Dreams and Rats in the Attic: Charles Band’s The Evil Clergyman

I just came off of writing about Re-Animator and a cinematic Cthulhu Mythos, and here we are again. In fact, I meant to look at The Evil Clergyman first but when has anything been temporarily linear in my writerly laboratory, or in a writer’s world in general?

This is The Evil Clergyman, directed and produced by Charles Band, and written by Dennis Paoli. It was created in 1987 for an anthology called Pulse Pounders but it was shelved when Empire International Pictures closed, only for a workprint to be rediscovered in 2011, and then shown at the Chicago Flashback Weekend and put onto DVD in 2012. This is all information that you can find online, and I only found out about it thanks to the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Mutant Collective when I made a thread about some people’s favourite Lovecraft stories adapted into films. 

I am interested in looking at what Band did to make this film, and the differences between the movie and H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name. I find that the film adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories tend to do a lot of what I call “reptilian matter-grafting.” If you’ve read some of my work on the Horror Doctor already, you pretty much know the procedure and where it comes from: the directors and writers take a story from Lovecraft and his Mythos, adapt the overall narrative and spirit of the story, and then implant parts of his other stories into the film to give it that more overt Cthulhu Mythos feel. This isn’t always the case, of course, with the first Re-Animator film and the original Castle Freak — both made by Stuart Gordon — being examples to the contrary, with the latter having grown from “The Outsider” and into a whole direction, but The Evil Clergyman has been mutated to make a very compelling visual tale from what Lovecraft has left behind, with some ethereal, sexual, and Gothic romantic sensibilities added in by Band and Paoli for good measure.

Neither the film, nor the story have protagonists — or characters — that are named. Lovecraft’s “The Evil Clergyman” has an unnamed narrator who is, presumably, male that comes to the attic of an ancient house in order to satisfy his curiosity about its former occupant: an Anglican priest that owned the entire house, and vast library of magical books. The house has an elderly male caretaker, who possibly belongs to an order watching over the structure, that warns the narrator not to touch or manipulate anything in the attic room. Some “abominable order” finally “took charge” and he says that he and some others don’t know what happened to the priest’s body. There is mention of a strange object on a table that resembles a match box, and he tells the narrator to especially leave it alone: as it might have had something to do with what the priest did in that room.

Well, you can figure out what happens. The narrator does, in fact, have to meddle with the contents of the room. His curiosity is his potential undoing, as the caretaker of the house tells him. He shines a pocket flashlight on the match box object, which induces a violet radiance from it. Now, this is fascinating because its effects are reminiscent of elements from two other Lovecraft stories: Crawford Tillinghast’s electronic resonance wave device that lets one see and interact with another dimension in “From Beyond,” and the plane of existence that one poor mathematics student Walter Gilman accesses in his sleep in another warped attic in “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

Sure enough, the unnamed narrator’s act of shining that light triggers the object, and he doesn’t find himself in another realm, but he seems to be caught within the past of that room. He sees the priest, with olive skin and a dark beard, throwing his books into the fire. Interestingly enough, the section of the room with the fireplace is on the window side of the room with a wall that slants sharply, reminiscent of the strange non-Euclidean angles of “The Witch House” and while the priest had been burning all of his books, they are all on the shelves in that room in the present day. The priest is confronted by his fellow priests led by a bishop. And it’s only when he gestures at the object on the table that they back away from him with genuine fear.

It’s interesting how Lovecraft describes the priest, and his relation to his former brotherhood. He is “evil-looking” but also nervous, grim, and both filled with hatred and fear. The other priests despise, and are terrified of him: and they actually leave him there through a trap-door, cursing him. The whole tableaux is fascinating because there is no sound. The narrator is only seeing this happen, the past seemingly reenacting itself through images and gestures, though — in the typical Lovecraft literary style — he can still smell the scent of the books as they burn. When the priest takes a chair and rope, and attempts to hang himself, the priest is actually aware of him and seems to smile in “triumph.” However, the narrator, sensing something is profoundly wrong with this situation, manages to turn the light on the priest — either through his flashlight, or the match box device — and it turns the man’s skin sallow. His flesh turns violet and pink — reminiscent of the mechanism in “From Beyond” again, and he flees in terror to the trap door, and falls. The narrator rushes there, and sees nothing except villagers who look at him, with absolute fear.

The narrator passes out, only for the old man to find him and help him realize that he’s become an exact physical duplicate of the priest. Apparently another man had done similar, and when he realized what happened, committed suicide. The old man is terrified of using the device further, as it “would only make matters worse to do—or summon—anything,” and he says to the narrator “You’d better thank heaven it didn’t go further. . . .” I don’t think there has ever been the case of a Lovecraft character physically transforming into another beyond the mind transfer technique we see in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and the merging of alternate selves in the Lovecraft collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price’s “Beyond the Gates of the Silver Key.”

“The Evil Clergyman” itself is an excerpt from a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1933, and it is apparently a dream he recounted to his friend Bernard Austin Dwyer. It reads like a fragment, and certainly has a dreamlike quality to it, and it had been published as a short story in Weird Tales in 1939, two years after his death.

Band’s film also resembles a dream, but it has more of an erotic and darkly romantic slant. The Evil Clergyman isn’t the story of an unnamed narrator, but of a priest and his lover. The lover is played by Barbara Crampton, and she is young and while tentative, passionate, and not afraid of her sensuality. Jeffrey Combs is the priest, of course, and he resembles the character quite a bit save for his facial structure, skin, and a lack of a beard: but he is every bit the intelligent spirit of that character extended into eroticism, and possessive malevolence. The music track, created by Richard Band, has a lilting, sad, reminiscent quality that spirals into madness, and whispering evil.

Charles Band and Dennis Paoli begin the story with the lover coming to a castle, as opposed to a house, where she confronts its landlady — played by the formidable-looking Una Brandon-Jones — into letting her visit the room in which the priest, the man she loves, hanged himself.

The atmosphere is set right from the Gothic castle with its ornate door knocker to its stone emblems, and the room which resembles nothing more than a small and modest cell, with a window, a bed, and of course the chair. There are no books here. No library. No strange devices left on a table. The window doesn’t open out into “the ancient roofs and chimney pots” of Salem that Lovecraft loves to describe in many of his stories with great and beauteous detail. It is just this small room where sex and love used to happen: pleasant memories soured by suicide, and grief: moments of the past once present turned bitter by the arbitrary passage of time.

The exchange between the young woman and the landlady is pretty intense as well, with a jealousy that is there in the older woman’s words, and her reference to “the worm eating beauty” being more than a little reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm.” This landlady seems to know, or thinks she knows, the priest, and makes the young lover aware that the chair in which he stood to hang himself keeps moving back in a certain spot in the room. The old woman even has the temerity to mock the noises of the love-making she heard back in the days in which the lovers met in this room. The power exchange, for all of the young woman’s defiance, does seem to be to the old woman’s favour: through her obvious triumph over her discomfort. I mean, that portrait we see of a hanged man above or near the bed is a little too much on the nose. We also get a nod to Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” when the old woman complains about hearing them scurrying in the walls of the castle — just like in the one owned by Delapore in England. The old landlady mentioning the rats, and leaving the trap with the flower in it begins the setup.

The grief, and mourning that Barbara Crampton conveys once the old woman is gone, as she sits on the softly sunlit windowsill is palpable. She’s lost someone important to her. Someone that made her feel alive. And then, she starts to hear his voice. We see his arms wrap around her, and drive her mad with feeling. Then it is gone. And then, we see him materialize in the corner of the room.

Lovecraft doesn’t write about sex, and physical acts are always “squamous” or “unnamed,” but what happens is neither as the two lovers — reunited despite death — begin fucking like mad on the bed. But underneath the bed, like a rejected parody of a Narnian beast is David Gale — you know, our creepy friend Dr. Hill from Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator — small, and dressed as a rat. He is chuckling, gross, and utterly pleased with himself.

The dream, like Richard Band’s musical score, spirals into a nightmare, as Barbara Crampton’s character wakes up and it’s night somehow — time not working the same in this chamber. There she meets the apparition of a Canterbury Bishop, played by David Warner, who tells her that her priestly lover had killed two other women before her, and that when he came to confront him about his crimes, he smashes his head in with a holy chalice. This is obviously a riff on the head priest of a group in the short story, but the gruesomeness, with the effects, are expanded on here. The Bishop looks on the young woman with disdain, and disgust, but he is also afraid. And Barbara Crampton has no idea what’s going on, or what is real anymore.

Eventually, we find out that the rat is the familiar of the priest. In fact, I will bet my sanity that David Gale’s twisted rat creature is essentially the same species, or kin, to  Brown Jenkin from “The Dreams in the Witch House” — an extra-dimensional entity bonded to the witch Keziah Mason who escaped to another plane from jail during the Salem Witch Trials. What we see unfolding after a while, is Crampton’s character realizing that Combs’ priest did kill himself. She sees him hanging himself again, and then talking to her from being suspended by that noose asking her to “kiss her like she used to” when she tells him she can’t reach his lips. Autoerotic-asphyxiation, and post-mortem having created a massive rigor mortis erection for a mortal blowjob aside, this macabre erotic act — designed to apparently give the young woman a chance to be released from the room — is interrupted by the bishop. She ends up beating him to death, again.

All of this, this ghostly afternoon delight turned into a nightmare with attacking rats, and a bleeding priest, and the harrassing figure of her hung lover — and not in the good way — seems to break the woman’s mind. After almost reenacting the act of murder on the bishop, she goes to the chair, takes the noose that’s been there from where her lover hung himself again, and hopes it will all end as she commits suicide. It’s an interesting parallel to the unnamed male narrator who tries to save the priest and then attacks him with the light, only to try to warn him from falling to his doom through the door. Crampton’s character is horrified at killing a man, lost in the dream logic of killing a dead man, and it prevents her from interacting with Combs’ character.

Now, it could have been left here. This could easily have been the lover losing her mind from grief. But then we have Combs talking with his familiar. They come to an agreement. He has a certain fondness for the woman, even loves her in his own way. But he wants her body. All of her body. In exchange, he promises the familiar her soul, but not before having to kiss him.  I keep thinking about “The Witch House” and how Keziah Mason can still manifest in the physical world: probably because the dimension she went to Lovecraft’s story, along with her link to her familiar from that realm, arrests her aging process, but the priest died. His physical body is gone. If he wants to come back, through his magic, through his own familiar, he needs a new vessel. He needs a new body. 

But I can’t help but wonder. At the end of the film, the priest seems to have taken over his lover’s body, freeing him from the contained dream-reality of the room. And yet, he has all of her memories, especially when the landlady’s words are turned against, her own chin is grabbed and she is told “You were never that pretty.” Because, sure enough, as the young woman leaves — confident, cold, and calculating — we see the rat familiar screaming, dying in the mousetrap the old woman left behind. Now, it seems simple. Whereas in Lovecraft’s short story, the priest fails to possess and rewrite the existences of two individuals — only succeeding in making them look like him — whereas in Band’s film the priest is triumphant in transferring his consciousness into his former lover’s body akin to how Ephraim or Asenath Waite took over her husband Edward Pickman Derby’s body in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The unnamed narrator in the short story pays for his curiosity with the loss of his physical identification. The young woman in the film pays for her yearning, and grief with her very identity.

Yet the familiar is betrayed. He’s left to die. I get the feeling that the priest had influence over everything in that castle. He may have been with the landlady when she was younger, or at another time, and had her leave the trap there. Obviously he lured his lover there, maybe even others. He killed the bishop in that place, it seems, and yet no one reported it or investigated. And he had this deal with his familiar. Does the familiar’s death mean that the woman’s soul is freed? That she has bonded with her lover in her body in a strange form of symbiosis? A twisted form of liberation? Was the bishop representative of staid and close-minded Christian morality, and the familiar a debased lust that threatened to consume any meaning of passion? Is the attic a Jungian representation of the woman’s very mind?

Either way, I feel like this is one of those occasions where the film adaptation of a story is superior to the original source material, while changing the letter of its non-Euclidean law to match its eldritch spirit, and not shying away from pleasure turned into revulsion, and alien madness. It’s funny: almost everyone from Stuart Gordon’s Mythos films were in this movie, even the writer and musician involved in Re-Animator. It’s also fascinating to note that Gordon made his own adaptation of “The Dreams in the Witch House,” part of the Masters of Horror series that I still need to check out.

But this was a beautiful piece of a nightmare turned into a darkly lyrical almost thirty-minute film, and I am glad it was rediscovered, and it deserves its place in the Cthulhu cinematic Mythos. 

Reattaching An Amputation? Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator

I didn’t think I was ever going to write anything on Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. I just didn’t really see the need. It is a film that has just the right amount of uncanny terror, visceral effects, titillation, and camp to make it a lively viewing experience. And between the twistedly morbid curiosity of Herbert West as played by Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott’s overwhelmed scientific straight man Dan Cain, and the gorgeous and rightfully terrified Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey you had the entire acting dynamic made.

It’s true. Re-Animator — co-written by Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and William J. Norris — has a few changes from its source material, namely, the serial short horror story H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Dr. Halsey, the erstwhile mentor of West and Cain doesn’t have a daughter in the story, as Lovecraft seemed reluctant to have many female characters, never mind romantic interests, or anything romantic for that matter. The character of Dr. Allen Halsey doesn’t die as a result of West and Cain’s meddling, but rather of typhoid fever while attempting to save countless patients from an epidemic. That, in of itself, makes him different from Dr. Alan Halsey  the Dean of Miskatonic University in Stuart Gordon’s film: for while he is also an old-fashioned doctor that doesn’t like West’s experiments, he cares more about appearances, grant money, and class than the Halsey of the serials. In the serials, in “The Plague-Daemon,” Dr. Halsey is reanimated by West and his assistant, beats the hell out of them, and runs off into the night as opposed to being captured and lobotomized by Hill. Cain isn’t named in the story at all, and is just an unnamed narrator — a function which happens a lot in Lovecraft — who is the assistant of West who is a blond-haired, blue-eyed young man in contrast to Combs’ iteration of the mad scientist. Lovecraft himself didn’t like this story, being derivative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a pulpish manner.

So of course it’s one of those stories that’s easy to adapt to cinema, and honestly the fleshing out of West’s assistant as a man with good intentions instead of a pedestal narrator, and the presence of Barbara Crampton to show the emotional impact and consequences of all their experiments, works for me. But you have, undoubtedly, already heard and read about all of this if you are horror fans.

Let’s focus on Dr. Carl Hill.

If you’ve seen the film, you know what kind of man Hill is. Hill is arrogant, he plagiarizes the work of better doctors and scientists, he has a creepy infatuation with the much younger and completely uninterested Megan, and he becomes the monster he was always meant to be after Herbert West kills, and reanimates his severed head and body, building for himself a little army of army to obey his every whim in a quip-filled rivalry between him, and West. David Gale plays Hill as a completely over-the-top antagonist, ridiculously so, but it is a counter to West’s combination of cold detachment, and demented obessession with his work. Hill is ego-driven, lecherous, and just a terrible human being that has no qualms about performing lobotomies on even former colleagues to get what he wants — and this is before he’s killed, and gets transformed into one of West’s creations.

So where do I start with this? In some ways, Hill is more of a banal character than West. West is about The Work, about experimenting with life and death, whereas Hill wants fame and power and flesh. Hill doesn’t exist in the serials at all. However, that isn’t entirely true. In the “Herbert West – Reanimator” serial chapter “The Horror From the Shadows,” there is a man working with West and his assistant — now both full-fledged doctors as opposed to medical students in the fields of World War I — named Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee: a British-Canadian military doctor and pilot:. This is a funny link, given how David Gale is a British actor, though he depicts an American doctor who prides himself on class. He shares a lot of fascination with West’s experiments, and even participated in some in situ. Aside from his interest in reviving the dead, however, and perhaps some of West’s more esoteric explorations, Clapham-Lee doesn’t get much more character development after he’s decapitated in a plane crash … and West decides to attempt to reanimate his body parts separately.

This is where Dr. Hill is derived from, poor Sir Eric, and it is pretty much the last in a long like off poor life — and undeath — decisions that seals our friend Dr. West’s fate in the last of the serials “The Tomb Legions.” What happens here is nothing short of a cold, methodical hunting and takedown of West, who is hiding out with his assistant, as a mysterious man who seems to wear a waxen face — and is carrying something, always, in a bag — finds all of West’s creations, and purposefully take him apart in an ancient series of catacombs under an old house before vanishing behind a wall completely, leaving the narrator traumatized and afraid for his very existence.

You can see where a lot of the inspiration behind the ends of Re-Animator, and Bride of Re-Animator came from to this extent. But something perplexing always bothered me about Re-Animator itself, and I was never able to put it into words before this point. 

You see, there is one scene in the film where Hill stares intently at West, after attempting to blackmail the latter based on the knowledge of his crimes, into giving him his notes on the serum: or re-agent. He orders West to give him his work, and for more than a few moments West is speechless. He’s transfixed. Now, bear in mind that throughout this whole film Herbert West has been caustic and sarcastic as all get-out with everyone from Dan, to Megan, to Dr. Halsey, ranting at the police in Switzerland at the University of Zurich, and especially making barbs at Dr. Hill’s expense. But now, with the potential for revealing his illegal work on corpses, and what he did to Dr. Halsey, West is suddenly quiet? He just shuts up?

So, in an early draft of the script, it’s revealed that Dr. Hill is — of all things — a hypnotist. That’s right. This man of questionable science, whose work is apparently by West’s standards woefully outdated — specifically his knowledge of the brain and the surgery thereof — incorporates techniques that attempt to influence a suggestible mind. According to Joe Bob Briggs, it was the film’s music composer Richard Band, who suggested to Stuart Gordon that this element be excised as it would be implausible for two impossible things to happen at once with already a certain kind of belief suspension in place. Joe Bob was against this happening, referencing what seems to be Aristotle’s Poetics in that one should have two impossible things occurring in a work. I’ve attempted to look it up, but from what I can see Aristotle mentions something about how “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”
In other words, perhaps Joe Bob was trying to intimate that in a world with reanimation already occurring, hypnosis in conjunction with that feat isn’t that farfetched, and that by attempting to just stick with revival of the dead, something is lost: the rest of it just becomes “the improbable possible.”

But according to what I’ve found, Aristotle essentially says that if you need a secondary impossible thing to make a primary impossible element work, you should use it.

And that is where Joe Bob and I differed, at least at first. I personally thought that this wasn’t needed: that adding hypnosis into a story about creating the undead in the way it is portrayed confuses the issue. What story is trying to be told here? And then, there is the Cthulhu Mythos fan in me that is also annoyed. By the time of “Re-Animator’s” segment “The Horror From the Shadows,” Herbert West seems to have come to the existentially terrifying conclusion that a previously living human organism’s parts have independent qualities: they are only interdependent — connected by nerves and viscera — because of evolution. There is no intrinsic force compelling them together. There is no life force. No soul. He is already experimenting with “lizard tissue” to make little animated creations from parts at this point in time — something we see him do in Bride of Re-Animator.

In other words, there is no intelligent design behind humanity.

Yet.

What I thought was brilliant about Lovecraft’s serials is how the other undead are mindless except for Sir Eric — our Canadian Major — who has not only retained his consciousness, but a sense of vengeance against West for turning him into an abomination. Moreover, Sir Eric is a decapitated head that understands the science of reanimation, and all of West’s dirty little secrets. He is a brain that controls his own animated body.

So why can’t Sir Eric control other reanimated bodies if they are potentially interdependent limbs, or extensions of a powerful will?

See, this is what worked for me with Dr. Hill. He lobotomizes Dr. Halsey’s undead form, not merely to keep him from potentially talking to the authorities if he ever got his faculties back, but to make him more suggestible. You see him, after his own death, doing this to other corpses in advance before reanimating them. It’s brilliant, and horrible. And I just thought that hypnosis is just a cheap way to explain something far more Lovecraftian and terrifying in that there is no intrinsic meaning even in human life and sentience: all just processes formed together by chemical forces and influences until someone learns how to manipulate them to do twisted and banal things, leading to a terrible and perpetual insomnia of eternal hatred.

Of course, the undead in the film are clumsy and directionless whereas the ones in the serials move fast, and with focus. This changes a bit when Dr. Hill controls them, but he barely has fine-motor control over his own body at times, never mind the bodies of others. And there is still the fact that West is awkwardly paralyzed just looking at him in that one scene.

So, in my early articles I’ve mentioned that I wouldn’t change a thing about Re-Animator, even if it is not up to Lovecraft’s standards: the serial, or the film derived from it. But now? Years later, after seeing some attempts at a Cthulhu Mythos shared cinematic universe in Color Out of Space, and the remake of Castle Freak, as well as seeing the cultists as displayed in The Deep Ones, there is a solution.

You see, I’ve changed my mind. What if Dr. Hill, as seen by Herbert West, is into defunct and “quack-science,” but it goes further than his “stealing” of Dr. Hans Gruber’s work. What if he is also into the theories of Madame Blavatsky, and Theosophy, some very racist and eugenics shite. It’s true that unlike the serials that take place at the turn of the twentieth century and WWI that Hill exists in the 1980s, but I can see him subscribing to these ideas. And what if he is a cultist of Cthulhu or Dagon himself, but instead of making it blatant with what he says, you can just see it in his study — that typical arrogant office with shelves of idols stolen from other cultures, but nothing really specific … Until you see the Elder Sign medallion that he flashes out to hypnotise or mesmerize people. It should have been short, and to the point, and a good nod at the literary heritage from which this film was grown.

In this sense, it works for me because we establish Dr. Hill: as not only a terrible human being and an arrogant narcissist, but also believing in some abhorrent practices, and his mysticism would make him doubly hated by West even as he rubs it in the younger man’s face. He still continues to lobotomize patients so his rituals make them “more suggestible” and it says a lot more about the Western colonialism in how he treats women, perhaps other minorities, and the vulnerable. It also doesn’t take away from the insanity of the whole film. It just adds another layer. One, or two lines, even West being disparaging of Mesmerism and hypnotism, and Hill hamming it up with “there are forces that work in mysterious ways,” which also leads to West attempting to animate Hill’s parts after he kills him with the shovel … it just sits well with me.

Obviously, this injection into the body of Re-Animator wouldn’t be possible now as it isn’t fresh anymore, and David Gale and Stuart Gordon aren’t with us anymore. And the film is great as is, and discussion of these film adaptations always seems to come down to an issue about either the inherent meaningless of existence, horrifying mysticism, or just plain entertainment. But like West, I guess I still like to play with other people’s toys: a fact that will probably never change here, at this Horror Doctor’s laboratory.