H.P. Lovecraft’s impact on horror and science-fiction literature is irrefutable. The pulp writer’s core themes of humanity’s insignificance in an amoral, indescribably vast universe have colored the later work of writers ranging from Robert Bloch to Fritz Leiber to Neil Gaiman. When Stephen King calls you “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale,” you did something right.
Lovecraft’s impact on horror cinema, at least in terms of direct adaptations of his stories, has been more hit-and-miss. Character development was never Lovecraft’s strong suit, and the terseness of his best stories leave filmmakers in the unenviable (and most often disastrous) position of needing to stretch narrative to fill 90 minutes. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying — probably because much of Lovecraft’s work is in the public domain.
The result is a sizable body of low-budget, spotty projects. Many of these movies, such as 2007’s Cthulhu, miss the point about as completely as did copycat “Cthulhu mythos” writers who overlaid notions of Good and Evil, priests, love, nobility, and redemption atop Lovecraft’s bleak, uncaring, and hungry universe.
But some filmmakers get it. As you begin to line up your Halloween viewing list, here are five pretty darn creepy Lovecraft adaptations that will make you nervous about looking out your attic window and basically dampen your mood. Hey, Christmas is just two months away — tough it out.
From Beyond (1986): Director Stuart Gordon has made a career of adapting Lovecraft, and perhaps his best effort is this body-horror flick that stretches a one-scene short story into a full-on assault of pan-dimensional flying eels and bloody head mutation. A scientist invents a machine that allows humans to see into the parallel dimensions that surround us. Problem is, the machine also allows the denizens of those dimensions to see us, too. Like most of Gordon’s films, From Beyond doesn’t allow its bargain-basement effects budget dampen its ambitions, and the net effect is often black comedy alongside genuine scares.
Dagon (2001): Gordon returns to the well with this adaptation of Lovecraft’s popular story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” about a decaying fishing village whose inhabitants have made a deal with ancient forces that includes a clause about them eventually turning into immortal fish things. Gordon artfully dances around Lovecraft’s persistent xenophobia and racism (if you decide to read Lovecraft’s stories, be forewarned) to focus on truly harrowing action sequences as our hero attempts to escape the town and his own destiny.
The Music of Erich Zann (1980): This short amateur film captures the spirit of Lovecraft’s personal favorite amongst his own works. A student becomes transfixed by otherworldly music coming from his boarding house’s top-floor apartment, the only one high enough to look out over a wall at the end of the weird street of rotting tenements and blank-eyed tenants. An elderly, mute violist plays wildly each night, but what is he trying to call out to, or keep at bay? This short features no violence or gore, and is a good choice for those who enjoy a smart, suspenseful diversion.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005): This is a fan adaptation of Lovecraft’s most famous novella, but the fans happened to be professional filmmakers, and the result is 47 minutes of pure geeked-out joy. The black-and-white silent project employs, for the most part, only those special effect techniques available in 1928, when Lovecraft introduced the world to the alien deity of madness that has become a pop culture meme. Great Cthulhu is brought to something approximating life in stop-motion animation that would make Willis O’Brien proud, and guys waving black sheets stand in for waves lapping a ocean steamer as it charges the dire cosmic squid. Some scenes of cannibalism are actually quite shocking, but this is a smart almost hour of entertainment that will appeal to any movie buff.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994): This John Carpenter project is not technically an adaptation of any given Lovecraft story, and was not initially marketed even as an homage, despite having a title that’s composited from two of Lovecraft’s best-known novellas, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” Sam Neill plays an investigator on the trail of a horror novelist whose works are driving his readers insane and bending reality in some squishy, tentacle-laden directions. All the trappings of classic Lovecraft are here: Old ladies turning into squid monsters, mindless hordes of mutant townsfolk, and even a parade of Great Old Ones shambling down a hallway straight outta The Wizard of Oz. In many ways this is Carpenter’s least appreciated film, and best captures the essence of a great Lovecraft story.
Note to geeks: I did not include Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) on this list because, like the Lovecraft story, it doesn’t reflect the author’s root theme of cosmic indifference. Lovecraft wrote “Hebert West - Reanimator” (1922) as a purely commercial knock-off of Frankenstein and was never happy with the work; then again, he was never happy with much of anything. For those who have never seen Re-Animator, do check it out — it is right up there with The Evil Dead among gross-out ’80s horror comedies.