OK. Pretty much everyone in the cast is nice enough to not stand out, landing somewhere between acceptable and forgettable. If there is a positive exception, it’s Greg Snegoff as Taki, as he throws some character into his portrayal from time to time.

A performer who occasionally remembers to be human can do little to salvage a script that seldom does. After the pulp detective opening, we get the impression that Taki is a James Bond type, with god-like thighs and good reflexes in the bedroom. He works for the in-universe equivalent of Universal Exports, and he’s known around the office as a Lothario (a chance encounter with a demonic spider-woman hybrid is brushed off as a one-night stand gone awry). This does little to prepare us for later in the film when Taki gets labelled a hopeless romantic. And not a newly minted one, but an always has been. It’s strange, but it’s hardly the most vexing turnaround in the film, all in the service of the last second plot reveal.

The plot operates on a lot of convenience, which bleeds into the design. This demon-haunted world looks a lot like 1980s Japan, except less populated. There are few people on the streets, cars on the road, that sort of thing, but what’s there looks suspiciously normal. The implication, if there is one, is that this nightmare is more bureaucratic than demonic. We’re told that the world is a dark and dangerous place, a powder keg in need of policing, but we’re almost never shown it.

We are shown that the world is sexually violent though, largely through the medium of demonic cop Makie. She’s apparently dated a third of the demonic realm’s population, and her exes keep popping up for revenge… and revenge sex. This is where that nonchalant misogyny pops up, which modern audiences might find problematic. There’s still debate about whether Makie is a damsel in distress or shows some agency. It’s hard to deny that she gets groped an awful lot and that the camera likes observing it from pleasing angles. This blog is firmly on team Makie though. I find she does show some agency, particularly during the finale, but my decision ultimately has more to do with Taki getting beat up almost as much as her. The film is somewhat egalitarian regarding assault, more so regarding shootings, stabbings, being smashed into walls, bitten in half, silk restraints.

Alternatively, I might just have a thing for handsome women in men’s fashion who have perfected an icy stare. I might be a failure as a human being, but I’m doing all right as a retro anime fan.

Better to focus on the action scenes perhaps. Those are often displayed in an intriguingly limited color palette: black, blue, pink. The framing and choreography of the shooting, kicking and monster-on-monster action is well executed, in part due to the fluid animation. Fight scenes tend to be notably smoother than the rest of the film, which is detailed but somewhat static. I’d like a smoother affair across the board, but if anything had to get the attention, probably best it was the combat and grotesque transformation sequences.

In truth, the monster design is surprisingly subdued, with most of the demons resembling buff dudes with overgrown fingernails. There’s a melting woman who’s likely the most infamous, but I prefer the exploding teeth and tentacles of one particular bad man. He looks like he’s drawn straight from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” right down to a crawling head. It’s also a nice touch that his fight has the backdrop of an airport tarmac, but that’s about as artsy and out there as things get.

Actually, I’m going to go to make a (relatively) bold statement and say that, at least for a while, “Wicked City” is not all that wicked. Sure, we get anime titties, suggestions of violence and actual violence before the opening credits, but then it’s pretty tame for the next half an hour, when the film looks like it’s going to be about interdimensional diplomacy. Even after that, much of the action is bloodless and the sex is typically soft core (barring a somewhat infamous scene with tentacles).

Let’s talk music. It’s kinda diverse, with industrial, jazz and thriller soundtrack synthesizer runs, all passed through a 1980s filter. There are even a couple of erotic thriller ballads, cos it can’t all be hentai tentacles. While no single piece sticks around long enough to make an impression, but as a whole, it stands out.

The diversity of mood also sticks out, but not in a good way. Pulp detective drama, dark fantasy horror flick, late nite skin thriller, buddy cop picture, “Wicked City” wants to have it all, and it doesn’t care how it assembles the pieces. The film’s focus takes more turns than a lost traveller, and the end reveal is so from out of nowhere that it probably needed a passport. This is nowhere clearer than the character of Giuseppe Mayart, which is when the movie wants to also be a pervy comedy. In the middle of thrilling explosions, body horror transformations and grotesque sex, there’s still time for Mayart to make sleazy comments; despite everyone – including him – warning about the danger of the situation, he still finds time to sneak off to a brothel. It’s as if he’s been artificially inserted from another movie. Also, he wears a track suit the whole movie. Huh?

There are a ton of smaller “huh?” moments too, like Makie not recognizing a former lover until he removes his sunglasses. That Clark Kent disguise, I tells ya. Elsewhere, the gang watches an airplane explode. “Is the life of one person worth so much to have to kill so many?” Taki muses, without much regard for the English language. “It’s so cruel,” Makie responds. “That ain’t the half of it, sister,” Mayart adds unhelpfully.

For a cosmic horror fan, “Wicked City” has some interesting potential with its dark world, insignificant humanity and plenty of tentacles, but it’s a potential that the runtime never quite realizes. For the retro anime fan, “Wicked City” is a rite of passage, and while it is wild, it’s maybe not as wild as you’ve heard. For both, it threatens to be a bit of a slog. The images are detailed and little organic movements keep things from seeming like you’re watching a painting, but there’s an inescapable stiffness. Perhaps it’s the muted colors. Perhaps it’s the occasionally shattering slow motion. Either way, in another film, it might give the proceeds an atmosphere of grace or gravity. Unfortunately, there is little that’s gracious about “Wicked City.”

A war we can’t win: A critical review of “War-Gods of the Deep” (1965)

Maybe it’s a little unfair to review this film during a cycle of arguably the worst cosmic horror ever. The American-British thriller “War-Gods of the Deep” – that’s the Yankee title, by the way; the original UK title is the less bellicose “City Under the Sea,” not “in the sea” as IMDb would have you believe – is not one of the worst horror films ever made. It is, however, singularly disappointing. The setup is great: American International Pictures producing, Jacques Tourneur directing and Vincent Price starring in a dark fantasy thriller with hints of Lovecraft. You could not get me to watch that fast enough. Unfortunately, the film is much less excited about its own pacing, tone and purpose.

The film opens on a Cornish beach, where a body has been discovered in the shadow of a seaside mansion. Nervous fishermen surround it, debating whether it has any connection to legends of spectral bells and cities beneath the dark waves. American engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) heads to the mansion – currently an electric power-deprived hotel – to inform the owner (Susan Hart) her lawyer is dead. When she disappears, Harris partners with an eccentric artist (David Tomlinson) to locate her. They discover a grotto beneath the mansion, and there a watery portal that leads to the crumbling ruins of an ancient civilization. Despite their age and seismic instability, the ruins are still inhabited by both men and monsters.

What makes “War-Gods” such a letdown is what it could have been. Tourneur could do atmosphere like few others – need I mention “Cat People” “I Walked With a Zombie” “Out of the Past” and “Curse of the Demon”? – and Price could handle the weight of Lovecraftian moods and themes, as in AIP’s “The Haunted Palace,” which deserves its own review some day. Also, the two could collaborate effectively, as evidenced by 1963’s “The Comedy of Terrors.” Of course, “Terrors” also had the support of a stellar cast and Richard Matheson’s smart script, both of which are lacking in “War-Gods.”

For script, “War-Gods” is as thin and inconsistent as a dying flashlight. This blog tries not to listen to grumbling from the writers’ room, but here I’ll make an exception. The original screenplay was penned by Charles Bennett, who previously wrote thrillers for Alfred Hitchcock and Irwin Allen. There was tension between the production companies, and his draft was rewritten by Louis M. Heyward, who had mostly written for television up till then (Heyward would go on to doctor the script for “The Crimson Cult,” and we know how that turned out). Heyward is the one who added the comedy and the chicken, and I doubt I’m the only one to notice similarities between that bird and the duck from 1959’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

This blog has yet to find anyone who will defend “War-Gods” for its sense of humor. The first scene is a great example. The body on the beach instantly raises intrigue. Even as the script railroads us toward convenient solutions, the mood doesn’t. Tight camera angles ramp up the atmosphere while off kilter editing keeps us uneasy and at arm’s length. We still don’t know if we’re in for a murder mystery, ghost story or dark fantasy. Then we get David Tomlinson in a kilt straddling Tab Hunter’s shoulders searching for a chicken.

This blog will agree with… another blog, who slipped out of my notes, but I’ll try to give credit where it’s due eventually. That blogger said the script sans comedy would still have been pretty mediocre. That’s fair. Even without feathers, “War-Gods” lacks focus. For horror, the film’s strategy seems to be every time there’s a problem, just toss Price reading Edgar Allen Poe at it. That works to a degree, but you need more than one option. You can’t just throw Poe, Lovecraft and Jules Verne onto the floor and hope for the best. There has to be something to glue it all together.

There are no characters on which to pin anything. Harris is a pretty anemic detective. He falls into a puddle and tries to punch people while searching for his lady friend, and that’s about it. That lady friend is also kind of a drip. She mainly gets kidnapped so that Harris has something to do. There’s a point where she learns she might be the reincarnation of a 17th century noblewoman, but that’s given all the attention of a mosquito bite.

The only character worth your time – and this should surprise no one – is Vincent Price as a villainous pirate captain. It’s still a shallowly written part (and despite being credited above the title, it takes 25 minutes for him to show up), but Price has enough grace and gravity to make it compelling. He’s violent, guilt-ridden and delusional. The problem is, we’re simply told most of this, and we get no signs of who he was before his psychological fall. I’d much rather watch his descent into madness than any number of underwater chase scenes.

That said, John Le Mesurier as an old prisoner gets to look adequately haunted and be kind of helpful, smoothing the plot along at a moment that feels almost natural. It’s one of the few moments in the narrative that feels organic. Also, as a non-human character, the city itself is pretty good. The sets are arguably the film’s strongest cinematic element, all dusty statues of animal-human hybrids, drip-drip-dripping rocks and giant hands jutting out of jagged stone.

The monster design, that’s not so good. It could have been great, sort of creatures from the Black Lagoon with witch-like seaweed hair. It’s just that the costumes look like they were stitched together in three minutes. Tourneur does his best to hide them with smart lighting and camera angles, at least in the early parts of the film, but he could only do so much. By the time we’re in the city, the creatures are being photographed swimming around with pirates in broad daylight (how that daylight reaches the bottom of the sea is anyone’s guess). There is no sense of mystery or wonder here.

I keep coming back to those first 15 minutes, when the film could have been anything. I wouldn’t have minded more mystery, more investigation above the surface and more time to make us care about the central characters. Instead, we get whisked down to the water-logged city and pretty much never leave. The characters walk back and forth as everything is explained to them in unnatural exposition. The set is small, and it does very little of the narrative lifting. Actually relying on the city as the focus would have required a greater sense of wonder and discovery – meaning more patience and daring from the producers.

The last 20 minutes of the film are a particularly obnoxious crawl. The whole thing becomes an extended underwater chase scene, with plenty of shots of people gasping inside diving helmets. Tourneur tosses in some interesting angles, but there’s only so much the man can do. Even when the actors get out of the pool, it’s just for a second to avoid some falling statues, then we go back in the water again. Don’t worry though. Tomlinson keeps the chicken dry in his helmet.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the film, but there is something almost noble about its conclusion. Given it’s the last cinematic testament of Tourneur, it feels worth discussing. The designated heroes ascend to the surface to watch an undersea volcano blow up courtesy of some footage stolen from an Ishiro Honda movie. Parallel to that, Price’s pirate captain – wounded and alone – climbs a flight of stone steps toward the surface. He stumbles and reaches for a painted backdrop, before he himself freezes like an oil painting. Is it madness or time dilation? Either way, it’s slightly surreal, dream-like, and hints at the weird fiction this film could have been. Honestly, the mashup of 18th century pirates, Victorian explorers and ancient Atlantian fishmen is kinda of cool. I hope someone eventually gives it the attention it deserves.

This blog finds it hard to recommend “War-Gods of the Deep.” Proper horror fans, even those with a taste for retro, will likely be more impressed by cinema that’s either better or decidedly campier. I suppose I can suggest it to cosmic horror completionists. It doesn’t fare too bad on our cosmic horror keyword watch. It’s slightly “Dagon” rather than squarely “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but we’re got a superstitious and xenophobic seaside town, ancient aquatic ruins, a portal that fucks with time and someone named Tregillis (get it?), as well as the fishmen, natch.

I shouldn’t have had my hopes up, I suppose. Just look at that title. I can’t figure out that hyphen, and neither can you. Anyway, that’s enough of sluggish underwater chase scenes for now. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at something more animated. Stay tuned.