Die, Monster, Die!/Monster of Terror (1965) **
The works of H. P. Lovecraft seem to be almost unfilmable. Honestly, apart from the amazing Re-Animator (derived from Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Re-animator”), can you think of a single Lovecraft adaptation that you’d feel comfortable describing as good? Neither can I, and seeing Die, Monster, Die! (adapted from “The Color Out of Space”) did nothing to change that.
Die, Monster, Die! begins, like thousands of other horror movies, with a lone man from far away arriving in an isolated community of extremely suspicious, uncooperative people. In this case, the man is an American named Steven Reinhardt (Nick Adams of Frankenstein Conquers the World and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) and the isolated community is the town of Arkham far out in the English countryside. The fact that Reinhardt is an American probably doesn’t win him any points with the locals (remember, if you’re ever abroad and someone asks you, you’re Canadian), but what really sets them off is the fact that he’s looking for the Witley house. For reasons as yet unexplained, the Witleys have such a bad reputation in town that the taxis won’t go there, the bike shop won’t rent a cycle to someone who wants to go there, and nobody will even give Steven goddamned directions! And of course, nobody is willing to offer any explanation of their prejudice against the Witleys or their house.
So Steven ends up walking. It’s a long trip, and along the way, he sees some awfully strange things. The most ominous of these is the dead patch on the heath. For thousands of feet around a big, ragged pit (which Reinhardt seems not to notice), all of the vegetation is dead-- worse than dead, in fact. As he learns when he breaks a twig off of one of the dead trees, all plant-life in the area has somehow been turned to cinders where it stands. Reinhardt’s first impression of the Witley mansion isn’t much more encouraging. In a scene that I swear I’ve seen more times than I could count if I did nothing else all day, Reinhardt is greeted by empty silence, despite the fact that he is clearly being watched by someone that he doesn’t see (in this case, a shadowy woman in a thick, black veil). His knock on the door goes unanswered, but the force of the blows pushes it open, so he walks inside and calls unavailingly to whomever may be within earshot. He noses around through several uninhabited rooms, and finally comes face to face with the master of the house, the aged and crippled Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff), who is predictably less than pleased to see him. But Steven has an ace in the hole, in the form of a written invitation from Witley’s wife (who’ll be played by Freda Jackson, of The Brides of Dracula, when at last we see her), on behalf of their daughter, Susan (Suzan Farmer, from Dracula, Prince of Darkness). Apparently, Susan went to college in America, and she and Reinhardt met in some science course that the two of them took together. Witley clearly intends to throw Steven out anyway, but just then, Susan appears at the top of the stairs, gushing enthusiasm at the younger man’s arrival. Defeated, Witley permits him to stay, but only for a day or two.
We still have one major character left to introduce, so it’s off to Mrs. Witley’s bedroom, to which she has been confined since she came down with a mysterious illness. Surprisingly, Mrs. Witley sends her daughter out of the room, so that she can talk to Steven alone! The old woman (I assume she’s supposed to be old, anyway. By the time we finally see her face, she no longer has one, making it a bit tricky to gauge her age) actually invited Steven to the manor for the express purpose of getting Susan as far away from it as he can contrive to take her! She won’t say why, exactly, but it clearly has something to do with Mrs. Witley’s illness, with the disappearance of the Witleys’ maidservant, Helga, and with the activities of Witley’s insane, dead father, Corbin. Meanwhile, the movie allows us no doubt as to whether Witley is continuing his father’s “blasphemy”-- while his wife interviews Steven, he and the butler (Terrence de Marney, from Phantom Ship and Pharaoh's Curse) go down to the cellar, to a room dominated by a structure that is probably supposed to be some sort of Satanic altar (at least that’s what Vincent Price was using it for in The Masque of the Red Death a year earlier), glowing from within with pulsating green light.
From here on, I’m just going to skim over the plot, if that’s alright with you. This is a very slow-moving movie, and most of the major developments are so deeply buried in the incessant talk that to do otherwise would make this review long enough to be mistaken for a 19th-century Russian philosophical novel. Suffice it to say that crazy Grandpa Corbin built that altar in preparation for a gift of some kind from the “Outer Ones”, and that shortly after his death, the green, glowing thing that now occupies it fell from the sky, creating that crater out on the heath. Because the vegetation around the crater began (at first, anyway) to grow riotously, Witley believed that the thing from above was a blessing from on high that he could use to redeem the family name. The villagers, on the other hand, took its arrival as incontrovertible proof of Corbin’s Satanism, and they took an equally dim view of Witley’s decision to dig the thing up and take it back to his home. But there’s really nothing supernatural going on at all, as any B-movie veteran will know the instant Steven and Susan sneak into Witley’s locked greenhouse to look for the source of the pale glow that Steven saw coming from inside it on the night that he also saw Witley sneaking around in the garden, burying the butler (who had died that evening under highly suspicious circumstances). All of the plants in Witley’s greenhouse are two or three times normal size-- tomatoes the size of human heads and such-- and the potting shed at the far end of the greenhouse houses a cage full of animals so deformed as to make it hard to figure out what species they might once have been. We all know what it means when huge vegetables, mutant animals, and mysterious glows occur together-- radiation! So it comes as no surprise when Steven finds that every plant in the greenhouse has a little shard of what looks like green kryptonite buried in the soil nearby. The final piece of the puzzle-- the dead butler, the vanished maid, and Mrs. Witley all used to work in this greenhouse. Could that have something to do with why Mrs. Witley stays hidden behind the canopy of her bed all day? And do you think that veiled woman we keep seeing on the periphery of scenes in this movie could be Helga? Finally, do you think the final twenty minutes of this movie will somehow involve Steven and Susan trying to fight off mutant versions of the girl’s parents? Hmmm... I wonder...
Okay, I admit that I’ve seen Lovecraft movies that are many times worse than Die, Monster, Die!, and that, in the broader scheme of things, this movie really isn’t all that bad. It just wastes way too much time getting to a less-than-inspired climax that any reasonably intelligent viewer will have already arrived at about half an hour earlier, and it ends with the mansion burning to the ground for no reason whatsoever, something I saw far too many times in the 80’s to feel particularly charitable toward today, even in a film that was made fifteen years before. Besides, just such a climax had brought practically all of the Poe-inspired movies that Roger Corman had cranked out for AIP in the preceding five years to a close, and Die, Monster, Die! had been already been borrowing too heavily from Corman as it was. But at least I can honestly say that Die, Monster, Die! gives Boris Karloff no reason to feel the sort of shame that Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. must have felt watching the movies that they made in their old age. (That kind of embarrassment wouldn’t come until Karloff started making movies for the Mexican market in the year immediately before his death...)