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.