Eldritch Adaptations: H.P. Lovecraft and Filming Unnamable Horrors

Eldritch Adaptations

Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s.  His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.

“The Tuesday Zone” has returned, folks.  While last week might have contained a minor oversight–not having wi-fi during vacation–this week sees me entirely prepared and ready to “Tuesday Zone” the hell out of something.  Actually, that’s not true.  I still need some sun.

So to get myself back in movie mode, I’m going to talk about The Call of Cthulhu (2005), a relatively recent adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1926 story of the same name by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS).  For those of you unfamiliar with H. P. Lovecraft, he is a horror/sci-fi/fantasy writer from the early 20th century.  His reputation in the horror realm is massive, almost rivaling Poe.  He’s inspired writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Joyce Carol Oates, and film directors like Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, and John Carpenter.  If you’re familiar with Cthulhu, Arkham (from which Arkham Asylum of Batman fame takes its name), or the Necronomicon , then you’ve heard of some of Lovecraft’s creations.

His stories are very much so of the monster variety, but tackle a lot of complex themes that Lovecraft covers in densely plotted narratives.  Some themes (and other common elements) are, as listed on the HPLHS website, “madness, the occult, insane worshippers of the unholy, people meddling with forces they can’t comprehend, boats on the ocean, and gigantic monsters killing human beings in large numbers.”

Fun Fact: Titanic was adapted from Lovecraft's story,

Twentieth Century Fox
Titanic: a Lovecraftian tale of love and disaster, apparently.

So Lovecraft is a fairly big deal in the horror world.  “SciFridays” recently did a piece on a movie called In Search of Lovecraft, which deals with the writer but apparently sucks.  Most movies that have directly adapted Lovecraft’s works have been received luke-warmly at best, though, and that has to do with Lovecraft’s type of horror.  His genre, which he coined as “Cosmicism,” deals with beings so powerful that they are beyond the realm of human comprehension.  Invariably the protagonist is a naive, white academic who learns about these beings and goes insane.  To see any of these beings is to go insane.
This makes adapting his work notably difficult, because while writing can allude to these things, film is visual.  It’s not easy (or ethical, probably) to portray something that makes humans go insane on sight.  The Call of Cthulhu knows this and embraces the difficulties to make the most unique and what I think to be the best visual adaptation of a Lovecraft story. The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who as far as I can tell are an awesome bunch of very passionate Lovecraft nerds, made the film in the style of old silent horror movies.  This is fitting for Lovecraft’s style, which often deals with “unspeakable horrors.”  The effect isn’t absolutely horrifying, sure, but it captures the essence of the story: fragmented information, mystery, surrealism.

Men wearing eyeliner....

HPLHS Motion Pictures
Also, sad men wearing eyeliner.

By making a Lovecraft story in the style of German Expressionist horror films, like NosferatuDr. Caligari, or The Golem, this movie is best able to get us in the mood of quiet creepiness.  We feel like we’ve entered a world somewhat detached from what we’re familiar with because, well, silent film and black & white cinematography aren’t exactly like reality.  The extremely physical (and somewhat overdone) acting that comes with silent film also shows human emotions in the extreme, which fits Lovecraft’s very grandiose themes.  Also, the Cthulhu they make for the story is, in my opinion, awesome.  You can’t make a “The Call of Cthulhu” adaptation without Cthulhu.

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 6.08.32 PM

HPLHS Motion Pictures
Otherwise Cthulhu will awaken in reality and kill us all.

I think that a huge part of this movie’s success is the fact that it does go for old-timey, which automatically lowers our expectations for blood-curdling horror.  With modern styles there would have to either be a ton poured into a horrifying monster design, which is particularly difficult given how many horror movies and monsters people are now accustomed to, or a lot of sneaky camera angles that never quite let us see what’s scaring the protagonists.  By going the silent film route, the directors are able to invoke a lot of Lovecraftian moods while also showing us the titular monster, who has a very famous appearance, but not making us critique the design in every last detail.  They sidestep the idea that the story has to be terrifying for the idea that the story is good, engaging, and awe-inspiring.

This is a damn good adaptation, in part because it’s so simple, but also because the creators know what makes the original story work.  They didn’t just translate the story onto the screen, but found the best way to adapt it such that the final movie is true to the original story but also successful in its own medium.  Lovecraft’s storytelling techniques have been used so often that they’re not surprising and new anymore, but they’re still damn interesting.  Thus, by making a silent, black and white film, the HLPHS has told us Lovecraft’s story with all the intrigue and awesomeness of the original.

Not to mention a bitchin' title card.

HPLHS Motion Pictures
Not to mention a bitchin’ title card.

Whether we’ll ever see a truly modern, big-scale version of a Lovecraft story (Guillermo del Toro has been working on an adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness for ages now) is uncertain, but as far as adaptations go, The Call of Cthulhu might be the best one we ever get to see.  To be honest, I’m pretty okay with that.  If you’re a fan of Lovecraft, then this is a must see.  If you want to see a clever horror-esque monster film, then it might work for you.  If you’re bored and need to kill 46 minutes, well, it’s available on Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime Instant, so I don’t know what you’re waiting for.

Have a question about Lovecraft?  Or anything you want to ask/suggest to me?  Fill out the form below?  You can even make it anonymous and tell me how awful I am.

2 thoughts on “Eldritch Adaptations: H.P. Lovecraft and Filming Unnamable Horrors

  1. Pingback: The Tuesday Zone: Lovecraft, Back in Black (and White) | Rooster Illusion

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