Can there be another writer more misrepresented in film than H P Lovecraft? For the last fifty years, his writing has been the inspiration for countless filmmakers, but rarely have the results been successful. More often than not you suspect that the makers can’t be bothered to refer to the source material, instead preferring to draw on other works that bear Lovecraft’s influence. Unfortunately La Herencia Valdemar falls into this category.
Released in two parts, as La Herencia Valdemar (The Valdemar Inheritance) and La Sombra Prohibida (The Forbidden Shadow), the films are best viewed as a single three hours and then some movie. But be prepared for a long slog – it’s enough to test the patience of a Great Old One, let alone a saint. And that’s a great shame, because it starts off so promisingly, even resembling, at times, the early works of Jaume Balagueró (Darkness, Los Sin Nombre). Rural Spain has never looked so uninviting.
Luisa (Silvia Abascal) is sent by her employer to perform an inventory of the contents of an old, decaying mansion. A previous evaluator sent there has already vanished without trace and it’s clear from the outset that something is not right about the Valdemar estate. Even photographs of the property seem to have a life of their own. So does Luisa pause to consider that entering the house alone might be a bad idea? No of course not. The rules of the genre are strictly adhered to as she heads up the stairs that, moments earlier, were hidden behind a locked door. Yes, it’s a little too predictable, yet it still manages to evoke a few chills as Luisa gets more than she bargained for.
So, one missing employee might be inconvenient, but two? Well that just smacks of carelessness, so when Luisa fails to call in, the agent who sent her contacts his boss and trustee of the Valdemar estate, the sinister Maximillian (Eusebio Poncela). Maximillian hires private investigator Nicolás (Óscar Jaenada) to find out just what has happened to the woman. And everyone sets off for the Valdemar house.
So far, so good; but only twenty minutes in and everything suddenly changes, as we’re presented with what initially appears to be a flashback to the events that led to the downfall of the house of Valdemar and the cause of its ill reputation. This flashback takes up what remains of the first film.
It’s the late nineteenth century and Lasaro Valdemar (Daniele Liotti) and his wife, Leonor (Laia Marull) perform phoney séances for the gullible local gentry. The money they make goes towards the welfare of orphaned children. When Lasaro refuses a blackmail attempt from an unscrupulous journalist who threatens to expose their activities he finds himself in prison. Help arrives in the form of a mysterious Englishman (Francisco Maestre). But as this particular Englishman goes by the name of Aleister Crowley, it’s obvious that there will be a terrible price to pay for freedom. Maestre’s portrayal, while meeting our expectations of what Crowley should be like (see also John Shrapnel’s turn in The Chemical Wedding), is completely wrong. Crowley was still a floppy haired callow youth at the time, not the middle-aged, bald-headed version we’re presented with here. There are moments in Maestre’s performance that recall Torin Thatcher’s deranged magician, Sokurah, from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
Crowley isn’t the only historical figure to drop by – Bram Stoker, Lizzie ‘Forty Whacks’ Borden and even that most reluctant of travellers, Howard Philips Lovecraft himself, pops over the pond with a warning to the curious.
Perhaps the most notable appearance in these historical scenes comes from veteran Spanish actor Jacinto Molina Álvarez, otherwise known to fans of Euro horror as Paul Naschy. Here, the very frail-looking Naschy plays Lasaro’s manservant, Jervás, and he died not longer after filming was completed. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Part two finds us back in the here and now, with all of the major players slowly converging on the remote Valdemar house. The second half of the story seems to move along with more purpose, but after such a long time away it’s difficult to care anymore. There are still a few nice ideas thrown into the mix, such as the simple-minded kidnapper who sees his collection of showroom dummies as real people. There are double crosses aplenty, and at one point the film looks set to veer off into Saw territory, with a large portion of the cast imprisoned in a single room, before finally lumbering towards its grand finale – the appearance of Great Cthulhu himself. This is no spoiler; he’s all over the poster and trailers. Sadly, in the context of the film it just doesn’t work at all. Yes, it’s an impressive looking CGI creation (though shouldn’t he be much bigger?), but Cthulhu does little more than swat a few unfortunates who get in his way before sulkily wandering back home to R’lyeh.
La Herencia Valdemar is a good looking but ultimately frustrating viewing experience, and you can’t help but feel that writer/director Alemán has overreached himself. Hacking the film down, Lizzie Borden style, to a more manageable hundred minutes or so might have improved things – though probably not enough.
It seems that the stars weren’t quite right, after all.
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