Howard Phillips Lovecraft had a brief writing career (from 1916 until his death in 1937) but in that time managed to create a body of work that has inspired a cult to this day. H.P. Lovecraft’s prose is often turgid, yet it brims with a unique sense of cosmic horror – of Earth existing as a tiny island surrounded by incomprehensible ancient gods waiting to return, of individuals driven insane by horrors they have encountered, ancient cities, arcane rites, scientists whose quest for knowledge has taken them too far, and sights and horrors that can only be depicted as ‘indescribable’.
H.P. Lovecraft has not fared particularly well when it comes to film. There have been routine adaptations such as The Haunted Palace (1963), Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and The Dunwich Horror (1969). H.P. Lovecraft never became a recognisable name on film until the cult success of Re-Animator (1985). However, Re-Animator, with its emphasis on splattery gore and black humour, was almost the complete antithesis of Lovecraft’s writing. Where Lovecraft emphasized mood, subtlety and horrors beyond, Re-Animator laid everything upfront. Nevertheless, it did inspire a succession of low-budget Lovecraft adaptations – From Beyond (1986), The Curse (1987), The Unnameable (1988), Necronomicon (1993), The Resurrected (1992), Lurking Fear (1994), Dagon (2001) – even the tv movie Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) set in an alternate world where magic worked and Lovecraft had become a private detective. Few of these succeeded anywhat in conjuring a mood that could be described as Lovecraftian, with most taking their tone from the campy unserious splatter and goo effects of Re-Animator. Indeed, the only genuinely Lovecraftian film of this period was not a Lovecraft adaptation at all but one construed as a loose Lovecraft homage, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1995).
An annual Lovecraft amateur film festival has been being held in Portland, Oregon over the last four years, highlighting (mostly) non-professional short efforts. The best of these have been brought to Vancouver by Toren Atkinson, a member of the H.P. Lovecraft tribute punk band The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. Despite being rendered as works of love on next-to-no budgets, these amateur Lovecraft films offer a far better treatment of Lovecraft than their feature-length equivalents. The overall quality of the short films on selection is surprisingly good.
The slightest ones are the shortest (under five minutes) of the short films. A Portion of Ka (dir – Brian Edward Poe, 4 mins) (★★) has an effective opening image of a surgeon (played by Poe) hiding a Joker-like skull grin under a surgical mask, as well as an effective end voiceover that conjures an authentically Lovecraftian mood of impending dread. However, the short is undone by too many scenes of psychic surgery, which look exactly like what they are – of someone pretending to pull strips of meat out of an actor’s stomach.
L.A.-based director Aaron Vanek is thrice represented at the festival. Vanek has two short-shorts – My Necronomicon (4 mins) (★★) and The Outsider (8 mins) (★★). The Outsider looks like one of Aaron Vanek’s earlier efforts and is amateurishly directed, photographed and acted, but is partially redeemed by an effective twist ending that contains one good makeup effect. My Necronomicon is based on no particular story – it features someone reading a copy of the Neconomicon and an effective digital effect where the walls suddenly start to bleed. Symptomatic of The Outsider, it too is a so-so piece with a single good effect.
The best of the short shorts is Dagon (7 mins) (★★★½) from celebrated graphic artist Richard Corben. The credits seem to indicate that the majority of the film was made by Corben himself, which makes it all the more incredible, considering that it contains sophisticated optical and CGI effects. It is the most visually inventive of all the films on show. Richard Corben has replaced the skies and oceans with surrealistic shimmering optical effects and created images of lost cities rising and proto-hominids dancing that seem to come from another world altogether. The only fault in this film is its length – one wishes that it had been longer.
The best of the shorts are the longer ones – 10 minutes plus. The Music of Erich Zann (16 mins) (★★½) from Chicago-based John Strysik suffers from amateurish photography, but is considerably redeemed by good performances from its two principals. There are some end optical effects that also give a fine, brief vision of Lovecraftian cosmic horrors.
One of the finest shorts is Anthony Reed’s The Hound (22 mins) (★★★★). The story is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s slighter ones but the film is conducted as a beautiful psychological mood piece that one quickly ends up comparing with the work of Val Lewton – the 1940s producer who created the psychologically ambiguous horror film with the fine likes of Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Seventh Victim (1943). As with the best of Lewton, the central hound that haunts the film’s two body snatchers is never seen. The film is entirely relayed via some superbly moody black-and-white shadow lighting. Even the daylit scenes at the graveside or of the two body snatchers rowing across a lake seem to eke a nameless dread. The film has no soundtrack and is entirely relayed via an excellent score and an urgent voiceover narration that faithfully renders Lovecraft’s story.
Equally good is Vancouver-based Bob Fugger’s From Beyond (22 mins) (★★★★). It is a far more authentically Lovecraftian adaptation of the story than anything Stuart Gordon managed in his professional, feature-length adaptation of the story From Beyond (1986). The film mostly consists of two people sitting on chairs in a laboratory where one describes the horrors to the other but the piece nevertheless attains a breathless sense of Lovecraftian impending dread. There are also some highly professional CGI creature effects. Like most of the films here, this is filmed in black-and-white but this proves an intriguing ploy in that when we see the sensory realm of the pineal gland opened up, the film expands to colour to do so.
Aaron Vanek returns with the longer Return to Innsmouth (26 mins) (★★½), a loose sequel to the as-yet-unfilmed Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936). The film is professionally filmed in b/w and makes a good stab at period atmosphere – particularly nifty is the climactic image of G-Men vs Lovecraftian mutants. Some of the performances of the locals create a good ambience of crazed inbred hysteria. However, the film is undone considerably by thoroughly unconvincing effects of monsters rising from the deep.
The finest piece on display was The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (45 mins) (dir – Pierre Trividic) (★★★★★). This is not an adaptation but is an H.P. Lovecraft biography produced by the documentary division of the French production company Le Sept Arte and is one of the most extraordinary biographical documentaries one has ever seen. Rarely has a documentary ever gotten inside the head of its subject so well – it touches bases with Lovecraft’s racism, his agoraphobia and fascination with the ancient past. It makes use of a novel second person voiceover narrative where the film addresses the audience themselves as though they were in Lovecraft’s shoes. Equally ingenious is its use of surrealistic techniques, including having Lovecraft represented by a life-size cardboard cutout circling a gloomy apartment on a track.
The festival would have closed with a screening of Bryan Moore’s much anticipated adaptation of Cool Air. Alas this never made it through Canadian customs and we were instead treated to several items from Toren Atkinson’s own video collection. First up was the adaptation of Cool Air conducted in 1970 for Rod Serling’s tv series Night Gallery (1970-2). Night Gallery was always a pallid imitator of Serling’s heyday with The Twilight Zone (1959-63) and Cool Air was an adaptation that was pedestrian in every regard. Second up was The Collect Call of Cthulu, an episode of The Real Ghostbusters (1986), an animated series that was designed as a throwaway exploitation of Ivan Reitman’s hit Ghostbusters (1984). The episode has clearly been written by a Lovecraft fan – the lead villain is named Clark Ashton (after Clark Ashton Smith, another writer who contributed to the Lovecraft mythos) and the climax has the Ghostbusters consulting copies of Weird Tales (the magazine that Lovecraft most commonly published in) to find out how to combat Cthulu. However, the animated series was an effort that nobody involved with seemed to have any particular interest in and in all other regards is routine Lovecraft.
The second evening concluded with a screening of The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets’ MTV clip Walking on the Moon. One cannot help but think that H.P. Lovecraft, a lifelong reactionary, would be spinning in his grave at the concept of a punk band formed in tribute to him, but one cannot help but appreciate the organizers’ enthusiasm. It is good to see for once that the amateur fans and filmmakers have succeeded where Hollywood with all its budget brought to force has completely missed the barn door.
Other films based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft include:- The Haunted Palace (1963), Die, Monster, Die/Monster of Terror (1965), The Shuttered Room (1966) and The Dunwich Horror (1969). The big success in the modern era was Stuart Gordon’s splattery black comedy version of Re-Animator (1985), which popularised Lovecraft on film. This led to a host of B-budget Lovecraft adaptations, including Stuart Gordon’s subsequent From Beyond (1986), The Curse (1987), The Unnameable (1988), The Resurrected (1992), Necronomicon (1993), The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1993), Lurking Fear (1994), Gordon’s Dagon (2001), and other works such as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (2003), Beyond the Wall of Sleep (2006), Cool Air (2006), Chill (2007), Cthulu (2007), The Tomb (2007), Colour from the Dark (2008), The Dunwich Horror (2009), Pickman’s Muse (2010), The Whisperer in Darkness (2011) and The Haunter of the Dark (2015). Also of interest is The Manitou (1978), which features an appearance of the Great Old One; Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) and its sequel Witch Hunt (1994), a tv movie set in an alternate world where magic works and where the central character is a detective named H.P. Lovecraft; Juan Piquer Simon’s cheap and loosely inspired Cthulu Mansion (1992); John Carpenter’s Lovecraft homage In the Mouth of Madness (1995); the fan parodies The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulu (2009) and Call Girl of Cthulu (2014); even an animated children’s film Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom (2016) in which a young Lovecraft encounters his own creations; while the Elder Gods turn up at the end of The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and Lovecraft (Paul Titley) appears as an imaginary companion in Ghostland (2018). Lovecraft’s key work of demonic lore The Necronomicon also makes appearances in films such as Equinox (1970), The Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), and was also borrowed as an alternate retitling for Jesus Franco’s surreal and otherwise unrelated Succubus/Necronomicon (1969) about a BDSM dancer.