Necronomicon is a lesser-known entry into the peculiar sub-division of horror known as the anthology film. If you are unfamiliar with anthology flicks, they often house 3 or more short stories with a framing device often referred to as a “wraparound” loosely tying them all together and sometimes acting as another story altogether. Necronomicon is no different, as it follows a fairly young looking Howard P. Lovecraft (played by none other Jeffrey Combs) as he hunts down the elusive holy grail of all things spooky, bloody, slithery, and undead. He pins down its location to a library guarded by some monks in America of all places, and begins transcribing some of the stories held within, which of course we see acted out as the 3 stories that make up most of the movie. Anyone familiar with Lovecraft will see the inherent flaws in Lovecraft himself hunting down a book he imagined in his own fictional stories, but for the sake of keeping this review on track, I won’t quibble about the authenticity of the portrayal of Lovecraft, or the stories themselves and how they fit into Lovecraftian lore. Anyone looking to see Necronomicon in hopes of seeing some of his better known tales brought to life faithfully and tastefully should look elsewhere however, as only the vaguest of connections can be made from what appears on screen back to any of his writing.
Not playing true to the original work of someone whose name is plastered on your box art doesn’t make this a bad film however. In fact, it actually handles itself quite poorly on its own, nestling itself nicely into a precarious, but exponentially growing bracket of quality many of us call “mediocrity.” And, like most things that don’t quite live up to their full potential, it starts (or is that ends?) with the acting. The blessing and curse of any anthology film is that the viewer is usually only 20-30 minutes away from getting a brand new story introduced, complete with its own set of acting talent with a new ordeal or obstacle to deal with. But when all your actors are pretty much just “there”, with the two exceptions being Jeffrey Combs (but face it, when has Combs ever been boring or just downright bad?) and David Warner, it can be hard to let mind-blowing special effects and so-so plots drift you off into viewing bliss. As mentioned already, David Warner pops up in the middle story, appropriately titled “The Cold”, and for me worked as a half-way point saving grace for the films lackluster acting before and after his performance, except for Combs of course. My suspicion is here that when a very polished and visually attractive horror flick like this comes along with incredible special effects in tow, you can assume that when the acting suffers, its clear where the money that was available went. No one really grabbed me, and for those wondering if 25-35 minutes isn’t long enough for an actor to make an impression on someone, I can only point back to Creepshow and even John Carpenters Body Bags (coincidentally released the same year as Necronomicon) for evidence that characters don’t need 90+ minutes to be memorable and effective. Hell, Combs is in this for all of about 20 minutes himself in the “wraparound” story and manages to fully entertain every time he is visible, often times with little to no dialogue. I hate to sound like a sucker for simple and shallow things like nostalgia and other fanboy-isms, but would have killed Brian Yuzna and his team of producers and directors to give some of the then-out-of-work horror genre vets a call to come and at least cameo in this film? Seriously, was Ken Foree, Linnea Quiqley, Debbie Rochon, or Bruce Campbell so terribly busy at the time? Maybe they were, but the way I see anthologies is you have to either have some phenomenal ideas for SCARY stories (which they ALMOST did), or go balls out in trying to provide as much fan service as possible. It seems here, they wanted to create some kind of balance between those two schools of thought, and wound up doing neither very well.
The directing is equally a mess to describe and quantify, and not because it isn’t decent, but because there were 3 directors involved in this one. I will comment on it as a whole though, because even though three different guys directed different parts, they were still all working towards one goal of a feature length film. The film looks great, full of some great use of color and some very moody and atmospheric moments that, while enjoyable, often spiral into heavy handedness. Lighting is very professional and slick and the locations and set designs are pretty spot on as well. The pacing is never boring, but considering that each director had such a small pocket of time to tell their tales, that should come as no surprise to anyone. Where it starts to come apart at the seams is that the whole thing is just so damn predictable, and worse than that, it isn’t very scary. The best horror films are unconventional, unpredictable and scary. The good ones have to have at least one or two of those qualities. But when you’re making a horror movie, anthology or not, and you are conventional, predictable, AND not scary, well then you better have some amazing tricks up your sleeve, because I have no idea where your going with this and how you’re planning to pull this off and make it feel fresh, new, and different. Maybe I am taking my complaints up with the wrong set of guys, but Necronomicon just seems content swimming the waters with the rest of the relatively safe, and therefore, only relatively entertaining horror titles. Again, it looks splendid, very shiny, and has a nice glow to the overall image quality with some nice musical touches, but I couldn’t help shake the feeling that nothing that was going to happen over the next 90 minutes was going to blow my socks off, and it didn’t.
What Necronomicon does do right throughout its runtime is creature effects, design, and bloody gore. It’s a messy and nasty little film, full of severed body parts, Cthulu-ish monsters, tentacles, dissolving bodies, and a fair amount of other oddities and gross outs. These special effects help to round out what is the films strongest asset, which is the technical package. Lighting is bold and classy, no expenses were spared on the 10 man costume and make up effects team that was supervised by none other than Tom Savini himself, and the soundtrack and score is fairly minimal but decent enough to never get in the way of what is happening on screen. The third act in particular is the “throw everything AND the kitchen sink effects-wise” at the viewer kind of story, and thus is the most entertaining while also being the most anti-climatic and nonsensical of the bunch. It’s gory, but gore, unfortunately, isn’t everything. Harking back to my point I made earlier, would it have hurt to put Tom Savini either in front or behind a camera in one of these mini-films? At this point in his career he had already directed the remake of Night of The Living Dead and had plenty of acting credits to his name and would have been recognizable by 1993 to many of his die-hard and casual fans alike. I digress. Regardless of my feelings towards the flicks numerous other sins, I can say that none of them spill over into the technical side of things.
All tolled, Necronomicon didn’t do much in the way of scratching the anthology horror itch that nags me from time to time. It has all the production value and sleekness (and then some) that one could expect from a mid-90’s horror flick, but it lacked the true soul that made the “golden decade” you hear me talk so much about so remarkable. It needed some humor, since one of the faults I felt was very easy to identify was that the whole movie took itself way too seriously. It also could have used an infusion of better acting, or just a higher caliber of actors. For those looking to be very complete in their anthology horror viewing, this is an obvious must, and it won’t be the worst way to kill 90 minutes as there are some dynamite effects and moments lodged in there with the rest of the gobbledy-gook, but for the rest of you out there who just want to see a damn fine scare flick now and again, consider the definitive work involving the Necronomicon to be the trilogy you have most likely seen and loved already, The Evil Dead.