Article: The Un-Unfilmable - H.P. Lovecraft

Inspector Chris Jordan further discusses literary works that are supposedly unfilmable.

Within the realm of horror literature, arguably no other author has had as much cultural impact and influence as H. P. Lovecraft. He may not be the most widely-read or universally-known, but his fiercely original ideas and unique mythology have infiltrated our collective consciousness so thoroughly that even if you don't know who he is, you absolutely know about the world he created. The Necronomicon, Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, the town of Arkham and its notorious asylum... all parts of Lovecraft's imagination which have very much taken on lives of their own. If you watch just about any horror, sci-fi, or dark fantasy films at all, you've undoubtedly watched a bunch that have Lovecraft influences all over them. And yet his own stories have had a notoriously difficult time being successfully adapted to the screen. So much so that among horror fans, Lovecraft has become the poster-boy for the concept of unfilmable writing. And that is why he is the subject of this second article busting the myth of unfilmability.

It is absolutely true that Lovecraft is a challenging author to bring to the screen. And it is absolutely true that most of the Lovecraft adaptations that have come from anywhere near Hollywood have been pretty bad. But both of those facts stem from the same reason: his writing is all about atmosphere, the build-up of suspense, and the disturbing concepts of cosmic horrors unseen; things that require a certain delicate touch and trust in the audience's attention span that many conventional horror directors just can't be bothered with. A well-known movie that walks the perfect line that a good Lovecraft adaptation should is Pan's Labyrinth: first and foremost a dark, supernaturally-tinged drama that adds in elements of horror with an intelligent, deliberate, slow-burn approach. The problem with most mainstream H. P. Lovecraft movies is that they have not had the good fortune to get a director as strong as Guillermo Del Toro; most of them have been fast and dirty, low-budget straight-to-video horror flicks which take only the most basic skeleton of one of his stories and use it as an excuse for another generic gorefest. And for this disappointing trend, I have no choice but to blame Re-Animator.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like Re-Animator; as a bombastic, over-the-top 80s splatterfest, it's a lot of fun, in the same way that Evil Dead 2 and Dead-Alive are fun. But it is barely an H. P. Lovecraft adaptation. Mostly it's just its own crazy thing, which happens to be very loosely based on a Lovecraft story, and a pretty atypical one at that. And that's perfectly fine; I don't care if a movie is a really loose adaptation as long as it's a good movie in its own right, which Re-Animator is if you like those sorts of flicks. The problem is that it was the first Lovecraft adaptation in fifteen years, and the first ever to gain a major cult following, and it set a really bad precedent. It caused horror filmmakers to think than fans wanted all Lovecraft adaptations to be like that one, it caused producers to be very reluctant to finance any adaptation that wasn't like that, and thus it created a cottage industry of films that claimed to be based on his stories, but that were basically just Re-Animator cash-ins, only without the originality.

Here I must repeat my viewpoint that a film need not be slavishly faithful to the literal plot of its source material to be a good adaptation; it is far more important to capture the writing's “soul,” in terms of tone, themes, and the way the narrative (however it may have been changed in translation to the screen) is treated by the storytelling process. The problem with many of these post-Re-Animator adaptations isn't that they aren't narratively faithful, but that the soul of the original stories are nowhere to be found in the totally non-Lovecraftian style; plus, most of them just aren't good movies anyway. It has been thirty years since the release of Re-Animator, and few mainstream American directors have been able to break through its hold over adaptations of his writing. Guillermo Del Toro is certainly trying with his long-discussed, on-again-off-again At The Mountains of Madness adaptation, but given the poor track record of Lovecraft at the movies, it isn't shocking that he's having trouble convincing a studio to finance the thing.

Still, this unfortunate trend does not mean that Lovecraft is unfilmable; in fact, it shouldn't even suggest it. Despite all the bad adaptations, there have still been some really good films made based on his stories, which prove that it is totally possible in the hands of the right filmmaker. Most of them are indies, made far away from the producers who insist that HPL movies be like Re-Animator in order to be marketable, but first we'll start with one that actually was made within Hollywood, and stands alone as the best serious adaptation of his work to emerge from that system so far. From the co-writer of Alien and director of The Return of the Living Dead, Dan O'Bannon, comes...

The Resurrected (1991)

Amid all the B-grade Re-Animator-cash-in Lovecraft movies that were flooding the straight-to-video horror market at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, Dan O'Bannon's The Resurrected was a breath of fresh air. It is a totally serious adaptation of the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and it is faithful not just in story, but in tone and technique: it really does capture that sense of the Lovecraftian. The key to the film's success is that O'Bannon does not approach the material like a typical horror movie at all: The Resurrected is a mystery with supernatural and occult undertones, which only gradually becomes a horror film towards the last act. Until that point, it really is exactly what the title of the novella implies: the case of Charles Dexter Ward, a detective's investigation into the strange behavior and possible occult activities of the titular scientist (played by Chris Sarandon, of Fright Night and The Princess Bride). This approach puts the viewer in the same situation as the detective: we start out in the normal, everyday world, and only gradually become aware of sinister, unexplainable cosmic forces creeping in all around us, until we suddenly are in a nightmare altogether outside the rational world we started in. That is the Lovecraftian: that journey into madness that makes his stories so haunting, and that you simply cannot get if a film is already in blood-soaked horror territory from the opening frame. Lovecraft is all about suggesting rather than showing; about the build-up of tension rather than a series of shocks, and O'Bannon's slow-burn style is a perfect match to that.

It isn't without its flaws, though. O'Bannon clearly had a pretty low budget to work with, and there are times when his ambition and desire to do Lovecraft right clearly strain against his funding limitations. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the movie's cast. Chris Sarandon is very good as Charles Dexter Ward: he brings an appropriate, vaguely sinister air of mystery to a character we aren't supposed to know quite what to make of. The mysterious nature of the character gives him a bit more to dig into than his more famous roles as the obviously-evil vampire Jerry Dandridge, or the buffoonish Prince Humperdink. Aside from him, though, the major cast (John Terry, Jane Sibbett, Robert Romanus – yep, Mike Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) ranges from decent to pretty wooden, and while the film deserves better, they're probably what the budget could afford. The studio was on the verge of bankruptcy while The Resurrected was production, which not only caused these unfortunate budgetary constraints, but burdened it with other problems as well. First, in a misguided attempt to make it a more marketable horror film, the studio took final edit rights away from O'Bannon, and re-cut it without him, resulting in some odd and clunky bits of editing. Secondly, the studio's money dried up before the film's intended theatrical release, and it wound up going straight-to-video instead, where it got lost among a sea of crappy horror flicks and never found the widespread recognition that it really deserves.

Despite these problems, O'Bannon's skill as a director shines through, and The Resurrected manages to be a really good movie even as the odds seem against it. The wooden acting and awkward editing are most problematic in the first few minutes, when a strong opening sequence unfortunately gives way to a somewhat clunky, exposition-laden set-up to the plot which I'm sure he would have cut differently. But have a little patience: it only takes a few minutes for O'Bannon to regain control of the project, and soon his slow-burn mystery-horror approach begins to cast its spell and draw the viewer in. While the actors (Chris Sarandon aside) may not be great, he makes effective use of them, and the narrative as a whole becomes strong enough that the less-than-stellar performances of Terry and Sibbett cease to be a problem. The great atmosphere goes a long way in this department: O'bannon found some very moody, effective settings which feel right out of Lovecraft's writing, and they aid perfectly in the mounting tension of the plot. And while it is not a special-effects-driven film, what effects there are look really good. It isn't a perfect movie, but it does manage to be a very good one, and it absolutely does justice to Lovecraft's writing and captures the style of his storytelling in a way that very few Hollywood movies have ever even tried to do. Any fan of his stories should definitely check this out, immediately. Sadly, the DVD is out of print, and also is a frustrating 4x3 pan-and-scan version. Netflix carried it on their streaming service for a while in a great-looking widescreen HD transfer, but they no longer offer it. Hopefully a company like Scream Factory will resurrect it someday soon, and maybe even rebuild O'Bannon's director's cut, which he was working on at the time of his early death, and which exists in a rough workprint stage that has been screened at a couple festivals. This one definitely deserves to get some long-overdue attention; it has been under the radar for far too long.

Fortunately, while it may be the best Lovecraft movie to ever come out of Hollywood, it is far from the only really good, truly Lovecraftian film to be based on his work. The world of indie films has given us some excellent adaptations, made as labors of love by filmmakers who know that there is no such thing as unfilmable. There are even a couple studios that have made it their mission to give us good Lovecraft movies. The most well-known of these studios is...

The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society – The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness

For fourteen years The Resurrected held the title of the most true-to-the-author Lovecraft adaptation. Then in 2005, it was dethroned by – of all things – a 47-minute indie silent film. But wow, what a great 47 minutes it is. The Call of Cthulhu was made by a group of artists who call themselves The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, lead by the writer/director/producer team of Sean Branney and Andrew Leman: true cinephiles with a passion for classic movies that matches – and enhances – their passion for Lovecraft and the world he created. With this film, they set out to do two things: make the ultimate, most truly faithful adaptation of one of his stories, and make a period-authentic tribute to the silent horror films of the 1920s. For a bunch of indie artists working on a shoestring budget, that is a crazily ambitious set of goals... but with their sheer willpower and artistic ingenuity, they pulled it off brilliantly. Who cares if they had to make it a half-length feature instead of a full-length; what they did here is something seriously special.

As the title might lead you to believe, The Call of Cthulhu is one of the key stories in Lovecraft's canon; one of the cornerstones of his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos,” which makes up his rich mythology of the Great Old Ones, their nightmarish realms beyond time and space, and the ancient grimoires like the Necronomicon that are used to summon them. If you want a good introduction into Lovecraftian lore, this film – and the novella it is based on – are perfect places to start. The novella is unusually epic in scale for a Lovecraft tale: while most of his stories tend to follow a lone protagonist as he encounters some sort of madness-inducing horror, The Call of Cthulhu weaves together multiple intersecting plot threads set over a period of years. As such, it is probably one of the most cinematic of all of his stories, and also one of the most ambitious for such a DIY group of artists to tackle, especially while imposing upon themselves the limitation of using no dialogue aside from intertitles. Several reviews have made the comment that the black and white picture helps cover up budgetary constraints, and the silent-film conceit helps level the playing field for an uneven indie cast, but while that may be somewhat true, there is so, so much more to the artistic choices than all that. The film doesn't simply imitate silent movies, and it isn't simply shot in black and white; it painstakingly recreates the feeling and experience of a genuine 1920s film, in craft as well as appearance. It isn't a device to hide a low budget (although it does that too), but an added layer of artistry made to enhance the story, and present it as a unique slice of time.

The Call of Cthulhu is made to be viewed as if it were a “lost film” made in the late-1920s, when Lovecraft's novella wasn't some classic work of literature, but a brand-new piece of pop-culture that had just been published in Weird Tales magazine. As such, everything is made to be period-accurate, and great care is taken to maintain the illusion. The cinematography and set design are classic German Expressionism, with exaggerated, deliberately artificial environments that look like they are out of paintings, and skewed Dutch camera angles. The aspect ratio is 4x3, just like it was back then, and the edges of the picture are rounded and slightly blurred. The acting is deliberately stilted and overdone, in classic silent-film style, as the actors convey emotions without words. The Dialogue is presented in ornate intertitles with the H. P. L. Historical Society logo at the bottom of the frame. When it comes time for some creature effects, the filmmakers use no CGI, and instead painstakingly recreate early claymation right out of the original The Lost World. The one thing that betrays its modern origins is the early-2000s digital video; vintage film effects filters just can't hide that too-clean DV look. Aside from that, though, the vintage styling is spot-on. And most importantly, it isn't just a curiosity piece or exercise in style; it works great as a highly compelling and entertaining film in its own right too. It's deeply atmospheric, it's suspenseful, and it is highly effective in capturing Lovecraft's story. That it does so in the cinematic language of the time it was originally published just adds to the experience.

Six years later, Branney, Leman, and the rest of the HPLHS team made a second film, 2011's The Whisperer in Darkness, and managed to top their previous effort. With more experience, better digital filmmaking technology, and greater production resources earned by The Call of Cthulhu's critical acclaim, they were able to make an even more polished and professional product, this time at full feature-length. Once again they made the movie as a vintage-style time-capsule of the era in pop-culture when the source novella was written – and since it was published in Weird Tales in 1931, that means a mid-1930s classic horror film, along the lines of Dracula, Frankenstein, or King Kong. Once again, their commitment to authenticity in their filmmaking style is seriously impressive: the moody lighting, stark cinematography, and musical score bring back great childhood memories of watching Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi movies on TV, and also lend the story just the right sort of dark, shadowy atmosphere. There is dialogue this time around, and while the actors still have the freedom to overact just like they did back in those 30s-era films, they handle the material quite well, and manage to stay away from self-parody. The Whisperer in Darkness is another Cthulhu Mythos tale, although in quite a different style, with a bit more emphasis on the sci-fi side of Lovecraft's mythology than the horror. In adapting the novella – which is decently long, but not quite 100-minute-movie-long as written – Branney and Leman learned the best possible lesson about adapting written stories to the screen: faithfulness is great when possible, but there's nothing wrong with embellishing and making some creative changes if they will help the adaptation work better. There are times when The Whisperer in Darkness goes off and does its own thing, separate from the literal events of Lovecraft's story, but that gives the story room to grow and fit its new medium without ever feeling padded. It nonetheless feels just as true to the novella as the Historical Society envisioned, and it certainly debunks the old argument that Lovecraft can't be adapted to the screen because his stories are too short. All the stories need are the right filmmakers.

But on the other hand, when looking for great adaptations of short stories, it's important to remember that there are a lot of great short films out there. Less-than-full-length movies often have trouble finding a home, and have a tendency to fall through the cracks in terms of viewership and distribution. But especially in the world of low-budget indies, shorts are where a lot of new talent can be spotted. The Call of Cthulhu managed to break through the barrier as a short feature that got all the acclaim, attention, and distribution of one of its full-length counterparts, but that's pretty rare. Let's end this look at the filmability of H. P. Lovecraft with a couple other really good short-feature adaptations (by which I mean movies like The Call of Cthulhu that are in that 45-minute to an hour range; longer than a short, but shorter than a full-length movie). Both of these were released on DVD by a studio whose sole, noble mission was to find homes for short and short-feature Lovecraft adaptations.

Lurker Films' H. P. Lovecraft Collection presents: Chilean Gothic and Cool Air (1999)

Lurker Films was a small indie label that exclusively released DVD compilations of short films based on classic horror fiction, especially Lovecraft. Their flagship series was The H. P. Lovecraft Collection, a set of five DVDs which each contained one featured movie (usually a short-feature clocking in at about an hour) and a few other shorts. As is usually the case with indie films of any length, they could be an uneven bunch, but Lurker found some really good ones for these discs – and two in particular have become much-loved classics among fans of the author's work. Lurker Films is now defunct, and all of these discs are out of print and fairly pricey, but they are definitely worth seeking out if you are a fan of his stories – especially these two which are probably the finest direct adaptations that the collection uncovered.

The Lovecraft Collection DVD called Pickman's Model is in fact an American re-titling of a critically-acclaimed 2000 TV movie from Chile called Chilean Gothic. This far more interesting title is still what appears in the opening credits on the DVD, but Lurker Films probably thought it wiser to attract fans by using the title of the Lovecraft story it is adapted from. Well, mostly adapted from: Chilean Gothic is actually about half “Pickman's Model” and half another HPL novella, “The Lurking Fear.” The two stories are blended together into a very successfully ghoulish tale about a reporter investigating a reclusive painter whose favorite subject is monsters. The film occupied a one-hour slot on TV, so it clocks in at 45 minutes without commercials. Too bad: this is good enough – and has enough plot going on – that it easily could have been a feature-length film, but sadly that isn't what the network asked (or paid) for. Still, even at half-feature-length, Chilean Gothic is very well-done, and captures the style of Lovecraft's writing wonderfully.

In much the same way as The Resurrected, Chilean Gothic adapts Lovecraft so well because it follows his classic approach of a slow-burn immersion into gradually-mounting horrors unknown. It doesn't start out in full-blown horror territory; it's a journey that leads us there, and the journey is the destination. This is the fourth film to adapt elements of “The Lurking Fear,” and all three of the other ones are really, really bad precisely because they don't understand how to do this, and just clumsily fill the runtime with monsters rather than tension. Chilean Gothic gets it right because it learns Lovecraft's greatest lesson: the unseen horror just outside the corner of your eye can be so much creepier than the monster that just jumps right out in front of you. With this in mind, it focuses all its resources on mood and atmosphere. The locations and sets are spectacularly spooky, taking full advantage of Chile's ancient, winding, cobblestone streets and old buildings that seem to have personalities of their own; Chilean Gothic indeed. The lighting is great, and makes strong use of color in the way that the gorgeously-eerie Italian horror films of the 70s did. And perhaps most importantly, in an age when cheap, ugly-looking digital video was very prominent in low-budget media, Chilean Gothic is shot on 16mm film, which it gives it a nicely cinematic look; very grainy, but really that's part of the charm. This is definitely one to check out; if only it were a bit longer.

For a very different sort of film, check out the very first DVD in the Lovecraft collection, which remained probably their most popular: Cool Air. “Cool Air” is extremely unique among H. P. Lovecraft stories, in that despite its sci-fi themes, it is basically a human tragedy; easily the most human tale he ever wrote. There are no monsters here, just a tragic old man facing the end of his life, and the realization that his lifelong obsession has caused him to place importance on all the wrong things. It's written with great atmospheric eeriness, but in a way that emphasizes philosophical uncertainty rather than horror. There have been several film adaptations of “Cool Air” over the years, and most of them utterly miss the point of the story, and shoehorn in all sorts of unrelated horror-movie tropes to try and make it marketable to the Re-Animator crowd. This 45-minute 1999 adaptation is the one that really gets it right, presenting the story as a quiet, thoughtful character piece that could just as easily be a great two-man stage play. His stories often get lumped into horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, but here we have possibly the only Lovecraftian drama.

Shot in stark black and white on a very small budget, the minimalist style of the film places the focus firmly on the emotional plight of its long-suffering central character, Dr. Muñoz, whose obsessive scientific pursuit has come at a heavy personal cost. Muñoz is the heart and soul of this film, and from the moment he appears on-screen, his weary, embittered presence keeps the viewer locked in. Playing the doctor is Jack Donner, a character actor you will likely recognize from bit parts in countless movies and TV shows, but who seldom gets leading roles. He is great in what is probably one of the richest and most interesting roles of his career; it doesn't matter that the film clearly has a small budget otherwise, because his performance, and the gravitas that it brings to the project, is the only production resource it really needs. It's a very different sort of Lovecraft film, as those who are looking for horror definitely won't find it, but it is better off because of this: it is not every day that you get to see one of his stories told as a very intimate, thoughtful character study, and his work deserves such dramatic range in its adaptations.
There are plenty more good H. P. Lovecraft adaptations out there: this really is just a few obvious ones that deserve recommendations. Most of them – like the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society and Lurker Films releases – come from the indie world, where the desire to make a good film outweighs the demand to make a widely marketable one, but the fact remains that Lovecraft is a whole lot more filmable than the generalizations about his work would lead you to believe. Hopefully someday soon (maybe after Pacific Rim 2) Guillermo Del Toro will finally get the chance to make his big-budget At The Mountains of Madness adaptation, and give us the ultimate Lovecraft movie that we've never really had. But until then, these smaller films give HPL fans plenty to watch – and give us plenty of arguments that challenging literature and good movies aren't as irreconcilable as some like to say.

-Christopher S. Jordan