Some days, I yearn for when pop culture hadn’t plunged its cheapening claws into H.P. Lovecraft. Before Cthulhu became a joke and go-to reference for meatheads to show they, like, know literature and stuff, folks didn’t quite know what to make of the author. Even American International Pictures, the first studio to try adapting Lovecraft’s works for the screen, held him in a sense of awe, however primitive those initial productions may strike modern viewers. So how did filmmakers in an age of less technological means than are available know visualize a story that was intentionally written to defy description? In Die, Monster, Die!‘s case, the answer is by not following Lovecraft’s game plan that closely, condensing an acclaimed tale of unnamable horrors into 80 or so minutes of go-nowhere scenes more maddening than the otherworldly threat they depict.
Summoned by his girlfriend Susan Witley (Suzan Farmer) to her hometown of Arkham, Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) instead confronts a town ruled by superstition. Nobody will so much as even point him in the direction of the old Witley place, which our hero soon finds to be a secluded mansion surrounded by barren wasteland. Susan is pleased to see her beau again, but the same can’t be said of her father Nahum (Boris Karloff), who suggests that Stephen high-tail it out of there as soon as he can. Consumed with curiosity, Stephen can’t help but stick around and investigate what it is about the Witley estate that has gripped the populace in fear. What he uncovers is a secret that’s literally poisoned the family for generations, prompting him to expose the whole truth and rescue Susan from its insidious reach before it’s too late.
Die, Monster, Die! was based upon “The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft’s most liked stories (as well as his own personal favorite). I haven’t read it (a problem that can unfortunately be applied to the man’s writing at large), but I have it on good authority from friends and Wikipedia that this movie uses the general idea of the piece but not much else. This didn’t seem so bad at first; the film arrived two years after American International made an exemplary adaptation with The Haunted Palace, which dipped its big toe in the Lovecraftian horror pool and hinted at the possibility of what other nasty stuff laid in wait in the dark. Alas, while director Daniel Haller (who’d later helm the mildly better screen version of The Dunwich Horror) tries going for an oppressive atmosphere that would do old H.P. proud, his payoff is weak as can be, and the narrative leading up to it is riddled with slow patches galore. For a movie about blowing the lid on a force unlike mankind has ever witnessed, this is really monotonous stuff, and either the characters don’t have a lick of sense in them, or they’ve led such jaded lives that not even the sight of glowing rocks of doom and sentient plantlife can prompt them into panic mode.
I know it’d take twenty years for Stuart Gordon to seize the gooiest special effects the movies had to offer to properly bring Lovecraft’s imagination to life, but Die, Monster, Die! could have easily tried harder. Its goal is to find horror in that gray area in between science and superstition, but the more the curtain is peeled away, the more the giggles begin to outnumber the gasps. Once the big Witley secret is revealed, it’s met with more than anything else confusion, over exactly how long this evil’s been afoot and over how characters who weren’t aware of it could have missed so many red alarms. Speaking of our protagonists, I know Adams’ Reinhart is supposed to stick out like a sore thumb — the lone voice of reason in an easily-spooked town — but his thick New England accent is too much; it’s hard to remain suitably freaked out when you expect him to tell Karloff that he’s gonna sleep with the fishes. Poor Boris looks like he’s on death’s doorstep (he would pass on four years later), which is weirdly effective for his character’s look but raises more concern for his actual well-being than for Nahum’s foreboding warnings.
Newly-released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory, Die, Monster, Die! is notable as one of cinema’s first attempts to wrap its head around Lovecraft, and that’s pretty much it. It plods along too slowly and offers too few rewards for viewers to find the energy to even jest at its expense, let alone try to be creeped out by the thing. Die, Monster, Die! is simply that big of a bore, and when riffing on it can’t get you through, you know you’re screwed.