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Creepshows and Fright Nights: A Look Back at 80s Horror: ‘The Unnamable’

What you had to do was stand back and take in the whole wall.

You couldn’t look for a specific title because nothing was ever in alphabetical order. Forget looking for new releases because they were inserted wherever there was an empty slot. And you couldn’t scan the titles shelf by shelf in hope of finding something, either, because your eye would just as likely pass over it in anticipation of the next title.

No, what you had to do was stand as far back as you could and let your eyes take in the wall of video boxes as a whole, seeing Everything and Nothing at the same time. It was only once you attained this zen-like state that the individual titles would begin to appear. Not unlike those Magic Eye books that would be popular in a few years, or that scene in The Matrix where Neo starts seeing the world in code.

But this was the mid-to-late 80s. Magic Eye books weren’t yet a thing, and Neo was still at least a decade and a half away from being found on these shelves himself.

On any given Friday or Saturday night (and often Monday through Thursday nights, as well as random weekdays during summer vacation). My buddy Vince and I would finish school, rush home, scarf down a quick dinner with the fam, lie about having done our homework, then bike to one or the other’s house for a horror movie marathon. I’d been a horror movie junkie since discovering Jason Voorhees in the pages of a Famous Monsters Special Issue in 1982, having purchased their Film Fantasy Yearbook for the Raiders of the Lost Ark article teased on the cover, and had managed to drag Vince down into that hell pit with me.

So there we were. Friday night, we were at one of the handful of video rental shops in town, almost going cross-eyed trying to find that night’s fare, calling out titles and judging them on their taglines alone.

Blood Diner! First they greet you, then they eat you.”

“Pass. Hard Rock Zombies! You can’t keep a good band down.”

“Pass. Dead End Drive-In! The price of admission is the rest of your life.”

“Seen it. Necropolis! It’s the ghouls’ night out.”

“Pass. HP Lovecraft’s The Unnamable! There are things on God’s earth that we can’t–”

“Wait. Lovecraft?”

There it was. We had our pick. Even though Lovecraft hadn’t always been good to us, we invariably gave him the benefit of the doubt, often to our chagrin. For every success, there was a tragedy: for every Re-animator, a Cthulhu Mansion, and for every From Beyond, The Curse.

I remember The Unnamable falling into the ‘success’ category and watching it now, 35-or-so years later, The Unnamable still works.

With this film, writer/director Jean-Paul Oullette has taken a rather sparse but effective Lovecraft tale and mixed it with – no kidding – elements of your basic teen sex comedy. If that sounds like two great tastes that should never, under any circumstances, be tasted together, okay… Yet, the man managed to produce a funny and scary haunted house story with Lovecraftian overtones, and that’s no mean feat.

The movie follows the standard cabin-in-the-woods plot: Several students from Miskatonic University decide to spend the night in the supposedly-haunted Winthrop house; Bruce Weeks (Eben Ham), John Babcock (Blane Wheatley), and the two girls they’re trying to score with, Wendy Barnes (Laura Albert) and Tanya Heller (Alexandra Durrell). Unbeknownst to them, one of their classmates, Joel Manton (Mark Parra) had the same plan the night before, following a conversation with Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) and Damon Howard (Charles King) on the very grounds of the Winthrop house.

Carter had pitched the concept that something could be so horrible, so beyond human comprehension, that it would defy our five senses. Since it would be indescribable, it followed, therefore, that it would also be unnamable. He used the Winthrop house as an example, citing the legendary murder of Joshua Winthrop some 300 years previous by his own demon-child, Alyda, a spawn so horrible as to be indescribable. Joel had decided that this was all a bunch of old wives’ tales and chose to stay in the house overnight while Carter and Howard made their way back to town.

Unfortunately for Joel, the house really was haunted – well, inhabited, anyway – by this unnamable demon, and he found himself beheaded for his transgression.

When Joel doesn’t return to the campus after a day and a half, Howard wants Carter to go back to the Winthrop house to search for him. Carter, who thought Joel foolish for wanting to stay in the house in the first place, agrees only after much protest. Once there, they are greeted by a hysterical Tanya in the midst of fleeing the house. Seems that, after regaling the group with a few ghost stories, John took Wendy off for a bit of ooh-la-la only to be attacked and killed mid-foreplay by the unnamable beast, Alyda Winthrop, leaving Wendy to run screaming, half-naked, around the house.

This last detail gets Howard’s attention. He has a huge-bordering-on-disturbing crush on Wendy, who has no interest in him whatsoever because he’s only a freshman. Tanya, though, has a crush on Howard, who barely notices her existence outside the corporeal. A love triangle in a Lovecraft story. Who would ever have thought you’d live to see the day?

From here, the creature is stalking everyone, picking them off one by one, until it has Howard and Tanya cornered in an upstairs room. Meanwhile, Carter has found the Necronomicon which, one must assume, had something to do with bringing the unnamable beast to life in the first place, and finds in its pages a spell to trap the evil within the trees surrounding the house. This done, the three set off back to town, their four dead classmates behind them, leaving one to wonder how – indeed, whether – any of this is going to be explained to the university administrators.

As adaptations go, The Unnamable is necessarily inventive.

Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, the real horror of “The Unnamable” takes place between scenes, leaving the reader to imagine the rest. Oullette did just that, and in a way that respects the source material, but is also totally in keeping with 80s slasher flicks: Ancient evil returns, reaps vengeance on a bunch of teenagers for someone else’s past transgression, and the virgin hero survives. (Or in this case, three virgin heroes.)

There are some truly gruesome effects on display, thanks to Christopher Biggs, with blood and gore, beheadings, and greenstick fractures abound. And it must be said that the unnamable creature is nothing short of stunning (as is Katrin Alexandre’s portrayal). If all of that sounds decidedly unLovecraft to you, don’t worry: there’s enough Cthulhu Mythos in there to remind you that you’re firmly in Lovecraft territory.

Stephenson’s Carter helps with that. His speech and mannerisms make it feel as though he’s been lifted whole and breathing from the pages of Lovecraft’s original story, and the only thing grounding him in the 80s is his acid-washed jeans. An academic in the truest sense, he’s as unheroic as they come, spending much of his time on-screen reading. King’s Howard, likewise, is so in over his head that it feels as though he’s been dragged along on this expedition, even though the whole thing was his idea to begin with. He’s introduced as the erstwhile sidekick, but becomes the real hero of the piece.

And if The Unnamable has a romantic lead, he’s it.

On the downside, apart from the murder in the Winthrop house in the opening scene, and Manton’s death soon after, the first half of the movie is a bit of a slow-go. Much of it is spent juggling the Howard/Wendy/Tanya storyline with scenes of Carter telling Howard not to worry about Manton. Likewise, Howard and Tanya calling Wendy’s name on one floor while she’s running and screaming from the howling Alyda whose hooves are beating on the hardwood floor above create certain… lapses in credibility.

None of which mattered to us at 11:30 on a Friday night. The movie rates a solid 7 on the Boobs n’ Blood meter, satisfying pretty much all of our adolescent criteria. Looking at it now, I see its flaws, sure, but they serve to enhance rather than detract from my sheer enjoyment of this movie.

The Unnamable may not be a great film, but it is a good film. And while it’s not one of the bigger titles in 80s horror, or even in the much smaller Lovecraft-inspired oeuvre, it’s a worthy inclusion to either list just the same.

 

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