An Overview of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos on Film
Few filmmakers have been successful in translating New England horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s dense, adjective-driven tales of Elder Gods, Great Old Ones and the Horrors That Lurk Just the Other Side of Reality into effective cinema. Or so they say. For those poor souls who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft and his arcane writings, there is plenty of information on the web. Start with the Wikipedia entries for H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu Mythos and Great Old One and followed the links you’ll find on those pages. Even better, many of HPL’s stories are available for free download through Project Gutenberg. Collected Stories is a good place to start.
In brief, Lovecraft’s highly influential stories, taken together, posit a vast cosmic race of monstrous beings that once ruled the Earth but were driven off during the dark times of pre-history. Unfortunately, however, they’re still hanging around, lurking in hidden dimensions, waiting for foolish or ambitious humans to summon them back into the world. Most of our information on the Great Old Ones comes from a book called the Necronomicon, a sort of hideous grimoire written by the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. Those who spend too much study time with the Necronomicon end up in lunatic asylums or worse, finding themselves face-to-face with some huge ancient monster intent on re-opening a gateway back into the world. These “dark gods” take multitudinous forms, but in the popular imagination tentacles play a large part in their physiology. Descriptions within Lovecraft’s stories tend to be vague and portentous. His deific monsters live in the darkness and when they make their appearance tend to drive the observer out of his/her mind.
The evocative but indirect power of Lovecraft’s writing offers considerable challenge to those working in an essentially visual medium such as the cinema. As a result filmmakers are often accused of violating HPL’s work and failing to capture its spirit. I’m not convinced. Changes are necessitated by cinema’s demands, and often require plot threads to be added to stories that are characteristically static and internalised. Many of the Lovecraft-inspired films work well, even if their effect is different from that of the original stories.
Dean Stockwell engrossed in the Necronomicon in “The Dunwich Horror”
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”), Roger Corman’s Poe-styled translation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, The Haunted Palace (US-1963; dir. Roger Corman), The Shuttered Room (UK-1967; dir. David Greene) and The Curse of the Crimson Altar (UK-1968; dir. Vernon Sewell), which was supposedly based on “The Dreams in the Witch House” though it bore little resemblance, it wasn’t until Stuart Gordon came on the scene that the movies began to feel even slightly Lovecraftian in their styling. His films, 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, but at their best they create an effective atmosphere of cosmic dread. The underrated Dagon in particular – despite cosmetic changes made to the setting and its conflation of several Lovecraft tales into a more dynamic plotline – reeks of Lovecraftian horror. The fact that a very in-your-face CGI Dagon appears at the end is fine with me.
An unfortunate discovery regarding parentage from Gordon’s “Dagon”
Other post-1985 Lovecraft-based films include The Unnamable (US-1988; dir. Jean-Paul Ouellette), The Resurrected (US-1992; dir. Dan O’Bannon, based on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), the anthology picture Necronomicon (France/US; 1993; dir. Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko and Brian Yuzna, with three stories based on “The Rats in the Walls”, “Cool Air” and “The Whisperer in Darkness”), The Lurking Fear (US-1994; dir. C. Courtney Joyner) and many, many short films.
Given Lovecraft’s prominence in the horror field, the difficulties inherent in translating his tales to the screen have meant that mainstream 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).
Horror novels prove deadly in “In the Mouth of Madness”
It’s strange how some films seem doomed to be devalued right from the start. Third in what Carpenter refers to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy” (the first two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness), In the Mouth of Madness is an effective exploration of communal perception and its role in forming accepted reality – and remains for me one of Carpenter’s most disconcerting films. It is also one of the best of the films based on or inspired by the Cthulhan imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft, with their vision of vast inhuman “Old Ones” intent on re-gaining command over the human world. Here, inter-dimensional conquest takes place via a phenomenally popular pulp horror novelist, whose works increasingly upset humanity’s psychic (and physical) stability and offer up a fiction that is designed to consume reality itself. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator who is rather smugly adept at defusing the attempts of fraudsters to impose their small, self-serving views of reality on insurers and other financiers. “He’s an amateur,” Neill’s John Trent says of one such fraudster, and longs for the challenge of a true professional. In the end he gets his wish, but to an apocalyptic extent that totally overwhelms him … and, given the ending, us as well. If Carpenter’s The Thing was a study in claustrophobic paranoia, In the Mouth of Madness is its agoraphobic twin.
In recent times, production of Lovecraft-based films has been ramping up. In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society made the well 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. It proved to be one of the most accurate renditions of the famous Lovecraft story ever. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has also created a terrific radio-play version of “At the Mountains of Madness” and have been working on a second feature film, based on “The Whisperer in Darkness”. It’s due for release this year. Below is the latest trailer:
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), which has a very Lovecraftian sensibility.
Other independent films, often shorts, crop up from time to time. 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 2009’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival — an annual festival that highlights hordes of shorts and independent features based on the Master’s work. Winning films from each year have been released on DVD; of the ones I’ve seen (which is in no way comprehensive), Zuccon’s effort is worth a look for the Lovecraft aficionado, as is Bryan Moore’s Cool Air (1999).
Meanwhile rumours of big budget Lovecraft tales have been around for some time, with features from the likes of Stuart Gordon (rumoured to be making “The Thing on the Doorstep”) and Guillermo Del Toro (with his big-budget take on “At the Mountains of Madness”) [but see Note below]— not to mention such Lovecraftesque monster films as Altitude (US-2010; dir. Kaare Andrews). In this one, a group of young folk flying high in a small plane find themselves looking a very Cthulhan multi-tentacled creature that inhabits the clouds directly in the eye.
Saying “Hi!” to monsters in the sky in “Altitude”
To finish, I direct you to an unusual set of Lovecraftian films. A while back I put together a Call of Cthulhu film festival that featured on Undead Backbrain. Check it out. You might be surprised by what you see. Well, amused at least, I hope.
- Written by Robert Hood. This essay first appeared — and was written for — Monster Awareness Month, February 2011.
- Source note: the image of Cthulhu Rising comes from regeneratormag.com, though the artist is unknown.
- My review of In the Mouth of Madness that appears in this article was first published on my website.
- Note: Since this article was written Universal has placed unwelcome conditions on Del Toro in regards to At the Mountains of Madness, and the filmmaker has abandoned the project — at least for the time being. Read about it here.
Fantastic article – lovely overview of HPL in cinema and I now have a few more titles for the To Watch pile 🙂
It still amazes me there aren’t more Lovecraft adaptations floating about however I suspect Del Toro’s version of At The Mountains of Madness may well open the floodgates!
Certainly with modern CGI, there’s never been a better time to translate the Old Gentleman’s writing to the big screen. Not only could we have have fully rendered Great Old Ones, but computer visual effects could finally create the reality warping non Euclidean angles of their ancient corpse cities!
Great article, Rob – thanks for this.
Thanks, Jim and Chuck. I think we’re all going to be hanging out for Del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness”. If anyone can pull it off, I think he might be the one. Certainly the result is likely to be an interesting mix of Lovecraft and Del Toro — both very individual creators of monstrous realities. Del Toro’s “Hellboy” movies have had their Lovecraftian moments.
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“The Trollenberg Terror” (aka “The Crawling Eye”) has a distinctively Lovecraftian vibe to it, radioactive cloud notwithstanding. Large tentacled monster sits on top of snowy mountain and turns humans into its mindless slaves.
I would also add the 1993 audio dramatization of Stephen King’s “The Mist” to the family of Lovecraft-inspired works.