The Color Out Of Space: The Films Of H.P. Lovecraft

Published on May 30th, 2011 in: Climb Onto The Nearest Star, Horror, Issues, Movies, Science Fiction |

By Paul Casey

Guillermo del Toro will not make At the Mountains of Madness, at least not anytime soon. Perhaps our only chance of the first great cinematic interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology has been thwarted. Do not fear dear reader, all is not lost! I am here to tell you that while we lack that perfect vision of Cthulhu and his aquatic features, there are many adaptations of his work that should please the casual and hardcore Lovecraft fan.

hp lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft

The first place to look for good Lovecraft adaptations is quite obviously, Stuart Gordon. He has made a career out of creating some of the funniest, innovative, and most shocking horror films of his generation. His first, the classic splatter horror comedy Re-Animator, is something that many will already know. An adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story, Herbert West—Reanimator, it is one of the definitive horror experiences of the 1980s.

Re-Animator is a film which speaks for its genre with a wit and intelligence which do Lovecraft proud. It is also a work of some deviancy and perversion. The back cracking and reanimating of the cat still stands as a shockingly good example of superb sound design. Its sexual eye, which is undoubtedly not a part Lovecraft’s original work, is certainly a trait of Gordon’s. It is as revelatory a combination of horror talents as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Jeffrey Combs, one of the great horror actors of his time, plays the titular role and brings to the film a quality not easily replicated. He has proven repeatedly that he understands the many sides of Lovecraft’s work, not only his peculiar sense of humor, but also the ever-impending sense of doom. Combs has been a constant in the work of both Gordon and his producer, Brian Yuzna, featuring in both sequels to Re-Animator—the exquisite Bride of Re-Animator and the less so Beyond Re-Animator (both directed by Yuzna)—and Gordon’s next picture, From Beyond.

Re-Animator, 1985

From Beyond is based ever so loosely on the Lovecraft story of the same name. It is nevertheless a great example of just how instinctively Gordon and his creative friends understand the world of Lovecraft. The mad scientists, the loss of humanity and its perversion, and the breaking down of reality all feature here. It is as engaging and terrifying an experience, in its way, as Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The special effects, as in nearly every Gordon picture, are brutally wonderful.

Following Re-Animator, Gordon’s original plan was to film The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Much like Guillermo Del Toro discovered, the financing of such a film proved difficult and Gordon canned it. Some 20 years later, his old friend Brian Yuzna, having been funded by the Spanish government, offered Gordon the chance to complete his long abandoned project. Renamed Dagon and shot in Spain, with a collection of low-grade, local talent, it is a depressing instance of budget and resources completely scuppering what could have been the definitive Lovecraft film.

Dagon is full of bad actors and even worse CG effects. The location, however, is perfect. Dagon was shot in Combarro, a fishing village, in Galicia, Spain. The physical effects, the make-up, and the faithfulness to the source material all provide a sense of the film’s potential.

The scene where Paul Marsh becomes aware of the evil intentions of those in the hotel and barricades himself in his room is as close to a shot-by-shot adaptation of a Lovecraft story as one can achieve. It is tense, beautifully shot, and well-acted. In fact, Ezra Godden, the lead, shows himself to be the only good casting choice, apart from the legendary Francisco Rabal. Dagon is not a complete washout, then. It’s just that Gordon is playing against a stacked deck. As a true B-movie, it is entertaining; you can tell that Gordon understands Lovecraft better than any of his contemporaries does.

This brings us to what may very well be the single greatest Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator aside. The series Masters of Horror, which is one of the greatest things to be on television, not only gave John Carpenter the chance to show he was far from washed up, but also gave Gordon a fine budget and time to get back to his roots and to what he does best. The Dreams in the Witch House, also starring Ezra Godden, is a flawless interpretation of the great Lovecraft tale. It is shockingly dark and such a sterling an example of both horror and H.P. Lovecraft that it deserves serious discussion and analysis.

in the mouth of madness
In the Mouth of Madness, 1994

Who apart from Gordon is worth investigating? As mentioned above, his buddy Brian Yuzna is worth a look. The TV movie Necronomicon is an enjoyable collection of short films based on three of Lovecraft’s stories. With a wraparound featuring, naturally, Jeffrey Combs as Lovecraft, it provides a wonderful version of Cool Air, with the eternally creepy David Warner playing the afflicted scientist. Although not an adaptation, Yuzna’s Society (WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK) is highly influenced by the Lovecraftian world of evil hiding just below the surface. It is also stands beside any of Gordon’s work as a sublimely inventive work of perversion.

And you know, a viewing of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness suggests that the Cthulhu mythology hasn’t turned out all that badly in cinema. Carpenter’s last truly great film, it explores much of Lovecraft’s mythology, as well as references to other writers like Stephen King. Starring Sam Neill as someone who is hired to find a popular horror writer who has disappeared, In the Mouth of Madness is an intensely dark conclusion to Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.” As with Dagon, Carpenter taps the mood of Innsmouth, and the sense of helpless submission to unspeakable evil. It is one Carpenter film of which many seem to be unaware, and I am glad to suggest its bloody, oily horror to you, dear readers.

So do not despair: if you were hoping in vain for Guillermo del Toro to produce his huge budget vision of Cthulhu, there is enough to sustain you while we wait, dreaming.

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