Few filmmakers have been successful in translating New England horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s dense, adjective-driven tales of Elder Gods, Old Ones and the Horrors That Lurk Just the Other Side of Reality into effective cinema. Despite interesting earlier forays such as The Dunwich Horror (US-1970; dir. Daniel Haller), Boris Karloff’s Die, Monster, Die! (US-1965; dir. Daniel Haller — a version of “The Color Out of Space”), and Roger Corman’s Poe-styled translation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, The Haunted Palace (US-1963; dir. Roger Corman), it wasn’t until Stuart Gordon came on the scene that the movies began to feel even slightly Lovecraftian in their styling, despite the fact that examples such as Re-Animator (1985, based on “Herbert West, Re-Animator”), From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995, based on “The Outsider”), Dagon (2001) and most recently H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House (2005) from the Masters of Horror TV series are somewhat more visceral and bloody than Lovecraft’s stories, at least on a surface level.
Given Lovecraft’s prominence in the horror field, the difficulties inherent in translating his tales to the screen have meant that films based on his work have not been as common as one might have expected — and that one of the most successfully Lovecraftian films ever was not even based on his work: namely John Carpenter’s vastly under-appreciated In the Mouth of Madness (1994).
In recent times, production of Lovecraft-based films has been ramping up, however. In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society made the brilliantly conceived and executed The Call of Cthulhu (US-2005; dir. Andrew Leman), which adopts film techniques current at the time the story was written to create a strong sense of period (it’s made in the manner of a silent-era film) and evoking an effective atmosphere of dread — and it proved to be one of the most accurate renditions of a Lovecraft story ever. In 2007 Dan Gildark directed a modernised Lovecraft tale, Cthulhu, based loosely on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Since 2005, the Masters of Horror TV series has featured the afore-mentioned Stuart Gordon effort Dreams in the Witch-House, as well as the pre-Lovecraftian Ambrose Bierce tale The Damned Thing (US-2006; dir. Tobe Hooper). Color From the Dark (US-2008; dir. Ivan Zuccon) is an independent feature film based on “The Color Out of Space”, which won best feature at this year’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival — an annual festival that is highlighting hordes of shorts and features based on the Master’s work. Meanwhile rumours of big budget Lovecraft tales are beginning to appear, from the likes of Stuart Gordon (“The Thing on the Doorstep”) and Guillermo Del Toro (“At the Mountains of Madness”) — not to mention such Lovecraftesque monster films as Altitude (due 2010, directed by Kaare Andrews).
Over the next few weeks Undead Backbrain will be taking a look at some of the directly Lovecraftian films that have just appeared or are about to. First up is a short film that features a little known Old One.
Dirt Dauber (US-2009; short [35 min]; dir. Steve Daniels)
In this disturbing Lovecraftian fairytale, a man awakes naked and confused in an isolated mountainous region. He soon encounters a strange local who offers to help him. The stranger recounts local folklore that speaks of a murderous religious cult, and an insect-like fertility god that is said to dwell deep within the mountain. The two men go underground in search of the truth and soon find themselves in a stygian black temple of horror. (hplfilmfestival.com)
Dirt Dauber is a short film inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and was winner of the “Brown Jenkin: Best Short Film Award” at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival 2009.
The story features a mythical fertility monster referred to as a “Thing with a Thousand Young”, which leads to the assumption that we’re dealing with Lovecraft’s Old One, Shub-Niggurath. Shub-Niggurath never actually appears in any of Lovecraft’s stories, though it is referred to, principally in incantations of various kinds, as “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!” Hints as to its appearance, developed by writers such as Robert Bloch and Ramsey Campbell in their latter-day contributions to the “Cthulhu Mythos”, have led artists (such a Patrick McEvoy) to conceive of Shub-Niggurath as an amorphous monstrosity with tentacles, thus:
and this one, which hints at goatishness (I don’t know the name of the artist, but if anyone does, please let me know):
Neither the reference to the Black Goat (clearly in itself alluding to the medieval depiction of Satan as a monstrous goat, or perhaps to the Great God Pan), nor the description of Shub-Niggurath as an “evil cloud-like entity” (from a letter written by Lovecraft) give much to suggest a vision of the creature as a giant wasp-like monster, which is the approach taken by Deep Dauber. However, in “The Whisperer in Darkness” the voice whispering the incantation on a recording is described as offering merely “a buzzing imitation of human speech”:
It was like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species, and I am perfectly certain that the organs producing it can have no resemblance to the vocal organs of man, or indeed to those of any of the mammalia. There were singularities in timbre, range, and overtones which placed the phenomenon wholly outside the sphere of humanity and earth-like. Its sudden advent that first time almost stunned me, and I heard the rest of the record through in a sort of abstracted daze. When the longer passage of buzzing came, there was a sharp intensification of that feeling of blasphemous infinity which had struck me during the shorter and earlier passage. At last the record ended abruptly, during an unusually clear speech of the human and Bostonian voice; but I sat stupidly staring long after the machine had automatically stopped. (from The Dunwich Horror and Others, Arkham House, 1963, pp. 227-228)
As i said above, filmmakers have struggled to find ways to visually replicate the unique sense of cosmic dread that Lovecraft brought to his tales. It’s not a matter of producing CGI monstrosities; in fact, Lovecraft himself used suggestion much more than direct description when dealing with the Old Ones and their grotesque minions. I get the impression that Dirt Dauber takes an indirect approach, utilising some unusual cinematic techniques. Debi Moore on Dread Central comments on the film’s unique visual stylings:
Dirt Dauber‘s visual element develops from grainy black and white super 8 to a sharper, higher contrast look and then finally to color, representing a growth cycle similar to that of an insect’s from larva to pupa to adulthood. It also utilizes a unique pop-up book style puppet element that highlights themes of childhood memory and fantastical local legends.
You can also read a detailed review of Dirt Dauber on Grim Reviews.