Color, 1992, 91 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by Juan Piquer Simón
Starring Frank Finlay, Marcia Layton, Luis Fernando Alvés, Brad Fisher, Melanie Shatner, Kaethe Cherney, Paul Birchard, Frank Braña
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Now a much-loved name from the heyday of Spanish horror films, Juan Piquer Simón, a.k.a. "J.P. Simon," is now best remembred for his outrageous slasher classic Pieces, part of an attempt to capture an '80s genre audience with pseudo-American productions that could be easily sold around the world. Previously known for more genteel fare like Where TIme Began and Mystery on Monster Island, Simón proved that hit was no fluke when he kept pulling out all the stops with the ridiculously gory Slugs and his enjoyable contribution to the underwater monster craze from the end of the decade, The Rift. However, the '90s proved much rockier with the filmmaker churned out only three features and then retiring. The most widely released title of this later period was Cthulhu Mansion, which is very much in the vein of what fellow countryman José Ramón Larraz was doing with films like Edge of the Axe and Rest in Pieces -- namely amping up the American vibe by using local actors from whatever state was home to the production, with a nonsensical but eventful plot that would make it easy to sell for the home video market. Despite the title and the promotional artwork, the film doesn't really have much to do with H.P. Lovecraft; instead it's more of a Poe-laced movie about twentysomethings trapped overnight in a supernatural house of horrors, with all the mayhem you'd expect picking them off one by one. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that at all.

Offering a journey into "shadows of the unknown and dark dimensions," the turban-wearing Chandu (Finlay) performs a fiery occult magic show with his best Borif Karloff imitation and his levitating wife (Layton) that goes horribly and fatally wrong. Flash forward to a nighttime fairground where a cocaine deal in a spook house takes a nasty turn as Hawk (Fisher) knifes a dealer and tosses him to his death. Afterwards while Chandu performs his current show with his daughter, Lisa (also Layton), Hawk hides out o the grounds with his cohorts Eva (Shatner, daughter of William), Candy (Cherney), the wounded Chris (Alvés), and Billy (Birchard). Chandu's black magic seems to be taking a toll including weird pulsating things in his hand, something he keeps from his newly returned daughter. Hawk and his pals decide to find refuge by holding the magician, Lisa, and taciturn stage assistant Felix (Braña) at gunpoint and hiding out at Chandu's very spooky, fog-enshrouded house. What follows is a night of irrational terror as the trespassers are confronted by threats like homicidal kitchen appliances and ivy as Chandu's darkest secrets come to light.

Barely given a theatrical release and clearly geared more for the home video market for horror films in the early '90s, Cthulhu Mansion was most widely seen via a VHS from Republic that didn't exactly show the film off to its best advantage. A mixture of the weird and the hackneyed, it's certainly a Simón film thanks to the erratic acting, baffling continuity, and wild death scenes, albeit lower on bloodshed than you'd expect. Instead it's more of an atmospheric study with some loathsome potential leather-wearing victims you can't wait to see getting bumped off. A veteran of films ranging from Lifeforce to The Key to The Pianist, Finlay gives the best performance here by far with his Chandu actually having some interesting depth and shading far removed from the standard villain role you might expect. It's certainly one of those "keep your expectations in check" type of films that works best when it tries to evoke classic pulp horror with its roster of fog, dark corridors, and black cats resulting in some good late night popcorn viewing atmosphere. Just set aside any expectations of a Lovecraft connection (apart from "Cthulhu" getting namechecked for no particular reason), and you'll be fine.

Vinegar Syndrome's 2021 Blu-ray release (available with the usual limited slipcover) is a nice relief after seeing this one in substandard condition for years, spoting what's listed as a 2K restoration from 35mm archival elements. Whatever that source may be, it looks quite nice with a pleasing level of detail and rich, impressive blacks that make the whole viewing experience more rewarding than before. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with the usual Dolby Digital secondary option tucked away in there) sounds fine if limited by a pretty thin original source, of course, with optional English SDH subtitles included. The big extra here is Luis Esquinas' The Simon's Jigsaw (101m20s), a massive Spanish-language documentary about Simón featuring interviews with Jack Taylor, Braña, director Carlos Puerto, Hilda Fuchs, Juan Mariné, and lots of film critics exploring his career from his early infatuation with Jules Verne through his most famous genre contributions. On top of that, you get to see Eli Roth gushing about Pieces in French and some wild production footage from Slugs, too, along with a sad explanation of what happened to his work after this film. In "The Special Effects Make-Up Magician" (24m42s), special effects artist Colin Arthur (who also pops up in the documentary) recalls the production of this film in Madrid, his working relationship with the director, and the state of his own effects studio in Spain at the time, including the recruiting of matte painter Emilio Ruiz on this one.

Reviewed on February 14, 2021.