Necronomicon: Special Edition (FR - DVD R2)
Gabe checks out this French release of a better than average horror anthology...
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Howard Philip Lovecraft is one of the most popular and influential pulp horror writers of all time, and thanks to various infiltrations into popular geek culture (films, comics, video and role playing games) his popularity has enjoyed its apex of late. Despite these irrefutable facts, most American studios seem to be content to sit on the majority of their filmed versions of Lovecraft’s stories. The reasoning for this digital absence might not be so mysterious when the general quality of these adaptations, which mostly stand somewhere between boring and awful, is taken into account. Director Stuart Gordon has managed two great Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator and From Beyond, and one decent Dagon, and Guillermo del Toro has produced some effectively subtle homage, but none of these adaptations have ever exacted the precise feeling of the author’s work.
Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna managed to direct a series of fun, colourful, and reasonably successful horror movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, including Society, Return of the Living Dead III, Silent Night, Deadly Night IV[/i], and two Re-Animator sequels. Somewhere in the middle of these not always successful comic book creations Yuzna produced an anthology feature based on Lovecraft’s writing (which is perfect suited for an anthology or short film treatment), and co-directed the film with then recent Godzilla director Shusuke Kaneko, and then unknown Frenchmen Christophe Gans, who’d go on to direct good looking but dimly plotted Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill.
Edward De LaPoer (Bruce Payne) inherits the creepy abandoned hotel that has sat in his family’s keep for generations. While exploring the estate Edward finds a sealed envelope written by his great uncle Jethro De La Poer. The Letter recounts the events of Jethro’s tragic death at his own hands after reviving his dead wife and child using the unholy Necronomicon’s incantations. Obviously missing the point of the letter, Edward sets out to bring back his own wife from the dead, with understandably tragic consequences.
Gans’ episode is unfortunately the weakest of the three by a pretty large measure. The biggest problem is the lack of time spent developing a narrative that requires two full back stories and at least thirty minutes’ worth of character development. Gans’ employs so many flashbacks that there’s even a lengthy flashback within a flashback. Despite all this exposition there still really isn’t a plot to the episode. The audience is expected to then accept thin characters, even though their personal tragedies are the focus of the scares.
But Gans isn’t stupid, he knows he only has about twenty minutes to eke out a few thrills and chills, so he pushes the visuals to his budget’s limit. Unfortunately, at this point in his career Gans seems to lack to confidence to make a real statement with his visuals, and his best just isn’t very memorable. There are some colourful, Bava and Corman inspired moments, and some nice, old fashion model work, but by the time you finish the next two tales you’ll probably forget everything except the giant rubbery Cthulu finale. A disappointment, but a reasonably impressive first dip into movie waters.
When an insipid reporter comes sniffing around a local apartment building that has been the site of several missing person’s final home, the owner recounts a disturbing tale of scientific madness and murder. Twenty years before a woman named Lena took up residence in the building, and was ordered to not disturb the building owner Dr. Richard Madden (David Warner). On her first night Lena was attacked by her sexually abusive stepfather. During the struggle Dr. Madden intervened and supposedly chased the intruder off. Lena woke up in Madden’s office where she was told of his rare illness that requires his apartment remains as chilly as a refrigerator. But when Lena’s stepfather didn’t show up again she feared that Dr. Madden’s story may not have been as benign as she initially assumed.
Shusuke Kaneko’s episode (which was apparently practically co-directed by producers Aki Komine and Brian Yuzna) is a step up from The Drowned in general creepiness, thanks in no small part to David Warner’s warm and eerie performance. Warner is one of those classy actors that will do anything for a buck, so he finds his way into some less then prestigious features, but he’s always in top form. It’s a good thing to, because with the exception of Mille Perkins’ supporting part the rest of the cast is pretty lousy. This probably had something to do with the language barrier between the director and actors.
The physical horrors of The Cold have a touch of Cronenberg body horror, which brings an intimacy to the violence, and the parts of the episode that work the best are actually quite un-Lovecraftian, which is sort of unfortunate. As in Gans’ episode the brief runtime is a big hindrance to the story, especially in this case considering the fact that we’re suppose to buy into characters falling in love, and the subsequent tragedy of that love. The Cold is basically a better then average episode of Tales from the Crypt with a really gory climax.
During a pursuit of a suspect known as ‘The Butcher’, two police officers suffer a brutal car crash. One officer is dragged away by the perp, unconscious, while the other (Belinda Bauer) follows the blood trail, still dazed from the accident. The pursuit leads to the bowels of an abandoned warehouse, where the pursuing officer discovers two odd vagrants, Mr. and Mrs., who agree to lead her to the Butcher, and her fallen colleague.
The general rule of a good horror anthology is that you save the best tale for last ( Trilogy of Terror, Creepshow), and there is no doubt in my mind that Brian Yuzna’s episode is the best of the three. Whispers is everything we’ve come to expect from Yuzna—supersaturated comic book colouring, bizarre and gooey creature effects, graphic violence, strange characters, and a touch of allegory. Yuzna takes his cues from Dario Argento’s Black Cat (his section of Two Evil Eyes), which was basically a greatest hits package of Poe, by adding elements from about a gillion Lovecraft stories. At the same time, Whispers is entirely un-Lovecraftian, and modern (for the time).
Yuzna crams so very much Freudian grotesqueness into his episode only the most prudish Lovecraft enthusiast wouldn’t enjoy it. The whole thing is just so slimy, gaudy and bloody that even the rubbery effects and empty narratives can’t spoil the fun. There isn’t much to say about the over-the-top performances besides the fact that they fit, and the underlining issues of abortion morals are really easy to overlook. This kind of wackiness can’t maintain a feature length film, but it sits well for twenty minutes straight.
The three full episodes are book ended by the increasingly silly (and according to the commentary greatly edited) tale of a fictional representation of Lovecraft (played by Jeffery Combs in Bruce Campbell make-up) discovering the ‘real’ Necronomicon. It’s sort of like Indiana Jones on the cheap, with lots of gooey creature effects at the end. Yuzna also directed this segment, and makes a brief cameo as Lovecraft’s chauffer.
I hadn’t watched Necronomicon since the days of VHS, when the image was flat, overly dark, and full frame. This release isn’t the most perfect remastering on record, but it’s about as good as the low budget film will likely ever get. The overall image is a little on the soft side, which leads to a slightly shallow depth of field. Details are nice despite the softness, without hardly any compression noise (exceptions include the brightest flashes of yellow and orange during fire). Colours, especially during Yuzna’s wacky final segment, are vibrant and effectively comic book, and contrast levels are well balanced. The transfer’s biggest issues have to do with age, including regular small artefacts and fine grain (mostly during Yuzna’s episode).
This isn’t the most successful 5.1 remix I’ve ever heard, but it’s effective considering the low-budget source material. For the most part the English track is a standard surround track with a couple of discrete music cues in the rear channels. The LFE isn’t particularly punchy, but it’s a solid edition, especially to the film’s audio shock scares. The track’s overall depth is lacking, but dialogue is clear and usually well separated, and I didn’t notice any obvious distortion or damage. The one hitch to this being a French release is that the disc’s producers have decided to force the French subtitles during English language playback. Even my region free player, which is usually good about overcoming forced subtitles, was ineffective.
The US studios may be sitting on their Lovecraft, but apparently Europe has got us covered. This French released super-special edition starts out with a commentary track featuring Yuzna and Gans. Gans starts the track in French, but as soon as he introduces Yuzna everything is in English, with forced French subtitles. It’s a very entertaining and joyous track, with loads of laughs and plenty of humbled moments. Gans is full of scene specific homage, pointing out shots he’s stolen from Kwaidan, Lisa and the Devil, Profondo Rosso, Village of the Damned, The Thing, Blood and Black Lace and so on. One might expect all the production and non- Drowned factoids to come from Yuzna, but Gans was part of the production the whole way through, and knows just as much. Not to take away any of Yuzna’s credit, because he’s full of info, but Gans’ knowledge of film from all around the world, literature, even anime is rather remarkable. All around, a very enjoyable track.
Disc two starts with a selection of documentaries, four in total, all presented in full-frame video and mixed French/English audio with an English subtitle option. The first is called ‘B-Movie Hell’, and is a look at the production process. Being a French disc, and because the Japanese producer and director are no where to be seen, the slight majority of the focus in on Gans and the fact that this was his first film. There’s also quite bit of focus on the effects reshoots. A lot of this stuff is covered on the commentary track, but there are plenty of tasty anecdotes to fill the space. Gans’ was hired to direct The Drowned because he was attached to direct Crying Freeman and Yuzna needed to convince the Japanese producers that he would be capable. Also interesting is the news that Yuzna hadn’t finished Return of the Living Dead III when Gans started filming his segment, and the inclusion of the deleted effects footage. The doc is well produced, comparable to the making of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and contains a mix of talking heads, photos, film footage and behind the scenes footage, and it runs about an hour.
Next is a featurette about Joe LoDuca’s musical score. LoDuca was a Sam Raimi alumni from the Evil Dead days, and has worked steadily in television for a while now, including the Raimi produced Hercules and Xena, and cartoons like the new adventures of He Man and the Masters of the Universe. The composer was selected by Gans and Yuzna for his Evil Dead credentials, but made a go at a much more classical and romantic score for Gans’ segment. The music doesn’t always work, but when it does it adds a deep sense of emotion to an emotionally lacking feature. It also adds a whole lot of class and production value. The featurette is surprisingly exhaustive, covering LoDuca’s thoughts on specific cues and scenes, and allowing him to play the cues over the film. The twenty-minute featurette is about half devoted Gans’ and LoDuca’s collaboration on Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is kind of strange considering that this isn’t a Brotherhood of the Wolf DVD. Despite this pointless addition, the fact that LoDuca can play all these instruments (keyboards, guitars, flutes, other instruments I can’t pronounce) is very impressive.
The third featurette concerns the film’s production design. The production again went to a Sam Raimi alumni, one Anthony Tremblay. Tremblay was able to use his original Necronomicon book design, which he couldn’t use on Army of Darkness because Raimi wanted to stick to the same book style he used in Evil Dead parts one and two. Tremblay isn’t the most intriguing public speaker, but the original paintings are a fine edition to these intensive extras. The featurette runs a healthy fourteen minutes, but kind of glazes over The Cold segment.
The final entrée in the ‘documentary’ sub-menu is a conversation with the film’s three producers—Brian Yuzna, Taka Ichise, and Samuel Hadida. Necronomicon is not likely to be remembered for much in the greater history of world cinema, but it is an impressive merging artistically and financially from three countries. Yuzna spends most of the time talking about how cool the multi-continental production was, and though he doesn’t let the others get too many words in, he does spend a lot of time praising his co-interviewees. Though I’d like to hear more from Ichise (Yuzna eventually pries a few minutes worth of dialogue out of him), and though a lot of the same subject matter was covered by Yuzna on the commentary, this frank and friendly roundtable is pretty great, and runs about thirteen minutes.
Under the ‘making-of’ banner are a few less informative featurettes (also fit with English subtitles when needed). The first is an amusing EPK narrated by Mr. Trailer Voice (I forget his real name). It’s got a few seconds of interview and behind the scenes footage, but mostly consists of Mr. Trailer Voice narrating the plots of the three episodes, set to footage from the film. This spoiler packed, elongated trailer runs ten minutes. This is followed by a brief collection of raw, fly on the wall footage, and on set interviews from The Drowned, which are used in sections for some of the disc’s other extras. The menu section is finished with another brief behind the scenes featurette concerning the special effects climax of The Drowned.
If you particularly enjoyed Joe LoDuca’s score you are in luck because the entire thing has been collected on this disc. It’s not entirely practical to listen to music on the television, but the inclusion is something often missing from modern DVDs. These healthy extras are completed with the Japanese trailer and a three galleries—production photos, design illustrations, and storyboards.
Necronomicon isn’t a great movie, but it’s actually quite a bit better then the film I remember watching on VHS ten or so years ago. Though the film itself is very hit and miss, this special edition release is packed with fantastic extras that strike a nice balance between entertainment and education with overstaying their welcome. I know it’s been fourteen years, but I’d love to see a belated sequel utilizing different Asian, American, and European filmmakers. It’s not going to happen, but I can dream.
You can find and many other Europe only Lovecraft releases at Xploitedcinema.com. Check them out and support my sponsor.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 5th February 2005
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: French (forced), English
Extras: Director Commentary, Making of Documentaries, Behind the Scenes Featurettes, Trailers, Galleries
Easter Egg: No
Director: Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko, Brian Yuzna
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Payne, Richard Lynch, Belinda Bauer, Maria Ford
Length: 96 minutes
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