Aug. 20 was the birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the 20th century’s most influential horror writer. If he were still among us (and given the nature of his work, I’d feel dull and churlish to assert with certainty that he’s not), he’d be 122.
How, then, to celebrate the season? For the adventurous and inquisitive, why not a sanity-destroying, mutagenic, and/or fatal invocation of terrors from the Outer Dark? The rest of us, however, may find it preferable simply to read Lovecraft’s fiction. And after that, we may want to check out the movies it inspired.
But there are fewer than one might think, and even fewer good ones. That may have something to do with the nature of Lovecraft’s stories.
The only American horror author more important than Lovecraft is Edgar Allan Poe, and you can’t swing a black cat without hitting a Poe adaptation (including, notably, the Roger Corman-Vincent Price films of the 1960s.) That’s because Poe generally took his inspiration from the dark side of the human psyche. His tales of obsessive love, hatred, revenge and madness give us characters in motion pursuing goals that may be twisted but are nonetheless relatable, and that makes for good movies.
Nyarlathotep knows, Lovecraft wrote his share of madmen too, but his fiction focuses less on dark passions and more on horrific ideas. He chills us by indicating the fragility, insignificance and transience not just of individual human lives but our entire species in a vast, ancient and incomprehensible universe. For a moment only, we share that cosmos with beings too alien to care about us but destined to annihilate us in the same way we step on bugs without even noticing.
That’s a tougher kind of horror to convey in a visual medium, and the fact that Lovecraft’s protagonists are often passive witnesses to the ghastly as opposed to characters fighting to survive compounds the problem. So, too, does the fact that many Lovecraftian creatures and phenomena are supposed to be literally indescribable. Some exist in hyperspace, and others are so hideously otherworldly that one good look shatters the human mind.
These difficulties may be why some filmmakers opt to focus on the most conventional aspects of Lovecraft’s work (like zombies) while ignoring the underlying ideas. They may also explain the frequent urge to parody the source material (which is not to suggest that the stories should not be spoofed or that Lovecraft himself wouldn’t have appreciated the jokes. As his letters reveal, he had a sense of humor and didn’t consider his work anywhere near as extraordinary as we now understand it to be.)
Still, there are good movies based on Lovecraft’s work, and I’m about to recommend some. But before I start, let me note that to me, the mere inclusion of a Cthulhu Mythos buzzword or two doesn’t make a movie Lovecraftian. There are plenty of films that call a book of black magic the Necronomicon. Some of them, like “Cast a Deadly Spell” and “Army of Darkness,” I like a lot. But they don’t reflect Lovecraft’s work in any significant way.
Conversely, it’s possible to tell a story that doesn’t use any of the buzzwords but draws heavily on Lovecraft’s ideas and spirit, and I’ll be including one of those.
And now the recommendations:
“The Haunted Palace” (1963) takes its title from a poem by Poe in order to masquerade as yet another Roger Corman-Vincent Price adaptation of that author’s work. But it’s really based on Lovecraft’s story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
It’s reasonably faithful to the original story, too, delivering such classic Lovecraftian shtick as an isolated village populated by freakish inhabitants, a scholar with a troubling ancestral history and a sorcerer scheming to admit monstrous entities into our reality. The movie’s a low-budget product of its era but creepy nonetheless, and besides, it’s got Vincent Price! You can never go wrong with Vincent Price.
When I saw “The Dunwich Horror” (1973) in its original release, the marquee read, “Sandra Dee as The Dunwich Horror.” I will always cherish that memory, but it’s not the only reason I still think well of the film. Much of what I said about “The Haunted Palace” applies here, too. Made on the cheap and an artifact of its time, the movie is nonetheless effective and pretty true to the source material.
Sandra Dee is wooden as the female lead (maybe she would have been better playing the Horror), but Dean Stockwell is good as the half-human, half-monster Wilbur Whateley, and Ed Begley acquits himself well as Dr. Armitage, the rare Lovecraftian character who actually manages to get off his ass and do something to avert impending catastrophe. T
he psychedelic effect used to represent the Horror looks quaint this far removed from the hippie era, but it does suggest the unbearably alien nature of the spawn of the Elder God Yog-Sothoth.
Lovecraft wrote the stories on which “Re-Animator” (1985) and its sequels are based for a fanzine and was rather plainly just goofing around seeing how wild and crazy he could get with the Frankenstein theme. (The stories don’t tie in to his Cthulhu Mythos.)
The movies capture the same spirit, painting the screen red with the gore Lovecraft could only indicate with words and throwing in sex and nudity that might have made the reserved and proper author blush but serve the black comedy well. Jeffrey Combs is terrific as the nerdy yet steely scientist intent on conquering death, and never mind how much collateral damage the living suffer in the process.
Combs reunited with Lovecraft in “From Beyond” (1986). The movie doesn’t follow the plot of the original story, and once again, nudity and sex take us into territory where the author would never have ventured except by implication. But the premise of the tale remains: Every moment of our lives, we humans move through a veritable sea of monstrous life forms, but fortunately, we’re out of phase with them.
It’s a flimsy safeguard, though, and if we ever so much as glimpse them, they’ll be able to perceive us, too, and come after us. That’s an unsettling and original notion, and the film knows what to do with it.
The “Unnamable” (1988) is unquestionably the most marginal entry on this list, and I can already hear Lovecraft fans hooting at a movie that throws the plot of the original away in favor of your standard college-students-run-afoul-of-monster story. But I like it because Randolph Carter, as portrayed by Mark Kinsey Stephenson, strikes me as a credible, engaging version of Lovecraft’s student of dark mysteries. (If you take a chance on the movie and like it, there’s a sequel: “The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter.”)
The “Resurrected” (1992) is another movie based on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” this version directed by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote “Alien.” Chris Sarandon is good in the dual roles of Ward and his ancestor Joseph Curwen, and the subterranean scenes are nail-biters.
John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” (1995) is the flick I mentioned that doesn’t use any of Lovecraft’s names or other buzzwords but is nonetheless entirely Lovecraftian in concept. Sam Neill is an investigator who tracks a missing horror writer to a strange New England village only to discover that (like his spiritual brothers Joseph Curwen and Wilbur Whateley) said novelist intends to draw monstrous entities into our world, a desecration made possible because his writing can alter reality itself.
The resulting shifts are disturbing to say the least, and Neill does an excellent job of showing us the resourceful and initially skeptical investigator’s descent into disorientation and desperation.
Based on the most famous Lovecraft story of all, “The Call of Cthulhu” (2005) has the distinction of being the one adaptation done as if Hollywood had filmed it the same year the original story was written. In other words, it’s silent and in black and white. It’s also entirely faithful to the original and surprisingly effective even for a viewer like me, who really does prefer talkies.
In “Cthulhu” (2007), another scholar with a tainted bloodline makes the bad decision to visit the hometown of his ancestors. In this case, though, it might not matter anyway, because it’s plain from the get-go that Cthulhu’s alarm has finally gone off and the end of the world has begun.
The movie does a good creepy job of suggesting the first stirrings of apocalypse and is generally weird and troubling in an understated way.
So that’s my list. If I’ve left off anything good, please post and share your own recommendations. Because Cthulhu fhtagn (and rocks!)