Lurking Fear Movie Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Released by Full Moon Features
Directed by C. Courtney Joyner
Written by H.P. Lovecraft (original short story), C. Courtney Joyner
1994, 76 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on June 15th, 2016
Jon Finch as Bennett
Blake Adams as John Martense (as Blake Bailey)
Ashley Laurence as Cathryn Farrell (as Ashley Lauren)
Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Haggis
Allison Mackie as Ms. Marlowe
Paul Mantee as Father Poole
Vincent Schiavelli as Knaggs
Joseph Leavengood as Pierce (as Joe Leavengood)
Full disclosure: I love H.P. Lovecraft, from his elder horrors to his gibbering madnesses. I haven’t read all of his works, but I have enjoyed a fairly representative sampling of his weird tales, enough to have a good sense of his major ideas, his creepy world-building strategies and his outrageous racism. Lurking Fear is based on a short story that focuses entirely on what is a central theme for Lovecraft: social decadence (which in Lovecraft’s usage meant genetic and cultural decay, as opposed to opulence, which is how we tend to use the term today).
The original is rather disappointing, in the larger canon of Lovecraftian works. It’s very similar to the perennial classic The Shadow Over Innsmouth, only on land and with subterranean cannibalistic sub-humans (where have I heard that before...?) rather than fish-people. But it feels somehow watered down, not extreme enough in any category to be funny, and not at all scary. (It does feature one kind of neat and surprisingly modern-feeling scene where a guy looks out a window and doesn’t move for an extended moment, and when the protagonist tries to get his attention, it’s revealed that his face has been ripped off. /fanboyrant.)
That digression is actually more pertinent than it seems, because the 1994 film Lurking Fear is at something of a disadvantage from the start due to the mediocre nature of the source material. One can’t help but wonder why they chose such a comparatively dull piece, when greats like The Call of Cthulhu or The Colour out of Space were (and remain) ripe for adaptation. It may be a moot point, however, as this movie is only very loosely based on Lovecraft’s tale. At any rate, the story of the sunken Martense family could conceivably have been a successful piece of horror cinema. As it stands, though, Lurking Fear is probably best thought of as a horror-comedy in the vein of Army of Darkness orTales from the Crypt: Demon Knight. Approached in that spirit it’s fun enough, though it’s neither as comedic nor as horror-y as either of those movies.
It’s set in 1994, a time of acid-washed jeans and baggy denim shirts tucked into said jeans. We meet our hero, John Martense, fresh out of prison and with nowhere to go but to a friend of his father’s, a petty crook named Knaggs who runs a funeral home. Knaggs tells Martense of a body buried in a little town called Leffert’s Corners in which he and the senior Martense stashed a bunch of cash. Martense shuffles off to the LC, and shortly thereafter poor Knaggs gets another visit from Martense Sr.’s former partners in crime, who want the money too. Little do young Martense or the criminals know, Leffert’s Corners is a town with much more to offer than cash-corpses. Conflict: established.
For you see, we, the lucky, intelligent and sexy audience, know already what they do not: LC is plagued by underground man-eating monsters. And it just so happens that the night Martense shows up to claim his cash, the locals are planning a last-ditch monster-killing spree involving dynamite and guns and just the worst acting. Led by Cathryn, a woman driven by desire to avenge her murdered sister, and Dr. Haggis (Jeffrey Combs of Re-Animator fame), the ragtag bunch of B-actors hole up in the local church, beneath which the ghoul nest lies, and plan to wait out the night and then, I guess, blow it all up? Actually why did they have to do any of this? Why not throw all that dynamite down the hole and then run like hell during the daytime? NO QUESTIONS FOR QUESTIONS RUIN MOVIES YOU FOOL.
So of course Martense and the crooks converge on the church and get caught up in the fight against the monsters. There’s some silly banter and impossibly hammy one-liners, one group captures the other group and then there’s a reversal, and Martense eventually becomes one of the good guys despite his scruffy nerf-herder looks and the aforementioned acid-washed jeans. The ghouls kill a few people, of course, and some people kill some other people, but there’s a relatively low body count. And this being a ‘90s movie, there are also some awful explosion effects!
Lurking Fear is just a ridiculous, ridiculous movie, and while I can’t be sure, I think it’s safe to say that it revels in this fact. None of the comedy is funny and none of the horror is scary, but taken together, and with the bonus of the generally low production values and terrible terrible acting, the film as a whole is surprisingly enjoyable. In one scene, mustachioed thug Pierce cuts open a body in Knaggs’ funeral home to reveal a bunch of coke stashed inside. When he pulls out the drugs, you can clearly see the rubber sheet that forms the corpse’s stomach come up with them. In another scene Martense uses a corpse’s severed arm as a torch. The whole thing toes the line of so-bad-it’s-goodness for much of its length, but I think it manages to drag itself across in the end.
Given that it has no pretensions of being a good film, I still wonder about the decisions the filmmakers made. Why update the setting, rather than leaving it in the early 1920s? Why make the main character a member of the Martense family, rather than an outsider unconnected with the degenerate ghouls? Why frame the whole thing as a final battle against the monsters, rather than the frantic quest to uncover the truth of the original? None of that stuff really matters though, because there’s a gratuitous mud-wrestling scene in the cemetery which ends with Cathryn shooting a stick of dynamite, which in turn sets off a chain of explosions. Cathryn dodge-rolls away about two seconds too late in one of the greatest examples of awful choreography ever, and the explosions somehow set the gravestones on fire. In the rain. Dead Cthulhu in R’lyeh could not have dreamt up more glorious cheese.