NAMING THE UNNAMABLE: Lovecraft in film
A few years back I was at a WorldCon in Denver. There were advertisements all over the place for Cthulhu: The Movie. Cinefiles were abuzz—nobody had heard about this flick before, but a Cthulhu movie—wow! We would finally get to see the mythical monster brought to life. They then announced that during a movie trailer session, the centerpiece would be a sneak look at Cthulhu! The place was packed. We sat through spots for Transiberian, whatever the latest Harry Potter movie was, a few unmemorable ones, and at last they announced we would be getting a sneak look at an ambitious piece by new filmmakers and starring…Tori Spelling. The murmurs in the audience did not bode well, but we watched and hoped. The lights went down, and…well, we saw some men kissing, a man kissing Tori Spelling, some dark, brooding shots of tumultuous water, more men kissing…then the title card. The lights went up, and from a few feet away from me came the cry, “Where the fuck are the tentacles?”
Cthulhu was forgotten as I went about my daily life, until months later I discovered the title sitting in the “Recommended for you” feature on Netflix. The movie had come to be with no fanfare, bypassing theatres and straight to video. I put it on the queue, hoped for the best and expected the worst.
First thing to strike me was that Cthulhu: The Movie was not, in fact, based on the short story “The Call of Cthulhu” but “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Why they didn’t just call it The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I do not know, but I suspect it has to do with the box-office draw a name like Cthulhu would have. I watched, scratched my head, watched some more, then pondered various ways to give my brain a shower. There was never a Cthulhu in the movie. No monsters at all. A few villagers with strange, fish-like features, but that’s as far as it goes. The story followed a man, brought up in a small New England town that seemed to center on a weird little cult that worshipped sea monsters. Father was a bigshot in this local church. Son and father had a falling out over the son’s sexual orientation, the son left and made a life for himself in the big city, only to return for his grandmother’s funeral. The father wants him to rejoin the church. Son instead falls in deep, passionate love with his best friend from high school. While waiting for the reading of the will, he is drugged by abovementioned Tori Spelling and her husband so he can “give her a baby”. Two days later, we find that our hero is destined to be the Christ-like savior for this cult, Miss Spelling seems to have given birth to a school of fish (only hinted at. We get to see no fish), men walk out of the water, and our hero is told to choose between his father and destiny or the man he loves. The end. Nope, we don’t get to find out what his choice is. It is up to us, the viewer to decide for ourselves. As the end credits rolled, I could swear I heard Lovecraft softly weeping in the distance.
The only resemblance this has to the source material is sea-monster worship, a weird small New England town and a question of destiny. Exchange sea-monster worship with any other god, and this could have easily been one of any number of stories, whether written or filmed, that were never based on the Cthulhu mythos. Again, the only reason I can think of for them to blame Lovecraft for this plot-hole-ridden, poorly thought out mess was the draw his name would have, and perhaps to add an air of legitimacy.
This got me thinking about other Lovecraft-based movies, and how they fared against this one. To be fair, I’m not the biggest Lovecraft fan. When we get to his longer stories, he tends to get repetitive, the pacing gets a little stagnant, and I get frustrated with him using pages to tell me how indescribable things are. But I can give the man his props for being a master at creating a sense of mood and dread. That, to me, is where he is really a master storyteller. In his pages, Lovecraft can build a fantastic sense of foreboding and doom, matched by few. Yes, Cthulhu failed at building any sense of mood, but did the other flicks?
While pondering this as a column topic, the Sweetie and I came across a flick on the grocery store five dollar rack: Chill. It claimed to be based on Lovecraft’s “Cold Air” but in a hip and modern setting, and the cover blurb read “Saw meets Nosferatu”. Okay. But hey, column fodder and for five bucks, it was worth a shot.
Wow. I’ve seen a bunch of low-budget movies before and enjoyed a good number of them. This movie helps to illustrate a good rule of thumb. If you have limited funds and must be careful where to spend the budget TAKE A FEW BUCKS AND PAY A FUCKING WRITER! I’d say Chill was a good 75% faithful to the original story. Not too difficult to do, considering that “Cold Air” is about seven pages long. But to pad it up, they got rid of the suspense and ambience of the story, threw in some skinning shots, some stereotypical pimps and hos, some boob shots, slo-mo sex scenes, more skinning, and some fake blood and called it a day. They took a basic, simple Lovecraft plot of a man who, because of a mysterious medical condition, must remain in below fifty degree temperatures, and used it as an excuse to tie together tits and torture. Not even a casual Lovecraft reader could mistake it for a loyal adaptation when one of the main characters is repeatedly screaming, “He be killing my best bitches!”
I went from there to Stuart Gordon’s movie Dagon.
I like a lot of Gordon’s flicks. Re-Animator was a hoot. The man has a good sense of style, and overall, Dagon was a fun movie but a crappy Lovecraft adaptation. Again, we have a movie named after one of Lovecraft’s monster short stories, but actually based on “The Shadow Over Insmouth.” I have a request for you budding filmmakers out there—if you make a movie based on “Shadow Over Insmouth” then call it that. Please. But I digress. Two couples are on a sailing vacation when they are washed ashore to some small fishing village in Spain. Here, the residents slowly become fish-like creatures as they age. Male outsiders are sacrificed as food to their god, Dagon, while female outsiders are to be used as sex toys for the Great Old One. Only one male outsider survives, and that’s because he is half fishy-thing and never realized it. All in all, this was a fun little splatter flick. It never takes itself too seriously, whether during the violence, the tentacle-sex with various fish creatures (and even the great Dagon himself. Yes! Finally a Lovecraftian monster movie where we see the titular monster!) or even during the heart-pounding chase scenes. Again, here is a movie that remained true to the source material, while throwing in some sex and violence. The difference between Dagon and Chill is that Dagon was well-written, well-acted, knew that it was a fun little horror movie and ran with it.
This brings me to the question of sex in Lovecraftian films. Lovecraft’s stories have minimal sex, and by minimal I mean only mentioned that one has had parents. That is it as far as sex, and usually as far as it goes for female characters. The question then becomes what to do about it when making a Lovecraft story into a movie. Chill and Dagon both went with throwing in heterosexual sex, usually in a titillating way, hoping to use boobies as an audience draw, loosely tying it into the plot. Cthulhu, on the other hand, treated the absence of women in Lovecraft differently. Sure, they threw in a love story, but it was an all-male love story. The women in the movie were minimally used and never to be trusted. In a way, I guess Cthulhu remained the most loyal to the spirit of Lovecraft as far as women go. Whether that was a conscious decision…that’s a whole different question.
Finally, as a chaser to all these based-with-certain-aspects-of-story-but-with-none-of-the-style I watched a 45-minute movie The Call of Cthulhu, heralded by many fans as the most loyal and damn near perfect adaptation of a Lovecraft story to film. And guess what? It was actually based on the story it was named after. Yay! And I will say it was damn near a moment for moment adaptation of Lovecraft, both in story and style. However, that was really its one flaw as a movie. Call of Cthulhu was done in silent movie style as if it were made the same year as the story was written. This is only distracting for a few seconds, but then you get used to it and go with the flow. Forty minutes of this movie we listen to our narrator recount hearing stories of Cthulhu worshipping cults and the horrors that met their witnesses. Finally, in the last five minutes, we the audience get to witness a man confronting the great Cthulhu itsownself. We have a fantastic five minutes of man versus ancient tentacle god, with the monster being a wonderful nod to Harryhausen and his stop-motion creatures. Forty minutes of brooding dread and a five minute climax. That is how Lovecraft worked the story, and that’s how the filmmakers worked Call of Cthulhu. However, it does mean you sit through almost ninety percent of the movie where the plot is not advanced, and while the mood is effectively dread-inducing, doesn’t change. That can work for a written story. When working with a visual medium, though, it can get tedious.
Which makes me wonder: can a Lovecraft story ever be loyally adapted and still be an effective movie? I’m not entirely sure. In his tales, he sets a mood and builds it up and builds it up and builds it up until the great reveal at the end. Sometimes the horror isn’t even completely revealed—his most effective frights aren’t in what he describes, but what he leaves open for the reader to conjure in their brain. Is it possible to leave that much to the imagination and not have the viewer feel ripped off? And what about the build-up? How much setting up of the story can be done before it just becomes a flat rock of a movie? I’d like to believe that, in exceptionally talented hands, it is possible. But it will never be easy, and probably not often likely.
And on a side note, if you want to see Lovecraft and humor teamed well together, check out this little fan-flick on YouTube: “Antiques Roadshow: Arkham, MA”