The Unfilmable: What is Lovecraftian Cinema?
By Desmond Reddick
27 November 2006 — In his 1927 canonical essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Howard Philips Lovecraft explained everything about his work in one sentence: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." But, in a world where scary movies do their best to have monsters lick pretty young actresses' faces and send heroes out to kill sea creatures, where does Lovecraftian horror fit?
While he may not necessarily be considered a father of modern fiction like Poe is, he is most certainly the weird uncle your parents would never leave you alone with. H.P. Lovecraft had a life shaped by tragedy, poverty, illness, racism and insanity. When he finally came to write prose he was already crafting dark stories of madness and unknown creatures lurking in the dark.
Almost the entirety of Lovecraft's work can be summed up in the term "cosmic dread." His characters are out of place in the world and the world itself seems out of place. Dark things creep in the shadows making awful noises, and old gods drive cults to strange rituals. Often, his characters start out being the only sane people in the story and, of course, by the end they are either dead or very, very mad. This is the world Lovecraft saw in his dreams.
With his most famous elder god, Cthulhu, and his most famous creation of all, the Necronomicon, there is no doubt of the awesome influence Lovecraft has had on the genres of fantasy, science fiction and, most of all, horror. His direct influence on young writers Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) as well as indirect influence on any number of rock bands and modern horror writers in undeniable. His stories have directly inspired some 65 films. Inspiration from Lovecraft is seen in countless other films like the Evil Dead trilogy, Slither, the Alien quadrilogy. But, have any of them really ever captured the same emotion his prose elicits? Furthermore, what constitutes "Lovecraftian" cinema?
Lovecraft opens "The Call of Cthulhu," one of his most famous stories, with the following: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." This is the central tenet to Lovecraft's horror and, seemingly, his philosophy. Ignorance is bliss and, as human beings, we are insignificant. There is a higher power but to think that it created us in its image is foolish. When we finally discover that higher power we are doomed. Cheery bloke, isn't he?
There, in my mind, is only one film which comes close to accomplishing that outlook: In the Mouth of Madness. In fact, John Carpenter's entire Apocalypse trilogy (which includes The Thing and Prince of Darkness) fits the bill. All three films deal with otherworldly threats and the "terrifying vistas of reality" their characters experience. In the Mouth of Madness, in particular, uses various Lovecraftian tropes throughout. There is a very dangerous book driving people to madness and murder, a New England town populated by weirdoes and cultists, and otherworldly monsters threatening dominion over earth. Of course, it's not the only film to use these, but it is in the way that it uses them that sets this film apart. In it, Sam Neill plays an insurance adjuster looking into the disappearance of mysterious writer, Sutter Cane. Sutter Cane, an obvious Stephen King analogue has disappeared with his new novel and his publisher wants that novel. It turns out that Neill, along with the publisher's assistant, end up in what they thought was the fictional town of Hobb's End. Shenanigans ensue — Lovecraftian shenanigans. It captures the madness and other films in the trilogy capture the despair and hopelessness of Lovecraft's writing. These three films do Lovecraft better than just about any other. There are, however, a few Lovecraft adaptations that I will recommend. But bear in mind that these (unless otherwise noted) are more recommendations of horror films and not Lovecraft adaptations.
The Call of Cthulhu was made by members of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. This 45-minute silent black and white film is the most accurate adaptation of a Lovecraft story. The intent was to create the film had it been adapted from Lovecraft's work when it was published in 1926. Incidentally, Lovecraft considered film crude and artless in his time.
The Haunted Palace, based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, was misleadingly titled on American release as Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace. Lovecraft was a Poe fan, he would have liked that. Not really a good movie, but I'm a whore for Vincent Price.
Stuart Gordon's films, although they often play Lovecraft's stories as gory comedies, are fun in varying degrees. His first in a long list of Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator, happens to be one of my favourite films and film series. Jeffrey Combs plays the self-righteous modern Frankenstein whose mysterious green goo reanimates the dead into savage monstrous zombies. From Beyond quickly followed and essentially used Lovecraft's story of the same name as its title sequence. What follows is an orgy of crazy monsters, weird sex and fluorescent colors. It's currently being restored and re-edited for release on DVD. Castle Freak gets the same criticism everywhere: too much castle and not enough freak. Taken from "The Outsider," it depicts some of the most unnerving scenes put to film, things Lovecraft surely never imagined. It holds a special place in my heart for reasons I'll discuss later. Dagon adapts not so much "Dagon" but one of my favorite stories, "Shadows over Innsmouth." Weird townsfolk, fish people, mermaids and horror's greatest chase scene await lovers of fun horror. It's not easy to find on DVD, but it's worth the viewing. Gordon's last Lovecraftian effort is one of the better episodes of Masters of Horror's first season, "H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House." It is a little silly and tries to jam way too much into 50 minutes (hallucinations, witchcraft, string theory, a talking rat) but still manages to unnerve.
Gordon's films suffer from what all Lovecraft adaptations, and many horror films, suffer from: they show too much. Lovecraft is famous for describing ad nauseum, but when it came to monsters, he let the reader's imagination take over. A scenario you will often find in his writing goes something like this:
I opened the creaking door and entered the dark room. I
could hear deep breathing coming from the corners of the
dark room. The match caught easily when scratched against
the door frame. Lighting the lantern with ease, I rose it into
the darkened abyss and beheld something so horrific I could
not begin to describe it.
It may be obnoxious at times but it is part of his charm. I would love to see a film use this aesthetic, but I fear that in this age of wanton gore it would be almost universally panned.
Now that this week's article is coming to a close I would like to make known what may be the most important thing I ever say. Something so profound I fear that humanity is not prepared to hear it. A phrase so horrific that I cannot begin to type it...