H.P. Lovecraft published more than 60 short stories and novellas between 1916 and 1937, works that so defied categorization they required a new adjective — Lovecraftian. His stories deal with horrors beyond human comprehension, products of a universe so mind-blowingly unknowable that… well, they blow human minds. This is particularly true of the forbidden knowledge Lovecraft explored in his Cthulhu Mythos, about age-old gods who exist just outside our dimension; next to their enormity and power, man is an insignificant speck, and those who challenge this notion should anticipate nothing but death and insanity.
Lovecraft influenced many of horror’s best-known names, from Stephen King to John Carpenter, and is well-loved by genre fans. But his cerebral themes and wildly imaginative creations haven’t much made for successful movies: It’s tough to portray seething, amorphous horrors the author himself can’t describe. That said, a few daring directors have tried.
5. Call of Cthulhu (2005)
This short black-and-white feature eschews most modern filmmaking techniques for silent-era simplicity; the result is a remarkable work that avoids most of the pitfalls encountered when bringing Lovecraft’s work to the screen. The fantastic world of the Elder Gods is created using stop-motion animation, forced perspective and other fundamental trickery, while expressionist set design and lighting capture the dream-like mood of the original story.
4. Dagon (2001)
Based on parts of the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth and the short story Dagon, this low-budget effort — written by Dennis Paoli and directed by Stuart Gordon (who first teamed up for Re-Animator) — is one of the most faithful adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. Though details are changed and the action is shifted from New England to Spain, this tale of Fish-God worship feels truly Lovecraftian. I’m a sucker for “townsfolk are hostile to outsiders because they’re hiding a secret” movies and Dagon, with its tentacle- and webbed-hand sporting villagers, doesn’t disappoint. The ample gore and scares make this flick an underrated gem whether you’re a Lovecraft fan or not.
3. From Beyond (1986)
Based on the story of the same name, From Beyond tells of a group of scientists who create the “Resonator,” a device that can probe the mind and stimulate the pineal gland. Surprise, surprise: There are negative consequences, like tearing the veil between our world and “the other.” When scientists and monsters begin crossing back and forth, well, chaos and goo ensue… as do some with trippy visuals. With an explosive and unsettling color palette and massive amounts of carnage, this is some of director Stuart Gordon’s kinkiest, slimiest work to date.
2. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness isn’t drawn directly from Lovecraft’s writing; instead, it’s loosely based on his fictional world of gods and monsters and even alludes to the author himself. Horror writer Sutter Cane has disappeared, prompting his publisher to hire private investigator John Trent to find him. Trent heads off to a town that may or may not exist in real life, but is the fictional setting for much of Cane’s work; along the way he encounters monsters, cults, hallucinations, and all manner of Lovecraftian insanity-inducing sights. Again, the veil between dimensions is broken, and Cthulhu-esque beasts come pouring through… unless it’s all in Trent’s mind. In the Mouth of Madness is undoubtedly the best Lovecraft movie that’s not a Lovecraft movie; It’s also one of the best Carpenter movies that everyone forgets.
1. Re-Animator (1985)
The most famous and successful of all Lovecraft adaptations is this first collaboration between director Stuart Gordon and writer Dennis Paoli (who would team up the following year for Lovecraft’s From Beyond). Based on the short story Herbert West: Re-Animator, it relates the tale of medical student West, who’s concocted a “re-agent” that can give life to the dead. By turns horrifying and hilarious, Re-Animator features headless zombies, dismembered cats, and gallons upon gallons of blood. There’s a reason this cult fave spawned two sequels (Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator). There are also plenty of reasons why I felt extremely uncomfortable watching this with my parents way back in the day — like that scene where the reanimated Dr. Hill holds his own severed head while it… makes sexy time with the dean’s daughter. Sure, I can laugh about it now… wait, no I can’t.
What makes Lovecraft’s work so hard to translate onto the big screen? Perhaps it’s that his beat is the esoteric and unexplainable; because his horrors are evoked rather than described, readers must create weird beings and worlds in their minds. Anything filmmakers come up with is bound to pale by comparison. There are worthwhile adaptations out there, but Mythos devotees know that the ultimate Lovecraft movie is still to come. Maybe it’s best, however, if we never get that ultimate adaptation: If we do, we’ll all surely be driven mad by what we see. Then again, if I can survive watching Re-Animator with my parents, then perhaps I can survive anything.
When Stacie Ponder isn’t writing about horror movies here or at her own beloved blog Final Girl, she’s making them. Always, though, she leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.Read More