The Thing on the Doorstep

Thing-Doorstep “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.” So begins The Thing on The Doorstep, a short story by the legendary H.P. Lovecraft, now adapted as a film by Tom Gliserman.

The story is recounted by Daniel Upton (David Bunce) and concerns his friendship with one Edward Derby (Rob Dalton). Edward enters into a whirlwind romance, followed by a rapid marriage with Asenath Waite (Mary Jane Hansen), a young woman reputed to have strange hypnotic powers. Almost immediately, Edward’s personality seems to change, and Daniel and his wife Marion (Susan Cicarelli-Caputo) begin to suspect there is something seriously amiss in this new relationship.

While he is currently considered one of the most influential horror authors of all time, Lovecraft has had relatively few film adaptations. This is partly because his mainstream popularity is a reasonably new phenomenon (compared to his contemporary Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example) and partly because many of his stories are not particularly easy to film. Lovecraft tended toward first-person narration (which can come off as heavy-handed when done poorly in film) and often refused to specify exactly what the horrors he described were like – a central trope of his is forces that are literally impossible for the human mind to comprehend. With this in mind, The Thing On The Doorstep is (while not one of Lovecraft’s best-loved stories) an inspired choice for adaptation, as it largely skirts the more cosmic horrors of Lovecraft’s universe in favour of more human-scale evil.

The film shift the action from 1933 to the modern day, but is otherwise fairly faithful to Lovecraft’s text. This is by and large handled pretty well – Upton’s wife (largely absent from the short story) is given a greatly-expanded role, and there’s an interesting conflict between her and Upton as to whether Asenath or Edward Derby is the dangerous one in the relationship. The downside is that while Lovecraft’s 1930’s “Arkham” (a fictional town, but one definitely located in his native New England) was a plausible place to find people who publicly dabbled in the occult and spiritualism, and were considered “intelligentsia” for doing so, this seems odd in a modern context.

This is compounded by a general lack of focus on the setting that lends the film a feeling of being set nowhere in particular. This is disappointing, because The Thing On The Doorstep is one of the stories which draws on Lovecraft’s invented geography for some of its horror – Asenath is one of the “Innsmouth Waites”, and Innsmouth is a town which has deep and unwholesome ties to occult forces. Innsmouth as presented in the film is indistinguishable from Arkham, and contains nothing more unsettling than a kid riding a bike at night.

The film also makes heavy use of post-production effects. Everything is in soft focus and stained a murky green. This seems like it’s meant to evoke a dreamy atmosphere, but actually tends to evoke a headache after the first 45 minutes. It also undercuts the (much more appropriate) use of such effects in the actual dream/hallucination episodes. This is a shame, because the film actually gets really great mileage out of limited (but effectively chosen) locations and sets, or it would have if they hadn’t been drowned in a layer of green sludge.

At base, this is a pretty good movie. The adaptation is handled skilfully, the dialogue has been updated well, the actors are clearly doing their best, and the ways that it chooses to diverge from the original short story all make good sense (as do the things it chooses to keep). When the effects are appropriate, they work really well (the titular “thing on the doorstep” deserves a mention here as an excellent practical monster effect) and the atmosphere builds steadily and effectively throughout. It’s just a shame about that green fog.

Recommended for Lovecraft and genre fans, recommended (though with the reservations noted above) for everyone else.

No special features, not even a title menu.

Available on DVD from MVD Visual.

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