Ia! Ia! Lovecraft at the Movies

Posted on March 9, 2012 by UK Editor

by Keri O’Shea

“We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”

Those of you who are regular visitors to Brutal as Hell might have noticed there’s an impromptu theme brewing… this may be down to my Piscean cohorts, Annie and Ben, but in any case, it seems we’re going heavy on the deranged marine life and fish/human hybrids. And, hey, if we’re going there, then we need to talk Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, author of some of the most unnerving and disorientating horror literature ever penned, wasn’t himself all that big a fan of the movies, once referring to “the utter and unrelieved hokum of the moving picture.” Hmmm…if he could see the world now, he’d no doubt be unimpressed. Certainly, his work doesn’t lend itself all that comfortably to a straightforward retelling on the screen (although this has been done – and well – more on this anon), but it was inevitable that filmmakers would turn to him for inspiration. HPL’s work has created its own self-perpetuating universe – a dark and horrible place, peopled with the insane, the disfigured and the unknowable – and this place has in its turn fostered remarkable horror movies. And why not?

If there is such a thing as a central message in Lovecraft, it is this: everything we know and recognise is in fact on the precipice of utter chaos and, come to think of it, it turns out that we’re all inconsequential creatures when pitched against these forces. We have no hope of understanding the hows and whys of our situations until it’s far too late. It’s a frightening – and also a thrilling – thought. Personally, I was a latecomer to Lovecraft – I didn’t read any of his stories until I was in my mid-twenties, thus missing out on the formative effects of HPL I’m told of when he’s read by people in their teens – but, fuck, is that not a powerful premise for horror? No wonder people have let their imaginations run riot where Lovecraft is concerned. And of course, if humanity itself is screwed, and everything we know is bullshit, then ditto for any idea of physical integrity. In the Lovecraftian universe, flesh breaks down too. It is our destiny.

In fact, I look a little different lately…are those gills?

Before I backslide down the evolutionary ladder any further, then, let me talk about some of my favourite examples of Lovecraftian horror cinema…there are, of course, many more to choose from, and I’d love to hear about your pick of the bunch too. 

The Beyond (1981)

Whilst it may be one of those movies which takes Lovecraft as a jumping-off point before moving off in its own direction entirely, Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is a fine imaginative spin on some decidedly Lovecraftian themes. Here, arcane knowledge is (of course) poised to open the gates to Hell itself; the Book of Eibon is an artefact key in all this. Back in the 1920s, a deranged painter named Schweik was lynched by some friendly Louisiana townsfolk for his devilish transgressions – with his death opening the gates of Hell, allowing the dead to cross into our dimension. Years later, a young woman inherits the place of Schweik’s death – The Seven Doors Hotel – and her renovation work opens the portal again. Fulci’s version of the hell which breaks loose is Fulci cinema at its oozing, abhorrent, surreal and strange best, and the interplay between body horror and metaphysical exploration here makes for a remarkable piece of cinema. The fact that this is all refracted through to us through a distinctive Italian Eurohorror vibe definitely works in the film’s favour.

Necronomicon (1994)

This is perhaps not one of the most popular Lovecraft movies out there, and I’ve seen it much maligned, but – I’m very fond of this one, regardless of some of the fair criticism levelled at it. For one thing, any casting decision which places Jeffrey Combs as H.P. Lovecraft himself is onto a winner where I’m concerned, and the film integrates a good actor well-chosen into an interesting framing device, where Lovecraft himself transcribes from the Necronomicon, a book whose malevolent power opens up a portal to somewhere…else. Lovecraft transcribes three stories; thus what we have here is the ‘portmanteau’ format beloved of 60s and 70s horror, giving us three short horror films within one film: ‘The Drowned’ (directed by Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christopher Gans), ‘The Cold’ (directed by kaiju specialist Shusuke Kaneko) and ‘Whispers’ (directed by Brian Yuzna). Of all of these, ‘The Drowned’ is most powerful for me, and does a very good job of capturing that desolation which is as much key to Lovecraft’s prose as the body shock elements. Even if the tone of the rest of the film is too cartoonish for some tastes, you can’t deny that there are some powerful scenes in here, and the directors who were on board bring some interesting things to the table.

Re-Animator (1985)

Here we are, then, with one of the most esteemed and established directors to bring Lovecraft to the screen; Stuart Gordon has consistently gotten a good handle on Lovecraft’s material, and he brings a sort of lunatic energy to proceedings which I’d argue is unparalleled. Re-Animator is one of those projects; though based on a fairly minor HPL tale, the imaginative exploration of ‘Herbert West: Reanimator’ has provided horror viewers with a classic movie and one of the finest body horrors of all time. What holds the film together so well is not just the direction, though: here’s Jeffrey Combs again in arguably his best-known role as Dr. West. In amongst all the chaos and experimentation and syringes full of a certain glowing-green substance, Combs plays his role utterly straight, and Re-Animator works brilliantly because of that. As with many cult cinema performances, the po-faced earnestness of Herbert West carries the film a long way, whereas playing it for laughs would have debased the film’s impact considerably. Also, the physical grotesquerie of this movie? Perfect blend of laugh-out-loud and stomach-turning.

Dagon (2001)

I know that my esteemed colleague and fellow Nordic male-botherer Annie Riordan mentioned Dagon in her rundown of the best mutant fish people movies, so I don’t want to just repeat what she said, but I have to include Dagon on this list. It’s not just one of my favourite Lovecraft movies, it’s one of my favourite movies, and it deserves credit. Sure, it fell foul of some early poor-quality CGI which looks gratingly dated now, but using my favourite HPL story, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ as a starting-point wins it favour to start with – plus, repositioning the film not in the United States but in Spain allows Stuart Gordon to add yet another layer of difference and alienation to an already heaving atmosphere. Now not only is there a conspiracy in the strange fishing town of Imbocca, but the ‘stranger in a strange land’ effect is amplified by the problems with language and culture difference. Still, this isn’t just a mood piece. There’s lots of tension here too – and protagonist Paul’s efforts to escape from the waves of deformed (or are they deformed?) villagers is a creepy highlight.

Two other things are striking, for me. The first is the magnetic performance of Macarena Gómez, who is just perfect in her role of ‘the Priestess’ and deserves to be seen more outside of her native Spain. Then, there’s the ambiguity of that ending. Has Paul been beaten? Or, in being made to embrace his ‘destiny’, has he actually found happiness? Dagon is a classic example of Lovecraft on the silver screen and it’s a film that I find oddly comforting to watch over and over again.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

I come to the end of my little list to discuss what is, to me, the most ambitious and accomplished HPL horror I have seen to date. Sadly, I have yet to see the most recent offering from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society and director Sean Branney (The Whisperer in Darkness) but if it’s of the same quality as The Call of Cthulhu, then fuck it, I’m in.

Imagine if a cinematic version of HPL’s short story of the perils of forbidden knowledge, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (featuring the creature which would spawn an entire mythos) had been made at the time he wrote it? The story was completed in 1926: these were the days before ‘talkies’, so it would be a silent film, and if it was anything like comparative creepy tales which were making their way to the screen, it would probably reflect the day’s preoccupation with Expressionist tropes. Also, all the visual effects would have to be done with what was available at the time. See, if you’ve tracked down The Call of Cthulhu (and I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen) then you need imagine what that would be like no more – the HPLHS have made it happen. The film also closely follows the progression of the original story, making it deeply unusual in terms of HPL cinema, but it works well. The sense of contemporaneity with the story-writer himself is strong, and it makes for a memorable piece of cinema: this film has set the bar very high for any upcoming HPL film projects, as well as given the lie to suggestions that Lovecraft’s stories are unfilmable in their original form… it’s not easy, and it’s not common, but it has been done here.

So, whether or not the man himself was a fan of cinema, his stories have fed into many, many movies over the decades – what he would have thought of the films I’ve listed here, I could not say, but I’m glad that Lovecraft’s warped visions have found its place on the silver screen. For a more exhaustive run-down of the movies I’ve mentioned, as well as stacks more, do check out ‘Lurker in the Lobby: a Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft’ by Andrew Migliore & John Strysik.