1965 // UK - USA // Daniel Haller // February 17, 2013 // DVD - MGM (2005)
Based On: "The Colour Out of Space" (1927)
[Note: This post contains spoilers. Part of a series on film adaptations of the works of H. P. Lovecraft.]
The titles of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space” and its 1965 film adaptation Die, Monster, Die! promise very different experiences, and both works deliver on their pledges. “Colour” is one of Lovecraft’s finest short stories, a frightening alien encounter tale that stands as both a paragon of the author’s distinctive prose and the purest expression of science-fiction-as-horror in his bibliography. Like most of the writer’s work, it’s an exercise in slow-burn dread, in which stalwart but guileless New Englanders slowly discern that a terrifying, unfathomable entity squirms just beyond the borders of their understanding.
Die, Monster, Die!, meanwhile, is what one would expect from American International Pictures in late 1965: a low-budget, flamboyant horror film replete with hammy dialogue, lush sets, and gruesome makeup effects. The film’s climactic rampage by a glowing, super-strong Boris Karloff is a weirdly emblematic moment, an almost perfect embodiment of the schlocky yet shamelessly entertaining character of Hollywood horror and science-fiction in the 1950s and 60s. Yet despite Die, Monster, Die!’s significant divergences from "Colour" in terms of both plot and tone, it quite capably conveys its source material's mingling of secular and Puritan dread.
“The Colour Out of Space” is in some ways the essential Lovecraft story, as it concerns humankind’s inability to adequately describe the breadth of the universe with its primitive scientific vocabulary. The meteorite that falls on the Gardner farm near Arkham, Massachusetts in 1882 is subjected to all manner of experiments, producing remarkable yet perplexing results. Most prominently, spectrographic analysis indicates an otherworldly new color that is dissimilar from any conventional hue. (Lovecraft performs some fascinating linguistic acrobatics in order to convey the striking qualities of this alien shade without referencing the familiar colors on the red-to-violet spectrum.) The meteorite and the mutagenic, mind-shattering entity that it carries to Earth are not mystical in nature, but “hyper-scientific”. They represent natural cosmic phenomena that lie so far outside the bounds of human understanding that our species’ crude science can characterize them only incompletely.
Cunningly, Lovecraft embeds this extrastellar nightmare within a rural New England landscape that is thick with spiritual fears, spooky folklore, and all manner of whispered Indian and colonial legends. While “Colour” suggests that a secular framework is ultimately the correct one for understanding the alien horror that gradually overtakes the Gardner farm, the occult anxieties of the locals lend the story a unsettling resonance. Moreover, the learned men who are so flabbergasted by the meteorite’s properties eventually return to town after collecting their specimens and recording their observations. It is the superstitious country folk who witness the area's subsequent slow-motion ecological catastrophe, as the local flora and fauna—and, most chillingly, the Gardners themselves—undergo disturbing changes. In this way, Lovecraft portrays the demon-haunted bumpkin worldview as flawed, while simultaneously enjoining the reader to value rural people’s intimate familiarity with their natural surroundings.
Exasperation with the wild fears of rural landowners, combined with dismissal of their environmental observations, would eventually became a hallmark of government and corporate attitudes wherever twentieth century progress sought to extend its reach into “underdeveloped” American spaces. Significantly, “Colour’s” tale of 1880s terror is couched within a 1920s framing narrative about just such an endeavor. The “blasted heath” where the Gardner farm once stood is scheduled to be drowned beneath a new reservoir, and a nameless land surveyor has coaxed local eccentric Ammi Pierce to provide his recollections of the weird havoc once wreaked by the meteorite. Upon hearing Pierce’s fantastical and unnerving tale, the surveyor confesses relief at the forthcoming inundation of the accursed area...and a resolve to never, ever drink Arkham city water in the future.
As H. P. Lovecraft short stories go, “Colour” has obvious advantages as source material for a cinematic adaptation. Its core scenario is relatively straightforward—a falling space rock brings radioactive terror to a small town—and would have been quite familiar to the young Atomic Age filmgoers that AIP notoriously coveted. The story contains several fascinating visual hooks, from the ominously glowing meteorite to the twisted vegetation spawned by its alien emanations. There is, of course, the vexing matter of that ineffable color that plays such a prominent role in Lovecraft’s tale, a hue that by definition no cinematic work could adequately convey. (This is likely the most abstract example of one might term “the Lovecraft problem,” the difficulty in translating the author’s baroque yet ambiguous descriptions into effective images.) The screenplay for Die, Monster, Die!, penned by genre television writer Jerry Sohl, sidesteps this problem by cutting out references to the impossible color altogether. Indeed, the script completely strip-mines “Colour” for its essential components and then recasts them in a more conventional gothic horror mold, complete with a forbidding ancestral estate and a comely virginal damsel.
It’s easy enough to see why executive producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson would push the film in this direction, even if it resulted in a feature that bore little resemblance to Lovecraft’s original story. AIP had just completed its Corman-Poe Cycle of films with The Tomb of Ligeia in 1965. Faithfulness to Edgar Allan Poe’s works had not been a prominent characteristic of those features—to put it mildly—and yet the films had been wildly successful. Doubtlessly, this was due partly to Poe’s status as an iconic American horror brand, partly to the presence of lead actor Vincent Price, and partly to viewers' ambivalence to concepts like “literary fidelity”. Certainly, Lovecraft’s name did not enjoy the same level of mainstream recognition in '65 as Poe’s. Indeed, this is what led AIP to disingenuously market 1963’s The Haunted Palace as an adaptation of the latter author’s work, when in was in fact based on the former’s novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Even in the case of Die, Monster, Die!, the first film to properly credit a Lovecraft work as its sole source, the writer’s name is spelled out on the movie poster in the tiniest text not reserved for legalese. A cinema patron could surmise from this graphic design snub that the faithfulness of the adaptation was not a significant concern for the filmmakers.
Although short on devotion to its source material, Die, Monster, Die! possesses a bevy of classic horror landmarks that quickly orient the viewer. Indeed, a filmgoer who had dutifully lined up to see the features in the Corman-Poe Cycle would have been right at home in Die, Monster, Die’s crumbling, fog-shrouded surroundings. Upon disembarking from a train in the English village of Arkham, American scientist Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) questions the local residents on where he might acquire transportation to the outlying Witley estate. He is rebuffed with almost comical gruffness by the villagers, who treat him as though he were asking for a lift to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Forced to make his way on foot, Reinhart passes by an enormous earthen crater surrounded by decimated trees and shrubs that crumble to ash at his touch. He eventually arrives at the Witley grounds, where he is unknowingly followed by a veiled, black-clad figure to the front door. Upon entering the grim manor, Reinhart is quickly confronted by the elderly, wheelchair-bound Nahum Witley (Karloff) and his owlish manservant Merwyn (Terence de Marney). The master of the house acidly but reasonably demands to know why Reinhart is trespassing despite ample signs that visitors are not welcome.
The scientist hastily explains that he is a former classmate of Nahum’s daughter, Susan (Suzan Farmer), and it was she who extended an invitation to visit the estate. On cue, Susan delightedly bounces down the stairs to embrace Reinhart, providing a fresh-faced, almost jarring counterpoint to the suffocating Old World atmosphere of the Witley manor. Despite the glowering objections of her father, Susan insists that Reinhart meet her ailing mother, Letitia (Freda Jackson), who wheezes behind the curtains of a massive four-poster bed in her chambers. Susan and Reinhart’s not-so-secret engagement pleases Letitia, but she asks to speak to her future son-in-law alone. In fearful whispers, she tells him of a servant girl who was similarly ravaged by a mysterious illness and subsequently vanished, and then begs him to take Susan far from the estate as soon as possible.
The encounter with Mrs. Witley rattles Reinhart, but he and Susan resolve to stay at the manor for least another evening, notwithstanding Nahum’s smoldering hostility to the younger man’s presence. It’s at this point that Die, Monster, Die! settles into a narrative pattern that consists almost entirely of Reinhart wandering around and attempting to untangle exactly what sort of foul strangeness is transpiring at the Witley estate. The film is not entirely beholden to his perspective, as it occasionally follows Nahum while he skulks about and pursues his own sinister agenda. In the main, however, Reinhart’s halting explorations are the means by which the plot unfolds, creating a sense of a piecemeal revelation. Bizarre occurrences abound: Merwyn collapses suddenly at dinner, an unnatural light pulses within the greenhouse, Letitia's condition suddenly worsens, and Reinhart is violently ambushed by the veiled stranger. As he begins to unmask the estate’s secrets, Reinhart finds that all of the weird goings-on seem to point to the aforementioned crater and the force that created it. Meanwhile, Nahum seems to be losing what little control he once possessed over a mysterious glowing object in the cellar.
This narrative approach doesn’t exactly lend itself to propulsive drama, as most of the film’s plot points consist of Reinhart discovering horrible things about the Witley manor and about Nahum’s schemes. Many of the film’s significant events would arguably have occurred whether or not Reinhart was even present at the estate. This leaves the protagonist in the awkward position of having no particular role in the story other than as a vessel for exposition, although he does ultimately deliver Susan from the film’s requisite climactic inferno. In this respect, Die, Monster, Die! is actually comparable to many Lovecraft stories—including “The Colour Out of Space” itself—in that the “hero” plays the part of a glorified bystander while fearsome cosmic forces lurch to and fro. Such stakes-free storytelling is risky, but it’s to the credit of Sohl and director Daniel Haller that the film is still quite engaging, even when it’s doing little more than gaping in fear at mutant horrors. The filmmakers maintain an appropriate sense of the uncanny throughout the feature, keeping the viewer slightly off-balance with intense but carefully parceled shocks.
Neither Haller nor cinematographer Paul Beeson have the same flair for widescreen compositions that Roger Corman and Floyd Crosby exhibited in The Haunted Palace and the other AIP Poe films. Still, while Die, Monster, Die! is not exactly a visually stunning film, it is rich in memorable sights thanks to the vivid special effects by Ernie Sullivan and Wally Veevers and the downright stomach-churning makeup by Jimmy Evans. Nearly all of the film’s standout scenes center on a bizarre practical effect that sears itself into the mind’s eye. Karloff’s regression into a blank-eyed atomic brute at the film’s conclusion is a particular highlight, as is a startling sequence in which a revolting mutant stumbles through the estate in a bloodthirsty frenzy. There is even an all-too-fleeting glimpse of a formless, classically Lovecraftian monstrosity gibbering in a darkened cell. Haller and editor Alfred Cox—a veteran of Hammer Films horror features—present all of these weird, disturbing components in a manner that maximizes their horrific impact.
This sense of ghastly showmanship distinguishes Die, Monster, Die! from its more academic-minded source material. Nonetheless, both the literary work and film adaptation skillfully exploit the narrow, unsettled area where science-fiction and horror overlap. On paper, Die, Monster, Die! is a “pure” example of the former genre, given that the film’s menace originates from outer space and the story has no place for magic or other supernatural forces. (Indeed, the film draws attention to the hokiness of the “Satanic” devotions that were once perpetrated by the Witley ancestors.) However, Die, Monster, Die! relies to a significant extent on well-worn horror elements, from the mysterious locked room to the suspicious midnight burial. The result is a curious hybrid of an atomic monster feature and a cobwebby gothic mystery. While it doesn’t ever discover the singular, almost agoraphobic dread that characteristics “The Colour Out of Space,” the film does succeed in resolving its disparate generic constituents into a satisfying and genuinely frightening work.