Celluloid Tentacles – H.P. Lovecraft in the Cinema

The pre-eminent American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft doesn’t seem to have been interested in having film adaptations made of his stories. In fact, in a letter to the poet Richard Morse, he said, “I shall never permit anything bearing my signature to be banalised and vulgarised into the flat, infantile twaddle which passes for ‘horror tales’ amongst radio and cinema audiences.”

Being an avowed HPL fan, and having seen much of the cinema-related twaddle in question adapted from his stories, I have to concur that he would not generally be pleased. But I do think there are some great films out there that bear his name…and some that don’t, but that are so clearly in homage to his work that they deserve a mention. Likewise, there are some movies that are…well…dreadful, and worthy of mention if only to avoid them. And there are still others which are absolutely terrible adaptations of Lovecraft…but that are, nonetheless, rather fun in and of themselves.

Here then, for your consideration, are eight movies, in salute to the octopoid nature of great Cthulhu himself. Some I love, some I hate, some I love that I’m quite sure Lovecraft would’ve hated. Oh, and, fair warning, there’s a bit of swearing later in the article. But it’s a quote, so that’s okay, right?

“Burn them all!”

I start in all seriousness with what may be the best adaptation of a Lovecraft movie ever, and one that will be hard to top. In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society released a 47 minute long adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” which is stunningly faithful to the original. The brilliant idea was to make a movie as if it had been filmed in 1926, when Lovecraft wrote the story. It’s a silent, black-and-white film, and most of the effects are techniques that were quite possible in 1926, with only a few cheats. For all that it’s silent, the acting is excellent, and the costumes and props are as authentic as they come. It actually manages to be pretty creepy at times, and the whole piece feels like a love-letter to HPL. You may have to purchase it to see it, but it’s well worth the price to an HPL enthusiast.

“Let me whisper it to you…”

The inspiration for this article comes from the fact that the HPL Historical Society finally released their second film, an adaptation of “The Whisperer in Darkness”. While this one plays a little more fast and loose with HPL’s original story, it’s still far more faithful than the average Hollywood adaptation. It’s a talking film, this time, and a full length feature, but still in black-and-white, and still using mostly effects possible in the 1920s and 30s. Some actors from the first film are back (including Matt Foyer, who played the “narrator” of the first film and who’s absolutely fantastic when you can hear him speak), and the opening shot alone shows that they’ve learned a lot in 6 years…impressive considering how polished The Call of Cthulhu was. While their first film will always be special to me, this is still an amazing accomplishment.

“They’re all gonna die without you!”

When I heard that Tori Spelling was going to be in a movie called just “Cthulhu”, I rolled my eyes and completely put the idea of seeing it aside. Another cinema cash grab with a famous Lovecraft name. Whatever. Much to my surprise, when it was finally released, it was getting critical acclaim. Curious, we rented it, and we were pleasantly surprised. It’s actually a fairly decent adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, transplanting the setting to the Pacific Northwest. The main character is gay, which piqued my interest, and the screenwriter suggested this was done to symbolize the horror of a gay man having to come home and face the scrutiny of family and neighbors. Tori Spelling is actually only a very small role, and she doesn’t manage to derail the film. I don’t think HPL would’ve loved it, but it’s a decent film none the less.

“You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me!”

The HPL-lineage of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is an easy trace. HPL’s Antarctic opus, “At the Mountains of Madness” inspired John W. Campbell to write the novella “Who Goes There?” This story inspired both the 1951 movie and Carpenter’s 1982 remake, which is both truer to the original story and more Lovecraftian. Lovecraftian? Oh, indeed. Just try and tell me that highly-mutable Thing isn’t a sort of shoggoth. Just try.

The quote prefacing this section is, of course, one of the greatest reaction comments to any sort of alien menace ever, as well as being both laugh-out-loud funny and a bit chilling. If you’ve never seen “The Thing”, I will not spoil the movie at all, but I can say that, you’ll likely be feeling exactly as MacReady does when he utters this quote.

“Yog-Sothoth! Yog-Sothoth!”

Moving away from movies I love into the realm of movies I love to hate, we have “The Dunwich Horror”. No, not the recent one (though the few scenes I’ve seen of that were dreadful), but the 1970 Roger Corman-produced movie with Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee. The story certainly starts out sort of on the right track. Wilbur Whateley, from Dunwich, wants to borrow Miskatonic University’s copy of the Necronomicon. When he can’t get it from Henry Armitage, he takes Armitage’s library assistant instead, and tries to sacrifice her to the Old Ones. He gets struck by lightning and fails, and we get a dun-dun-DUN! ending as an X-ray cam shows us that Sandra Dee is now carrying Wilbur’s child. I think it actually ends with one of those “The End” credits that then gets a question mark after it. Kind of “The End…or is it? Nyah-ha-ha!”

Everything in this movie is translated just a bit into something less scary. Goatish, monstrous Wilbur in the original is transformed into the handsome Dean Stockwell who can hypnotize Sandra Dee. The Old Ones appear as a bunch of groovy nudist hippies. Oh, and Wilbur’s monstrous brother is basically a doll-face in the middle of a rubber sea-anemone. That is all.

“Rather like peeling a large orange…”

If you recognized that I was quoting Dr. Carl Hill describing removing the scalp of a corpse to a bunch of medical students, then you probably know that I’m talking about Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator”, the movie that pretty much launched a deluge of HPL adaptations in the 80s. This movie, based on the serial story “Herbert West: Re-Animator”, would absolutely appall HPL. It has naked women, sex (really kinky, wacky sex, at that), gore, and is generally silly. Despite this, I happen to love this movie in spite of myself. Jeffrey Coombs is absolutely brilliant as West, and this is what really carries the film, along with its sly sense of humor at adapting the original stories. Even some of the most outlandish things from the movie actually happen in the original stories (sans the naked women). If nothing else, this movie brought Coombs to the attention of people making Lovecraft films, and his performances grace lots of other, lesser films. This one, however, along with Gordon’s even more sexually kinky and wacky “From Beyond”, are rather delightful in their own ways. Does including “From Beyond” mean I’m talking about nine films, rather than eight? Fine. It’s non-Euclidian list building. Deal with it.

“This town has been on the goddamn dinner menu for 20 years.”

When Lovecraft talked about “flat, infantile twaddle,” I’m pretty sure he was having a vision of “The Lurking Fear”, a 1994 movie based on the story of the same name. Dubbed “The explodinest HPL movie ever,” but my friends and I, this movie is almost completely, irredeemably bad. When I mentioned Coombs being in lesser HPL films, this is what I’m talking about. He plays a character named Dr. Haggis. Dr. Haggis! The character is always drunk, and I suspect Coombs may have been method acting, trying to figure out why he’s in this piece of crap film. Or maybe the booze was the paycheck. I don’t know. Anyway, dreadful, and full of explosions, and nothing else memorable.

“No one leave Imboca. People come, but no one leave.”

The movie “Dagon” has seemed to me to be a bit controversial and polarizing to HPL fans. It has comparatively little to do with the HPL story Dagon and is much more an adaptation of the story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. It compounds the isolation and fear of the narrator of “Shadow” by having him be unable to communicate with the locals very well (the film is set in Spain) and worrying for his missing friends and fiancée. There’s some nudity and some gore, as there are in the other Stuart Gordon HPL films, but here, again, a lot of the movie is carried by a great performance from a fine, relatively unknown actor. In this case, it’s Ezra Godden, who also plays in the TV movie version of HPL’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” (which I won’t bother mentioning…except right there when I did.)

I actually really enjoy this film, though it’s helpful to turn on the subtitles during Francisco Rabal’s narrations of the flashback scenes. Godden does a fine job of displaying terror, determination, desperation, and despair. And there are some really wonderful moments in this film. How Gordon got Francisco Rabal, who had numerous awards under his belt when he made this, is beyond me. My only real falling down moment? The actual appearance of Dagon. While I love everything around it, I just feel it was thrown in as “Well, we named the movie Dagon…better have Dagon in it.” Dagon’s on screen for a heartbeat, really, and his unlikely look is rendered in cheap CG graphics. Oh well. I can forgive that heartbeat.

Your Turn

Well, I’ve named what I think are some of the best and the worst, but this list is hardly comprehensive. I didn’t mention Boris Karloff’s terrible turn in “Die, Monster! Die!” or Wil Wheaton in “The Curse”…both of which are somehow based on “The Colour Out of Space”. I didn’t mention the semi-animated “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which I really enjoyed, or the wonderful amateur film of “Cool Air”, starring veteran actor Jack Donner. And there are films still waiting to be made, like Guillermo Del Toro’s long-awaited, long hoped-for “At the Mountains of Madness”, which was thought to be dead, but which he recently said he intends to push for after his new movie “Pacific Rim” opens in 2013.

But I want to hear from other folks about their Cheers and Jeers for HPL adaptations. Is there a film you love or hate that I didn’t mention? Did I list a movie that you disagree or particularly agree with me on? Let us all know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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