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.
Want to know something exciting? It’s my anniversary! You know, of writing for Rooster Illusion. Pretty cool, right? Well, my anniversary was some-odd days ago, but this is my first article after having written for over a year for this site. I’ve decided that my gift is going insane and writing a review not of a movie that’s been made, but of what would be my ideal Lovecraft adaptation. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t exist, and maybe this is an article that’s fun for me to write and not terribly useful. But I consider this a reward for a year of hard-hitting, complex, nuanced journalism, for which I’ll probably be receiving my Pulitzer in the mail soon. So, without further ado, here is a review of the movie that I wish existed. Warning: this is possibly the most Lovecraft-y of my Lovecraft articles.
Shadows on the Bayou
Dr. Nate Olmstead (Michael Shannon) is a History and Religious Studies professor at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. He’s decided that, after years of researching the history of ancient texts like the Necronomicon—a mysterious book by Abdul Alhazred that tells of ancient evils and alien monstrosities beyond our comprehension—that he would like to further the discourse on the history of the book in the United States. The facts are sporadic and detail occasional appearances of copies, largely in the Deep South, and so he decides to take his sabbatical in the more remote parts of Louisiana. As the information begins to trickle in, the coherence of history begins to crumble and Dr. Olmstead quickly finds himself in over his head.
This plot is not entirely unfamiliar to fans of author H. P. Lovecraft, and indeed has a lot of plot elements common to many of Lovecraft’s stories: a naive academic, the exploration of bygone towns and remote areas, shocking realizations that drive one to madness, an undercutting of human understanding of our world, and several more. A lot of movies have taken elements from Lovecraft, and there have been many adaptations (see every other part of this series), but Shadows on the Bayou ends up being a more faithful adaptation of Lovecraft by nature of not directly adapting any of his works. Truth be told, this is the best Lovecraft film I’ve ever seen, and can probably ever hope to see.
I think that the major victory here is by the writer/director, Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud). Now, I was at first a bit confused by his pairing with Lovecraftian concepts, but looking back, he’s clearly the director most apt for taking on this material. I mean, Guillermo del Toro would make a great At the Mountains of Madness, as he has been trying to do for years, but it would be a del Toro film. John Carpenter has Lovecraftian influences, especially with his monsters, but he still makes Carpenter movies, which is fine by me.
But Nichols’ style is entirely in keeping with Lovecraft. In Take Shelter, he showed a man slowly destroyed by insanity—an insanity that might or might not be rooted in knowledge about something to come that no one else has. In all three of his films so far, he has demonstrated a strong ability to film place. A unique Southern flavor permeates his movies while not making their power exclusive to those familiar—or even interested in—the locale. Lovecraft shares a similar strength: although he’s known for his monsters, his abilities to set an atmosphere based on locations and to give the reader a sense of place dominate his stories. The difference is that Lovecraft often focused on New England, with bygone towns, but in modern America, the setting of the South feels closer to Lovecraft’s locales than does New England. In fact, despite having the other-worldly horror, this movie maintains a distinctly American tone that gives it a personal touch, one that makes the horror more personal in turn.
A lot of credit should also go to Nichols’ long time cinematographer, Adam Stone, who similarly captures the atmosphere of creepy, mysterious, and eldritch settings. The sheer beauty of construction in the shots of this movie really set it apart not just from all the other Lovecraft adaptations, which often forget the importance of cinematic techniques, but from most horror. In fact, this movie really bears a lot of kinship to the classic horror film The Shining, thanks to the impeccable visuals and, quite plainly, Nicholson-esque performance by Shannon.
And man, Shannon is good in this movie. He demonstrated in Take Shelter that he can subtly portray the descent into madness of a psychologically sound man, but here the insanity is of a different flavor. The madness doesn’t just make him skittish, paranoid, or even clouded in his judgements: it tears apart his world. As every scene builds upon the previous one with new pieces of knowledge that tear apart any rational understanding of the universe, Shannon’s Dr. Olmstead converges on insanity. Compound this with an ominous character that seems to show up wherever Olmstead goes, played to eerie perfection by Michael Fassbender, and you have a cast that outshines even previous performances by these great actors.
The plot itself is oddly simple despite weaving through so many elements of various Lovecraft stories. There is the destruction of a farming family, an eerie capturing of the horror as seen in “The Colour Out of Space; the presence of a duplicate Necronomicon in the old fishing town of Old Bayou Bay, a clear throwback to The Shadow Over Innsmouth; and a general presence of homages to even less major tales , like when Dr. Olmstead stays overnight in a room with an eerie violist, which is clearly an incorporation of “The Music of Erich Zann.” None of these stories dominate the plot, but rather exist as important points in the development of Dr. Olmstead’s story. Nichols never forgets the character, which makes this movie truly haunting as we see Olmstead’s descent.
I really can’t speak enough in favor of this movie. It’s the perfect Lovecraft adaptation, by virtue of not being an exact adaptation. The fact that it goes above and beyond all this, with the incorporation of typically ignored perspectives of the horror writer’s tales, impressed me all the more. I refer particularly to Viola Davis’s performance as a denizen of Old Bayou Bay, who lives in fear of the practices of the local religious group: The Esoteric Order of Dagon. The underlying sexual aspects of the story, and their misogynistic implications as seen in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, are portrayed from a perspective usually silenced in Lovecraft’s stories: women. The incorporation of racial factors adds to the fleshed-out sense of place that Nichols develops, and critiques some of the pernicious aspects of Lovecraft’s stories.
And in case anyone is wondering: there are monsters. They’re not the central point, and they’re not bombastic, but they’re there. Nichols is smart to not portray whole creatures, but rather aspects of them, so that our minds can fill in the rest. The horror of a single glimpse of Shub-Niggurath’s young is greater than a long-distance shot of the whole creature. The monsters in this are few and only involved when absolutely necessary to further push Olmstead down a dark path. Nichols’ selectiveness makes the presence of unearthly monstrosities not just more frightening than any other Lovecraft adapation, but more so than most monster movies could ever hope to pull off. For that reason, this isn’t just the perfect film for Lovecraft fanatics, but for any fans of well-constructed horror films or dramas.
Okay, everyone, that’s my article of complete self-indulgence.