Studio: Full Moon Features
Director: Charles Band
Writer: Dennis Paoli
Producer: Charles Band
Stars: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, David Warner, David Gale, Una Brandon-Jones
A young woman confronts the dark secret of her lover, an excommunicated clergyman, while revisiting his living quarters following a suicide.
In 1988, Charles Band’s Empire Pictures produced an anthology film whose concept was as much of a genre film fan’s dream come true then as it still is now. “Pulse Pounders” was to feature three segments, two of which were mini-sequels to previous Empire releases “The Dungeonmaster,” a.k.a. “Ragewar,” and future Full Moon franchise cornerstone “Trancers.”
An even more intriguing reunion than that of Tim Thomerson and Helen Hunt circa 1988 however, was the first intended chapter of the “Pulse Pounders” triad. In adapting another H.P. Lovecraft tale, “The Evil Clergyman” brought back together three-fourths of the key cast from “Re-Animator” just three years after making Stuart Gordon’s celebrated horror classic. Also along for the ride were “Re-Animator” scripter Dennis Paoli and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, with the great David Warner sweetening the cast for good measure.
Alas, “Pulse Pounders” was seemingly not meant to see its magnetic tape spun through countless VCR heads. Whether an unpaid contractor held the print for ransom, a bookkeeping intern logged the wrong canister, or someone filed the film in a dumpster instead of a warehouse, the 35mm negative pulled a Jimmy Hoffa and vanished, just as Empire Pictures did during a creditor crisis a short time after.
Decades later, in fortuitous circumstances similar to those of the once fabled “Cabal Cut” of “Nightbreed,” a videocassette copy of the “Pulse Pounders” workprint unexpectedly said “ta-da!” Charles Band took the tape and set about a restoration process that would finally resurrect “The Evil Clergyman” and its two siblings after a long 25 years of being presumed lost for all time.
“The Evil Clergyman” is a peculiar project for an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, since it only loosely qualifies as a work of the legendary author in the first place. Published posthumously as a short story in 1939, “The Evil Clergyman” is actually a 1,700-word excerpt from a letter written to Bernard Austin Dwyer in which Lovecraft recounts a strange dream he once had. The entire piece can be digested quicker than it takes for the film version to cycle through its opening credits. In that time, the source material reveals itself for exactly what it is: a stream of consciousness fragment from a half-remembered dream.
Much the same as he did with his “From Beyond” adaptation, Paoli takes Lovecraft’s bare bones idea about a person confronting the vision of an occult-entrenched clergyman and sexes it up with livelier liberties like a lurid love affair and a cameo appearance by Brown Jenkin, a human-faced rat and witch’s familiar crossing over from a different Lovecraft yarn entirely. With Barbara Crampton taking the narrator role, “The Evil Clergyman” then gives itself whiplash from the clunky pacing of non-sequitur transitions between her visions of Jeffrey Combs, visions of David Warner, and confrontations with David Gale as Brown Jenkin all taking place within the confines of one room as she struggles to make sense of a wild waking nightmare.
It’s a goofy little story made even goofier by how seriously it is staged, which is why what wouldn’t have worked in 1988 comes across as delightfully demented with 21st-century eyes. Brown Jenkin has zero useful purpose in the movie. But the sight of David Gale spouting obscenities through gnashed rodent teeth while flopping around in a John Carl Buechler-designed rat suit is a crowd-pleasing showstopper that quite literally has to be seen to be believed.
When Barbara Crampton performs oral sex on Jeffrey Combs’ sentient corpse while he swings from a noose wearing a priest’s collar, you realize just how devilishly perverted “The Evil Clergyman” is in the most entertaining way that only genre fans could comprehend. It’s already astounding that Combs is cast as a bare-chested, lady-killing sex stud, and he revels in the bizarre casting and characterization with his trademark brand of relish. (I’d bet money that it was Combs’ idea to pinch an imaginary hair off his tongue after kissing the rat.)
The fact that “The Evil Clergyman” is transferred from a VHS source instead of a 35mm film negative should be another knock against it. Yet again, it turns out to be a boon working in the movie’s favor. The throwback viewing experience is strangely enhanced by having that video quality veneer, since that is exactly how we would have seen it in 1988 anyway.
The entire half-hour is a dreamlike event in every sense of the term. Hazy. Illogical. Alluring. And it strikes in such a richly weird way that just like Lovecraft, you have to tell someone all about it afterward because you can barely believe such an eccentric oddity magically manifested itself.
Perhaps just as serendipitous as its random discovery, this is a unique case where a movie reads far better for having a quarter-century gap between production and public consumption. With the superior storytelling and manic energy of “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” fresh in fans’ faces, it’s easy to imagine the dream logic narrative, quirky construction, and scaled-back production being a letdown in light of 1980s expectations. Yet with the strange story of its very existence and “lost classic” status morphing it into a time capsule curiosity, “The Evil Clergyman” now plays like a Holy Grail treasure that fans who’ve exhausted all available films of that era wish there were more of to pop out of seeming nowhere.
Review Score: 75