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31 Days of Halloween: Dark Heritage

Published Thursday, October 21, 2021 at 11:06pm

Nobody, as far as I can tell, particularly loves H.P. Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear". He was hired in 1922 to write it for Home Brew magazine, an amateur publication edited by one of his friends who demanded an episodic story to be run in monthly installments with an italicised sting! at the end of each. Lovecraft found this requirement constricting and the story is garbage. The prose is painfully purple, and the plot centers around a fear-seeking reporter who goes to a rural village to check out reports of people and cattle being savaged by a monster.

God knows why so many people have chosen to adapt it as a story. Dan O'Bannon, who wrote Return of the Living Dead and Alien (among other things), took a stab at it in the late '90s and produced Bleeders which is actually pretty good. A few years prior to that Full Moon Entertainment tried a muddled adaptation whose plot is difficult to discern, but it's got Ashley Lawrence and Jeffrey Combs and is entertainingly bad, if nothing else.

We usually talk about movies on a spectrum (good vs. bad), but when cataloguing adaptations it helps to add another axis. Bleeders is both an enjoyable movie and a pretty good adaptation. The Lurking Fear is also enjoyable, but a bad adaptation. Dark Heritage (1989) is the best adaptation of the three, but eye-clawingly dull to sit through.

I have Dark Heritage on DVD (well, actually, I have it on my Plex server, but I ripped it from a DVD purchased in the days before streaming), but it looks awful. The transfer was noticeably taken from a VHS tape. Is this the best copy available? Might be; the Internet could probably tell me but I don't really care. I procured it well over a decade ago when the only way to see movies like this was to purchase or pirate them, and I don't think many people were clamoring to seed this one on bittorrent.

The story moves from somewhere in Britain to Louisiana, and opens with a vicious attack on a couple who live in a trailer. The next day, a TV news broadcast informs us that 37 victims have been claimed by... Something. A newspaper editor informs his star reporter Clint Harrison that their publisher wants him to go out and spend the night in an abandoned mansion near the scene of the carnage. The editor doesn't feel at all comfortable with this, but Clint is up for anything because he's an idiot, and also because there's no movie without him. He takes along a couple of friends and they make plans to take turns keeping watch, but he's alone when he wakes up in the morning.

Their camcorder is still there, though, and reviewing the tape he witnesses some kind of attack. It's unclear what is happening, but at the end the camera falls on its side and the doughier of Clint's companions is dragged past it.

Clint reports the disappearances and his editor gives him a hard time about how if the bodies turn up, he'll be the prime suspect. Then Clint hits the books at the public library, and runs into a couple of parapsychology students (they're grad students, otherwise I'd make a joke about how they're working on their BS), and they start talking about the area's history of violence and disappearances. We learn that the mansion once belonged to the Dansen family who, after emigrating from Scandinavia, slowly withdrew from the community eventually disappearing completely.

The rest of the movie is really where the quality of the page-to-screen adaptation shines, but "shine" is a relative term here since this thing is so ineptly executed. I get the feeling that the film was not shot on assembled sets, but was instead shot in living rooms and offices and other locations so real as to be purely utilitarian. The actors aren't all bad, but the best performances seem to be playing to the back row of a theater audience. The worst performances are totally wooden. The story works, though, I guess. But I can't get very excited about it because as I said, it's no one's favorite Lovecraft.

It's not completely ineffective, though. There's a strange dream sequence which I liked, and the big reveal (that generations of inbreeding have turned the Dansens into the Morlocks from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells) takes place (as it should) in an underground tunnel. The monsters make their first appearance in that scene and are genuinely unsettling (if only in that scene). The twist at the end (I wasn't gonna describe it, but what the hell) is that Clint's editor is one of the Dansens and feels tacked on, but it works, too.

I don't quite know what to make of Dark Heritage. It is not a good movie, and I don't think it can be called underappreciated, even though it's practically unknown. The writer, David McCormick, never directed anything else, but a few years later he got involved with Aardman Animation (who make "Wallace & Gromit" among other things), which was not only a significant step up, it also means his name is in the credits of at least a few movies that people actually like.

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