Though one of the major influences on the shape of modern horror fiction, H.P. Lovecraft is notoriously difficult to adapt to film. Very few of his famous stories have conventional plots or character interplay (‘The Colour Out of Space’ is the most-filmed Lovecraft because it comes close), and his prose is an interesting mix of the forensically detailed (it’s been pointed out that he often describes monsters as if they were specimens on a dissecting table) and the deliberately ambiguous (unnameable, indescribable, etc). Like ‘Colour’ and ‘The Dunwich Horror’, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ offers at least the bones of a story – and has a suspense/mystery element as a stranger in town draws conclusions from hints, then in Wicker Man fashion realises too late how close to home the horror is. That said, writer-director Chad Ferrin doesn’t so much adapt ‘Shadow’ as elaborate on it – quite a few zombie apocalypse pictures feel as if they could be short stories submitted to Skipp & Spector’s Book of the Dead anthologies … and this is among the first Lovecraftian films to feel as if it might have found a place in Stephen Jones’ Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth series. Fishy business is, of course, the order of the day.
Slotting into the Air BNB sub-genre of horror that has prompted quite a few films in recent years – and paralleling the more covert Lovecraftiana of the recent The Beach House – this has Alex (Gina La Piana) and Petri (Johann Urb) rent a sea-front house in Solar Beach, a small, insular Californian community, partly in order to get past the trauma of miscarriage. However, their friendly hosts – urbane-seeming Russel Marsh (Robert Miano) and his younger, pregnant wife Ingrid (Silvia Pross) – linger on the property, invite themselves to dinner and are embarrassingly unwilling to give the couple the alone time they’ve plainly come here to get. A prologue established that Ingrid wasn’t always happy to be here, and the signs of menace beneath the smiles are there from the outset – as Ferrin uses Ira Levin’s plot structure (from The Stepford Wives as much as Rosemary’s Baby) as Alex is increasingly isolated and Petri increasingly drawn into the cult-conspiracy-weirdness. Ambrose Zadok (Kelli Maroney), the local loon, hands out flyers about her lost daughter – but the community have plausible stories about how she got that way. When the couple’s outgoing divorcee friend Deb Jackie Debatin) shows up and seems like grit in whatever evil plan is unfolding, it’s also reasonably clear into which supporting character slot she’s going to fall.
Like most Lovecraft movies since Re-Animator, The Deep Ones picks out the strain of humour in the author’s work which often eludes his most fervent disciples. Ferrin’s films tended to divide into two categories – serious, ambitious, socially-engaged horror (The Ghouls, Parasites) and outrageous, gruesome parody (Exorcism at 60,000 Feet, Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!). This fuses both strains. The latterday Innsmouth folk are disturbing with a comic edge, including a female doctor played by a man in drag (Ferrin veteran Timothy Muskatell) and a robed elder (TV soap veteran Nicolas Coster) who is so blandly paternal that he’s a hoot. The Deep Ones themselves appear modeled on the well-remembered aquatics of Humanoids From the Deep, Island of the Mutations or even The Horror of Party Beach as they wade ashore to take part in unspeakable (but familiar) rites. Ferrin even extends this satirical, pastiching tone to mock lobby cards showcasing the make-up work.
The neurotic racist side of Lovecraft’s worldview – currently explored in Lovecraft Country and much other debate – is evoked more subtly here … if only by presenting the disciples of the Deep Ones not as a racial other but by stressing how whitebread they are, with a town that seems to have begun as a new agey counterculture beach commune but evolved into a paranoid gated community with round-the-clock covert surveillance and endless petty rules. Miano is especially good as a windy, amiable old bore – and Ferrin writes great, excruciating scenes as the couple have to be polite to folk who can’t possibly be as unaware of the offence they cause as they seem to be.