New to Blu: H. P. Lovecraft's Lurking Fear

Chris Jordan reviews the new HD release of Full Moon's 1994 H. P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Jeffrey Combs.

"Come on, how many times have I told you
not to use the George Foreman when
you're drunk?"
As a horror fan who grew up in the 1990s, Charles Band's Full Moon Entertainment played a significant role in my early love of the genre's B-movie side. In their prime, when they were a division of Paramount in the first half of the '90s, they produced some of the most fun straight-to-video horror films ever. They struck just the right balance of deliciously cheesy camp and honestly impressive art design and practical effects; much more ambitious than most direct-to-video productions, but with a sense of humor about their shortcomings. I loved Full Moon flicks as a kid who was just growing into a cult film buff, and now as an adult they're still guilty-pleasure favorites of mine. So when they produced an adaptation of one of my favorite authors, the genre-redefining H. P. Lovecraft, the result should have been right up my alley: a meeting of two of my major horror-related interests, which also boasted the presence of Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs. Yet alas, my youthful recollection of 1994's Lurking Fear was that of one of my least-favorite Paramount-era Full Moon movies, and one of my least-favorite Lovecraft adaptations; a resounding disappointment on both counts. Now, Full Moon is re-releasing the film on blu-ray, as they gradually give their cult-classic-filled early catalog an HD face-lift. Looking way more impressive than it ever did on VHS, and viewed with the added perspective of time, is Lurking Fear any better than my vague memories suggest? It is actually another fun early-90s Full Moon flick that I was too hard on at the time because I was such a Lovecraft fan? As it turns out... no. Lurking Fear is still really bad; one of the very worst of Full Moon's prime years. And it's a shame, because it clearly had some potential, but just didn't know how to find it.

The film follows an ex-con racing to retrieve a cache of stolen money, with a sadistic gangster and his enforcers in pursuit. The chase takes both parties to a small-town cemetery, where the town's residents – lead by Ashley Laurence (Hellraiser 1 & 2) and Jeffrey Combs – are under siege from a tribe of CHUD-like monsters. That brief plot description will already signal to H. P. Lovecraft fans that the film is in potentially dangerous territory: it only resembles the premise of Lovecraft's novella The Lurking Fear in the most extremely superficial sense. Which, let's be clear, is not necessarily a problem in itself: I am a firm believer that deviation from the source material should not be a deal-breaker when watching a book-to-film adaptation. It can be perfectly fine as long as the changes are made for some sort of interesting reason, and the film is strong on its own merit. Re-Animator is just as loose an adaptation, and is probably the most popular movie ever based on a Lovecraft story, because it succeeds on its own crazy terms and knows what it wants to do when it moves away from the source material. Lovecraft fans have learned to be skeptical of loose adaptations, however, because the public-domain status of his writing means that absolutely anyone can claim they're adapting one of his stories, and the vast majority of the resulting films are both awful and unrecognizable as anything Lovecraftian. Unfortunately, this is just another film that validates that skepticism. While it is at least recognizable as an adaptation, the problem with Lurking Fear is that is has absolutely no idea how to stand on its own when it strays from the novella, and for much of its running time just stumbles around in an uninspired and uninteresting way.

"Is there a puzzle box I can solve to summon
a better screenwriter?"
The vengeance-among-gangsters plot which propels the movie forward is utterly lifeless, clich̩, and by-the-numbers. It plays out completely as you'd expect, with no sense of passion or element of surprise. It almost feels like it was written by a beginner film student who really loves Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas, but has not yet learned enough about screenwriting to know why those scripts are good; he thinks it's just because they both have badasses growling snappy dialogue at each other. I understand why writer/director C. Courtney Joyner thought it was a good idea to mix Lovecraft's story with a film-noir style РCast a Deadly Spell and The Resurrected did the same thing at the beginning of the 1990s, both with excellent results Рbut he completely fails to do it with any imagination. What is especially ironic about all this is that the novella easily lends itself to noir-style storytelling: it is written as a first-person detective story, about an investigative journalist trying to solve a series of murders. All Joyner did was take a really good story that already succeeded at what he wanted to do, and threw it in the trash so he could replace it with an endlessly worse imitation. He also tipped the scales on the narrative balance of the story by focusing way too much on the gangster plot: rather than feeling like a monster movie told as a mystery, it feels like the monsters are party-crashing a bad Tarantino knockoff that they don't belong in. The weak script doesn't have any help from Joyner's equally lifeless direction, and just-barely-acceptable wooden performances from Blake Adams as the misunderstood ex-con, Jon Finch as the British gangster heavy, and Allison Mackie as the most stereotypical femme fatale in movie history. At the very least this plotline gives us a small but fun supporting role from Vincent Schiavelli, who chews the scenery like a guy who knows he's in a B-minus movie, but is at least going to have a good time while he's there.

The other side of the plot – the townspeople facing off against the monsters – fares better, and provides the movie with its few strong points. Ashley Laurence (bizarrely miscredited as Ashley Lauren – what happened there, Full Moon?) is stuck with some pretty clunky dialogue, but at least manages to bring some personality and toughness to her badass monster hunter role. She stands out as the real hero of the movie, while Adams' ex-con is mostly just stuck standing around being brooding and handsome. The most memorable role, however, belongs to cult favorite Jeffrey Combs, playing a perfectly sane and normal guy for once. It's rare that he gets to play the hero, rather than some sort of crazy mad scientist, and his grounded performance gives him a chance to show what a good dramatic actor he is. With a sardonic wit and a clumsy sort of charm, he's effortlessly likable. If he can deliver a performance as relatively good as this with a script this bad, one can't help but think that if he hadn't gotten so entrenched in horror movies at the beginning of his career, he could have become a character actor on the level of William H. Macy. Yet he still is giving a good performance in a bad movie, and the script saddles his character with the unfortunate trope of alcoholism-as-a-comedic-character-quirk, which is both very lazy and in very bad taste. Both him and Laurence deserve better, in this film and in their careers in general. Despite their best efforts, the movie gradually loses steam, flopping across the finish line with a phoned-in third act that is bafflingly underbaked and devoid of excitement. When the monsters are ultimately confronted with clunky exposition rather than thrills and chills, you know something went wrong.

"Magenta? Columbia? I think I burned out
my eyes on too many Steve Reeves movies."

At the very least the film succeeds on a visual level; something that those Paramount-era Full Moon movies could almost always be counted on to do. The studio had a very good art department for the budget bracket they were working in, and every one of their films had rich gothic atmosphere, memorably spooky visuals, and very cool practical effects. This is where they really set themselves apart from other straight-to-video fare of the early-'90s, and Lurking Fear is no exception, with its moody graveyard location and nasty creatures. This is also where the film makes its case for deserving the blu-ray treatment: the gothic visuals hold up pleasantly well in HD, and the new transfer is a major improvement over the VHS/laserdisc master previously available. But keep in mind that it still is a low-budget movie that was made for the VHS market: blu-ray sometimes exposes its flaws in ways that can be pretty unkind, as this is a level of picture quality that the film simply wasn't shot for. Still, for what it is, it looks quite good... which is a good thing, since it has so little going for it otherwise.

I get no joy in attacking this film, and I'm not some literary purist who came to Lurking Fear wanting to bash it; as a kid, I really wanted this movie to be great, and as an adult I wanted it to be a fun retro-horror experience that was better than I remembered. I went into it hoping to cut it some slack and have a good time... but while I tried, by the last act I just couldn't anymore. Even to someone like me who genuinely is a fan of this studio's work from around this time, Lurking Fear is really bad. Regardless of their low-budget flaws, these Paramount Full Moon flicks were usually a lot of fun, with a crazy, anything-goes personality that made them perfect for embracing your love of camp and having a good time. What ultimately kills Lurking Fear is that is just isn't fun; I am almost incredulous at how not-fun most of it is. Its new blu-ray may be worth a look to Full Moon fans who want to check out everything the studio did in their prime, to H. P. Lovecraft completists who want to watch every semi-major adaptation made of his work (oh what gluttons for punishment you are), or especially to Jeffrey Combs fans. The latter group are the ones who will enjoy the film the most, as Combs' performance is the brightest spot in the dull affair, and the one thing that makes it genuinely worth watching for. But otherwise, avoid it. If you're looking for a good Lovecraft movie you may not have seen, check out The Resurrected or Cast a Deadly Spell. If you want to see early Full Moon at their best (and if you like cult flicks with just the right amount of camp, you absolutely should), watch the Subspecies trilogy, Puppet Master III, Doctor Mordrid, or Seedpeople. But unless you really want to see it for one of the above reasons, it's best to leave Lurking Fear in the tomb it crawled out of.


- Christopher S. Jordan