31 Days of Hell: H.P. Lovecraft On Film – The Valdemar Legacy 1 and 2

The writings of H.P. Lovecraft have had a notoriously rough history when it comes to film adaptations. Very few films which claim to be based on his writings even attempt to do serious justice to the source material, and of those that have tried only a small handful have succeeded. Though there are at least a few Lovecraft stories or novellas that obviously cry out to be made into a great movie, this troubled track record has lead to a feeling that his fiction is somehow unfilmable, and most big studios have been scared away from any attempt to prove otherwise. Never has this been more obvious than in Guillermo Del Toro's frustrating and (so far) fruitless years-long attempt to get a big-budget adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness off the ground. But while Hollywood has continued to be scared off by the pioneering horror auteur, Lovecraft has had a bit more recent success overseas. It was in Spain in 2010 that we finally got a big-screen, (reasonably) big-budget Lovecraft film; in fact, we got two of them. A highly ambitious two-film story arc, The Valdemar Legacy and The Valdemar Legacy II: The Forbidden Shadow aren't based on any single Lovecraft story, but are a loving homage to the master's work, drawing heavily from his rich and iconic Cthulhu Mythos. With great atmosphere and a compelling original story that is nonetheless clearly based on his writings, the Valdemar saga was exactly the sort of theatrical Lovecraft film we had been hoping to see for years. But in a great irony, the films were never released – either theatrically or on DVD/blu-ray – here in the author's home country. At last the first film has been made available on streaming platforms in America... but since, as with Kill Bill or the final installments of many a young adult franchise, the films are basically two halves of one double-length movie, that doesn't do American viewers much good. However, those with the ability to import European discs are encouraged to seek out both parts as a double-feature. While it may not actually be an adaptation, this is the closest we've seen yet to how H.P. Lovecraft can and should be handled in mainstream cinema.

An appraiser for a real estate firm is sent to value a long-abandoned mansion with a dark and tragic history, which once belonged to the mysterious Valdemar family. Once inside, she finds herself caught in a grim mystery – and trapped within the mansion – when she discovers that it is not unoccupied after all, and its current inhabitant may be a killer... or worse. Meanwhile, in flashback, we see the history of the Valdemar family: the story of an early-20th-century illusionist who gets mixed up with some very real – and very dark – magic, involving the notorious (real-life) occultist Aleister Crowley, and Lovecraft's equally notorious grimoire, the Necronomicon. The past and present storylines are told in parallel across both films, gradually converging and adding up into a larger portrait of otherworldly horror. Both halves are compelling, although the early-1900s storyline about Valdemar and his descent into the occult is the stronger of the two – in part because the time period (the time when Lovecraft was actually writing) fits so well with the source mythology, and offers opportunities for some beautifully eerie atmosphere and art design. Spanning a century, the plot is far too big to fit into just one film, so spreading it across two movies was a bold choice, and certainly a good one. By cross-cutting between the past and present stories rather than giving them each one self-contained film, The Valdemar Legacy often feels less like two movies and more like a miniseries; an approach which is common with adaptations of bestselling book series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but is a pretty gutsy move when adapting the mythology of a somewhat niche cult author from the better part of a century ago. It's a good thing that a European studio was willing to make this gamble, because I highly doubt it's anything that an American company would have attempted.

What is most interesting about the parallel-time-periods approach is that the two halves of the film make use of somewhat different narrative and visual styles, appropriate to the era of their plots. The 2010 half of the film has a very modern horror feel, not unlike the work of James Wan and his Blumhouse contemporaries, with grimy, gritty settings and moments of post-Saw serial killer tension. The early-1900s half has a vintage gothic horror feel: beautiful Victorian environments haunted with deep, foreboding shadows, flickering candelight, and howling wind. It's the sort of artistic and narrative style that Guillermo Del Toro loves, and that he gave us on a far grander scale in last year's Crimson Peak. It's perfect for an Old Dark House horror story, and it feels like the natural habitat of Lovecraft's ghouls and Old Ones. The Valdemar Legacy films had a pretty large budget for a horror title – about 15 million for both put together (for comparison, Insidious was made for just 1.5 million, while the much more expensive Crimson Peak cost 55 million) – and it is clear that the construction of the film's very impressive sets is where much of that money went. The Valdemar masion is rendered both in Victorian opulence and long-abandoned decay for the respective plot threads, and in both cases the sets drip with fantastic atmosphere.

"I feed on the souls of good H.P. Lovecraft movies. I usually go hungry."

The films – especially the period storyline – also interact in a very interesting way with the frequent misconception that Lovecraft's creations are real. Both the Necronomicon and Cthulhu have become so ingrained in popular culture that many people don't know he created them, and think of them as elements of a real mythology. The Valdemar Legacy plays with that by mixing his mythology with real occultists and historical figures of the same time period. The inclusion of Aleister Crowley – notorious occultist, philosopher, and generally pretty creepy guy – as a main character goes a long way to further ground the Cthulhu Mythos material in reality, and blur the line between fact and fiction. Crowley brings with him a few other real-life individuals: figures from literary, occult, or true-crime history. I cannot spoil who any of them are, as there are some cool surprises among their ranks, but it is a very effective conceit.

Most of the actors who play these characters – real and fictional – will not be known to most American viewers, with the exception of one. The Valdemar Legacy is the final film (or rather, films) of iconic Eurocult actor Paul Naschy, who passed away at the age of 75 before the film was released. While he was best known for a career of exploitation films that usually fell somewhere between campy and trashy, he gives a pretty good final performance here, as Valdemar's butler who gets pulled into the occult nightmare with him. These films are very different from those which defined his career, but fans of his should be sure to see them, as they give him a chance to sign off with a pretty dignified dramatic role.

"I'm drawing a line in the sand-
do not read the Latin."
The films are not without their flaws, however. As mentioned earlier, the early-1900s story works quite a bit better than the present-day one, which has a few leaps of logic and moments of unevenness. The elements that appear influenced by modern serial killer movies like Saw sometimes feel out of place, and a couple of the modern-day villains are more cliché and less effective than the menacing and mysterious fictionalized Aleister Crowley. Also, while the budget was large enough to give the sets and art design a wonderfully rich look, the money clearly started to run thin in post-production, resulting in some unfortunate compromises in the special effects department. The practical effects in the film look quite good, but a few sequences make use of some CGI which is decidedly rough around the edges. Nowhere is this more evident than the climax of the second film, which features some artistically well-designed Lovecraftian imagery rendered in unfortunately uneven CGI which harms its believability and impact. It's a shame, because strictly from an art design perspective, the visuals on display here are an excellent realization of Lovecraft's work; they just needed a bit more money or attention to make sure that the computer graphics used did them justice. There is definitely worse CGI out there – this is by no means SyFy Channel bad or anything like that – it just stands out as being noticeably weak since the film looks so good otherwise.

Even if it is ultimately flawed, though, so much of The Valdemar Legacy 1 & 2 is so good that it is very easy to recommend, both to H.P. Lovecraft fans and fans of this style of horror in general. It is a wonderfully ambitious attempt to bring the author's mythology to the big screen, taking bits and pieces of many of his stories and putting them together into a grand-scale original tale which nonetheless captures that elusive narrative style that we call Lovecraftian. In that regard its closest American analog, from a decade and a half prior, is John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness: neither film is based on any single Lovecraft story, but both are adaptations of his body of work and their overarching mythos. No, we still haven't gotten the big-budget Hollywood Lovecraft movie that we have long hoped for – Del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness is still in production limbo, though he claims it isn't yet dead – but The Valdemar Legacy is definitely the closest thing. And honestly, with its ambitious two-film arc, it is likely a bolder and more adventurous attempt at bringing the author to the screen than we are likely to see from an American studio any time soon. Hopefully part II, The Forbidden Shadow, will eventually follow the first film onto American streaming platforms, and hopefully both films will eventually find their way to North American blu-ray. But in the mean time, those who can import region B/2 discs will find The Valdemar Legacy films fairly easy to find, and are encouraged to do so.

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- Christopher S. Jordan