Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: The Curse (1987)

By Brian M. Sammons

The Curse (1987). Director: David Keith. Cast: Wil Wheaton, Claude Akins, Malcolm Danare.

Since I’ve been on a “Colour” kick – that is, reviewing all the movies based on H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful story, “The Colour Out of Space” – I figured I’d end things with the one that had the biggest budget, perhaps the second-biggest stars (It’s hard to beat Karloff in my book), but what could be arguably the worst adaptation of the story. Bold words, I know, so can I back them up? Well, let’s find out.

The story changes locale from New England to Tennessee. Why? Well, when you think of bible thumpers just two steps shy of full-blown religious zealotry, I guess the South just seems more appropriate. Or, at least, it seems to do so for these filmmakers, as that is the only reason I can think of for the change of setting. The cliché of the crazed, Christian backwoods family is not only too scrumptious to pass up, but the real horror at the heart of this film. More on that in a second.

The Curse starts off promising with a strangely glowing meteorite crashing down in an isolated area. This hunk of death from the stars is first discovered by young Zack Hayes. Yes, once again, the blighted Gardner family has had their name changed. You’ve got to wonder why everyone hates that name so, as it never survived intact in any of the movies based on this story. Anyway, Zack is played by Wil Wheaton, who went right from the critically lauded (and rightfully so) Stand By Me to this piece of dreck, which would be his last feature film for the next five years (perhaps also rightfully so). That might be a bit harsh but only just a bit. Wil isn’t horrible in the film. Sure, he’s wooden, unconvincing and rather boring, but at least he doesn’t turn in a laughably bad performance, like the much-more-experienced actor, Claude Akins, does as his foam-at-the-mouth-religious stepfather. Now, both of these actors have turned in good performances, both before and since, so I can only assume that the faults of this film lie with actor-turned-director, David Keith. This was his first directorial effort, after all, so maybe he was still learning to be…uhm…good? Or maybe it was the fault of the screenwriter, David Chaskin, whose only credit before this was the surprisingly bad A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Then again, it just might have been the actors, as Wil Wheaton has since admitted that he only did this film for a sizeable payday, and that similar feelings were held by most of the cast and crew. Hmm, I guess there’s enough blame to go around on why this movie is just such a steaming pile and painful chore to sit through.

Oops, getting ahead of myself a bit. Sorry, on with the story, such as it is.

Even Lovecraft’s ideas of the space rock melting away to nothing and the trees swaying on their own with no wind are kept in the beginning part of this film. Sadly, only one last link to Lovecraft will surface, that being the veggies that grow big and beautiful on the outside, but are rotting and icky on the inside. That’s what happens next, as the melted meteor seems to have seeped into the soil and well water. Young Zack realizes this and refuses to eat the crops or drink the water from the farm. He convinces his little sister to do the same, but everyone else chows down with relish. And here is where the film really starts going on its own path, away from what HPL had written.

The members of Zack’s family start becoming mushy-faced mutants, each going crazy in their own way. Mom starts drooling and sewing socks into her flesh, Stepdad Akins gets even more rabidly religious, and Zack’s fat and thuggish stepbrother gets more, well, fat and thuggish. Only Zack and his little sister remain untainted. This seems to really piss off the mutants. Soon, they’re chasing the brother and sister all over the farm with various weapons. A completely deus ex machina ending allows Zack and his sis to escape the psycho family, but a persistent subplot of the government buying up land to use as a reservoir gives us a predictable “Dun dun duhhhhh” ending that really adds nothing to the story.

Far more slasherrific than atmospheric, concerned more with gloopy gore than silly things like creating tension or dread, The Curse isn’t completely without merit. It’s a good example of a “so bad it’s good” kind of fright flick that thrived in the 80s, so it might be worth a watch, if only for a guilty pleasure. However, it’s not well-made-or-acted; characters do things for the sole purpose of advancing the plot, instead of acting realistically; and the ending is patently ridiculous. But it does have Claude Akins gnawing through scenery and livestock filled with maggots, so there is that. I can only assume that it must have done something right, as it did spawn three direct-to-video sequels that had absolutely nothing to do with Lovecraft, each other, or with this film, for that matter.

Final Verdict: Right off the bat, the two most recent cinematic adaptions of Lovecraft’s story, Die Farbe and Colour From the Dark, were not only more Lovecraftian, but better movies in general. When you consider that they both probably only had a tenth of the budget as The Curse, then it goes to show what can happen when people who actually care about the source material make a movie, and when moviemakers are just out to make a quick buck. The earlier adaptation of this tale, Die, Monster, Die, while less Lovecraftian, was better-made-and-acted, if a bit more boring and foot-dragging. As for The Curse, it started off with some promise, but the wonderful alien evil of the “Colour”is reduced to a far more easily pigeonholed “cosmic radiation”, or some such. As for the slow, devouring dread of Lovecraft’s tale, that has been swapped for wart-faced mutants and lunatics quoting bible verses, while they play at being a poor man’s Jason Voorhees. HPL’s cold, uncaring, atheistic vision of horror is completely replaced here with kooky Christianity taken to extremes. While I have nothing against that often-used trope, and in some films it works wonderfully, as in Carrie and, hopefully, Kevin Smith’s upcoming Red State, it not only seemed out of place in this flick, but forced and ham-handed, as well.

However, despite all my dire thoughts about this film, if you’re a fan of The Curse, you can get it on DVD as a spiffy double feature with the even-more-inept Curse 2 at Amazon.com.

Brian M. Sammons

About Brian M. Sammons

Brian M. Sammons has been critiquing all things horror, science fiction, dark, or just plain icky for over a decade. His reviews and columns can currently be found in the pages of these magazines: Cemetery Dance, Shock Totem and Dark Discoveries, and on these websites: Horror World, The Black Glove and now here. Not being satisfied at being a humble and handsome critic, Brian has penned a few tales himself. They have appeared in the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, Dark Animus, and Horror Carousel, and in the anthologies Arkham Tales, Cthulhu Unbound Vol. 2, Horrors Beyond, and Twisted Legends, among others. He has also written extensively for the Call of Cthulhu role playing game, in an attempt to corrupt as many new, young minds as possible. Despite all this, Brian is often described by his neighbours as "such a nice, quiet man", and he loves animals.

Brian M. SammonsColumn: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: The Curse (1987)