WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
I was late to the game in regards to reading the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Growing up, I was more into the classic sci-fi stylings of H.G. Wells, and the horrifying state of Maine that Stephen King’s tales of terror are typically set in. I didn’t even know who H.P. Lovecraft was until the late 90s, when I began discovering low-budget cult films based on his work. (Most notably RE-ANIMATOR.)
In the past several years I’ve been playing catch-up, and have read a number of his books and short stories. While I can’t say I’m a huge fan, I do appreciate the atmosphere he creates, and few have been able to encapsulate it on film.
Which leads me to LURKING FEAR, a movie I’ve avoided watching since its release in 1994. Based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, this Full Moon flick has stalked me since my pre-teen years. I had frequently almost rented it, if only because the cover art looked enticing, but I never took that final leap.
All these years later, the film still stares at me from a shelf, mocking me. That’s why I eventually broke down and chose to review, LURKING FEAR. After years of picking it up, staring at the cover, and putting it back down, I finally popped this movie into my Blu-ray player and… I kind of regretted that decision.
After an attention-grabbing intro, LURKING FEAR introduces us to the main character, John Martense (Blake Adams, a.k.a. Blake Bailey), who has just served five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. After earning his freedom, John visits an old friend named Knaggs (Vincent Schiavelli!) who shares a huge secret with the ex-con.
Apparently John’s father hid a fortune inside of a corpse and buried it in the cemetery in their hometown of Leffert’s Corners. Agreeing to share the spoils, John receives a map from Knaggs and heads out to claim his “inheritance.”However, it turns out that collecting the dough will not be an easy task.
Not only is there a trio of cutthroat gangsters after the money as well, but the town of Leffertt’s Corners has a murderous creature infestation. For several decades, a tribe of incestuous cannibals have been terrorizing and devouring the townsfolk. With the population of Leffertt’s Corners knocked down into the single digits, some of the remaining survivors have decided to fight back.
A small group of heroes led by local physician Dr. Haggis (Jeffrey Combs!), and a cute commando named Cathryn Farrell (Ashley Laurence, best known as Kristy Cotton from the HELLRAISER series), are prepping to end their long nightmare once and for all. Dr. Haggis is sick of burying and/or patching up the denizens of his small town, and Cathryn has her own axe to grind against the subterranean terrors.
Believing that the town’s church is the nest for the cannibalistic creatures, Haggis and Cathryn set up explosives around the perimeter, and hold up inside with three other people. Their motley crew consists of some dude with claw marks on his face, a pregnant girl named Beth, and Father Poole (Paul Mantee), an eccentric clergyman with a real martyr complex.
Their plan to wipe out the creatures quickly begins to fall apart once John Martense stumbles upon their operation, for he is bad luck incarnate. Because of John, the greedy triple threat of Bennett (John Finch), Ms. Marlowe (Allison Mackie), and Pierce (Joseph Leavengood) arrive to further complicate matters! They want John’s money, and aren’t afraid to kill anyone in the church to get it.
Unfortunately for them, no one knows where the money is, and it all becomes one huge clusterf*ck. The remainder of the film has the monster-fighters and John constantly trying to gain leverage over their would-be captors, all while trying to keep the terrors of the night at bay.
Eventually the mysterious “incest C.H.U.D.s” begin to thin out the cast, and the film races to its climax. John has a family reunion of sorts, Cathryn gets her revenge, Bennett discovers that crime doesn’t pay, and the film’s flesh-eating antagonists (and the entire town) get blown sky high.
LURKING FEAR was written and directed by C. Courtney Joyner, who has had a somewhat successful career as a screenwriter. He penned scripts for several great Full Moon titles, like DR. MORDRID, PUPPET MASTER III, and TRANCERS III (which he also directed). He also created screenplays for other notable titles, such as THE OFFSPRING (a.k.a. FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), CLASS OF 1999, and PRISON.
However, something went terribly wrong with his once promising career, and LURKING FEAR seems to have been the turning point. (Seriously, just take a glance at the films on his IMDB page and watch the user ratings rapidly decline after 1993!)
As I stated earlier, LURKING FEAR is based on a (serialized) short story by the now legendary H.P. Lovecraft. The tale was rather simplistic, having an unnamed narrator venture out to the Catskills, led by his curiosity of the “lurking fear” mentioned by the locals.
He eventually discovers (after several harrowing encounters) that the abandoned Martense mansion in the mountains is actually sitting atop an underground tunnel system that is home to the remaining Martense family. After years of isolation, they have devolved into vicious, flesh-craving, ape-men!
C. Courtney Joyner took the core idea of Lovecraft’s story, then merged it with a crime thriller to make it more interesting (and contemporary), and he’s almost successful. Joyner’s overall blueprint for the film is solid, and there are some things that definitely work, but the execution of it is handled poorly.
The first big problem is that the lead character, John Martense, is really dull. We don’t know much about him, other than the fact that his dad was violently crazy, and that he was wrongfully incarcerated. He is not a fully fleshed-out character.
John’s supposed to be the hero of the film, but no effort is made to make him worth caring about. He only exists to attract more fodder for the film’s creatures and should have just been killed off shortly after his arrival at the church. (Or offed along with Vincent Schiavelli’s equally pointless character earlier in the film.)
The movie’s main twist is that John is related to the cannibal clan under Leffertt’s Corners, but in the end, this “shocking revelation” doesn’t change a thing. It’s an unnecessary subplot that was most likely kept in order to maintain some link between this film and its source material. In retrospect, Joyner should have instead made Cathryn the focal point of this movie.
The opening of LURKING FEAR features a scene where her sister is yanked through a small hole in the wall by an unseen monster. I think it should have been treated as a flashback or nightmare sequence. This could have led up to Cathryn awakening in a cold-sweat in her bunk at an Army base (she claims to have military training), followed by expository chats with her superiors, leading to her eventual arrival in Leffertt’s Corners.
Maybe she gets a letter from home, saying that things have gotten worse, and she wants to go on leave? And if they won’t let her go, perhaps she goes AWOL? Yeah that’s been done before (see also LIONHEART) but it would have made this film far more interesting.
Instead, Cathryn is just there in town, packing up dynamite with the local doctor. There’s no lead up to this, and at first, you don’t even realize who she is because she looks vastly different from the nerdy girl you see at the beginning. But that’s how this film operates: It jumps back and forth between two different plots, until they clumsily converge.
And what about those mysterious man-eaters that are lurking beneath the town?
Well, they’re around, though you tend to forget about them until they pop up. Though only one of them seems to be doing all the maiming, there are nearly a dozen. The other eleven apparently just hang out underground while their “leader” has all of the fun.
This is a shame because the creatures look pretty cool and are kind of creepy. (They look like the lovechildren of Gollum and the “Pit Witch” from ARMY OF DARKNESS.) Unfortunately, they are criminally underutilized. They don’t get much screen time, and the bulk of their killing is done offscreen. (Yup, hardly any monsters or gore in this movie folks!)
But at least the monsters are doing what they are supposed to, because the human characters sure aren’t. (And I use the term “characters” loosely.) In a scenario like this, there’s typically a moment where everyone puts their differences aside to work together for survival. In this movie, it never happens. Instead of having everyone band together to fight off attacks from flesh-starved albinos, they just kind of split up to make themselves easier targets. And that’s fine with me because I didn’t give a damn about anyone in this movie!
The majority of the cast is only here to die, while a few others are present to try and tell some semblance of a story. (e.g. John Martense finding out his family tree is full of Morlocks; Cathryn seeking revenge for the death of her sister.) And then there are others that primarily exist because, well… just because.
For example, the character of Beth serves no purpose whatsoever! There are hints that she’s carrying a Martense baby in her belly, but it feels like that idea was abandoned, leaving her stranded in the film with nothing to do. I was anticipating (i.e. hoping for) the birth of a toothy albino monster-baby, but the movie never delivered! (Perhaps it was in an earlier draft of the screenplay?)
Father Poole is another throwaway character that was unnecessarily included in the proceedings. He chides Cathryn and Dr. Haggis for bringing weapons into his church, but never attempts to stop them, or help them. He doesn’t take sides, and seems more concerned with sacrificing himself than anything else. Having him be in league with the Martense family would have been a welcome twist, but apparently that idea never crossed the screenwriter’s mind.
As you can see LURKING FEAR fails on many levels. It has too many disposable characters, a disjointed plot, and doesn’t put its monsters in the spotlight often enough. Toss in a healthy dose of lousy dialogue, a few terrible actors, a forgettable score (courtesy of Jim Manzie), and bad sound effects, and you have a recipe for disaster. Cripes, does this film do anything right?!
Well, not really, but there are some redeeming things to be found here. Jeffrey Combs is great as the sometimes sarcastic, and often quirky Dr. Haggis. He always has a cigarette or a flask of booze hanging from his lips, and he’s one of the few people you want to see make it to the end. (Spoiler: He doesn’t.)
Actress Ashley Laurence is OK in her role as Cathryn. She’s cute, she’s tough, and you can tell that she is trying really hard to make something of her poorly written role. She’s the most proactive of the bunch, and its definitely a shame that she isn’t the central character of the story. Also worth noting are John Finch (Bennett) and Allison Mackie (Ms. Marlowe), who play the two main villains in this flick.
Finch actually brings something to the table here, and provides a fun bad guy for you to root for. Allison Mackie plays his right hand woman and gives Ms. Marlowe a lot of attitude. She gets all the good one-liners (not surprising since she happens to the director’s cousin) and has the most entertaining death in the movie.
LURKING FEAR is an unsuccessful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s tale, though, to be fair, it’s not the worst film adaptation of this particular story. (See also: 1989’s DARK HERITAGE or 1997’s HEMOGLOBIN.) I realize that this was a low-budget production (somewhere in the ballpark of a million dollars) that was probably thrown together in a short period of time, but a little more care should have gone into the script.
With such a talented cast, a cool concept, and a fresh young director coming off a popular TRANCERS sequel, there’s no reason the final product should have been this lousy. I applaud Joyner’s effort to mix the horror, action, and crime film genres, but it just didn’t work.
The end result is a somewhat boring creature feature, that apparently ruined C. Courtney Joyner’s taste for filmmaking. (According to IMDB, this was the second, and last film he ever directed.) Had Charles Band given Stuart Gordon a crack at this thirty years ago, I’d probably be awarding LURKING FEAR a much higher rating than:
Note: My copy of LURKING FEAR is part of the the FULL MOON CLASSICS VOL. 2 DVD set, that also contains MANDROID, INVISIBLE: THE CHRONICLES OF BENJAMIN KNIGHT, ROBOT WARS, and DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT. All of the discs are region free!
Packaging: LURKING FEAR comes in a standard DVD snapcase with new cover art to match the other titles in the boxed set. The original poster art can be found on the back cover.
Audio & Video: LURKING FEAR features a decent transfer that’s a few steps up from a VHS tape. (I’m not sure of the aspect ratio: It’s either 1.33:1 or 1.66:1.) The audio is (I’m assuming) Dolby Digital 2.0, and it is serviceable, though it has its share of problems.
I had to crank up my speakers because some of the cast members (particularly leading man Blake Adams) speak their dialogue a little too softly, then later had to turn the volume down once the explosions began at the film’s climax.
Extras: The LURKING FEAR DVD contains a trailer (that makes the movie look far better than it actually is) and a short Full Moon VIDEOZONE featurette. Running at just under seven minutes, this behind-the-scenes look at the film has brief interviews with the director and stars. It’s cool, but mainly just a puff-piece to get you excited to watch the movie.
Final Verdict: Having purchased this flick in a DVD set for about twenty bucks (meaning that LURKING FEAR was only $5.00) I can’t complain too much about the quality of this release. When it comes to Full Moon you get what you pay for. This disc isn’t anything special and only gets a rating of: