Few authors are as synonymous with a specific type of horror as H.P. Lovecraft. On top of creating the Cthulu mythos, which tells of old, tentacled gods who shaped the fabric of the universe and could come back and destroy us at any moment, Lovecraft also pioneered the method of not describing the monster or beast. Lets the reader fill it in themselves, I suppose. Lovecraft has also been notoriously difficult to properly adapt to film because of the big ideas, and until the 1960s, nobody had even tried. The second ever attempt was to adapt his classic sci-fi novella “The Color Out of Space,” which became the weirdly-pitched horror film, Die, Monster, Die!
American International Pictures was the largest independent distributor in Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s and made their name by producing super low budget genre pictures, usually on a shoestring budget and a 10-day schedule. Roger Corman changed this in 1960 when he began making his Edgar Allan Poe films in color, with higher production values, and in 15 days. Corman did a Lovecraft adaptation which got retitled with a Poe story in 1963 (The Haunted Palace) and when his art director Daniel Haller became a director, his first outing was this movie. And he had Boris Karloff as his star, and that certainly couldn’t hurt.
The film takes place in a small English town when an American scientist named Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adam) shows up, looking to visit his girlfriend whom he met abroad. Whenever he asks someone in town for information, directions, or even to rent a bicycle to get to “The Witley House,” he’s met with universal fear, disdain, and urges to get out of town if he knows what’s good for him. He eventually makes it on foot to the large estate and notices a massive sinkhole just inside the grounds. When he gets to the house, he says he’s looking for Susan (Suzan Farmer), but her wheelchair-bound father Nahum Witley (Karloff) tells him to leave. Susan finally comes downstairs, a perfectly normal and bubbly young lady and Stephen begins to think, “Hey, things around here are a bit weird.”
Susan’s mother, Letitia (Freda Jackson), is bed-ridden and forever behind black veils and bed curtains and usually refuses to eat. It appears the only able-bodied person in the house aside from Susan, who I reiterate is COMPLETELY FINE, is Witley’s manservant, the aging Merwyn (Terence De Marney), but even he looks like he’s on his way out. What exactly is going on around here? It slowly gets revealed (and “slowly” is the operative word for sure) that Witley has been performing experiments on plant and animal life because of a radioactive meteorite he found. Guess what – Radiation causes insane and uncontrollable mutation in things. While at first the growth was beneficial because food became enormous, the plants eventually became ambulatory. Letitia has also been adversely affected by the meteorite and stalks around at night, with her weird and grotesque face, eventually attempting to kill people.
There’s certainly a lot of great visuals in Die, Monster, Die! (which also had the even less fortunate titles of The House at the End of the World and, dear God, Monster of Terror [Sidebar: How can we be as vague as possible? Oh, is this a monster of terror? Not a monster of relative good humor?]) and this is in no doubt aided by its director Haller having been a top notch art director for a number of years on some of Corman’s most lush productions. There are some great matte paintings and composite shots, and the shrieking monsters are realized about as well as could be expected and don’t look TOO dumb.
I think the main problem with the movie is that nobody was really prepared to make an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, and least of all one of his most science-fiction in tone. Lovecraft did some straight-up horror stories, any of which could have been applied to the haunted house formula, but “The Colour Out of Space” needed to feel a bit more like a nuclear-age alien movie instead of a Gothic affair with huge hallways and candelabras everywhere. They clearly didn’t know how to market the movie, either. Aside from the various uninspired titles, the taglines read “It COULD happen! It MAY happen! It MIGHT happen! To YOU!” and “Can you face the ULTIMATE in DIABOLISM can you stand PURE TERROR?” These are plastered on a poster with Karloff with white eyes, hands holding a medieval ax, and Suzan Farmer flailing in fear. Means nothing at all.
Adams (who plays the American scientist a lot more like a tough private eye than he ought to) and Farmer walk around the hallways looking scared a lot, with him telling her to “Stay here” more than he should. Karloff adds his usual gravitas to the performance, but even he by the end is reduced to wheeling himself around corridors yelling “Letitia!” in his customary Karloffian lilt. His character eventually decides to destroy the meteorite and ends up becoming a silver-plated monster himself.
So, as a Lovecraft adaptation, Die, Monster, Die! only barely touches on the source material, but does manage a few distinctly-Lovecraftian images. As a Gothic horror movie, it doesn’t have enough going on and is mainly content to have its leads walk around hallways. That said, it’s not a very long movie (only 80 minutes) and it never manages to stay boring for too long, and it truly does look great in that vibrant ’60s AIP style. All in all, if you’re in the mood for some Karloff or any passable Lovecraft, Die, Monster, Die! is not a bad Saturday afternoon viewing. And it is the season for stuff like this, after all.