H.P. Lovecraft is often compared with Edgar Allan Poe: his works are inconsistent, overwrought, and redundant (which we tolerate) but also twisted, imaginative, and bizarre (which we love).
Not coincidentally, both Lovecraft and Poe are notoriously difficult to translate into film. Their shared writing style relies much on telling rather than showing, with slow deliberate buildups, lengthy crafted sentences, internal states of mind, and first person narrators who scarcely know themselves and seem to transform in the midst of their narrations.
It’s no wonder that the classic Poe movies – like Universal’s Raven and Black Cat from the 30s or Roger Corman’s Poe cycle from the 60s – have little resemblance to their ostensible sources except for their titles. Those that do remain faithful to Poe are forced to combine multiple stories to make a single film.
Lovecraft can be even more difficult than Poe to film since so many Lovecraft protagonists get their information secondhand or thirdhand as they discover old manuscripts, investigate old artifacts, or – in “At the Mountains of Madness” – even transcribe a remembered radio transmission.
Particularly difficult to translate into film is the grand “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft’s greatest stories, especially “The Shadow Out of Time” (probably the best from a literary perspective) and “At the Mountains of Madness” (an overwritten narrative but the fullest with this feeling).
It’s in the images of the enormous, ancient, sprawling, towering alien ruins: we feel a sense of awe and grandeur but also defeat and fatalism, cosmic grandeur and cosmic insignificance at once.
No films have come close to Lovecraft’s stories in achieving this. And so, Lovecraft films have a generally poor reputation among fans. But might some such films be more genuinely Lovecraftian than most fans recognize?
I think so. And since Lovecraft’s famous Elder Things have five eyes, five toes, five masses of tentacles, and five bulges in their bodies, let’s compare five films that did well in their adaptations.
Four of the five are flawed, at least from a Lovecraft lover’s perspective.
But all five are more genuine to the spirit, or at least the message, of a Lovecraft tale than is commonly thought. Here’s why.
1. THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)
Given Poe’s influence on and similarities to Lovecraft, it’s no vice for Roger Corman and AIP to combine a Poe film with a Lovecraft film.
Indeed, barring the title and a cursory excerpt from Poe’s poem of the same name, The Haunted Palace is about as authentic a Lovecraft film as ever came out of Hollywood.
It’s an adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” about 50% accurate to the original (posthumously published) Lovecraft story, which is a pretty typical percentage for a film adaption of a literary work.
It adds some romance (Lovecraft’s oeuvre is notoriously devoid of romance) plus several elements from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but it takes place in the “village of Arkham” where a warlock obtains “the Necronomicon” and attempts to summon the “Elder Gods, dark ones from beyond who once ruled the world… Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth.”
The spooky, dusky atmosphere is certainly Lovecraftian, as is the slow buildup wherein the protagonist (a fine Vincent Price) investigates something ancient and forbidden… and finds himself losing possession of his faculties, even his identity.
Bonus: Lon Chaney Jr. has a small role as the palace caretaker.
2. THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)
Roger Corman directed the first film on our list (above), and his longtime production designer Daniel Haller directed this one. Haller had earlier tried and failed to adapt Lovecraft with Die, Monster, Die! But this time he succeeded – at least mostly.
The Dunwich Horror adapts Lovecraft’s original “Dunwich Horror” story (where Wilbur Whatley seeks the Necronomicon to bring back the Old Ones) and combines it with bits of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (especially the bit with the bus).
Unfortunately, the movie also adds elements of hippie seduction and hippie exploitation which makes everything feel rather awkward and dated. The special effects are cheap during the climax, with a silly solarized monster head appearing above the altar. The first parts of the movie are much better than the last parts.
Several actors are miscast or misused including Sandra Dee (Gidget) as the virginal heroine and Ed Begley as the professor-hero. I did like the versatile Dean Stockwell as Wilbur; he’s weird but he’s supposed to be.
So: accept the flaws and enjoy what feels genuinely Lovecraftian about this underrated picture: the late-Victorian Whateley mansion, the intellectual investigations (including material that comes to our middle-aged hero secondhand), and, best of all, Les Baxter’s moody and worried score with echoing flutes and percussion.
The score has an empty and unnerving feeling that would make a perfect background for reading Lovecraft’s original tales. In some quarters, the soundtrack is better known than the film.
It’s also nice to hear direct references to Lovecraft’s creations: “Come back Old Ones, and repossess the Earth!” Wilbur incants. “Yog-Sothoth is the gate whereby the spheres meet!”
3. RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
Now we’ll skip 15 years to the famous Re-Animator. As you probably know, it’s one of the greatest B-movies of the 80s, a gory and uninhibited combination of camp, exploitation, and horror.
It’s not unfaithful to its original source (the Frankenstein-influenced “Herbert West – Reanimator”), but it adds a pervasive lurid sexuality the likes of which Lovecraft always shied away from. (Indeed, Lovecraft rarely even mentions women in his stories unless they’re hideous hags like Mrs. Whateley from Dunwich.)
So it’s not always considered a real Lovecraft movie.
But I’d like to point out how – as in Lovecraft – the plot revolves around a generally decent protagonist who can’t resist seeking forbidden knowledge, and how the protagonist and people around him are devastated by the forbidden knowledge. Note also the Miskatonic university setting and the pessimistic ending.
We might also say that Re-Animator translates Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” into physical horror – the extreme and gruesome culmination of forbidden knowledge.
4. FROM BEYOND (1986)
Here is Empire’s follow-up to Re-Animator, again co-created by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, again featuring Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton.
Like its predecessor, it’s often considered inauthentic due to its erotic sexuality.
But actually From Beyond is a more authentic Lovecraft film than Re-Animator.
Unlike Re-Animator, From Beyond gets cosmic. We discover and glimpse an evil alternate dimension as in “The Music of Erich Zann.”
We see humans mutating into half-cosmic monsters as in “Dunwich Horror” or “Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
We again see good people lured by forbidden knowledge and headed toward a downbeat ending.
As in “The Shadow Out of Time” or “The Rats in the Walls,” the protagonist loses a sense of her true identity and begins to act perversely.
And perhaps here I might speculate that Lovecraft is not always as asexual as he is commonly thought. Think of his description of the Cthulu cult in “The Call of Cthulu.” He seems to suggest a sort of evil Dionysian orgy when he describes how the cult will transform the world: “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside, and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy… a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” Isn’t this what Pretorius suggests in From Beyond? Isn’t this Katherine’s temptation?
So: while the original “From Beyond” story was scarcely more than a sketch, I do consider the From Beyond film a faithful Lovecraft adaption.
5. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
Though this John Carpenter picture wasn’t based on a specific Lovecraft story, I’d like to make the case that it’s actually the most authentic Lovecraft movie yet made.
Its predecessor in the Carpenter oeuvre, Prince of Darkness, was also Lovecraftian with secretive cults, forbidden knowledge, bodily transformations, “supernatural” beings akin to aliens, a tendency to tell more than show, and an atmospheric crescendo plot structure.
But Madness is the real Lovecraft movie, and perhaps the greatest Lovecraft movie ever made.
First, the title refers frankly to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.”
Next, the town of Hobb’s End, where half the film takes place, is clearly based on Lovecraft’s fictional towns of Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth, with the monster in the greenhouse referencing the monster in the barn (among elsewhere) from “Dunwich Horror” and the mob of mutated townsfolk chasing our protagonist as in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Also as in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” Hobb’s End has a “black church” that once was Christian but has since been appropriated by a monstrous cult.
While “Sutter Cane” sounds like “Stephen King,” the publisher “Arcane” clearly sounds like “Arkham” – i.e. not just the town of Arkham but Arkham House, the publishing company founded by Lovecraft’s disciple August Derleth back in 1939.
Next, the octopoid monsters, some of whom sport multiple eyes and whipping tentacles, are clearly based on Cthulu, shoggoths, various Old Ones, and other Lovecraftian beasts.
Speaking of beasts, the film also depicts people mutating into monstrous forms as in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and elsewhere.
Next, like Lovecraft’s most celebrated tales (“Dunwich Horror” being a rare exception), the movie has a first person structure – not with narration per se but with a frame tale that shows the protagonist relating his story to an interlocutor.
It’s a middle aged bachelor protagonist, the norm for Lovecraft. And the protagonist follows the Lovecraftian hero’s pattern of doggedly investigating something forbidden and sinister, step by step, at first merely skeptical or curious, but eventually subsumed by his new knowledge and (perhaps?) driven insane by it.
By the end, the protagonist is driven toward violence and scarcely knows who he is (as in “The Shadow Out of Time” or “The Rats in the Walls”).
Next, the villain specifically mentions the Old Ones as his masters, and he uses a Necronomicon-like book to revive them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Madness evokes cosmic horror better than any other Lovecraft picture. It’s not just a few people or a single town that lies in peril, it’s the entire planet. A dimensional doorway has been opened (as in “The Music of Erich Zann”). A worldwide cult (as in “The Call of Cthulu”) is about to usher in the equivalent of an apocalypse where the Old Ones (from “At the Mountains of Madness” etc.) will return to (re)claim the Earth as their own.
Mankind is insignificant, with even Sutter Cane himself merely a vessel to bring the Old Ones back.