Mysterious creatures. Bizarre science. A dark, snowbound fortress. The occult. Tentacled, crustacean-inspired monsters. Hellish apocalypse. Primordial evil. Madness. Hellboy, the well-received latest film from neo-post-schlock auteur Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II), offers these and other delights, all of which are common motifs in the work of that impossibly influential champion of the strange: early-20th-century author/weirdo H.P. Lovecraft.
The superficial but notable role the horror master’s writings play in del Toro’s enjoyable film will come as no surprise to readers of the Hellboy comics and graphic novels – the paranormal investigator’s action-packed exploits practically bleed (or maybe ooze) Lovecraft. Hellboy mastermind Mike Mignola, an accomplished, long-time comics vet who created the character back in the early 90s, acknowledges this debt himself by dedicating the first Hellboy graphic novel, Seed of Destruction, to Lovecraft.
But even with Lovecraft’s widely acknowledged influence in the world of literature, and his overwhelming presence in some of the best graphic fiction of the last decade (Hellboy, The Marquis, The Goon, the work of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis), the bard of terror’s distinctive themes and overall aesthetic has fared somewhat less well in the realm of motion pictures.
Lovecraft first reached America’s silver screens in 1963 thanks to infamous B-movie czar Roger Corman, who at the time was enjoying great creative and financial success with films adapted from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Named after one of Poe’s stories – ostensibly for commercial reasons – The Haunted Palace (1963) was vaguely based on Lovecraft’s The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and starred horror cinema icons Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, Jr. Written by under-appreciated screenwriter Charles Beaumont, Corman’s spooky and atmospheric creep-out was a promising start for cinema a la Lovecraft.
Unfortunately, any positive gains for Lovecraft made by Corman were unceremoniously demolished by 1965’s Die, Monster, Die!, a British production which may sound like a German art-house extravaganza, but is, in fact, a genuine travesty. A very tired Boris Karloff, doomed ex-TV star Nick Adams, and an over-zealous fog machine slum mightily in this dull-as-dirt “version” of Lovecraft’s science-fiction-tinged The Colour Out of Space. Why the producers felt they needed to acknowledge Lovecraft remains unclear; the only two aspects of the source text to make it onscreen are a cryptic meteorite and an imprisoned monster.
Three more similarly unimpressive Lovecraft films rounded out the ‘60s: The Shuttered Room (1967), The Crimson Altar (1968), and the excellently titled Sinister Invasion (a.k.a. Alien Terror) (1968).
Although the 1970s proved to be a golden age for American film, Lovecraft’s cinematic reputation did not benefit from the creative renaissance thanks to Roger Corman’s sexually erroneous and largely absurd The Dunwich Horror (1970). An onslaught of unintentional hilarity, the film that put an end to Lovecraft adaptations for more than a decade features Dean Stockwell doing a silly Charles Manson impression; squeaky-clean queen Sandra Dee moaning and writhing half-naked on a stone slab; a detailed graveside ritual; and – See! The most shocking, inhuman depravity of all! – a hippie orgy. And yet, despite these things, a silly/funky soundtrack, generous readings from the Necronomicon, and possibly filmdom’s only fistfight set in a library, The Dunwich Horror does not succeed.
Thankfully, at the close of the 1970s, a young group of up-and-coming filmmakers raised on low-budget American genre cinema refused to believe that Lovecraft was a cinematic dead end.
In 1985, Stuart Gordon’s perverse splatter classic Re-Animator (1985) reintroduced Lovecraft to horror audiences, and helped fuel the cultish and critical adoration the writer enjoys today. An outlandish balance of gruesome humor and genuine terror, the film is strikingly similar to the theme, tone, and spirit of Lovecraft’s original story.
In 1986, Gordon let loose on an unsuspecting public the equally watchable and enthusiastically sadistic From Beyond (1986), which revealed the director – one of the most original, consistent, and inscrutable horror filmmakers of his generation – as not just a Lovecraft fan, but an outright devotee. In fact, Gordon continues to mine Lovecraft for ideas: the short story “The Outsider” inspired 1995’s Castle Freak; and a witch’s brew of Lovcraft’s stories comprise the underrated gore epic Dagon (2001).
The ‘80s and ‘90s were fertile ground for Lovecraft adaptations in part thanks to the success of Re-Animator and From Beyond, but also because of the staggering popularity of independently produced, low-budget, straight-to-video horror. Other Lovecraft films released during this time include the justifiably despised The Curse (1987), The Unnamable (1988), Dan O’Bannon’s The Resurrected (1991), Cast a Deadly Spell (1991), The Unnamable 2: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1992), and Lurking Fear (1994).
Even the once great director John Carpenter – whose terrifying re-imagining of Howard Hawks’ The Thing relies heavily on At the Mountains of Madness – publicly declared a serious Lovecraft jones with In the Mouth of Madness (1994), an uneven but somewhat effective and sporadically imaginative meta-fictitious treatise on the horror genre itself.
Perhaps most incredibly, those aforementioned films are just the straightforward adaptations that actually cite Lovecraft as the author of the source material. As Hellboy proves, references and homages to and various interpretations of Lovecraft’s ideas appear in movies and on TV with astonishing frequency: Alien, the Evil Dead series, Event Horizon, The Blair Witch Project, Fellowship of the Ring, Dark City, Ghostbusters, any film from a Stephen King or Clive Barker novel, and many episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The X-Files to name just a few.
The reach of Lovecraft’s powerful influence even extends overseas. The rich and prolific Italian horror film industry, which includes well-known directors like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento, have been making movies with Lovecraftian overtones since the late ‘50s. And the overwhelming dread, apocalyptic overtones, deep psychological fear, unexplained paranormal phenomena, and amorphous conclusions that characterize much of the recent renaissance in Japanese horror filmmaking – most notably the A+ chiller Uzumaki – more than hint at Lovecraft. My own personal vote for Most Lovecraftian Film of All Time goes to the 1963 Japanese freak-out Attack of the Mushroom People, a hazy thriller of crawling dread about a group of shipwrecked vacationers who contract a grotesque and incurable disease that gave me an unnatural fear of fungi, bubbling face lesions, and repressed Japanese psychoses.
So, with Lovecraft’s significant importance to filmmakers far and wide, a glaring question remains: why haven’t there been any attempts at a more serious Lovecraft adaptation?
Part of the problem is that the typical directors who either adapt or pay homage to Lovecraft – by all accounts a relentlessly, self-consciously serious author – are, somewhat ironically, devotees of the stereotypical aesthetics of low-budget shock/exploitation cinema. Meaning, these directors make gleefully frivolous films that tend to focus on sheer entertainment over thematic gravity along with a large amount of other, very un-Lovecraftian elements like an emphasis on action, outrageous gore and/or sex, ironically corny dialogue, and just general all-around silliness. Although these directors obviously adore Lovecraft’s work, they have different goals in mind. Lovecraft to them is usually a means to an end, or often a more thoughtful way of injecting some unique and spooky ideas into the pulp-ish proceedings.
B-movies can be great fun, and perhaps it would be a mistake to take Lovecraft too seriously; many of the most cringe-inducing films ever made are science fiction and horror movies too interested in their own self-importance. But all the Lovecraft adaptations up to this point are lacking many of the traits that make him such an important writer: the heavy, foreboding atmosphere; the otherworldly creepiness; the epic sweep; the unbelievably unusual and frightening ideas; that slow, building dread; that sense of absolute helplessness and hopelessness; the experience of pure, primal fear; the existence of a great, all-powerful, unstoppable evil.
Lovecraft isn’t just a few occult references and squid monsters; his brand of horror is entirely his own, which is another part of the dilemma. Perhaps a completely straightforward film version of a Lovecraft work is too ambitious, too intimidating – maybe it’s even impossible. To be frank, his stories aren’t exactly alive with dialogue, character, and plot. They aren’t by any means “lively” or even, you know, “exciting.”
Where would one even begin with adapting something like The Shadow Over Innsmouth into an involving and moving film with real narrative drive? And even then, how would you get anyone to produce it? The last big studio horror movie to be taken seriously by critics, the industry, and the public at large was The Silence of the Lambs. Even subtle ghost stories like The Sixth Sense and The Others appear to be a thing of the past.
Could a Lovecraft film be sold to a cigar-chomping, Armani suit-wearing, coke-sniffing major studio film producer as fantasy? Well, sure the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films are monumentally successful, but “Nyarlathotep” isn’t exactly a sexy gay elf. I’m not sure whom you could convince that a big budget Haunter of the Dark would get those appallingly lucrative teenage asses in the seats.
As usual, the future doesn’t appear to be too bright for Lovecraftian cinema. Although the man’s literary reputation and cult following continue to grow by leaps and bounds, more references and allusions by savvy geek directors will remain the status quo. But this is the thing: if, as they say, horror films capture through metaphor the fears of the society that made them, Lovecraft won’t really be popular until we’re on the brink of some catastrophic, unstoppable, apocalyptic event. So, with that in mind, maybe it’s OK for folks to hold off for a while….
Andrew Duncan was born not in a crossfire hurricane, but in some kind of fluffy cloud low-pressure system. Like most boys, he is amused by movies, music, sports, books, video games, bodily functions, and animals in funny hats. However, he does not think girls are “icky.” He is pre-occupied with being occupied/distracted; thinks the 21st century should involve more robots; and constantly wonders if his idyllic childhood renders his writing useless.