An Alternate History of Horror: Scarlet Friday (Mario Bava’s “The Dunwich Horror”)

One of the all-time great genre writers, one of the all-time great genre directors, TWO of the all-time great genre stars, and it never came to pass

Making movies is an expensive, time consuming business that requires a lot of people to all get on the same page and stay there. This means that there are a whole lot more ideas developed – good or bad – and screenplays written than ever actually make it to theaters or home video. In this series, I’m going to take a look at a few horror movies that never quite made it in front of the cameras, or that ended up reaching us in radically different forms than what was originally intended.

Previously in this series:

The Wolf Man vs. Dracula

Day of the Dead

 

HPL-lancer-1The works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft have rarely been well-served in their adaptation to the screen.  Yes, there are a few notable exceptions, such as director Stuart Gordon’s take on Re-Animator(1985), but by and large Lovecraft’s stories are too abstract to be faithfully translated, and so a great deal of generally contrived extrapolation is needed.  For this reason, filmmakers usually achieve better results by applying Lovecraftian themes and imagery to original stories, like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

 

Dean Stockwell in the AIP adaptation

Dean Stockwell in the AIP adaptation

One of the Lovecraft stories that seems like a natural fit for the screen is “The Dunwich Horror” (1929), a longer, more fleshed-out and linear narrative than most of the author’s work.  And in 1970, American International Pictures did produce an adaptation.  Unfortunately, what they produced is a muddled, awkward movie with lifeless performances and no sense of style or atmosphere.  The only noteworthy aspect of the picture is the score by AIP regular Les Baxter.

This failure is made all the more galling by the fact that, as Tim Lucas reports in his invaluable book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007), at one time Bava, one of the great stylists of the horror cinema and a professed Lovecraft fan, was in talks with AIP to direct the adaptation, under the title Scarlet Friday (presumably in reference to Bava’s earlier Black Sunday [1960], released stateside by AIP).

The film would have starred horror legends Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.  Karloff had previously worked with Bava in the masterful Black Sabbath (1963), while Lee had  acted for the director in both Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and The Whip and the Body (1963).

Price as Dr. Goldfoot

Price as Dr. Goldfoot

Sadly, prior to this project seeing life, the Bava-directed AIP release Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), starring Vincent Price, utterly failed at the U.S. box office (despite being Bava’s biggest commercial success in his native Italy).  This also soured Price on any future collaborations with Bava, which is why we ended up with a lackluster Joseph Cotton performance in the otherwise excellent Baron Blood (1972), but that’s a whole different alternate history…

So, what can we assume about Scarlet Friday?  First off, Bava would have been working in his signature genre, to which his sensibilities were exquisitely well suited.  At the time this would have been in production (probably 1967), his most recent horror picture was the superlative Kill Baby, Kill (1966), which managed its beautiful visuals despite the budget falling apart mid-way through production (cast and crew continued working unpaid because they were so swept up in Bava’s vision).

Kill Baby, Kill

Kill Baby, Kill

At this point, Bava’s go-to camera operator was Antonio Rinaldi.  The Bava/Rinaldi collaborations included some experimental visual storytelling, and made heavy use of zoom lenses.  To modern viewers, the stylistic touches may feel a little dated, but they provide a lively energy, a sense of daring and fun, and a slight surrealism, all of which would have suited the story much better than the staid style of the movie as eventually produced.

Lee, alongside Daliah Lavi, in The Whip and the Body

Lee, alongside Daliah Lavi, in The Whip and the Body

Karloff in Black Sabbath

Karloff in Black Sabbath

Can there be any doubt about the gravity and charisma that Karloff and Lee would have brought to the film?  Lee was at the height of his career, and Karloff was an old master still going strong, and he had given one of his finest late-career performances in his previous Bava picture.  It is also safe to assume that, for once, Lee would have been allowed to provide his own voice in the English-language version of a Bava movie (he had been dubbed by other actors in both of their previous collaborations).  This would have been a pairing of two of horror’s greatest speaking voices.

Karloff had also proved quite capable of breathing life to a Lovecraft character before, having proved the strongest asset of Die, Monster, Die! (1965), an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), directed by Daniel Haller, who would go on to helm AIP’s The Dunwich Horror.

Karloff in Die, Monster, Die!

Karloff in Die, Monster, Die!

It is probable that Les Baxter would have composed the music for Scarlet Friday, just as he ultimately did for The Dunwich Horror, so the one winning element of the movie as produced would have existed in this theoretical version, as well.

Bava’s career as a director was always a rocky one, largely because his own lack of ambition and reluctance to leave his home country lead to his repeatedly turning down promising projects.  Scarlet Friday would probably have been a success, and lead to further offers from AIP, but it’s unlikely that Bava would have taken full advantage of the opportunity, and the rest of his career might not have played out much differently than it ultimately did.

Karloff was near the end of his career anyway.  Scarlet Friday probably would have had the distinction of being his last truly great horror movie, but, let’s be honest, Karloff had a pretty incredible run.  One last masterpiece would have been an additional flourish on the icing on the cake.

Lee was one of the top horror stars in the world at the time, and his career has continued to run strong in the decades since.  One more successful horror movie probably wouldn’t have made a big difference there.

Lovecraft’s name was not as well known outside of literary genre fandom in the 60s as it is today.  Even had Scarlet Friday been a success, the author would have likely been considered a little too esoteric, and the bulk of his work a little too outré, for other studios to have hopped onto a Lovecraft bandwagon, so we probably wouldn’t have gotten a major late-60s Lovecraft boom.

In the end, horror history as a whole might not have been that drastically altered by Scarlet Friday, but it still represents a painful missed opportunity for fans of Bava, Lovecraft, Karloff, and Lee.  And if you’re not a fan of ANY of those artists, then you probably haven’t read this far anyway.

Karloff in Black Sabbath again, because once just isnt enough

Karloff in Black Sabbath again, because once just isn’t enough

You dig this kind of stuff, right?  Well, then, come on back to The Blood Shed anytime, and check out our Facebook page and our Official Kickstarter!

No Comment

Leave a Reply

*

*

RELATED BY

CLOSE
CLOSE