Creature-Feature Conversations: The Resurrected
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
The Resurrected (1991, Directed by Dan O'Bannon)
With guest reviewer William Tea
JONATHAN RAAB: My Blu Ray copy of The Resurrected arrived as a gift from a friend, featuring some cool artwork of Chris Sarandon’s face emerging from a twisting bio-horror mess, which instantly grabbed my attention. That it turned out to be an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was a welcome surprise. When I finally sat down to watch it this past weekend, I was even more delighted to discover that Dan O’Bannon—the writer of Alien—was the director! While the film isn’t perfect by a long shot, it’s always nice to discover a competent early-90s horror movie, especially one with such great practical creature effects and Lovecraftian origins.
WILLIAM TEA: While you were enjoying that spiffy new Blu Ray disc, the edition I watched was actually an old, pan-and-scan, bare bones DVD that's been out of print for years. I paid way too much liberating a factory sealed copy from my local thrift shop because I never thought it would get rereleased. Clearly I'm an idiot. The kicker is that I'd never seen The Resurrected when I bought it. I only knew the two things you just found out: that it was directed by Dan O'Bannon and that it was a Lovecraft adaptation.
The O'Bannon connection is somewhat bittersweet. As you said, he's best known as the writer of Alien, but I think of O'Bannon as one of the great overlooked behind-the-scenes players of the '80s and early '90s, with story/script credits on everything from Heavy Metal to Dead & Buried to Lifeforce to Total Recall. He was even attached to Alejandro Jodorowky's famously unmade adaptation of Dune at one point! Yet he has only two directorial credits: the punk rock zombie comedy Return of the Living Dead and this.
The former is rightfully remembered as an iconic classic, but The Resurrected remains a little-known obscurity. What's interesting to me is that, despite being in the same genre, these are two wildly different films. In contrast to the raunchy E.C. comic style of Return, The Resurrected is a surprisingly grim, slow-burn occult mystery. O'Bannon once said it represented some of his best work, but he disowned the final product when producers recut it without him. I think watching it you can sometimes tell it was a meddled-with chop-job.
JR: Dan’s a legend, for sure, and someone I’ll always admire. I recall some behind-the-scenes footage from an Alien DVD wherein he describes mainlining coffee and eating nothing but hot dogs while writing the script, then crying tears of joy and awe when the movie came out. A friend of mine and I still reference that bit to this day.
As for the film itself, I really, really liked it, but I can absolutely see where he’s coming from. It does have an overlong feel to it—some parts drag a bit and feel pretty clunky. But that’s all forgivable because of some great performances (including and especially Sarandon’s twin roles) and stellar, end-of-an-era gore and creature effects. There’s some fun camerawork, lighting, and cinematography, too. This feels like a Stuart Gordon-adjacent Lovecraft adaptation, with good atmosphere, an emphasis on Weird Old New England, and a noir tone. It might not have the energy of a From Beyond or Re-Animator, but it’s a shame it’s been overlooked for so long.
WT: That lack of energy, at least early on, is probably one of the biggest hurdles that kept The Resurrected from finding an audience back in the day. It's easy to imagine someone renting this and giving up before hitting the 30-minute mark. I might be charitable in calling the pacing of the first act "leisurely." I'm less charitable towards the lead actor, the one who plays the private investigator character that replaces the doctor from the original story. I found him excruciatingly bland. Fortunately, Chris Sarandon has got charisma to spare. He does a great job acting shifty and mysterious. I think if anything could convince an impatient audience member to stick with The Resurrected, it's him.
Once the second act kicks in, things really pick up. Suddenly, the movie goes from being this somewhat dry detective story to throwing cannibalism and necromancy at you. Sarandon winds up in a straight jacket and begins chewing the scenery with sweating, twitching, monologuing abandon. We even get a full-blown flashback to the 18th century, complete with tricorn hats and puffy shirts! Best of all, the first act's brief moments of gore explode into a charnel house of fleshy monstrosities that I honestly think might be on par with some of Rob Bottin's work from The Thing.
For me, the scene where our heroes explore a series of lightless, claustrophobic catacombs is something of a minor triumph. Not just because it's among the most effects-heavy pieces of the film, although that certainly helps. What really drew me to the whole sequence was how it nailed the source material. It’s not so much that it’s a slavish recreation, but it perfectly captures the sense of disorientation and dread you feel when reading that part of the Lovecraft story.
There's this one moment in particular I love where the characters turn a corner and run smack-dab into some slimy, shuddering, blood-soaked thing. We just barely have enough time to register it before the characters drop their lantern and plunge everything into darkness. A second later, someone flicks their lighter, revealing that the creature is still coming toward them. The characters panic and someone fires a gun, and once again the light goes out. We have no idea if that shot connected or if it would even matter if it did. On top of all that, the floor is dotted with pits, so one wrong step could be fatal. It's a simple set-up, but it works so well. We in the audience are just as lost as the characters, and we know just enough to understand the same thing they do: that they are supremely fucked.
JR: Absolutely, that’s gotta be the high point of the movie, especially because by then the pacing has caught up with the promise of the source material—although I will admit that the novel itself is pretty slow, and not something that I would recommend for first-time readers of Lovecraft.
I imagine that that scene is even more effective on a lower-quality transfer, but honestly, watching the Blu Ray with lots of detail and a clear picture, the monsters and gore effects still looked great! I’m afraid that if this movie were made today, the creatures would be 100% CGI and the sense of menace and revulsion they have might be a bit lost.
Overall, this is a film that fans of the more frenetic Lovecraft adaptations should consider seeking out. But I do have to mention that my favorite adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, filmwise, has to be The Haunted Palace starring Vincent Price (which comes complete with some “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” influence), while the BBC Radio 4 podcast/audio-drama The Case of Charles Dexter Wardis top-notch.
WT: Y'know, despite me being a huge fan of both Vincent Price and Roger Corman, I've never actually seen The Haunted Palace. I'll have to rectify that sometime very, very soon.
Thinking about what The Resurrected would have looked like with CGI instead of practical effects puts me in mind once again of The Thing, only this time I'm talking about the 2011 remake-disguised-as-a-prequel. That was never going to be a great film, but like The Resurrected it was a major victim of executive meddling. Producers apparently cut out the director's monster suit and animatronics sequences and completely reshot them with CGI. I'm not rabidly anti-CGI, but I think The Thing is a prime example of what happens when they're used as a lazy cure-all instead of for more subtle enhancements.
Definitely, if The Resurrected were made today a lot of its impact and charm would be lost. I mean, this is a movie that features a bunch of stop-motion. In 1991! How could you not be charmed?
That said, just like you wouldn't recommend The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as anyone's first Lovecraft story, I probably wouldn't recommend The Resurrected as anyone's first Lovecraft movie. In my head, it sort of makes up a loose '80s/'90s Lovecraft quadrilogy alongside Re-Animator, From Beyond, and the anthology movie Necronomicon. And of those movies, I'd recommend Lovecraft newbies watch The Resurrected third or fourth.
As for the not-so-newbies, I think anyone who likes any of those other movies will like this, too. I even think Lovecraft purists will probably appreciate it, as it doesn't stray from the source material anywhere nearly as much as Stuart Gordon's films. Which may actually be to its detriment, as that seems to be a contributing factor to its first-act plodding. Once you get over the 30-minute hump, though, it's a lot of fun. Grisly, melodramatic, sinister, and somewhat flawed fun. But fun.
WT: So this is random, but I was just thinking about the movie again and two questions popped into my head:
1. Have you ever seen the movie Cast a Deadly Spell? If not, you might want to check it out. It's a kind of tongue-in-cheek detective story set in a world where the occult is just a fact of life and monsters are an everyday occurrence. I've heard it once described as a pulp horror version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Fred Ward plays the detective, H.P. Lovecraft while David Warner plays a conniving warlock, and I think a young Julianne Moore is in it too. It was an HBO production that I don't think has ever gotten a DVD release, but I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing was up on Youtube.
2. In The Resurrected, the hero finds Ward's bones in a suitcase/briefcase. Is it just me, or was O'Bannon making a really awful pun about the "case" of Charles Dexter Ward? It's probably just me.
JR: O'Bannon absolutely did that on purpose. Great catch.
William Tea is a native of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region and a friend to monsters everywhere. His stories have been featured in anthologies published by Muzzleland Press, Dunhams Manor Press, Wildside Press, Silent Motorist Media, Planet X Publications, StrangeHouse Books, and CLASH Books. He is currently struggling through his first novel. Find him online at williamtea.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.