Of the film adaptations of the influential, perennially popular horror writer HP Lovecraft, there are no doubt some you’ve seen and fondly remember. Stuart Gordon’s anarchic Re-Animator and From Beyond no doubt fall into this category. Then there’s Guillermo Del Toro’s At The Mountains Of Madness, which falls into the rarefied category of Lovecraft films we’d love to see but probably never will. Standing apart from all of those movies, there’s Dark Heritage: The Final Descendant – a Lovecraft adaptation you might not have seen, and probably shouldn’t.
Your humble writer’s discovery of this largely forgotten oddity is itself like something from a Lovecraft story. While tidying up a dusty shelf of old bric-a-brac in the spare room, the Dark Heritage DVD fell on the floor. Enshrouded in a sparse and poorly-designed cover, it didn’t look like a commercially-released movie at all, but like something someone crazed and disturbed by howling demons might put together with crayons and stencils on a dark, stormy night. What’s most strange is that, although the DVD had obviously been in the house for a long time, I have no recollection of buying it.
Like the Necronomicon, the book of the dead that appears time and again in Lovecraft’s tales, Dark Heritage had turned up in my library unbidden. And as I turned the plastic volume over and over in my hands, I knew I had to delve into its disturbing secrets, even though I might lose my sanity in the process. Gird your loins, gentle reader, as we place this forbidden disc into the DVD drawer…
The shadow on the DVD player
Dark Heritage is an unofficial adaptation of The Lurking Fear, written by Lovecraft exactly 80 years ago and first published in Home Brew Magazine in early 1923. It’s the tale of a nameless narrator, a self-described “connoisseur in horrors” who investigates the local tales of a murderous apparition that appears in and around a deserted mansion. And like so many of Lovecraft’s best stories, it’s enlivened with the author’s taste for rich descriptions and baroque prose.
Dark Heritage, rising to the challenge of rendering Lovecraft’s vivid descriptions into sound and light, opens with an oddly framed shot of a caravan.
While this isn’t a particularly promising sight, there are two things we need to bear in mind before we venture further into the film’s secrets. First, that Dark Heritage was a largely amateur production, shot in 1989 by director David McCormick on what was evidently a miniscule budget. Second, Dark Heritage is actually a surprisingly faithful rendering of Lovecraft’s story, and hews far more closely to the text than the other adaptations which followed, The Lurking Fear (1994) and Bleeders (1997).
Dark Heritage’s poverty-row production values also extend to the DVD transfer, which appears to have been taken from a VHS recording. Oddly, the added static, largely inaudible dialogue and rough edges merely add to the film’s ambience, giving it the vague atmosphere of that killer tape handed around in the classic Ringu.
Anyway, on with the investigation. The caravan we soon learn, is the home to a charmless couple who are despatched by a monster with green hands one dark, stormy night (“It was probably just an armadillo” someone says, seconds before they’re slaughtered beneath a gibbous moon).
The next day, a TV news report tells us that a total of 37 people were killed during the attack – the creature had apparently lain waste to an entire Louisiana caravan park full of unsuspecting residents. “Who – or what – killed these 37 people?” the news reporter with the strange thatched head asks. “Was it a pack of hungry wolves? No. Wolves haven’t been seen in these parts for 150 years!”
Asking himself the same questions, Anthony Daniels, the editor of a local newspaper, gets his best investigative journalist on the case. That journalist looks uncannily like George Lucas, so for expediency’s sake, that’s what we’ll call him.
Daniels says that his publisher boss, Mr Jordan, thinks it would be a good idea for George to take a couple of guys to a remote mansion located near the caravan massacre, and spend the night there. Without questioning how a sleepover in an abandoned building would help the investigation, George happily agrees.
George, along with his hired friends Roger and Daryl (one of whom has a pet gun called Old Faithful) head off to the mansion with their gear, and settle down for a night of thunder, rain and long shadows.
The next morning, George wakes up to discover that Roger and Daryl, who were supposed to take turns keeping watch, have mysteriously vanished. A video camera lying on the floor is the only sign of a scuffle.
George reports the disappearance to his boss and the police, and Mr Daniels warns that, if the bodies of the two missing guys turn up, George could be charged for murder. Seeing that George is rather flustered by this possibility, Mr Daniels gives George a few days off to recover. But rather than make a beeline for the nearest pub to drown his anxieties, George does what any seasoned reporter would do: he heads for the local university library to pore over old books.
The nightmare creeping death
It’s while reading an old book of local history in the university library that George meets “graduate students in parapsychology” Greg and Jack. Greg looks like one of the videogame experts out of King Of Kong, while Jack is played by James Cameron.
Although initially wary of each other, the three soon begin to exchange theories about historical deaths and disappearances. George learns that the abandoned mansion was once the dwelling of the wealthy Dansen family, a clan of Scandinavians who settled in the US over a century earlier. An already insular group, the Dansens gradually retreated into seclusion, before disappearing altogether at some point in the 19th century. Notes duly compared, the three head off to the caravan park to investigate further.
As night falls and another thunderstorm strikes up, the investigators spend the night in the same abandoned caravan seen at the start of the film (in fact, this appears to be the only caravan on the entire site).
The sequence which follows is lifted straight from Lovecraft’s story. As rain (apparently falling from a garden hose) and lightning rages outside, the three chaps in the caravan each keep a lookout for signs of movement; George and Jim stare out of the windows, while the videogame expert out of King Of Kong peeks through a gap in the caravan door (I should note, in passing, that this scene occurred in a cabin in Lovecraft’s tale, not a two-berth caravan).
Soon, the storm blows itself out, and as calm descends, George and Jim begin talking about how relieved they are that nothing unpleasant appeared. The King Of Kong videogame expert, meanwhile, is strangely quiet. Placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, George discovers that – gasp – King Of Kong expert’s face has been torn apart…
What the red glare meant
Terrified that he’ll be accused of murder again, George Lucas convinces James Cameron to bury the King Of Kong expert’s body in the woods. Oddly, Jim goes along with this.
George begins to have nightmares, in which the men who disappeared back at the mansion, as well as the now faceless King Of Kong expert, begin taunting him from beyond the grave. A moment of silent, sepia-tinted madness, this is among the most freakily effective sequences in the movie so far.
The next day, James Cameron arrives at George’s house with more tales of local horror. The story goes that a member of the incestuous Dansen family had disappeared, and now haunts the area as a ghost. James convinces George that it’d be a good idea to find the dead man’s grave and dig it up in the hunt for clues.
George and Jim head off back into the woods with a couple of shovels, a map and a compass. After a few minutes’ digging at the site of the Dansen grave, they unearth the coffin – and beneath that, a tunnel. After a bit of arguing about who will go first, George eventually takes the lead, which means that poor old Jim Cameron has to crawl through approximately two kilometres of tunnel while staring at his colleague’s arse.
This sequence, again, has its analogue in Lovecraft’s story. At no point in the horror master’s text does it mention the papier mache and chicken wire tunnel, however. No, The Lurking Fear has its protagonist come face to face with a mad-eyed abomination deep below the earth:
“I saw glistening in the distance two demoniac reflections of my expiring lamp; two reflections glowing with a baneful and unmistakable effulgence, and provoking maddeningly nebulous memories. I stopped automatically, though lacking the brain to retreat. The eyes approached, yet of the thing that bore them I could distinguish only a claw. But what a claw!”
George and Jim, meanwhile, encounter this:
Before they can go insane with terror, the creature burrows out of view, causing a brief and unconvincing cave-in.
In spite of their compass and map, George and Jim emerge back at the surface, lost, covered in soil and rather annoyed. “WE ARE LOST!” screams Jim. They stumble around in the forest for what appears to be several hours, until they arrive at the foot of the cursed Dansen mansion…
The horror in the eyes
George and Jim began combing the mansion for clues, just as the narrator did in The Lurking Fear. Before they know it, night as fallen, and yet another thunderstorm begins. During their investigations, George and Jim find a rickety hatch in the basement, and also one of the worst portrait paintings in the history of cinema:
The portrait tells us two things: one, that heterochromia (where one eye is a different colour from another) was a common genetic trait among the Dansen family, and two, that they were too thrifty to hire proper artists to paint their pictures. Before George and Jim can ponder this development further, an entire gang of those green-skinned, shock-haired things emerge from the rickety hatch in the basement.
Like true men of action, George and Jim hide beneath some cloth-covered tables. And as George cowers in the darkness, Jim is discovered, and torn apart by the green-skinned monsters. It’s here that George makes a new discovery: these creatures have heterochromia, which can only mean one thing: they’re descendents of the Dansen family, who’ve mysteriously devolved into a group of Morlock-like subterranean flesh-eaters.
Now, the film rattles along to its breathtaking climax. George heads back to the opulent home Daniels, his editor boss, intending to give him the full story. “The Dansens – they’re still there,” George excitedly tells Daniels over the phone. “I mean, over the years, they’ve transformed into these horrible creatures, but they’re still there. You can tell by their eyes.”
But in a shocking twist, it’s revealed that Daniels is himself a descendent of the Dansen clan, and now aims to kill George in order to repress the truth.
Up to this point, Dark Heritage has a faithful updating of Lovecraft’s story. Although little more than a bunch of slender actors in body paint and carnival masks, the devolved Dansens are broadly similar to the “filthy whitish gorilla things” spoken of in The Lurking Fear, as was their genetic quirk of having one blue eye and one brown.
Having a ranting newspaper editor as another descendent of the story’s family, however, is entirely from the filmmakers’ own imagination, as was a final twist in the tale. As all seems lost for George Lucas, with Anthony Daniels closing in for the kill with a six-shooter, our hero’s life is saved by an unexpected figure: Princess Leia.
We’re kidding, of course. It’s actually Daniels’ wife, who decided to shoot her husband in the back – which probably says a lot about the state of their relationship.
As you’ve probably gathered, Dark Heritage isn’t quite the forgotten gem of eldritch horror we were hoping it would be, but the film has a quaintly rough-and-ready, handmade feel to it – with its paper-and-wire tunnels and plasticine-and-jam gore effects, it’s like a horror movie made by Michel Gondry on a budget of around £14.97.
Dark Heritage doesn’t capture much of the lurking or fear of Lovecraft’s prose, either, but it at least attempts to recreate some of the source story’s best scenes as well as it can. Plus the movie does what any tale of terror should do: leaves the audience asking questions.
Why, in all of his repeated encounters with the degenerate Dansens, did George not meet the same fate as his co-stars? Was he too a distant descendant? Why was Daniels’ wife dressed as Princess Leia? And with crazed editor Anthony Daniels named after the actor who played C3PO, were these Star Wars references intentional?
These are the questions, we suspect, that only Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones could answer.