The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) / The Resurrected (1992)

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) / The Resurrected (1992)

The Resurrected (aka Shatterbrain) is a 1992 horror film, released direct to video.  It is an adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  For a short story it sure does have a bunch of covers from various publishers so here are the seven most popular I could find.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a short novel (51,500 words) by H. P. Lovecraft, written in early 1927, but not published during the author's lifetime.  Set in Lovecraft's hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, it was first published (in abridged form) in the May and July issues of Weird Tales in 1941; the first complete publication was in Arkham House's Beyond the Wall of Sleep collection (1943).

The novel tells the story of young Charles Dexter Ward, who in 1918 becomes embroiled in the past, due to his fascination with the history of his wizard ancestor, Joseph Curwen (who had left Salem for Providence in 1692, and acquired notoriety for his haunting of graveyards, his apparent lack of aging, and his chemical experiments). Ward physically resembles Curwen, and attempts to duplicate his ancestor's Qabalistic and alchemical feats, eventually locating Curwen's remains and by means of his "essential Saltes", resurrecting him.  Ward's doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, becomes enmeshed in Ward's doings, investigating Curwen's old Pawtuxet bungalow which Ward has restored.  The horrors of what Willett finds, and the crux of the identities of Ward and Curwen, form the hinge of horror on which the novel moves.

In August 1925, Lovecraft's Aunt Lillian sent him an anecdote about the house at 140 Prospect Street in Providence.  Lovecraft wrote back: "So the Halsey house is haunted! Ugh! That's where Wild Tom Halsey kept live terrapins in the cellar--maybe it's their ghosts.  Anyway, it's a magnificent old mansion, & a credit to a magnificent old town!"  Lovecraft would make this house—renumbered as 100 Prospect—the basis for the Ward house in Charles Dexter Ward.

The following month, September 1925, Lovecraft read Providence in Colonial Times, by Gertrude Selwyn Kimball, a 1912 history that provided him with aspects of Charles Dexter Ward, such as the anecdotes about John Merritt and Dr. Checkley.

A possible literary model is Walter de la Mare's novel The Return (1910), which Lovecraft read in mid-1926.  He describes it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as a tale in which "we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself on the flesh of the living".

The theme of a descendant who closely resembles a distant ancestor may come from Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The House of the Seven Gables”, which Lovecraft called "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in "Supernatural Horror in Literature".

Another proposed literary source is M. R. James' short story "Count Magnus", also praised in "Supernatural Horror in Literature", which suggests the resurrection of a sinister 17th century figure.

The germ of inspiration came from Lovecraft reading Cotton Mather and running across a quote from Borellus. Borellus is Petrus Borellus aka Dr Pierre Borel a well known French doctor and alchemist.  The quote refers to old experiments of the alchemists in creating life/ rebirth from death using essential salts.  The entire quote is as follows: "The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated."

The title character, Charles Dexter Ward, is a young man from a prominent Rhode Island family who (in the story's introduction) is said to have disappeared from a mental asylum after a prolonged period of insanity accompanied by minor, but unheard-of, physiological changes.  The bulk of the story concerns the investigation conducted by the Wards' family doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, in an attempt to discover the reason for Ward's madness and the physiological changes. When Willett learns that Ward had spent the past several years attempting to discover the grave of his ill-reputed ancestor, Joseph Curwen, the doctor slowly begins to unravel the truth behind the legends surrounding Curwen, an eighteenth century shipping entrepreneur rumored to have been an alchemist, but in reality a necromancer and mass-murderer.

As Willett's investigations proceed, he finds that Charles had recovered Curwen's ashes, and through the use of magical formulae contained in documents found hidden in the wizard's former town house in Providence, Rhode Island, was able to call forth Curwen from his "essential saltes" and resurrect him.  Willett also finds that Curwen, who resembles Charles enough to pass for him, has murdered and replaced his modern descendant and resumed his evil activities.  Unfortunately for Curwen, due to culture shock, he is unable to entirely successfully impersonate Charles - his lack of understanding of the modern world leads to him (as Charles) being certified insane and imprisoned in an asylum.

While Curwen is locked up, Willett's continuing investigations lead him to a bungalow in Pawtuxet Village, which Ward had purchased under the influence of Curwen.  It turns out that this house is on the site of an old farm which was Curwen's headquarters for his nefarious doings; beneath is a vast catacomb that the wizard had built to serve as his lair during his previous lifetime.  During a horrific journey through this labyrinth, Willet discovers the full truth about Curwen's crimes and also the means of returning him to the grave.  During the expedition it is also revealed that Curwen has been engaged in a long-term conspiracy with certain other necromancers (associates from his previous life who have somehow escaped death) to raise and torture the world's wisest people in order to gain knowledge that will let them gain horrible power and threaten the future of mankind.  Finally, while in Curwen's laboratory, Willett accidentally raises an ancient spirit (its identity is not made clear) which is an enemy of Curwen and his fellow necromancers.  The doctor faints at this eventuality: he wakes up back in the bungalow.  Willett finds that the entrance to the vaults has been sealed as if it had never existed, but finds a note from the spirit written in Latin in an Anglo-Saxon hand telling him to kill Curwen and destroy his body.

Armed with this knowledge, Willett confronts Curwen at the asylum and succeeds in reversing the spell, reducing the undead sorcerer once again to dust. News reports reveal that Curwen's prime co-conspirators have met brutal deaths along with their households and their lairs have been destroyed, presumably the work of the spirit whom Willett raised.

Much of the plot is revealed in letters, documents and other historical sources discovered by both Ward and Willett.

The Resurrected (1992)

Actors: John Terry, Jane Sibbett, Chris Sarandon, Robert Romanus, Laurie Briscoe

Directors: Dan O'Bannon

Writers: Brent V. Friedman, H.P. Lovecraft

Producers: Kenneth Raich, Mark Borde, Shayne Sawyer, Tom Bradshaw, Tony Scotti

Rated: R (Restricted)

Studio: Lions Gate

DVD Release Date: September 20, 2005

Run Time: 108 minutes

Charles Dexter Ward's wife enlists the help of a private detective to find out what her husband is up to in a remote cabin owned by his family for centuries. The husband is a chemical engineer, and the smells from his experiments (and the delivery of what appear to be human remains at all hours) are beginning to arouse the attention of neighbors and local law enforcement officials. When the detective and wife find a diary of the husband's ancestor from 1771, and reports of gruesome murders in the area begin to surface, they begin to suspect that some very unnatural experiments are being conducted in the old house.

Outside of updating it to modern (1992) times, this is probably the most faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s work.  What does seem odd to me is that it was released direct to video when it had name actors at the time involved in it.  Chris Sarandon was still coasting off of Fright Night (1985), The Princess Bride (1987) and Child’s Play (1988) and John Terry was still being acclaimed from Full Metal Jacket and The Living Daylights, both from 1987.

In my opinion this is not only an underrated Lovecraft film, it is also an underrated horror film in general.  Do yourself a favor and hunt it down and give it a watch.  Sarandon chews the scenery but isn’t that the very reason you watch that guy.  Like Fright Night would be half as much fun if they cast someone else in the vampire role.

Related Articles:

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – Wikipedia

The Resurrected – IMDB

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