By Brian M. Sammons
I love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I love horror films. But unlike chocolate and peanut butter, these seem to be two great tastes that only seldom, if ever go great together. Now while fans of both films and Lovecraft continually lament this fact and pray for the day when director Guillermo Del Toro finally makes his much anticipated AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS film, I wanted to comfort my fellow Cthulhu-loving cultists out there. While it is true that most movies beginning with “H.P. Lovecraft’s” stink on ice stronger than Dr. Munoz (only a true HPL fan will get that one), there are a few good films that owe a major debt to the writings and vision of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. So here you will find five films listed in chronological order that best capture various aspects of Lovecraft’s ideas. While there could be other films with a connection to Lovecraft that are perfectly good (one of my all time favorite flicks is RE-ANIMATOR) they are about as Lovecraftian as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and therefore not on this list.
I guess at this point a definition of what “Lovecraftian” means to me should be codified. While others may have their own classification, to me something is in the Lovecraft spirit if it concerns its self with cosmic horrors, secrets man was never meant to know, a nihilistic view of the universe and mankind’s role in it, ancient alien races long forgotten, moldy books containing blasphemous, soul-shattering, and sanity-smashing knowledge, science squaring off with the unknown, proper New English gentleman going mad at the sight of cyclopean horrors, oh and tentacles. One mustn’t forget the tentacles. Now there are doubtless other elements to Lovecraft’s famous tales, but the above is what I think of when I think of the term; Lovecraftian. Now if you are not yet acquainted with the works of HPL, I recommend that you do so at once. There are reasons he’s considered a giant in the world of horror. But all that is a discussion for another time, or for the books of noted Lovecraft historian S.T. Joshi. Let us jump right into the list with…
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (aka: FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) (1968).
I can hear you now; “A 60’s sci-fi flick from Hammer (we love Dracula) studios is one of the most Lovecraftian movies ever?” Yes, dear reader, it is. While there is no mention of the Great Old Ones, evil tomes, cults, or breeding gone wrong in this movie it does cover other key Lovecraft concepts in spades. This movie has ancient secrets, the true origins of man, super science, technological explanations for the supernatural, the truth behind local legends, and truly strange aliens that have had a hand (or a claw in this case) in the evolution of mankind. With all this going for it, H.P.L. would have loved this film.
In fact, this movie has so many great ideas in it that trying to write a short synopsis for it will be difficult, but I will try. While digging a new tunnel for London’s Underground rail system workers find the ancient, caveman-like remains of humanity’s ancestors. More shockingly, right next to those bones an “almost metal but not” spaceship is also unearthed. Inside the craft insect-like aliens are discovered and in doing so, something is awakened in not only the ship, but in the more sensitive human minds nearby. What follows are thought provoking explanations of mankind’s origins on Earth, racial memory, local ghost stories, psychic powers, and perhaps the very nature of the evil that lives inside all men. And all that is only the tip of the Titanic sinker. If you want to watch a truly smart science fiction film that draws heavily from Lovecraft’s ideas on the nature of man and the cosmos then QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT is the movie for you.
Here’s another sci-fi movie that owes a big debt to Lovecraft. Or is it a sci-fi move at all? This film has often been called a haunted house movie in space and for good reason; it is more akin to horror than to sci-fi. Taking an overused and outdated idea such as the haunted house story and breathing new life into it is a lesson every good author or filmmaker should learn, and something all horror fans should love, and if that’s all this movie offered then that would be fine, but Alien has so much more going for it.
First, forget everything you think you know about the famous alien because when this movie came out, it was all new. There was not four films’ worth of familiarity to fall back on, no plastic toys to play with, and no Predators for the titular star to face off against in two poorly done battle royals. That means that in addition to the elements of hopelessness, fear and claustrophobia that this movie evokes so well, there is also a great air of mystery and the unknown throughout. Where does the alien come from? Who were the other aliens that seemed to be masters of the alien? Now try to remember the first time you saw the now familiar spidery face hugger and the snake-like chest-buster, not to mention the grandeur of the alien’s final form, an unholy yet grotesquely sleek and beautiful amalgamation of man, beast and organic machinery. Talk about something truly beyond the wildest imaginations of man…unless you are a sick puppy like artist H.R. Geiger.
This alien was no little green man with a raygun. It was far superior to humans physically and at least equal to us in intellect. It was remorseless, something you couldn’t reason with as its reasoning was totally…well alien. Most movie monsters this powerful and unstoppable are slow and lumbering in order to give the victims in the film a bit of a chance, not this monster, it was lightning-quick and sneaky to boot. Most powerful monsters in fiction will always have an exploitable weakness; an example of this would be supernatural powerhouses like vampires and demons being week against holy items. The creature in ALIEN had no weakness. In the words of Ash, the good android gone bad, the alien was “perfect”. And if all that wasn’t enough, its very blood is acid so even if you are lucky and manage to hurt it, you’ll pay the price. Could Lovecraft himself have dreamt of a more bizarre critter?
THE THING (1982).
The John Carpenter’s reinterpretation (not remake) of Howard Hawks’ 1951 alien invader classic is truer to John W. Campbell’s original story “Who Goes There?” then Hawks picture. In addition, the Campbell story appears to be heavily influenced by Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Confused yet? Don’t worry, just remember this; Carpenter’s THE THING is perhaps the most Lovecraftian movie ever made. It has all of the central themes important to HPL except his distaste for seafood, and if you look hard enough I’m sure you can find that in there somewhere. Just read the premises behind The Thing and tell me it’s not in homage to the Grand Old Gent.
Many years ago something came down from the stars to earth. This ageless thing has traveled the universe for countless years and has destroyed and consumed an untold number of life forms before coming to our world. Luckily for us something went wrong (the stars were not right) and the thing was forced into a death-like slumber, thus sparing us all…at least for a little while. However, the thing is not dead and now that man has unwittingly awakened it the whole world is in peril. The beast is far stronger and smarter than any human. It has unimaginable powers, is nearly impossible to kill, and can corrupt anyone who comes into contact with it. If the thing ever fully awakens (read as: gets to a heavily populated area) the world as we know it will end. The only way to stop the creature is through the sacrifice of yourself and even then, with you last dying breath in your throat, you won’t be sure if you have saved the day or not.
Add to that mix amorphous, multi-tentacled creatures, a heavy dose of paranoia and nihilism, and the fact that despite a few great one-liners this movie is very grim and deadly serious, and you can almost envision Lovecraft sitting in the director’s chair. THE THING is a modern day classic. It is a great film enjoyed by Lovecraft fans and by people who haven’t the slightest idea who HPL was. I can not recommend this movie enough.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).
This movie is a very underrated gem. While it’s not a classic piece of cinema it is a fun, creepy and smart movie. More importantly it is a very Lovecraftian movie. Don’t let the title fool you, this movie not another “evil antichrist tries to win” flick, although it wants you to think that it is in the beginning. Directed by John Carpenter, the man who brought you 1982’s THE THING, this film takes on many Lovecraftian ideas, although it may not seem so at first.
This movie is filled with secrets man was not meant to know. Strange theories on the nature of the universe and the very nature of good and evil are wildly thrown around while theoretical scientific ideas are proved to be factual, at least in the context of the film. The truth behind one of mankind’s major religions is laid bare and for once scientist in a film actually behave (for the most part) like real scientist instead of nerdy characters they so often play in most movies. The possibilities of time travel are debated and sacrilegious books filled with damnable information are uncovered. Finally there’s a faceless and mindless mass of filthy rift-raft that are at the beck and call of an unseen evil presence. While they are not inbred country folk or the foreign horde of Red Hook, they would fit in nicely into any number of Lovecraft’s stories.
While HPL loved weird theories, secret and ancient truths, and strange new science, his favorite emotion to play with was hopelessness. After all, in his mythos the Great Old Ones will rise again and humanity will be destroyed and it’s only a matter of time. The same is true for PRINCE OF DARKNESS because almost right the start the characters start having dreams of the coming apocalypse, only these turn out not to be dreams, but something else entirely. Something far worse. The best the heroes in this film can do is to postpone the inevitable end, but to even do that they will have to sacrifice much. And when it is all said and done, what victory have they really won? How much more Lovecraftian can you get than that?
THE RESURRECTED (1992).
At long last a film actually based off of a Lovecraft story makes the list. In this case, the story, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and director Dan O’Bannon stays amazingly faithful to Lovecraft’s original words, ideas and overall mood. A few minor changes have been made to modernize the story and make it better fit a movie’s format, but unlike other Lovecraft adaptations, when you see this film you can still get a sense of what HPL was originally trying to convey.
The story is told from the clichéd point of view of a tough private eye, but we can forgive the film that little indulgence. The hero and his fellow investigators are hired by Ward’s wife because poor Charles is acting pretty damn peculiar. After a suitably strange back story the investigators follow different lines of inquiry gaining small bits of information along the way, including the ever popular old journal o’ evil. There’s the occasional discovery of a grisly corpse or a frightening nightmare to keep the characters on their toes and remind them that they are dealing with something odd. Finally the group puts all the pieces together and plans their method of attack but like so many Lovecraft protagonists, these doomed souls don’t really know the full story yet and when they go to implement their plan they are woefully under equipped and unprepared for the horrors they must face. What follows is a dark, frightening, and gruesome journey of discovery in the tunnels beneath Ward’s ancestral home. When it is over, the investigators will have faced nameless horrors, unearthed unimaginable truths, had their grasp on reality shaken to the core, and some will have paid the ultimate price for fighting the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos.
THE RESURRECTED is not a great film but it is a good one. It is a fun movie to watch, something I would classify as a popcorn-muncher, but it is the most faithful transfer of a Lovecraft story to the big screen and it shows that yes boys and ghouls it can be done!
So there you go, five frightful flicks for fans of the Gentleman from Providence. Now go and watch these films, perhaps for the first time, or the twentieth, and maybe you will fall in love with Lovecraftian cinema.
--Brian M. Sammons