never intended The Unnamable for publication. "I shall never
shew (it) to anybody because I will not type (it)," he wrote
in a 1923 letter to fellow fantasist Frank Belknap Long. "[I]
do not wish to hear the adverse criticism . . . the amusement
of such things is purely in the writing."
Lovecraft based The Unnamable on an old New England legend
set down by the early American chronicler of Christianity
and witchcraft, Cotton Mather. Writer, director, and producer
Jean-Paul Ouellette opens his film version of the story with
an 18th-century prologue illustrating Mather's legend, the
tale of an old man named Joshua Winthrop concealing a horrible
secret . . . a deformed, howling daughter he has locked away
in the attic.
Ouellette's opening borrows heavily from the horror cinema
of Val Lewton (Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie) by never
actually showing the monster, just suggesting it with screams
and shadows. This Lovecraftian mood is suddenly broken, however,
by a clawed hand reaching out and removing Winthrop's still-beating
The film then jumps some three hundred years to the present
day, where young Randolph Carterperfectly played by
a sarcastic and bookish Mark Kingsley Stephensonsits
in a graveyard retelling Mather's story to fellow Miskatonic
University students Joel Manton and Howard Damon. The scene
nicely dramatizes Lovecraft's opening line, "We were sitting
on a dilapidated seventeenth century tomb in the late afternoon
at the old burying-ground in Arkham, and speculating about
Speculate they do, in a graveyard bull session between scientific-materialist
Joel on one side and Randolph, the historian of the unexplained,
on the other. Joel's main argument is that nothing is "unnamable"
because everything can be conceived and described either through
"scientific prose or mathematical equations."
Randolph counters with a local folk-tale called "The Attic
Window" where a young boy goes mad after seeing an "unnamable"
image frozen in a pane of glass. Randolph believes the tale
is based on true accounts and that there really are New England
houses with windows that have retained the "latent images
of those who had sat in front of them."
Howard, the baby-faced freshman of the group, thinks the
legend of the "unnamable" can be easily proved or disproved
by simply visiting the house that holds this supernatural
window pane. Science student Joel agrees and, as in the original
story, Randolph sarcastically tells them that they've already
seen it . . . they've been sitting in front of the legendary
house the entire time!
Joel wants to prove Randolph is "full of it" by spending
a night in the old house, but Randolph is not that foolish.
Randolph has no intention of tampering with the dangerous
forces he believes are lurking insideand who wouldn't
be paranoid with access to Miskatonic Library's special collections?
Even an indecisive Howard eventually declines and brave Joel
is forced to go it alone as his lame friends walk back to
the safety of a warm dormitory.
As with the film adaptation of From Beyond two years earlier,
the opening has just about consumed the main meat of Lovecraft's
short story and the film quickly degrades into a typical "stalk
and vivisect the terrorized teens spending a night in the
Even science won't help, as the same unnamable beast from
the opening sequence quickly beheads a disbelieving Joel (Randolph
1, Joel 0). Back at Miskatonic University, Howard tries to
convince Randolph that maybe they should go back to the house
because Joel might be in supernatural trouble. Randolph finally
concedes but claims he has to prepare first. He must brush
up on his ancient Cthulhuian, no doubt.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, teenage
hormones fill the screen as campus good-time girl Wendy and
her plain-jane friend Tanya are talked into spending a night
in the house by a couple of frat boys. These horny and obnoxious
lads claim it will be good "practice" for the upcoming sorority
Sex and death naturally lurk in the shadows of the old house
as, one by one, frat boys and tramp girl meet gory and blood-spurting
deaths at the claws of the unseen monster. Only plain-jane
"good girl" Tanya is spared, saved by Randolph and Howard
who come back looking for the remnants of Joel.
Randolph ignores Tanya, who gives Howard the "take me now"
look. But Howard also ignores Tanya because he's only a freshman
and doesn't know any better. Which brings us back to Randolph,
as he discovers a copy of the ever-popular Necronomicon in
Joshua Winthrop's dust-covered library. Tanya will have nothing
to do with books and convinces Howard to go upstairs with
her to look for everybody (or the parts of every body). Randolph
declines the tempting offer and turns his attention back to
the newly found books.
Examining the old man's diary, Randolph learns that Winthrop
planted "mystical" trees in the yard hoping that the "wood
spirits" would keep his monstrous offspring imprisoned long
after the house rotted away. Unfortunately, trees and "wood
spirits" take an awfully long time to grow and with Winthrop
having had an unexpected "heart attack," the incantation was
In the Necronomicon chapter on better haunted-housekeeping,
Randolph finds the spell to summon the "tree spirits" and,
for some unexplained reason, descends into Winthrop's tomb
to call them up! Old man Winthrop's remains are interred in
a tomb cracked by a sinister tree growing up and out of it.
"A giant willow in the centre of the cemetery," Lovecraft
wrote, "whose trunk has nearly engulfed an ancient, illegible
slab," a nasty little tidbit based on a real grave in Salem's
Charter Street Cemetery.
Meanwhile up in the attic, after walking down endless hallways
and countless rooms (just how big is this place anyway?),
Howard and Tanya meet the true delight of The Unnamable, Winthrop's
ancient and deformed daughter Alyda.
The "unnamable" is a monster brilliantly designed by Debra
Swihart and eerily mimed by Katrin Alexandre. A creature Lovecraft
only hinted at, writing that something had left "marks of
horns and ape-like claws" on the back of Randolph Carter's
ancestor, and tracks of "split hooves and vaguely anthropoid
paws" in trampled dust.
Ms. Alexandre brings the strange hoofed, fanged, clawed,
and proto-winged creature completely to life. She creates
a dangerous and delicate abomination, a demonic albino with
old soulful eyes finally defeated by Randolph's tree-spirit
spell, engulfed by trembling leaves and branches that pull
her through the same attic window imprinted with her horrid
The Unnamable is not a great film or even a good film, but
the low budget Holmes/Watson team of Randolph Carter and Howard
Damon make for fun, albeit un-Lovecraftian, viewing. The biggest
thing this film has going for it, besides the "unnamable"
beast, is that the damn house didn't burn down.