The Unnamable (1988)
Studio: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release date: October 23rd , 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It takes about five minutes to figure out what type of movie The Unnamable aspires to be. Opening, auspiciously enough, on a vaguely 18th century farmhouse, Jean-Paul Ouellette’s Lovecraft adaptation finds the abode’s elderly caretaker Joshua Winthrop (Delbert Spain) skulking about its darkly lit corridors. Eerie, blue moonlight spills in as the old man frantically frets through the place, raving at some unseen presence lurking just off-screen. Ouellette masterfully orchestrates this prologue and almost tricks you into assuming The Unnamable will be a tense, atmospheric conjuring of Lovecraft’s tale—only to bludgeon the audience with a shot of a beast ripping the man’s heart clean out of his chest.
Obviously, such gory outbursts and a genuinely haunting atmosphere aren’t mutually exclusive, but any film that’s offering up severed hearts within the first few minutes clearly has a Karo syrup-soaked agenda. You see, while, Lovecraft’s name might be loosely attached alongside some of his touchstones, you won’t find the signature sense of inexplicable, cosmic, and unfathomable terror that defines much of his work; instead, the skeletal framework of his short story is used as an excuse to have a monster butcher a bunch of dopey college kids. As soon as you make peace with that fact, The Unnamable simply becomes another film in a long line of late-80s nonsense featuring similar plots, though none of those others can boast a pedigree quite like this one.
To that end, The Unnamable skips ahead to a contemporary setting to gnaw at the bones of Lovecraft’s story. Between studies, a trio of Miskatonic University students gather near a cemetery, where one of them, Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson), relays the macabre tale of a nearby farmhouse that’s been haunted by an unseen presence for centuries. What’s more, they’re actually sitting right across from the very house, inspiring Randolph’s buddy Joel (Mark Parra) to spend the night in the place to see if the local lore is true. Randolph and his other friend Howard (Charles Klausmeyer) laugh off the notion, leaving Joel alone to meet with his grisly fate. His disappearance dovetails with a couple of football players’ attempts to woo some freshmen girls with some bullshit line about a popular sorority ritual that will naturally involve them staying overnight in the haunted house. Even more naturally, Randolph and Howard return in search of their missing friend, thus ensuring that whatever lurks within the place has plenty mincemeat at its disposal for the rest of the film.
And that’s what’s really important here, especially when it becomes immediately obvious that this screenplay is threadbare as hell. Without meticulously crunching the numbers, I’d guess that at least an hour of the 86 minute runtime involves some variation of watching this clueless fodder stumble around in the dark looking for each other. Occasionally, they do bump into one another (in more ways than one); less occasionally, they cross paths with the hideous creature stalking them, meaning The Unnamable mostly adds up to aimless wandering punctuated by the occasional pair of bare breasts and splattered brains. A tried and true formula that carried many of its contemporaries to video store glory, it can only do so much to compensate for the lackluster, slow moving parts of The Unnamable. At a certain point, the slow burn approach simply becomes glacial, and most of the performances do nothing to reignite the spark. Only Stephenson’s turn as the smarmy, prickly Carter is noteworthy, and only because it’s clearly inspired by Jeffrey Combs’s similar performance as Herbert West in Re-Animator. Even this only comes off as a pale imitation, though, especially when everyone around him borders on being interchangeable sacks of meat.
It’s sort of a shame, too, because, just as it does during the prologue, The Unnamable invests quite a bit into convincing the audience about its true aim. Tom Fraser’s photography is often stark and evocative, lending a slightly otherworldly quality to the proceedings and creating the impression that something legitimately spooky and suspenseful might lurk within this adaptation. Some brief excursions into the lore surrounding the Winthrop house also provide a fleeting glimpse of Lovecraft’s irresistibly haunting mythology, as Randolph sifts through a Necronomicon teeming with bizarre details that unfortunately only rest in the margins of the film itself. Clearly, The Unnamable is hamstrung by its low budget and leaves a lot to the imagination, such as a magical underground lair and a secret society of sentient trees that proves to be the wildest deus ex machina this side of Fangorn forest. The Unnamable sometimes feels like it should be more outrageous than it actually is.
Oullette predictably invests most of his on-screen resources in the titular creature. Admittedly, it’s not the worst choice because the beast—which a flashback ultimately reveals is Joshua Winthrop’s twisted hellspawn, Alyda—is an impressive blend of familiar monster movie creations. A tangled mass of latex, hair, and various other makeup appliances, it’s a cross between a werewolf, a wraith, a demon, and a wendigo that’s eager to sink its teeth and claws into its victims. A perfect fit for a big box VHS, it apparently became an indelible enough image on video store shelves to inspire a 1993 sequel from Ouellette, who was obviously committed to riding out the Lovecraftian wave that surged in the wake of Re-Animator.
Somewhat ironically, that indelible image is actually at odds with Lovecraft’s original text, which takes a more impressionistic approach in imagining its creature. True to the title, the unnamable in the short story defies a straightforward description as one of the characters fumbles around in a vain effort to relay his experience. A fine example of Lovecraft’s vision of a nebulous, omnipotent evil, it’s much more spectral than the flesh-and-blood monster Ouellette unleashes here. His Unnamable isn’t a bone-chilling treatise on the inexplicable, malevolent forces woven into the fabric of the universe; rather, it’s an exercise in picking an illustrious author’s bones to stuff a reasonable amount of splattery carnage into 86 minutes. A far cry from Stuart Gordon’s more notable efforts in this same arena, its brings Lovecraft down to the level of the era’s popular and (mostly) ridiculous slasher films. But, then again, what else do you expect from a film titled The Unnamable where the title creature actually does have a name?
After spending years relegated to long out-of-print VHS releases (and a brief stint on Netflix), The Unnamable finally arrives on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Unearthed Films. An appropriate moniker considering the film’s obscurity, Unearthed has done it justice and then some, albeit with a slight caveat. While the presentation is sterling so long as you stick with one of the two stereo tracks, the 5.1 remaster features some mixing and syncing issues. Given the stereo mixes are more faithful (especially the “grindhouse” mix that reproduces the crackle and pop of a 35mm reel), this is hardly the worst issue, but it should be noted for the audiophile crowd that might prefer a surround mix.
No caveats or qualifications are in order for the supplements, however, as the disc is overflowing with interviews, a commentary, production stills, and trailers. The centerpiece is the feature commentary with stars Klausmeyer, Stephenson, Laura Albert, and Eben Ham, in tow with effects artists Camille Calvet, and R. Christopher Briggs. All of these participants also appear in separate Skype interviews that clock in at the staggering total of 250 minutes (that’s nearly three times the length of The Unnamable itself). The packaging is nice, too, as a limited edition slipcover reproduces the film’s killer Thai poster art; perhaps even more exciting is that the spine indicates that this is the first release of the Unearthed Classics line, indicating that there’s more where this has come from. As if we cult video enthusiasts didn’t already have enough to be thankful for, it looks like this label is now throwing its hat into the ring, meaning 2019 looks to be yet another banner year for films still looking to claw their way out of VHS-era obscurity. The Unnamable is a solid start, and one can only hope its aforementioned sequel will find its way onto our shelves too.
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