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. 

Experiences From Beyond

I suppose we’ve been spoiled since Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space when it comes to Lovecraft film adaptations. I don’t think I really have to explain that Lovecraft stories are notoriously hard to turn into cinematic narratives due to the fact that their prose rely on the olfactory sense (smell), and strange, non-Euclidean descriptions combined with things that readers are not allowed to see in their entirety.

So, when I found out that From Beyond had been made into a film, I just had to check it out. From Beyond is a 1986 science-fiction horror film directed by Stuart Gordon, and written by Dennis Paoli one year after Gordon’s other main Mythos movie Re-Animator. It isn’t so much that I wanted to see how the 2019 Stanley film compares to the Gordon 1986 one, even though both are derived from Lovecraft’s science-fiction horror stories and his idea of cosmicism: of a reality where humanity is a small piece of a larger and more uncaring and malicious universe. It’s seeing how those ideas are explored in the 1980s under another director: specifically the one who made Re-Animator that really caught my fancy.

The challenges between the two couldn’t be more different. While “The Colour Out of Space” is a novella, “From Beyond” is a fairly focused and standalone short story about an unnamed narrator who visits his friend Dr. Crawford Tillinghast and not only sees how badly he has physically and mentally degenerated due to his obsession in exploring another dimension, but also encountering the horrors of it himself. So how do you make a film about a fifth or an extra reality around us filled with alien existences that we can’t perceive ordinarily?

Well, while other essays and articles created by genuine horror scholars have gone into it more I’m sure, I think the key here is sex.

In both the short story that is its inspiration, and the film, stimulation of the pineal gland: a gland that creates melatonin that modulates sleep patterns in the brain, and has been historically considered to be a centre of spiritual and metaphysical development. The idea is that in “From Beyond” an electronic device that creates resonance waves can stimulate that gland to allow humans to see different planes of existence of which their usual five senses are not capable. The function of the gland itself is only partially understood even now after all this time.

So Stuart Gordon takes this premise, and realizes that perceiving these other realities, along with the stimulation of a part of the brain in an unusual way, would probably create unusual sensations in those that are exposed to the device that he calls the Resonator.

He takes out the servants that Tillinghast exposes to the machine, placed into the other planes, and left to the auspices of the creatures summoned by it. And he goes further to remove the unnamed narrator, and make three characters take his place: including Tillinghast who is demoted to a protagonist assistant doctor, played by the excellent Jeffrey Combs, to the unstable and eccentric genius Dr. Edward Pretorius — whose name is a reference to the Doctor Pretorius that blackmails and enables Victor Frankenstein to continue his creature-making experiments in James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein — who is played by Ted Sorel, and is the true creator of the Resonator.

Dr. Pretorius is also a major BDSM practitioner in Gordon’s From Beyond: seeking to achieve the ultimate experience in physiological pleasure in creating the Resonator and activating his pineal gland to its nth degree: at least from my understanding. It’s this combination of hubris and addiction to stimuli that creates the Resonator, and its resulting consequences on the protagonists.

The premise isn’t bad. From Beyond is supposed to be all about scraping away the seeming of reality, of appearances, for the planes of experience that truly exist around us. The extra-dimensional creature special effects are all right for the time, and they are not the things that make this film more than a little awkward, and clunky.

The problem, for me, is the narrative itself. H.P. Lovecraft is all about “the fear of the unknown” and considering that there is a strange and unseen alien environment around and within us, should be an utterly terrifying prospect. What Stuart Gordon attempts to do, which he succeeded in with adapting “Herbert West – Reanimator” which had already been created a serialized pulp narrative, falls a little flat in places with “From Beyond.” Gordon’s efforts in adding “what you fear is what you desire” to “a fear of the unknown” and its consequences that lends itself to Re-Animator in the form of gore, black comedy, and spectacle itself, overshadows From Beyond as opposed to accentuating it.

There are gaps in logic and narrative progression. Why would the overly idealistic and obsessive Dr. Katherine McMichaels, played by the legendary Barbara Crampton be allowed to force Dr. Tillinghast into repairing the Resonator, and recreating the experiment that traumatized him? How would this prove his innocence to the authorities who believe he murdered his senior Dr. Pretorius?

Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with these characters. Even Katherine McMichaels, who is stated to have controversial psychological views, is seen as holding sheer curiosity and need to genuinely explore behind the thin veneer of a barely existent professionalism and white lab coat. She seems repulsed by the monitors held in Dr. Pretorius’ BDSM dungeon room with screaming women in leather being flogged, but you can see her intrigue, and her predisposition towards the exploration of that state of mind. Seeing her is reminiscient of a Harleen Quinzel before ever meeting the Joker: a highly controlled but curious mind needing only permission to set her own sensual nature free. And this iteration of Crawford Tillinghast, whom she has more than just an intellectual fascination towards — or something that forms from that intrigue — is both terrified and attracted to the power of the Resonator that brings out something within him that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

I think the film’s issue is that it tries to shame those flirtations with kinks and sexuality, which should be its strength to this regard. Bubba Browns, yes, Ken Foree’s character is called that is an officer assigned to Tillinghast and McMichaels who immediately grabs and shames her once she puts on the leather gear in Pretorius’ room, and berates her: asking her if this is what she wants to be.

Barbara Crampton as Dr. Katherine McMichaels in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond

But what if it is? What if Crampton’s character is now exploring that aspect of herself, away from clinical trappings, and there is actual progression from that point? Instead we have this poltergasmic apparition of Pretorius occasionally manifesting when the machine is turned on as such like of fleshy mutated amalgamation and Jeffrey Combs’ Tillinghast developing an antenna from his pineal gland that requires him to eat human grey matter (because he rarely, if ever plays a character that doesn’t become a monster or antagonist of some kind): including from a particularly dour doctor named Bloch: who is probably named after Lovecraft’s friend and long-time correspondent Robert Bloch who went on to write Psycho.

Do you see what I mean? My tangent aside, and despite the story ending in Lovecraftian horror and madness, the film kind of runs off the rails with the original source material and its theme.

But what if we did something different? Neil Gaiman’s age-old admonition of a story most likely needing rewriting if something is wrong with it, and everyone else pretty much being wrong about how to actually edit aside, let’s do something different. Let’s make another adaptation of From Beyond.

Let’s use Clive Barker as an example of what can be done. I’ve already referenced his “what you fear is what you desire” earlier on in this article. Ironically, he had published The Hellbound Heart, the novella that would become the basis of Hellraiser a year later, in 1986: the same year From Beyond was released. Sexuality, and its obsessive perversion had been applied to Re-Animator, so why not go even further with From Beyond?

Imagine Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is the antagonist as he had been in the short story. Perhaps the story takes place after he’s gone, and Doctors Bloch and … let’s say Katherine Waite, along with a team from the authorities in conjunction with Miskatonic University, are sent in to his building to find out what happened to him, and his research. We see that the house has different rooms within it, almost Jungian-themed, and each chamber has a theme. Tillinghast has left video or recorded journals of himself as he experiments with making the Resonator.

Bloch could have been that friend of Tillinghast’s who had seen his experiments and what they did to him over time. He could be there to help the police find all those missing personnel, including mutual friends of theirs. Waite, because I too love Lovecraftian references, is there to find his research and she has an attraction to this while pretending to be professional. These goals tend to clash with one another as they go on. We see evidence of a sound and idealistic Tillinghast becoming more extreme. There are videos of him in BDSM dynamics with women, or men, or both on video. Bloch sees this as issues with his deteriorating body and mind, while Waite sees it as evidence of an alternative exploration of sensation and experience. She is also highly turned on by this against, perhaps, her own better judgment.

I see Tillinghast as a combination of what Lovecraft intended him to be, though perhaps more of the standard symmetrical handsome man turned into something else, combined with him adopting some charismatic mannerisms not unlike Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook,” or basically the reverse of Suydam to that regard.

The degeneration, or perhaps better yet, the change and evolution of the characters as they discover and repair the Resonator should be gradual as they try to find the missing personnel in this other plane. They begin to transform as they go along. Some of them die. Some are consumed. But the worst are the creatures they encounter. Think of the Resonator as Barker’s Lamentation Configuration, and the extra-dimensional violet entities that bite and consume as Lovecraft’s night-gaunts that arouse every time they touch a human being. Consider these repellent creatures passing through human bodies and arousing them, and mutating them. Add to the sexual tone of the entire thing. Make it uncomfortable and arousing as you see these changes happening to these characters. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows do this, they play with Tillinghast’s creatures as erotic elements between characters in their limited-run Lovecraft Mythos comics series Providence.

Then you can have Bloch transform first as he has been exposed to the Resonator the longest. Perhaps there is mention of his physical and a tumour developing in his pineal gland. Maybe then he develops that antenna that doesn’t look like something from Sega Dreamcast’s Seaman.  Or maybe it does grow that way, and something sexually suggestive happens with it as this film changes from a scientific expedition trope into a surreal LSD horror. I like the idea of Bloch encountering a transformed Tillinghast who has reached the inevitable conclusion of his increasingly amoral and inhuman experiments in another plane, and being consumed by him. Maybe Waite has her encounter with Tillinghast and it goes … badly. So badly, like a terrible hallucinogenic trip that she escapes and just barely destroys the machine … but not before she is left stranded back in reality, partially transformed into something not unlike a Deep One, some retroactive evolution triggered, broken, screaming, and without aftercare: seeing something in reality and herself … beyond her understanding that ruthlessly destroys her, and yet keeps others fascinated in knowing more.

This feeds back not only into the story, but also into the Lovecraft Mythos with other nods and Easter-eggs. Consider this an alternative adaptation, a mutation of how I might have made this story with the right space-time and resources at my disposal. Gordon’s From Beyond has some fascinating ideas, taken from Lovecraft. I think, while the challenge is buttressing a very short tale into a cinematic narrative, there are enough elements there to make it all about the terror of that thin membrane of identity and knowing being torn apart to reveal something else entirely.

But as a false Doctor of Horror, this is just a creative observation and suggestion, not a prognosis