Year 1988
Studio Vidmark Entertainment

Jean-Paul Ovellette

Dean Ramse

Director Jean-Paul Ovellette
Writer Jean-Paul Ovellette
Music David Bergeaud

Mark Kinsey Stephenson

Katrin Alexandre

Length 87 mins

The Unnamable

‘‘ It was everywhere--a gelatin--aslime--yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes--and a blemish. It was the pit--the maelstorm--the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable! ’’

Lovecraft 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 heart.

The film then jumps some three hundred years to the present day, where young Randolph Carter—perfectly played by a sarcastic and bookish Mark Kingsley Stephenson—sits 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 the unnamable."

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 inside—and 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 haunted house."

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 initiation.

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 never finished.

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 image.

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.