Color, 1991, 105m.
Directed by Dan O'Bannon
Starring John Terry, Jane Sibbett, Chris Sarandon, Robert Romanus
OFDb Filmworks (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Metrodome (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC),
It's unlikely that the second and final directorial effort for Dan O'Bannon (after The Return of the Living Dead) could have come at a worse time. The theatrical market for horror in the early '90s was imploding with the majority of worthy titles shuffling off straight to VHS instead, and even once-mighty genre titans like John Carpenter were stumbling badly as they tried to hop into other genres. However, O'Bannon (who also wrote Dark Star, Blue Thunder, and Alien) had just collaborated on the well-received Total Recall, and so the self-professed Lovecraft fan was allowed to direct a feature film version of the horror scribe's novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which had been earlier adapted very loosely by Roger Corman as The Haunted Palace with Vincent Price. O'Bannon had been trying to crack the story himself for years but instead turned to a script by Brent Friedman (Syngenor), who had come up with a clever way of modernizing the tale while remaining faithful to the original narrative.
The original screenplay was oddly entitled Shatterbain (a title the IMDb still clings to tenaciously for some reason), while O'Bannon completed his workprint as The Ancestor before the final product was sent out as The Resurrected. Unfortunately the film was taken out of O'Bannon's hands by the producers, who brought in composer Richard Band and created a final assembly themselves just as the production company, Scotti Brothers Pictures, was completely imploding. Genre fans loved the film (and it routinely still pops up near the top of Lovecraft screen adaptations), but the film was still given an unceremonious haul direct to VHS by Live Home Video (which later morphed into Artisan and then Lionsgate, who now owns it in the U.S. but has only released a lackluster, now-discontinued DVD from the same old tape master).
Our tale begins at a mental institution where something very bad and very bloody has happened, which spurs our hero, detective John March (Terry, Hawk the Slayer himself) to relate in flashback how it all went down. March is hired by Claire Ward (Sibbett) to investigate her husband, Charles (Fright Night's Sarandon), who's holed himself up in a remote family home to conduct mysterious experiments. Aided by his assistant, Lonnie (Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Romanus), March does some digging around the Ward house and interviews the locals, who warn him about the overwhelming stench of death emanating from the place. Ward himself behaves very strangely and defensively when approached, and on top of that he's obsessed with one of his more infamous ancestors, Joseph Curwen, an 18th-century alchemist whose misdeeds have become part of the dark local folklore. Now the murders and mutated experiments from Curwen's past seem to be making a comeback as March uncovers a catacomb-enclosed horror he couldn't have imagined.
Though filmmakers had avoided Lovecraft almost entirely for most of the 20th century, the writer was suddenly a hot property at the time thanks to Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and From Beyond as well as the direct-to-video success of The Unnamable. This one manages to do it right by sticking to the pulpy, grotesque tone of Lovecraft's prose, and while some of the pacing and acting are highly erratic in the first third or so, the film really works its magic once the story picks up a full head of steam. It also wisely sticks to closely to the source, wisely retaining the central twist ignored completely in the earlier Vincent Price version and also delivering a host of gruesome monsters and other practical effects courtesy of Todd Masters Company, Inc. Despite its lack of distributor support, the film's quality shone through brightly and it managed to earn a respectable cult following despite the fact that most people had to work very, very hard to track it down if they missed the first round on VHS.
Even if you were lucky enough to dig up a copy, there hasn't been a remotely respectable video presentation of this film until the 2015 media book Blu-ray/DVD edition from Germany courtesy of OFDb Filmworks. MGM holds the overseas rights to this film, so their HD master was used here; though not even close to demo quality for modern home theater enthusiasts, it's a massive leap up over any prior version out there. It's very difficult to assess how this film could look in its most pristine condition since almost no one has ever seen this projected on film and it's unclear what Scotti Brothers had in its vault when it went under, but fans should be happy to see it with some honest-to-God color and texture for once. You can also clearly make out what's happening during the long catacombs sequence, which was mostly a dark, dreary mess before. Many shots in the film are treated with some kind of diffusion or partially framed behind waxy or foggy surfaces, so that complicates things even further; however, it's unlikely we'll see this looking any better in the near future, and this impressively stacked edition appears to be the last word on the subject.
The audio options on the Blu-ray are German DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 along with the original English 2.0 (also DTS), along with audio commentaries by Marcus Stiglegger and Kai Naumann, Jorg Keptz and Daniel Peree from Wicked-Vision magazine, and (in the only track recorded in English) Friedman, Todd Masters, Romanus, and producers Mark Borde and Kenneth Raich. The first two German commentaries appear to be more historical and scholarly in nature (judging from yours truly's extremely limited familiarity with the language), while the third track is a very positive, dense look at the film's production from the inception of the script through the bumpy release period. Also included are English and Japanese trailers (the former looking especially rough), a gallery of promotional and making-of images, vintage footage of O'Bannon's acceptance speech at the Chainsaw Awards (incredibly enough, hosted by Bruce Campbell and presented by Quentin Tarantino), and 18 minutes of deleted and alternate footage from O'Bannon's workprint. The only essential bit of footage here is the longer, more coherent death of a minor character during the climax (whose flesh is consumed here whereas he dies for no apparent reason in the theatrical cut), but some other added scenes include a (wisely jettisoned) romantic subplot for March and Mrs. Ward and a more gruesome dream sequence with some squishy stock footage of brain surgery. What's more interesting here is reflecting how some of the more inconsequential footage would have affected the pacing and tone of the film, with Terry's performance in particular making a little more sense as he has some deadpan comic bits with Lonnie and his secretary that clarify what he was going for here. As you'd probably expect, the quality of all this footage is pretty rough (with some missing effects shots and no music score), but it's great to have it included here.
On top of that you get five new featurettes, courtesy of Red Shirt Pictures and all packed with useful material: "The Resurrected Man" with Chris Sarandon (9 mins.), "Abominations & Adaptations" with screenwriter Brent Friedman (17 mins.), "Grotesque Melodies" with composer Richard Band (10 mins.), "Lovecraftian Landscapes" with production designer Brent Thomas (8 mins.), and "Human Experiments" with special effects artist Todd Masters (16 mins.). All of them have fond memories of the eccentric "gentleman" O'Bannon, who passed away in 2009 and was suffering from significant health issues at the time. Sarandon gets in some fun stories about how doing A Tale of Two Cities for TV prepped him for his dual roles here, and he also gets in some warm words about working with Tom Holland on Fright Night and Child's Play (which he refers to as his first real genre efforts, glossing over The Sentinel with one oblique but hilariously barbed mention). Friedman is a fun raconteur as well discussing how he and O'Bannon meshed their affection for Lovecraft together here, and Band has some insightful notes about his score including a fun explanation of how his catacomb music kept dropping lower and lower as the characters went deeper down themselves. Likewise, Masters and Thomas vividly recall creating the look of the film from the desolate, Lovecraftian locales and buildings to the memorably grotesque latex monstrosities, including one doozy seen in the 18th-century sequence. The packaging also features a hefty 84-page illustrated essay by Jorg Kopetz entitled "Lovecraft Resurrected: The Cosmic Catacombs Art of Dan O'Bannon," and the DVD also features a two-part dramatization of the original tale. It may be pricey, but this is an essential set for any fan of Lovecraft cinema and definitely worth checking out for anyone on the hunt for lesser known but richly rewarded horror gems.