First, let us lower our heads for a few moments, and quietly grieve. We dared to hope that someone might be willing to take a Lovecraft story and adapt it in good faith into a film which would at least politely nod in the direction that Lovecraft intended: we have been gravely disappointed.
No, our expectations are not too high, nowadays. We certainly do not expect every Lovecraft-inspired film to have the quietly moving beauty of Bryan Moore’s “Cool Air”. We do not ask that everyone offer us the remarkably intact plot sequence of Gordon and Yunza’s “Re-Animator”, or the exceptional special effects and atmosphere they gave us in “Dagon”. We could never hope that every Lovecraft adaptation might enjoy the presence of a truly great actor to chew up the scenery, as Chris Sarandon does in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, or as Jeffrey Combs does in…well…just about everything.
All we could say for certain is what we didn’t want: a pointlessly gory b-movie, in which some benighted modern-day Ed Wood takes it upon himself to “spice up” (and dumb down) a classic Lovecraft tale. Sadly, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, which was alleged by its producers to be “one of the more faithful Lovecraft films to come down the pike”, is nothing of the kind. This film is guilty of all the classic crimes against Lovecraft and his work.
The original tale, which was simple, clean and highly cerebral, has been largely scrapped. The remaining elements of the old story are nearly unrecognizable, caked over with a fecal mess of banal gore, gratuitous violence and sexual perversion, and even prosaic hints of standard Judeo-Christian evil.
Sadly, if this movie were guilty only of being faithless to the original material, tasteless, exploitive and burdened by tired horror clichés, I would probably be able to give it a decent review. Some of my favorite movies answer to the same description. But “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is not just guilty of being disrespectful to Lovecraft, or wallowing in cheap thrills. This movie is just plain bad.
I. The Lovecraft Connection
Because this review is written specifically for a Lovecraft-literate audience, I will not do a full recap of the original story. Those who haven’t read it can easily find it on-line and catch up with the rest of us in less than ten minutes. Like many of Lovecraft’s early works, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is a brief tale which rides on the strength of its descriptive prose and its unique central premise: the notion that a being of great power and majesty might be trapped in the body of a mentally handicapped man, able to manifest and express itself only when the “host” was asleep.
The narrator of the story was a nameless intern working at a “psychopathic institution” in the Catskills region. The opening paragraphs and the opening scenes of this movie are much the same: they concern the capture and committal of a patient named Joe Slater (or Slaader), who had committed murder while in a possible state of waking sleep. The part of Slaader is played in the film by William Sanderson, a truly remarkable actor with a long and noteworthy career; his most famous role to date was probably that of the genetic designer “JF Sebastian”, in Blade Runner, but I must say he was an inspired choice for this movie. Even just physically, he can match Lovecraft’s description to a T:
“[Slaader] was given an absurd appearance of harmless stupidity by the pale, sleepy blueness of his small watery eyes, the scantiness of his neglected and never-shaven growth of yellow beard, and the listless drooping of his heavy nether lip. His age was unknown, since among his kind neither family records nor permanent family ties exist; but from the baldness of his head in front, and from the decayed condition of his teeth, the head surgeon wrote him down as a man of about forty…”
As we arrive in the asylum on the day that Slaader is committed, however, all resemblance between the two stories begins to evaporate. Lovecraft’s asylum was simply a place of work for the nameless narrator, and in it the patients were examined and treated by men with good professional ethics and a sense of decency. When Slaader becomes lucid, for example, Lovecraft says that “Dr. Barnard unbuckled the leather harness and did not restore it till night, when he succeeded in persuading Slater to don it of his own volition, for his own good.“
The asylum of this movie, by contrast, is a nightmare realm where the insane and the degenerate crowd the halls, unrestrained and unaided. Those who are neglected, unfortunately, are the lucky ones: the three main “doctors” working in this pit of despair are monstrous figures–pompous, egomaniacal, and insanely sadistic, they frolic about the madhouse committing murders, rapes, and vivisections without a moment’s hesitation, regardless of whether these acts make any sense or further the plot in any way.
Those familiar with the original piece can see that this departure plays hell with the tone that Lovecraft set for the story. It’s particularly jarring to begin the movie with our “hero”, the intern protagonist of the story, delivering one of the few authentic lines of the script while he sticks electrified needles into the naked brain of a helpless patient. (His Igor-like collection of pickled brains also probably doesn’t win him much sympathy from the audience.) And although the compassionate Doctor Barnard is still present, he vanishes into the background for most of the film; meanwhile, the original protagonist’s kindly and understanding supervisor, Doctor Fenton, is here depicted as the sort of man who would rape a catatonic girl after the top of her skull had been sawed off.
There are other changes which may give offence, to Lovecraft fans. In the original story, for example, the nameless “passenger” trapped in Joe Slaader’s body was described as a “luminous being”, a visitor from an “elysian realm”—a place which, when the narrator briefly glimpsed it, was described as a “stupendous spectacle of ultimate beauty”:
“Walls, columns, and architraves of living fire blazed effulgently around the spot where I seemed to float in air, extending upward to an infinitely high vaulted dome of indescribable splendor. Blending with this display of palatial magnificence, or rather, supplanting it at times in kaleidoscopic rotation, were glimpses of wide plains and graceful valleys, high mountains and inviting grottoes, covered with every lovely attribute of scenery which my delighted eyes could conceive of, yet formed wholly of some glowing, ethereal plastic entity, which in consistency partook as much of spirit as of matter.”
In the film, by contrast, the “other” living in Joe Slaader’s body is not an accidental tourist, but a conjoined twin—and it has a name, “Amducious”. Whereas Lovecraft’s alien being was an angel, to all intents and purposes, Amducious is clearly a demon: Lovecraft’s nameless alien caused Slaader to commit a murder by accident, but Amducious is actually a creature of active malice. While Slaader sleeps, Amducious is free to commit acts of petty violence, slaughtering other inmates in the asylum by plucking them apart like posies with his telekinetic power.
Given departures as broad as this, the bizarre conclusion of the film cannot surprise us much. In the Lovecraft story, the narrator used a mind-to-mind device he had invented in college to contact the sleeper in Slaader’s mind; afterward, the Visitor spoke to him through Slaader’s mouth as the man from the hills lay dying. In this film version, the mind-to-mind device is horrifyingly invasive and inspires our hero to create a ridiculous pageant of blood, which apparently is intended to free Amducious from Slaader’s body—but in the end, succeeds only in trapping the demon within Our Hero. At the end of the story we see the intern wrapped in his straitjacket, muttering and twitching: the compassionate Doctor Barnard has been forced to prescribe massive doses of stimulants for two years straight…because this patient cannot, for any reason, be allowed to sleep.
II. Nuts and bolts
Whether this film can be regarded as a good or faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s work or not, I have to take a moment simply to discuss its virtues as a stand-alone work of art. Given an audience that didn’t give a hoot about Lovecraft—had never heard of the writer and had no knowledge of his work—would “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” be considered a good and entertaining movie?
The answer is no. Despite some genuine talent and creativity on the part of the cast and crew, this is not a good film. Which is a shame, really, because I did enjoy some of the visual techniques used: the majority of the movie is shot in black-and-white, which works well with the setting (rural America circa 1901), and also provides an interesting contrast with the full-color “nightmare” sequences (which usually involve dismemberment and a lot of red splashed across our field of view). Most of the dream sequences were at least interesting, and the quick-cut montages of mayhem and violence got the point across reasonably well—a few special effects may have looked fake or amateurish, but it would be petty to complain about them. Such things are to be expected in a low-budget production.
Other unexpected pleasures would include the costumes, which evoked the period quite well. Lingering shots of evil-looking instruments established atmosphere, as did the hallucinatory flashes of diabolic texts, rending flesh and eerily dancing children. One or two of the actors stand out—Rachel Mellendorf as the mental patient “Ardelia” is not half bad, for example, and William Sanderson is simply wasted as Slaader—it’s just plain sad to see a man of his talent given so little to do, often forced simply to repeat the same moronic line over and over while amateur hacks are given most of the screen time.
The greatest obstacle to enjoying this movie is the script, which has every disgraceful defect you can imagine. It’s truly painful to watch the actors stumble through the clunky and sometimes wildly inappropriate dialog which has been written for them—as when modern profanity is put into the mouth of a county sheriff or a respectable alienist in the year 1901, for example. There are also some directorial choices which made it difficult for me to get my bearings—I had to wonder for most of the movie why Our Hero goes through life wearing a ridiculous ill-fitting toupee, which no one else ever seems to remark looks nothing at all like a head of real hair.
Plot details are murky and the conclusion to the story makes little sense, on the first viewing: I had to run through the concluding scenes more than once to unravel what little information was given and patch it together into a coherent end to the story. Even worse, for nearly ninety minutes I was trapped in a landscape dominated by truly repugnant characters, including a protagonist who spends his free time sticking electrified needles into a catatonic girl’s brain to play “Who’s Your Daddy” with her pleasure centers. Since I liked no one on the screen, my interest in whether any of these characters lived or died was less than zero; instead of being properly horrified by the danger of Amducious breaking free, I couldn’t help thinking of the demon as a cleaning service, ridding the world of dangerous vermin.
All in all, I can’t recommend this movie to anyone; I think Lovecraft fans will find it bewildering at best, insulting at worst, and fans of more generic horror will probably turn up their noses as well, unless they are extremely tolerant of low-budget sensibilities. At this sitting I can only hope that the people behind this production will either leave Lovecraft alone in the future, or learn to show his ideas more respect—and if they can’t do that, that they will at least bring some decent writing of their own to the table.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Length: 84 minutes