Die Monster Die Review
Although many have tried in the years since August Derleth revived interest in his writing, H.P.Lovecraft has stubbornly refused to be transferred faithfully to the screen. The cosmic terror of his best work is essentially literary and it’s hard to turn it into visuals without rendering it either comic or, worse, significantly underwhelming. Adaptations of his work have tended to be unfortunate - The Dunwich Horror - or so vague as to be barely recognisable - ReAnimator. Occasionally, a film manages to capture something of the Lovecraftian tone – Stuart Gordon had a couple of good tries with Dagon (based on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) and From Beyond. One could also argue that a film such as Clive Barker’s Hellraiser gets closer to a truly Lovecraftian vision than most credited adaptations. But generally, the awesome dread of Lovecraft’s best work has been turned into standard monster-chase fodder.
Die Monster Die is a case in point. The astounding intellectual vision of the story “The Colour Out Of Space” is still capable of making readers wonder whether they really are alone in the universe. Although it’s not directly one of Lovecraft’s stories of the Cthulhu Mythos, his ability to unnerve the reader with a sense of awesome horror is abundantly present. A meteorite falls from the sky and opens to reveal a strange phosphorescent ‘colour’ which subjects everything that surrounds it in the village to a premature corruption. The evocation of an entire community falling victim to putrefaction is utterly terrifying in its implications:
...over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensional rainbow of cryptic poison from the well – seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognisable chromaticism.
This extraordinary story of a very unusual invasion from elsewhere has been turned into a pretty standard old dark house item with the added ingredients of a grim family history and something nasty in the cellar. The basics of the story are still there but, instead of the whole village being affected it’s simply the Nahum house belonging to an old scientist played by the great Boris Karloff, and his wife (Freda Jackson) who has been deformed by the visitor. This wouldn’t be so bad – the Lovecraftian elements do remain to some extent – but an appalling romantic sub-plot has been bolted on with the dreadful Nick Adams as a young man who has come to meet Nahum’s daughter, played by the not noticeably talented Suzan Farmer. It’s as if every time the film edges towards Lovecraft’s original, it runs away again.
This was Daniel Haller’s first film as director and he makes a reasonably good job of building suspense in the opening scenes. He only got the chance to make it because he had some time on his hands in England while The Masque of the Red Death, for which he was the Art Director, was shooting on location. Admittedly, he’s stuck with a very poor script which goes through every mad scientist and old dark house cliche you can imagine, and a cast of manically gurning yokel character actors. But there’s enough talent here to suggest that he could have made a much better film had he (and AIP) not been so scared of sticking to the original story. It’s possible that Lovecraft’s short story was considered a bit too arty to work on film – it’s not exactly heavy on plot and relies on the kind of remarkable descriptive prose which I quoted earlier. To be fair, Haller handles a few shock moments with skill, but there’s none of the creeping fear which Lovecraft can inspire in the receptive reader.
What the film does have going for it, and it counts for quite a lot, is the marvellous Boris Karloff. By 1965, Karloff was largely confined to a wheelchair with serious respiratory problems, but it didn’t stop him working. Because he adored his work, he took virtually every film which was offered which resulted in some dreadful movies like Cauldron of Blood and Curse of the Crimson Altar. But unlike Bela Lugosi, he never lost his dignity or suffered extreme poverty and even at the end of his life, he was making challenging, off-beat films such as Targets - a love letter to the actor from Peter Bogdanovich – and The Sorcerers. When asked whether he minded being typecast as a horror star, he replied, “Whereas bootmakers have to spend millions to establish a trademark, I was handed a trademark free of charge. When an actor gets in a position to select his own roles, he's in big trouble, for he never knows what he can do best. I'm sure I'd be damn good as little Lord Fauntleroy, but who would pay ten cents to see it?” Boris Karloff brings genuine dramatic power and pathos to his role and he makes the film more compelling than it might otherwise have been.
MGM’s recently released Region 2 disc of Die Monster Die is a typical example of their back catalogue product. We get an acceptable transfer and no-frills presentation.
The film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced transfer framed in the original ratio of 2.35:1. That’s the good news. If you’ve never seen some of these 1960s AIP films in their OAR then you haven’t seen them. They come from a time when the whole of the frame was used without any concessions made for small screen viewers. Otherwise, this is a competent but unexciting visual presentation. Colours are fairly strong throughout and the picture is reasonably sharp. But there is some aliasing in evidence all the way through the film and blocky artifacts are visible in the darker scenes. Nor is the print in the best condition – scratches are a frequent problem. As for the soundtrack, it’s a 2 channel Mono track, reflecting the original theatrical presentation. Nothing wrong with this at all and the music score comes across particularly strongly.
There are no extras on the disc and the film is divided into 16 chapter stops. A range of subtitles are provided.
Die Monster Die is quite clearly a wasted opportunity to do for Lovecraft what Roger Corman had done for Edgar Allen Poe, but it’s acceptable pulp and worth seeing for the excellent performance of Boris Karloff. The DVD is acceptable but overpriced for what it offers.