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.
A short while ago, I reviewed “Cool Air,” the featured short film in The H. P. Lovecraft Collection, Vol. 1. It was, as you can see in my review (listed above), awful. I decided, though, out of dedication, to watch the four shorts featured on the DVD: “Nyarlathotep,”
“The Hound,” “An Imperfect Solution,” and “The Hapless Antiquarian.” I had admittedly low hopes, but decided to give it a shot, only to find myself staring into the past at the foolish creature once named Alex who failed to learn from his mistakes.
I’m exaggerating. It went okay. Let’s review them one at a time, shall we?
I was actually surprised with how close this movie floated around competency, especially considering the entire lack of skill behind “Cool Air.” The story develops about as well as one based on a prose poem could (“Nyarlathotep,” Lovecraft’s original piece, is quite imaginative but not exactly narratively clear), and the sound mixing in particular was as good as you could expect from some kids with a camera. There’s the distinct sense that, with a bigger budget and some nohow, director Christian Matzke might have been able to really dial up some of the creepier aspects of the story.
Some shots are quite good in this 13 minute short. The scenes in Egypt show some promise in terms of masking the budget and having a sense of shot construction, in particular:
I was at least able to find interesting aspects of this piece, which is much more than I can say about “Cool Air.” Shots like the one above allowed for that. There is at least the sense that someone took care and time in making this.
That being said, competent is the most I can muster up: it still has some clear cheese and amateur acting. The design for Nyarlathotep himself is particularly comical. Allow me to show you a picture:
I mean…is that a piece of plastic wrapped into a tube as the beard? If I was at all “into” this movie, I was thrown out of it by things like this. They seem like something a pretentious and dorky film club would design. Oof. That being said, if “Nyarlathotep” is competent considering the circumstances, that at least puts it above a small handful of Lovecraft adaptations.
“The Hound” (1997)
This adaptation of Lovecraft’s relatively minor 1922 (writtten, published in 1924) short story . Sadly, this short movie tries to do what many adaptations do: have an overblown narrator speak into a poor quality microphone using verbose language. The style attempts to mimic Lovecraft’s wordy narrators, but while it works on the page—largely because we’re not getting the visual double of what’s happening, which creates many redundancies—it falls completely flat for this medium. There’s also the strange tendency to have mechanical whirring in the background all the time, which I’ve noticed in several adaptations. These amateur filmmakers really hate silence, for some reason.
The major failure here is the complete lack of suspense caused by the silly narration and complete lack of intrigue due to the visualization of the story. Lovecraft’s horrors were never in the literal actions of the characters, but the ideas. With no room for those ideas, all we get is a cheap rehash of a fairly non-scary story. Considering the constraints on the budget here, the director, Anthony Penta, mistakenly chose to go for boring literality. The ideas would be far more conducive to indie filmmaking, instead of quick cuts of a character running in fear from a fake-looking severed arm to the same character trying to look like a badass while holding a shovel.
“An Imperfect Solution” (2003)
Based on the short story (that’s really a sequence of shorts), “Herbert West—Reanimator,” this short starts out on the wrong foot by throwing around fake article clippings in a style reminiscent of your youngest cousin’s first attempt to use iMovie. That being said, once the action gets going, there’s a clear step up in style: there’s some color (the grainy black and white gets old when it’s only used to mask budget issues), the acting is solid, and the writing reveals character and plot through dialogue rather than monologues.
Admittedly, the dialogue can be a bit stunted, as with the rest of the story, but the director, Christian Matzke again, has at least improved some of his narrative skills. Admittedly, this narrative is of little consequence and doesn’t have much going on beneath the surface, but the source material isn’t exactly full of Lovecraft’s most complex philosophical conjectures, so I suppose that can’t be focused on too significantly. “An Imperfect Solution” is merely an extension of the amateur work seen in “Nyarlathotep:” relatively inoffensive, but not at all interesting or demanding of repeated viewings.
“The Hapless Antiquarian” (2001)
Made by the same group that did “The Hound,” this short piece has a small bit of charm to it. Going through the letters of the alphabet (“B is for the bike he used to get home…D was his dream of the book’s evil power”), the story tells of an Antiquarian who finds a rare tome and discovers horrible truths within it. The rhyming, singsongy narrative paired by catchy music is, if not frightening, at least a bit of fun, making it more memorable than the rest of the lot on this DVD.
The style is reminiscent of early expressionist horror—albeit without any of the visual cleverness or interesting ideas lurking beneath the surface—but it’s still a style, and not simply a cheap attempt to capture the plot. Admittedly, the silliness is a bit disappointing, as it appears to imply that the only way these small-budget pieces succeed is when they don’t take themselves seriously. If only we could have both: some stylistic panache and a creepy story! Alas, for now, we’ll have to settle for this, as I can’t imagine the first brilliant Lovecraft adaptation coming out of low-budget, short films. At least, I can’t after these movies.
These stories were not horrific, possibly because they lacked the length to be overly offensive, but again we’re faced with what might at best be described as a set of mediocre movies. I have to admit that I hoped for some ingenuinity, but the problem doesn’t seem to be money; rather, it’s a lack of thoughtful attempts to capture the horror of the original stories, which I think is dictated by the creators’ failures to understand what makes Lovecraft stories work.