31 Days of Hell: H.P. Lovecraft's The Resurrected (1991)

Amid all the B-grade Re-Animator-cash-in Lovecraft movies that were flooding the straight-to-video horror market at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, Dan O'Bannon's The Resurrected was a breath of fresh air. It is a totally serious adaptation of the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and it is faithful not just in story, but in tone and technique: it really does capture that sense of the Lovecraftian. The key to the film's success is that O'Bannon does not approach the material like a typical horror movie at all: The Resurrected is a mystery with supernatural and occult undertones, which only gradually becomes a horror film towards the last act. Until that point, it really is exactly what the title of the novella implies: the case of Charles Dexter Ward, a detective's investigation into the strange behavior and possible occult activities of the titular scientist (played by Chris Sarandon, of Fright Night and The Princess Bride). This approach puts the viewer in the same situation as the detective: we start out in the normal, everyday world, and only gradually become aware of sinister, unexplainable cosmic forces creeping in all around us, until we suddenly are in a nightmare altogether outside the rational world we started in. That is the Lovecraftian: that journey into madness that makes his stories so haunting, and that you simply cannot get if a film is already in blood-soaked horror territory from the opening frame. Lovecraft is all about suggesting rather than showing; about the build-up of tension rather than a series of shocks, and O'Bannon's slow-burn style is a perfect match to that.

With a compelling central performance by Sarandon and some seriously impressive art design, O'Bannon is able to largely deliver on the Lovecraftian in a way that most adaptations not only couldn't, but barely tried to; most Lovecraft movies of this era were too busy trying to top Re-Animator in terms of splatter effects to really think about how the author's stories should look on-screen. That The Resurrected really captures the look and atmosphere of the horror pioneer's work is an accomplishment which is worth the price of admission in itself. It isn't without its flaws, though. O'Bannon clearly had a pretty low budget to work with, and there are times when his ambition and desire to do Lovecraft right clearly strain against his funding limitations. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the movie's cast. Chris Sarandon is very good as Charles Dexter Ward: he brings an appropriate, vaguely sinister air of mystery to a character we aren't supposed to know quite what to make of. The mysterious nature of the character gives him a bit more to dig into than his more famous roles as the obviously-evil vampire Jerry Dandridge, or the buffoonish Prince Humperdink. Aside from him, though, the major cast is pretty uneven. John Terry is decent, if a bit wooden, as the story's detective narrator, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Robert Romanus is good as his comic-relief-providing sidekick, but Jane Sibbett is very wooden indeed as Ward's wife. A cast as uneven as this may not be as good as what Lovecraf't story deserves, it's the cast that the budget could afford. The studio was on the verge of bankruptcy while The Resurrected was production, which not only caused these unfortunate budgetary constraints, but burdened it with other problems as well. First, in a misguided attempt to make it a more marketable horror film, the studio took final edit rights away from O'Bannon, and re-cut it without him, resulting in some odd and clunky bits of editing. Secondly, the studio's money dried up before the film's intended theatrical release, and it wound up going straight-to-video instead, where it got lost among a sea of crappy horror flicks and never found the widespread recognition that it really deserves.

"Don't expect it to tango, it's just a single organ.

Despite these problems, O'Bannon's skill as a director shines through, and The Resurrected manages to be a really good movie even as the odds seem against it. The wooden acting and awkward editing are most problematic in the first few minutes, when a strong opening sequence unfortunately gives way to a somewhat clunky, exposition-laden set-up to the plot which I'm sure he would have cut differently. But have a little patience: it only takes a few minutes for O'Bannon to regain control of the project, and soon his slow-burn mystery-horror approach begins to cast its spell and draw the viewer in. While the actors (Chris Sarandon aside) may be uneven, he makes effective use of them, and the narrative as a whole becomes strong enough that the less-than-stellar performances of Terry and Sibbett cease to be a problem. The great atmosphere goes a long way in this department: O'bannon created and found some very moody, effective settings (particularly Ward's laboratory, in an ancient system of catacombs) which feel right out of Lovecraft's writing, and they aid perfectly in the mounting tension of the plot. And while it is not a special-effects-driven film, what effects there are look really good. It isn't a perfect movie, but it does manage to be a very good one, and it absolutely does justice to Lovecraft's writing and captures the style of his storytelling in a way that very few Hollywood movies have ever even tried to do. Any fan of his stories should definitely check this out, immediately.

"Does it look to you like I have
a cavity in that back tooth?"
Unfortunately, for a long time it has been very hard for anybody to check out: it spent most of the years since its release out of print, only briefly getting a bargain-bin-quality DVD which was clearly sourced from a pan-and-scan laserdisc master. Particularly in the great last act set largely in the film's very impressive catacombs sets – which were lit entirely by candle and flashlight, in a stylistic nod to Kubrick – this subpar quality and cropped-down format did not come close to doing the film justice... and yet the disc was extremely rare anyway. The Resurrected finally got a lavish blu-ray special edition a couple years ago, but the release was from Germany, and was a box-set package limited to 3,000 copies, so it still didn't help the film to become any less rare in its home country. Now at last Scream Factory has rectified this situation, giving this underappreciated film the great, non-limited blu-ray release that it truly deserves.

Scream Factory's disc contains every bit of special features from that fantastic German box set, and then some. Ported over from the German set are an excellent, highly entertaining and informative commentary by two of the film's producers, screenwriter Brent Friedman, co-star Robert Romanus, and special effects artist Todd Masters. They all remember a lot of fascinating, specific details about the film's production, and particularly about working with the late Dan O'Bannon, who comes across as a brilliant, meticulous, creative, but incredibly eccentric and weird guy (Friedman tells, for instance, about how O'Bannon's house had two-foot thick concrete walls, and when Friedman asked why, O'Bannon merely replied, “so they can't get in.”). Also ported over are a series of decently long interviews with Chris Sarandon, Friedman, Masters, production designer Brent Thomas, and composer Richard Band, all of which further give a frankly unexpected level of insight into the production of a film which has hitherto been totally ignored on home video; to say that it is a welcome change of pace is an understatement.

"Hmmm, is the poison in this cup,
or the other cup?"
Rounding out the extras borrowed from the German limited edition are 20 or so minutes of deleted scenes taken from O'Bannon's director's cut workprint. The filmmaker was famously unhappy with how much character development the studio trimmed from the film before its release, so it is great to have these scenes at last available to see, as they really do add a lot to the film. This is especially true of the alternate opening scene for the flashback narrative, which would have provided a perfect introduction to the dynamic between the deadpan Terry and the comic Romanus, re-framing Terry's performance to make it read as less wooden and more like the straight-man half of a double-act. His character is markedly worse because of how the theatrical version of the flashback introduces him instead. That said, the big disappointment about this disc is that these director's workprint sequences are presented just as isolated deleted scenes, and not re-integrated into the film to make a true director's cut. Yes, they are all just VHS quality, but the same was true about the extra footage used for last Halloween's Exorcist III: The Director's Cut, and the hybrid 2K/VHS experience didn't stop that from being the definitive version of the film. The same sort of treatment would have been appreciated here, but just as with the German release, it was not to be. However, Scream Factory has prepared a brand-new 2K remaster of the theatrical version of the film, which is a definite step up from the off-the-shelf, originally-for-Netflix HD master that the German disc used, which was really good, but not this good. The Scream disc also presents new interviews with female lead Jane Sibbett and Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. With this huge volume of extras one might wonder why this release isn't branded as a Collector's Edition and packaged with a slipcase. The only answer I can think of for that question is that most of the extras were licensed from a previous release, albeit one that Americans couldn't easily get. But still, these extras are extensive enough to be worthy of the Collector's Edition banner, and unless another company makes a proper director's cut of the film, this will surely be the definitive release.

The film may have a small handful of issues, and it may be a shame that the new blu-ray doesn't try to fix these issues with a restored version of O'Bannon's director's cut, but regardless, The Resurrected stands as one of the best Lovecraft adaptations out there. It certainly is the one that tries the hardest to actually do justice to the source material, and capture the soul of the author's work. This has long been a film that I have recommended to horror fans... with the caveat that they probably couldn't follow my recommendation by actually watching it unless I loaned them my VHS or they had a region-free blu-ray player and some money to burn. Now that Scream Factory has at last given the film its first really good American release, there is no excuse to not add this to your watch list this Halloween. In a world full of public-domain cash-ins and Re-Animator wannabes, this is Lovecraft done right.

-Christopher S. Jordan