DVD Review: Die, Monster Die

Cursed is the ground where the Dark Forces live, new and strangely bodied... He who tampers there will be destroyed.After the success of Roger Corman’s cycle of films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, AIP naturally wanted to produce more like them, but they soon had to turn to other sources. There simply aren’t that many Poe short stories easily  adapted to the screen, and fewer still that could be stretched into full-length movies. Once they’d used up their best candidates, including a comedic spoof in The Raven and the anthology Tales of Terror, AIP turned to HP Lovecraft. In the early 1960s, Lovecraft hadn’t yet gained his fame, while Poe was well-known as America’s leading writer of the macabre, so they used the former writer’s story ideas, dressed up in trappings of the latter.

I call such movies Poe’d-up Lovecraft.

Die, Monster, Die isn’t the earliest example, nor the best, but it’s on the flip-side of The Dunwich Horror and it’s got Boris Karloff in one of his last films.

Those familiar with Lovecraft’s work will eventually recognize this film’s story as a loose adaptation of The Colour Out of Space.  Viewers unfamiliar with Lovecraft might take it for a modernized version of AIP’s own House of Usher; both films begin in a similar way.

Like Usher, Die, Monster, Die opens with a young man seeking out the family home of the woman he loves. This film’s hero Stephen Reinhart (a pugnacious Nick Adams) arrives at the sleepy UK–not Massachusetts–village of Arkham to encounter nothing but obstruction when the villagers hear that he wants to go to the Witley estate. They won’t drive him there, nor rent him a bike or car, nor even point him in the right direction. But walk he does, out into the countryside until he crosses a blasted landscape with dead, blackened trees that crumble in his hands when he touches them, and a prominent impact crater in the midst of it.

Blasted landscape

Steve plunges on, past the Keep Out and No Trespassing signs at the Witley’s padlocked front gate, springs a leg-breaking mantrap with his suitcase, and either ignores or doesn’t see the mysterious black-veiled woman lurking in the garden, to reach the front door of the decrepit home of his fiancee. It is a gentleman’s manor house, by the way, not a humble farmstead.

You’d think that after all this trouble, the Witleys would send him off again immediately. Nahum Witley (a sadly ill Boris Karloff; it’s not just his character who’s in a wheelchair) does try; he tells Steve to leave, that he should tell Susan when she comes down that he can’t stay. But Steve brandishes a letter from Mrs. Witley, inviting him for a visit, and Susan (Suzan Farmer) is so glad to see Steve that there’s no question of him going so soon. Even though Dad insists “It would disturb Mrs. Witley to see you,” Susan takes her beau upstairs to meet Mom.

Letitia Witley (Freda Jackson) is ill with some mysterious disease that keeps her in a curtain-swathed bed in a darkened room so no one can get a good look at her. She asks to speak to Steve alone and, once Susan has left them, tells him she’s particularly anxious that he take Susan away from the house in the next day or two. That’s why she wrote and invited him to come.

She also tells him a strange story about how her maid Helga came down with a peculiar disease about a month ago, was overcome with “self loathing” and began wearing a veil to conceal her face. Which sounds a lot like the same disease Mrs. Witley is suffering from. Helga disappeared completely as far as Letitia knows two weeks later, apart from a single earring that she keeps in a little box.

But we know that Helga is still around, and now know who that black-veiled woman is.

Great-grandfather EliasWhen she took Steve upstairs, Susan showed him a couple of paintings on the wall above the staircase, Witley ancestors who remarkably resemble her father.

Great-grandfather Elias, who built the house 150 years ago, seems to be okay.

But Grandpa Corbin looks like trouble. According to Susan, he “went insane.”

What did Grandpa do to make the Witley family name anathema to the Arkham villagers? Does it have anything to do with the strange room in the basement that Nahum and the butler Merwyn visit while the young people are upstairs? There’s a large well in the middle of the floor, and some ominously buzzing, glowy green Thing down inside it under a heavy iron grate and a covering that looks like a giant jack-o-lantern made from metal with big, jagged teeth.

Nahum and the Thing in the WellA slow pan around the room lets us take in the rest of the decor, all of it equally  ominous-looking.

Nahum takes some heavy chains out of a chest and calls these  “chains for devils.”

What about the mist-filled  greenhouse that Nahum and Merwyn take a tour through next? Something inside it also glows with a green light. What’s going on in there?

A cryptic conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Witley about Corbin only enhances the impression that the family’s troubles began with him.

Letitia says that Corbin was “possessed of the devil” and “died invoking the Dark Powers,” which explains some of the demon-themed stuff in the basement. She suggests that Nahum’s becoming like his father.

Nahum insists that since Corbin is dead, “his evil is buried with him.” He rejects the idea that the “sins of the fathers” carry on to the sons. He isn’t like Corbin; he doesn’t believe in all that supernatural mumbo-jumbo, hasn’t “uttered any incantations or called out to the so-called creatures of evil.”  He’s determined to carry on his work in spite of her objections.

Mrs. Witley isn’t up to coming down to dinner that night, so when a strange shreik is heard while the butler is serving the soup, one might reasonably assume that the lady is in trouble. Or maybe she wasn’t the one who screamed–Nahum, Susan, and Merwyn take no notice of the cry.

Steve asks about the “blackened area” he passed through on his way to the house. Susan tells him that there was once a fire there; her father saw it, but she hasn’t been allowed to go into the area. Villagers have disappeared there.

Dad wryly adds that Susan is “prone to exaggeration.”

A fire doesn’t explain the crater–which, apart from a few of the characters’ first names, is the only thing connecting this story to Lovecraft’s so far. Before Steve can pursue the subject, the butler Merwyn, who’s been shaky since we first saw him, collapses on the dining-room floor, grabbing the tablecloth and taking the soup plates with him.

After this interrupted dinner, Susan takes a tray up to her mother and Steve explores the house. In the library, he finds a book titled Cult of the Outer Gods to give us another clue about Grandpa Corbin’s interests.

Grandpa Corbin Steve reads a passage from the book:

“Cursed is the ground where the Dark Forces live, new and strangely bodied…
He who tampers there will be destroyed…”

Susan, meanwhile, sees that black-veiled figure at her bedroom window, then again at the french windows downstairs in the library when she runs frightened to tell Steve about it.

Steve wants them both to leave the house that night, but Susan refuses to go as long as her mother is ill. Steve has to abide by her decision. It’s not like they’ll have to wait long for Mom’s condition to change.

Later that night, more weirdly inhuman cries draw the young couple out of their respective bedrooms. They go exploring to trace the source of these sounds. Susan carries a candle and wears a flowing nightgown, as is traditional for young women who wander around spooky dark houses in the middle of the night. Her fluffy blue slippers are not traditional, but they are cute.

The pair traces the sounds to the door of Merwyn’s room, where Nahum pops up to block their way. He informs them that Merwyn is dead and that it was “terrible–he’s been ill for a long time.”

Ashes to ashesSusan goes back to bed, but Steve sneaks downstairs again to observe a series of disturbing events:

  • Nahum emerges from Merywn’s room, out of his wheelchair and struggling to push a large box that he’s placed on the wheelchair’s seat. The box isn’t big enough to be a coffin.
  • When he peeks into the room after Nahum has gone outside, Steve sees that the place is wrecked, as if a fight’s been going on in there. On the floor is a pile of ash in the shape of a man’s body.
  • If the box isn’t Merwyn’s coffin, then why is Nahum digging a grave to bury it?
  • Once again, what’s with the glowing green light in the greenhouse? And what is that bizarre cooing noise coming from inside?

Steve tries to get into the greenhouse to find answers to these last questions, but the door is locked. The sound of the padlock rattling draws Nahum’s attention, and Steve has to dash back into house, jump into bed, and pretend to be asleep before his host catches him.

The next morning, Steve resumes his investigation of what’s going on in the weird Witley house. He hears that inhuman scream while he walking around the grounds, and then Helga jumps out from the bushes at him with a knife. He fends her off and keeps on walking as if it’s no big deal. It’s not the greenhouse he’s headed for, but into unhelpful Arkham after another long walk.

Arkham, UKIn Arkham, he locates a red phone box and looks up the local doctor to report Merwyn’s death and ask what the doctor knows about the Witleys. Dr. Henderson (Patrick Magee) keeps himself well-lubricated with whisky and is no more informative than any of the other Arkhamites when the subject of the Witleys comes up.

The doctor’s assistant is the only person who tells Steve anything: Dr. Henderson was present at Corbin Witley’s death–a cerebral hemorrhage was given as the cause. There was no funeral. The doctor was the only one who saw the body, but whatever he witnessed, it disturbed him so deeply that he’s become the wreck he is today and he’s been pouring down the whisky ever since.

Meanwhile, back at the Witley place, Letitia’s locked the door refuses to let Susan or Nahum into her bedroom. She sits huddled in the corner; this is the first time she’s been up out of her curtained bed, so we can we get a look at her disfigured face. Whatever happened to Helga is now happening to her too.

When Steve returns after his fairly unfruitful hike to Arkham, he tells Susan about Helga’s attack on him and the two decide to break into the greenhouse. Susan shows her fiance a loose panel in one of the walls–the way she used to sneak in when she was a child.

Finally, we’re inside the mysterious greenhouse. What’s in there?  Flowers and plants grown to ridiculously enormous sizes. Tomatoes as big as basketballs.

The young couple hears that cooing noise coming from an adjacent room, which Susan says used to be a potting shed. Exploring, they find it’s now occupied by a large cage full of deformed animals.  A “zoo in Hell,” Steve calls it, and quickly perceives that these poor creatures are the results of genetic mutation. In the middle of the room is a bucket filled with chips of glowy-green stone.

Back in the plant room, Steve digs into a couple of pots and finds more of the same green stones in the soil. The stones are warm to the touch, and look like they’ve all been chipped off a larger stone.

Susan and Steve discuss the effects of radiation on the plants and animals–and on human beings like her mother and Helga, who both worked in the greenhouse. I liked this conversation; we were told at the beginning that, like Brad and Janet, these two met in a university science course. They should both be fairly conversant with basic concepts and be able to put things together once presented with evidence. It’s good that, even though she’s been kept ignorant of her parents’ experiments since she’s come home, Susan can  understand what’s going on.

Unfortunately, this scientific discussion gets interrupted when some vines creep up and attack Susan, wrapping themselves around her arms and legs. Steve has to rescue her, cutting her free before she can be throttled. They flee the greenhouse.

The question now is, where’s the big radioactive stone that all the little chips came from? Susan thinks it must be in the basement. There are a lot of rooms down there.

Black Veil While Steve goes to look–and discovers that glowing Thing in the well–Susan goes upstairs to check on Mom. Mrs. Witley, like Merwyn the night before, is at the stage where her illness causes her to go berserk and trash her room. She then bursts out through the door, frightening Susan. The girl screams, bringing Steve and her father to her aid.

When Nahum learns what happens, he says that he must find Letitia, but a storm is rising. The front door of the house is flapping open in the wind and it looks like Letitia could have run out into the storm that way.

No–she’s still inside the house. In the final stages of her grotesque and horrible radiation-inflicted disease, she has just enough time to attack Steve before collapsing on the carpet, dissolving into a pile of red goo, then crumbling to ash.

Now, Nahum says to Steve, “Please take Susan away!”

They stay long enough to bury Letitia’s remains, and it’s at his wife’s graveside that Nahum finally explains what’s been going on, how his father Corbin’s reputation affected his own work. This is also the point where we get closest to the plot of The Colour Out of Space.  Nahum tells his daughter and Steve that a meteorite (he calls it “a curse sent from Corbin from beyond the grave”) fell from the sky and crashed into the heath. For a time, the vegetation grew lush, then it began to turn grey and brittle.

This first burst of growth was what inspired Nahum to conduct his own experiments with the plants and animals in the greenhouse; he thought he could achieve something of agricultural value to restore his family’s good name.

This timeline of events confuses me. From the story up to this point, I would’ve thought that the meteorite fell years ago, while Corbin was still alive, and that he used it somehow in his occult practices. Nahum describes it as a much more recent event that occurred after his father’s death–probably while Susan was away at college in America, since she doesn’t seem to think that her family was always weird like this.

From his gravestone, Corbin’s been dead for about 20 years, but I’m not sure what he died of if it wasn’t the same radiation sickness that’s killed nearly everyone else in the household. If it had nothing to do with the effects of the meteorite, then what exactly did he do to make the villagers so afraid of him? And if Nahum was the one who put the meteorite down the well to keep it handy for his experiments, then what was Corbin using the well for? Was he keeping something else in there?

In spite of the connection to Lovecraft’s story, there’s absolutely no indication that any living entity came from outer space with the meteorite and is deliberately draining the life out of people, or that anything’s living down in the well now.

SkullThe young couple goes upstairs to pack. Nahum visits the glowing stone in the well one last time, and tries to put an end to it by bashing it with a battle-axe.

Not that that will do much good against a radioactive meteorite. It just sort of shatters and makes louder buzzing noises.

Besides, Nahum’s already been exposed to  at least as much radiation as his wife, Merwyn, and Helga–the latter of whom is still wandering around the house looking for people to attack. She pounces on Nahum and during the ensuing struggle they both get too close to the flashing remnants of the meteorite.

Before you know it. Nahum’s starts to go all glowy green too…

Okay, it’s not a very good film. There are too many silly “scares”–the vines in the greenhouse, a tarantula in the basement that Nahum accidentally puts his hand on (before it wanders harmlessly away), a literal skeleton in a closet that pops out when Steve is poking around, and a bat on a string. But it looks good and it does have its moments.

I’m not much impressed with the hero and heroine. Steve’s an American guy in a British film, but Nick Adams plays him too tough and blustering to be quite sympathetic; he behaves as if the only solution to any problem is to punch it in the face. Well, that’s Nick Adams for you. Apart from that one scene in the greenhouse before the plants attacked, Susan doesn’t strike me as a capable character either. She seems unable to do anything without her boyfriend rescuing her or pulling her in whatever direction he wants them to go, but unlike Steve’s rather drab outfits, she’s got some colorful sweaters that provide a touch of brightness in an otherwise gloomy setting.

It’s the older actors that sell the best parts of the story and leave the strongest impression.

Not KarloffKarloff is game as ever as the slightly mad scientist trying to make good, even though the viewer can perceive that he wasn’t very strong at this point in his life. The scenes where he’s out of the wheelchair and trying to push it look like they really were an effort for him.  Nor was he up to going on a rampage near the end of the movie. Although they put a Karloff-looking mask on the glowing monster that menaces Susan and Steve before they can finally escape, it is so obviously not him.

Freda Jackson is mostly unseen, but she makes her presence felt as long as she’s in the film.

There’s little reason for Patrick Magee to be in this movie at all, but he does something with his role as the doctor for the few minutes he’s on screen.

As Steve and Susan leave the Witley house, resolved never to look back, I must wonder how much radiation these two were exposed to. Are they planning on having kids?

But my big question is: What’s going to happen to those mutants in the greenhouse? There’s nobody else left–are Steve and Susan just going to go and leave the poor things caged up without food or water? This troubles me very much. I hope that the mutants managed to break free before they starved to death. If they made their way into Arkham, they could feast on the villagers. Serve ’em right for being so unhelpful.

Mutants

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of “Maiden in Light,” “The Wizard’s Son,” and “Sonnedragon,” novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.

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