The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Unspeakable Cinema: The 5 Most Lovecraftian Horror Films

Color Out of Space screens Friday, January 24th through Thursday, January 30th

Annihilation

It’s hard to believe that the first month of 2020 is already almost over, but we’re ending January at the Frida with a bang! Alongside Bong Joon-Ho’s monster hit Parasite, we’re presenting a weeklong run of Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space! Starring Nicolas Cage, it’s looking to be his wildest movie since Mandy, which blew Frida guests away with its gritty story and kaleidoscopic color scheme when it played here a little over a year ago.

Another thing the film has going for it is that it’s based on the similarly-named short story by H.P. Lovecraft. A horror and science fiction writer best remembered for creating the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft’s curious blending of the two aforementioned genres resulted in the birth of a new literary subgenre. Called Lovecraftian (or cosmic) horror, this style of fiction redirects its focus from the shocking violence and bloodshed of traditional horror to fear of the unknown, combining this fear with an inverted sense of the awe and wonder commonly invoked in speculative sci-fi. On a more tangible level, this sees human characters coming across some forbidden knowledge and attempting to come to terms with the fact that, in a universe where unspeakable beings beyond man’s comprehension lurk just beneath the world they thought they knew, humanity is pretty insignificant. 

Soul-crushing but unquestionably original, Lovecraft’s gloomy vision has exercised endless influence over entertainment and culture even as it went largely unnoticed when he was alive. Writers as diverse as William S. Burroughs, Alan Moore, and Stephen King have all pointed to  him as an inspiration, while artists like Mike Mignola, Junji Ito, and H.R. Giger have cited his influence on their work. Lovecraft’s tentacles also extend into film and television, with movies like The Evil Dead and The Cabin in the Woods and even cartoons like The Real Ghostbusters and South Park reflecting or even directly incorporating elements from his fiction into their stories. Guillermo del Toro has, at various points, even been attached to direct a big-screen adaptation of “At the Mountains of Madness”, one of Lovecraft’s best-known stories, though such a film seems to still be dreaming alongside Cthulhu in R’yleh.

To further illustrate the impact Lovecraft’s work has had on popular culture as well as its own macabre magnificence, I’d like to examine the five most Lovecraftian horror movies. Keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily the best adaptations of Lovecraft’s work or the best movies that happen to have Lovecraftian themes. Rather, they are the movies that I believe best capture the essence of the subgenre.


Annihilation

Annihilation (2018)

It might strike some as strange (a funny word, admittedly, to use in the context of Lovecraftian horror) that a list like this would start with Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the movie draws inspiration from other science fiction sources as much as it does VanderMeer’s novel. Indeed, the influences that stood out the most to me seemed to be derived from Stalker, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s own take on a band of explorers entering a remote area that has been changed by the crashing of a celestial body. The similar premise, to say nothing of the airy, drone-heavy soundtrack and philosophical concerns of the characters, undeniably evoke Tarkovsky but there are other elements that point to Lovecraft’s influence. 

For one thing, said set-up recalls not just Stalker but “The Colour Out of Space” as well. As mentioned before, a meteor is responsible for bizarre changes to the surrounding area, among them allowing strange forms of plant life to grow and mutating animals into monstrous creatures. This could just as easily describe the “blasted heath” of “The Colour”, with its foul-tasting vegetation and deformed wildlife. Not only that, but Annihilation’s “Shimmer” sees anyone unfortunate enough to fall within its area of effect undergo grotesque changes. In fact, a scene involving one such transmogrification – when the characters find the corpse of a soldier from a previous team twisted into a giant colony of lichens at the end of an empty swimming pool – seems to deliberately reference a similar one in “Colour” where Pierce and company discover rotting skeletons at the bottom of the well where the “colour” resides.

“The similar premise, to say nothing of the airy, drone-heavy soundtrack and philosophical concerns of the characters, undeniably evoke Tarkovsky but there are other elements that point to Lovecraft’s influence.”

The parallels go much deeper than mere similarity of story and scenery however. As the movie establishes, the Shimmer isn’t aiming to destroy or even subdue humanity so much as it’s trying to change or “refract” it into something new. Fear of change and its consequences, of course, is a thread that runs through much of Lovecraft’s work. Whether it’s the deleterious effects of the entity in “Colour” or the degeneration of the Martenese family from wealthy aristocrats to inbred primates in “The Lurking Fear”, change can manifest in many ways but it’s almost always for the worse from the Lovecraftian point of view.

Interestingly, it’s in its approach to change that the movie seems to depart most from the Lovecraftian ethos. Whereas Lovecraft unambiguously presents his “colour” as nothing less than a blight upon the land it settles in and a curse upon anyone that is exposed to it, Annihilation sees Lena (Natalie Portman) and her compatriots, upon learning of the Shimmer’s purpose, surrender themselves to the transformation that it both enacts and represents. It doesn’t go as far to say the change that the Shimmer brings about is good but it does indicate that it’s inevitable, an unsettlingly fatalistic outlook that the master of cosmic horror would likely appreciate. 

With all these thematic and narrative parallels complimented by some truly spellbinding visuals, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Annihilation makes a valuable new addition to the Lovecraftian horror canon.


The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

For some reason, I spent years under the impression that Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror was supposed to be one of the lesser Lovecraft adaptations. Maybe it was the involvement of American International Pictures, a company that is more remembered for its work with Roger Corman adapting the stories of Edgar Allen Poe than it is the ones of Lovecraft (there’s a reason why their first Lovecraft adaptation, The Haunted Palace, is actually titled after a poem by Poe.) Or maybe it was the movie’s trailer, which is vague enough about the story to raise questions as to how faithful it is to the source material. In any case, this impression was thoroughly dispelled not five minutes into the film.

With pounding percussion, chiming bells, and billowing waves of animation, the first couple seconds of the opening credits cultivate a supremely ominous tone that befits both the film’s story and its Lovecraftian origins. The mood is fleshed out further by the dark, dynamic animation, which tracks a couple climbing up a mountain only to reach the top and show that what they’ve been scaling all along is a giant devil. It’s not necessarily the most accurate portrayal of the movie’s events nor the dark forces at work within them (it’s worth noting that Lovecraft, an outspoken atheist, might have been annoyed by the conflation of his “Old Ones” with the Christian Devil), but it’s sufficiently sinister enough to do the original short story justice. 

Speaking of the original story, the movie is much more faithful to it than I ever would have expected. Sure, the setting has been lifted from the 1920s to the tail end of the 60s and some (okay, a lot) of the details are played around with, but the basic outline of Lovecraft’s tale is preserved. Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) is portrayed as awkward yet attractive rather than brutish and goat-like, but he’s still an aspiring occultist that takes it upon himself to retrieve the Necronomicon (yes, like the Evil Dead’s Necronomicon) from Miskatonic University. He also retains his background as the son of a woman who went mad after giving birth to him as well as a hideous “twin brother” that he keeps locked up in the family house. 

“With pounding percussion, chiming bells, and billowing waves of animation, the first couple seconds of the opening credits cultivate a supremely ominous tone that befits both the film’s story and its Lovecraftian origins.”

It’s in the way the film realizes Wilbur’s twin that we get what might be the earliest depiction of one of Lovecraft’s creations that even comes close to what he may have envisioned. At first glance, this might seem off-base since the movie mostly shows the monster by not showing it at all, using point-of-view shots for much of the time that it’s “on-screen”. However, keeping the creature’s screen time to a minimum makes it loom larger in the imagination of viewers, making this the cinematic equivalent of the hideously suggestive prose that Lovecraft used when describing so many of his monsters. The effect is strengthened by the psychedelic color filters and zapping sounds that accompany the beast’s rampages, driving home its otherworldly nature.

Although it flirts a little too closely with the period’s styles and sensibilities, The Dunwich Horror refrains from fully succumbing to 60s cheesiness, allowing it to offer an early, promising example of a Lovecraft adaptation done right. 


Dagon

Dagon (2001)

Like The Dunwich Horror, I assumed that Stuart Gordon’s Dagon was another sub-par Lovecraft adaptation before watching it. While I enjoyed earlier efforts of his like Re-Animator and From Beyond on their own terms, I felt their campy tendencies kept them from really reaching the morbid depths the works they were based on did. It didn’t help that the film is actually not an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dagon” but rather “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, a story that’s fantastic in its own right but not, well, the one the movie’s named after. Yet again, my reservations were proved to be misplaced once I started watching the darn thing.

Well, maybe not quite once I started watching it. The opening boat scenes leave a bit to be desired, with the ham-fisted dialogue and the actors’ equally ham-fisted delivery of it not exactly communicating that this is a horror story of mythic proportions. Things quickly pick up once a storm wrecks the vessel and passengers Paul (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Moreno) are forced to row ashore to the nearby town for help. That town is Imboca, a small Spanish locale where the churches seem to honor a strange, fish-centric religion and the citizens bear peculiar, piscine-like features…

From here on out, the rest of the movie plays like a greatest hits version of “Innsmouth”, dramatically reenacting that story’s most memorable moments. The Imbocans pursue Paul through the town’s hotel in a thrilling chase, he manages to evade them by mimicking their limp-like walk, and, best of all, the local drunk and last honest-to-God human in the town (Bunuel collaborator Francisco Rabal in his final role) tells the shocking story of how Imboca came to worship the sea god Dagon. Weighed against the crafty execution of these scenes, any deviations from the original story or its tone can be forgiven by even the most hardcore Lovecraft literalists.

“…the movie plays like a greatest hits version of ‘Innsmouth’, dramatically reenacting that story’s most memorable moments.”

On the subject of tone, while Gordon occasionally dips into the snark and gore he so lovingly indulged in in both Re-Animator and (to a lesser extent) From Beyond, he seems to be keeping them in check here for something more much more chilling. That is, the sense of utter hopelessness that overwhelms so many of Lovecraft’s heroes (though calling them heroes might be a stretch seeing how powerless they are against the cold, chaotic universe they inhabit.) Nowhere is this clearer than the end when Paul, informed by the beguilingly-beautiful priestess (Macarena Gomez) about the town’s connection to him and what his “destiny” is, chooses instead to dump himself with kerosene and light himself ablaze. It would be a powerfully defiant gesture, if only not for the fact that it doesn’t work.

A straighter take on Lovecraft’s work than Gordon’s other productions, Dagon is unsurprisingly the most effective of his adaptations. It also has the enviable distinction of being an overall excellent horror film, giving it great crossover appeal to those unfamiliar with the material that inspired it.


The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Given the omnipresence of Cthulhu and the mythos he inspired in popular culture (as well as their public domain status), it’s nothing short of incredible that there haven’t been more attempts to adapt the one story he actually appears in for the big screen. In fact, it was only in 2005 that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Preservation Society took it upon itself to adapt the tale for the very first time, with the result being Andrew Leman’s The Call of Cthulhu. Short, silent, and very much an independent production, the movie never saw wide release but did gangbusters on the festival circuit, where it won numerous awards and accolades.

Shot in Mythoscope, the movie uses retro and contemporary methods of filmmaking to evoke the 1920s films that would have been contemporary to Lovecraft. Using intertitles, a black and white look, and a highly emotive style of acting, the end result owes as much to German Expressionist horror films like Nosferatu as much as it does to the Cthulhu Mythos. One scene in particular – the dream of a mental patient that the main character Francis (Matt Foyer) reads about –  is especially evocative of such films, with the sight of the patient finding himself amidst unusual architecture reminding one of any number of shots of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare standing against a backdrop of abstract sets from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Leman never strays far from the film’s main inspiration however, with it playing not so much as a greatest hits version (to borrow a phrase from the last entry) as simply an abridged version of Lovecraft’s story. That is, the movie’s narrative unfolds almost exactly the same as the source material does, with certain details such as the globe-spanning campaign to investigate and stamp out the Cthulhu cult being trimmed down presumably for time or budget constraints. In a way, the production’s featurette format serves the material well, allowing the filmmakers to focus on adapting the story as closely as possible rather than observing the conventions of a typical hour and a half movie.

“Using intertitles, a black and white look, and a highly emotive style of acting, the end result owes as much to German Expressionist horror films like Nosferatu as much as it does to the Cthulhu Mythos.”

All that being said though, any film version of “The Call of Cthulhu” has to come to terms with the fact that it will live or die by its depiction of the title character. It’s a challenge with quite the odds stacked against filmmakers: after all, how could anyone possibly play a tentacled, extraterrestrial deity totally straight? Yet thanks to the movie’s stylized presentation, Cthulhu is as convincing as he is familiar. As with the original story, we don’t see too much of him but the looks we do get are pretty good, with the traditional tentacles, claws, and wings all thankfully surviving the adaptation process. Rendered in stop-motion animation, the creature is obviously unreal but that just helps it fit better into the unreality that the film concocts. 

While it might be a bit too oriented toward the already-initiated for newcomers to fully appreciate, The Call of Cthulhu is a faithful love-letter to Lovecraft that takes bold risks and lets fellow enthusiasts reap the rewards.


The Thing

The Thing (1982)

If you thought it was odd that this list started with a movie not based on Lovecraft’s fiction, than you’ll probably find it similarly strange that it ends with another. Yet as strange as you might find it, John Carpenter’s The Thing is the dictionary definition of Lovecraftian horror. Adding to the irony is the fact that it’s based on a novella by John W. Campbell, another talented sci-fi writer who managed to achieve the recognition that unfairly eluded Lovecraft during his lifetime. While Carpenter would explore cosmic horror themes further in Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness, neither of these films would do so as artfully as The Thing.

Revolving as it does around a group of researchers that encounter an ancient alien lifeform in Antarctica, it’s impossible to not think of “At The Mountains of Madness”. While Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” also had an Antarctic setting (interestingly, there’s speculation that Campbell might have been inspired to write his story after reading Lovecraft’s, but we won’t get into that), Carpenter’s interpretation of the tale not only welcomes but invites parallels with “Mountains”. From the apparent hopelessness of the researchers’ situation to to the nightmarishly unearthly nature of their adversary, the influence of Lovecraft runs plentifully through the movie’s veins.

Indeed, what makes the film as scary as it is is not necessarily the Thing (although it certainly is terrifying in and of itself) but how completely and utterly isolated the members of the base are when they encounter it. Miles and miles away from civilization, it’s entirely up to them, ill-equipped and under-manned as they are, to outwit and destroy this being that is completely and utterly alien to everything they know without any hope that someone will come along and rescue them. Even as the characters, under the leadership of the indefatigable MacReady (Kurt Russell) stay cool enough to strategize and defend themselves against the Thing, one can’t help but feel some good old Lovecraftian despair on their behalf.

“Revolving as it does around a group of researchers that encounter an ancient alien lifeform in Antarctica, it’s impossible to not think of ‘At The Mountains of Madness’.”

Despair, of course, is the only thing most people would feel if they encountered the Thing in real life. Intelligent and endlessly malleable, the creature is frightening enough with its ability to take the form of anyone it assimilates, but it’s when its disguises are exposed that it becomes a true horror. Using a veritable arsenal of puppets, stop-motion, and actors in make-up, the movie brings to life a grotesque abomination that defies God knows how many laws of nature and baffles viewers as much as it horrifies them. It’s these alternately mind-boggling and terrifying qualities of the Thing, along with the film’s flawless execution of them, that make it the perfect Lovecraftian monster. 

Packed with gut-wrenching thrills and disturbing ideas that linger with viewers long after it ends, The Thing is, on top of being Carpenter’s best film, the movie that best evokes the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft.