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Dan O’Bannon’s The Resurrected – film review

October 31, 2014


The stench of dread is palpable.

dan o'bannon's the resurrected 1990

Directed by Dan O’Bannon. Screenplay by Brent Friedman, inspired by ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ by H.P. Lovecraft. Starring John Terry, Jane Sibbett and Chris Sarandon. Year of release:1992. Running time: 108 minutes.

Seeing as it’s Halloween and all – I thought I’d cover a terrific little horror movie many may not have seen … Dan O’Bannon’s second feature as director – The Resurrected.

Wealthy Rhode Island socialite Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett) the wife of withdrawn scientist Charles Ward (Chris Sarandon) hires private investigator John March     (John Terry) to help uncover the truth behind her husband’s secretive activities at     an abandoned country farm house. In the foul-smelling catacombs beneath the property, Claire and March discover Ward has gained arcane knowledge and has recommenced a centuries-old experiment to conquer death and resurrect his long deceased ancestor – an evil alchemist named Joseph Curwen; a man who claims     to have summoned demons from the stars.

Despite having a long and auspicious screenwriting career – with such impressive genre fare as Alien, Total Recall, Lifeforce, Blue Thunder and Invaders From Mars to his credit, all Dan O’Bannon really wanted to do was direct. It’s just a shame he only ever had the opportunity to helm two features: the cult hit The Return of the Living Dead in 1985 and the lesser-known The Resurrected in 1990. The five year hiatus between the release of Return and the lensing of his sophomore effort, incidently,     was to allow O’Bannon time away to focus on his personal life; get married and start a family. Lensed in the fall of 1990, The Resurrected was (inexplicably) held back from release for over a year – before going straight to video in 1992, without ever having had a theatrical showing.

Lovecraft’s 1927 tale ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ (first published in 1941) had been adapted for the screen once before – in 1963 as The Haunted Palace. But this Roger Corman-produced movie was less an adaptation of Lovecraft’s book and more a shameless attempt by Corman to sell the film as an Edgar Allan Poe tale in order to take advantage of the continued success of his Poe cycle of movies for AIP which were extremely popular at the time. Despite the modern setting, The Resurrected is perhaps the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation yet put on screen, using many of the book’s major plot points and events – albeit slightly altered to accommodate the detective character. As the book’s title suggests, the original story is structured more as a faux case report – than an actual dramatic narrative – which meant certain liberties had to be taken in order to turn it into an engaging story for the screen. Credited screenwriter Brent Friedman was inspired to write Shatterbrain (the film’s original working title) as a spec screenplay after viewing Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond. After voraciously reading Lovecraft’s entire output, Friedman decided upon ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ as the story he would adapt – as     the page count (120 pages) closely approximated the page count of a standard screenplay. At around the same time, coincidently, Dan O’Bannon had also been developing his own adaptation; unrelated to Friedman’s take on the same material. O’Bannon, however, had been struggling to complete his draft as he was facing difficulties with the third act – something which Friedman had been able to overcome successfully in his version. When the film’s producers approached O’Bannon to direct Shatterbrain, both writers agreed that the best approach would be to combine the best elements of both drafts into a brand new hybrid version of the shooting script. Friedman’s original take on the material was to make the central character a psychiatrist who would find himself drawn into Ward’s nefarious plot (hence the script’s original title Shatterbrain – a Middle English word for crazy). O’Bannon’s     own take on the material was to incorporate pulp detective noir elements and a plot thread inspired by Polanski’s Chinatown – namely introducing a private investigator character who becomes involved with the wife of Charles Ward; uncovering a series of clues in order to get to the bottom of his clandestine and quite possibly diabolical activities.

Structurally, the movie opens at the end – with a mystery. A decapitated body is discovered in a pool of blood beside scorch marks on the floor of a padded cell. There is no sign of its occupant Charles Dexter Ward. Meanwhile private investigator John March, disheveled and bloodied, in his office after hours; recounts into a dictaphone his account of the previous three weeks which lead to the horrific events of that evening. The bulk of the film is then told in flashback – with March investigating the activities of Charles Ward at the behest of his wife and includes additional flashbacks to two weeks earlier – as Claire recounts her own memory of events which led to her hiring of March. There are also flashbacks (later on) to the events of 1771 – as Claire and March read extracts from a newly-discovered diary belonging to Ward’s apparent ancestor Ezra Ward (during which Ezra gives an account of the discovery of Joseph Curwen’s clandestine and awful experiments – when it is revealed that: it is actually Curwen who was Charles’ true ancestor). If this all sounds exceedingly complex and convoluted – it thankfully isn’t – as the writing is so well structured and paced that we are never at a loss as to where we are in the story at any given time; testament to O’Bannon’s skill as a writer. And it is only in the film’s final moments that the opening scene is fully explained.

For horror fans expecting another less-than-serious approach to the material – a la Re-Animator or From Beyond or even O’Bannon’s own Return of the Living Dead, be rest assured – although there are the occasional amusing character moments here and there, overall it is tonally very different from O’Bannon’s feature debut and takes itself very seriously indeed. It is a film which is less reliant on excessive gore and jump scares to generate its horror and is more about creating a sense of impending doom via mood and atmosphere. There are several instances during the course of the film where sense of smell is used to good effect in creating an unsettling sense of foreboding. Lovecraft’s prose is filled with colorful descriptions of vile stenches and smells (which makes the unseen horrors in his stories all the more palpable) and the writers here cleverly make use of this in The Resurrected. From the opening voice-over narration; where March makes mention of the unpleasant smell the Providence River makes in late summer; to Clarie’s initial complaints to Charles about the awful smells emanating from the coach house – these sense of smell referrences are a highly effective way of conveying, very simply, the possibility of untold horrors being just around the corner (and to my knowledge, this is the first time this has been done in a Lovecraft adaptation). The extended twenty minute sequence where March, Claire and March’s assistant Lonnie (Robert Romanus) descend into the catacombs beneath Ward’s property is the stand-out suspense sequence of the entire film. The moment where they swing open the cast iron hatchway in Ward’s basement and recoil at the stench emanating from within is truly unsettling and perfectly sets the tone for the incredibly tense and creepy sequence which follows.

I’m constantly amazed at just how influential surrealist painter Francis Bacon has been on the look of classic modern horror movies – from Alien to Jacob’s Ladder     and now it seems – O’Bannon’s second feature – Bacon has been cited as a primary inspiration for certain creature design aspects in this film too. And the special makeup and animatronic effects supervised by Todd Masters (True Blood, American Mary) are disturbingly creepy and lifelike – particularly the half-formed abomination fished out of the river by the town fathers in the 1771 flashback. Somewhat less effective (but no less icky) are the depictions of Ward’s failed experiments held captive in his undergound laboratory. Resembling walking slabs of misshapen raw meat, these pitiful creatures are certainly disturbing representations of what Lovecraft in his prose referred to as “The liveliest awfulness.”

Technically The Resurrected has a stylish sheen which far outshines its modest     $6 million budget. While Irv Goodnoff’s lensing is certainly top-notch – I suspect the atmospheric look of the cinematagraphy has more to do with O’Bannon’s own keen visual sensibility than anything Goodnoff may have brought to the table (one need only to view Return and Resurrected back-to-back to realize there is a definite continuity of visual aesthetic at work here). The scene where police search the maze-like interior of Ward’s farmhouse in pitch darkness – lit only by the searching beams of flashlights predates similar scenes in David Fincher’s Se7en by several years. And the unashamedly Gothic score by Richard Band (Re-Animator, From Beyond) is yet another of the talented composer’s classical old-school scores which does much to heighten the drama.

It really is a shame that Dan O’Bannon was never again given the opportunity to helm another feature – as both Return Of The Living Dead and The Resurrected clearly demonstrate he was an extremely talented and visually stylish filmmaker with a great deal more to offer the world of genre cinema.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. My favourite Lovecraft story. Would love to see this film, but here in the UK its stuck in rights limbo or something. Maybe one day. Nice review as always!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Ian! Yeah, this is absolutely a film which deserves more recognition and love. Perhaps the folk at SCREAM FACTORY might be interested in seeking it out and releasing it … hint hint. 🙂

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