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.