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.
I was delighted when I learned that Rod Serling’s Night Gallery adapted Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air” (see the review in the links above). After all, Serling’s prior sci-fi/horror anthology series, The Twilight Zone, is one of the most intriguing programs to grace television. While Night Gallery episodes, in particular “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air,” have not aged as well and don’t invoke as many creeps as The Twilight Zone, they are still quite fun, so I was pleased to read in The Lurker in the Lobby (a neat little book for the Lovecraftian cinephile) that two other episodes are influenced by the works of ol’ H.P. I decided to review them here, you know, for completion’s sake.
“The Return of the Sorcerer”
This episode is all cheese, and hints at Lovecraft only with a passing reference. But hey, Vincent Price is in this episode! Isn’t that great? A good short to watch with a beer and some friends, I assume, but not much else. However, in one scene, occultists chant various evil-sounding names, and then in an equally serious tone say, “Ab-a-ra Ka-daaaa-ba-ra!” That made the whole segment worthwhile.
Actually, maybe I’m not giving this episode due credit. It does have the spirit of a man trapped inside of a Satanist goat.
“Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture”
If you read a lot of my Eldritch Adaptations reviews (hi, whoever you are), then you know that I am critical of people who “adapt” Lovecraft but depart substantially from his style and ideas. In my defense, I only do so when the departures are half-assed and the references are meant to cover the fact that the film or show is uninspired. The Resurrected is a terrible movie that relies on Lovecraft to trick people into looking past its faults, whereas The Unnamable is an enjoyable genre flick that uses Lovecraft and has fun while doing it. Those specific examples are, of course, a matter of opinion, but even those that disagree can hopefully see my general point.
The larger point I want to make, though, is that Lovecraft fans are bonded by their love for the man and his works, and it’s okay to revel in that. Sure, maybe his stories can be hokey and verbose (hppodcraft.com is great at pointing out how funny the details can be), and maybe the man himself was far from perfect, but at some level Lovecraft has become so much more than his stories. He’s an idea, a shared interest, and sometimes it’s nice to watch a visual narrative that recognizes our shared interest and just has fun. The difference between The Resurrected and “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture,” though, is that it’s actually fun. It’s the difference between that person you know who makes a relevant joke using a shared cultural interest, and that dude who says, “The cake is a lie!” just because you said the word “lie.”
This Night Gallery episode has a simple setup: Professor Peabody (Carl Reiner) teaches a “Comparative Religion” course, and he decides to teach his glossy-eyed students (it was the 70s, after all) about the beliefs that come from places like Arkham, Massachussets. On his blackboard, he has a list of names, including Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and Hastur. But when he says that last name, a student—Mr. Bloch—remarks that, according to the lore of the Old Ones, there are consequences to saying “Hastur” out loud. The Professor scoffs, amused at the superstitious attitude of his students. As he continues, laughing off the contributions of students Mr. Derleth and Mr. Lovecraft, a storm stirs outside. He sweats while he reads passages from the Necronomicon. As the winds whirl and Peabody’s ability to stay cool dissolves, madness sets in, and the Professor—unbeknownst to himself—turns into a horrid monster!
Clearly, this plot isn’t substantial, but it is a ton of fun. For Lovecraft fans, it’s great to see someone throw out some references while playing with the Mythos that Lovecraft built. This episode utilizes the more horrid ideas behind Lovecraft’s works while having a laugh about how they are both frightening and a bit silly. But beyond the references are the direction, acting, and editing of this scene, which are incredible. As the storm and Peabody’s nervousness build, so does the viewer’s anxiety. Despite taking place in a classroom, this short story is kinetic, well-paced, and carefully made. It respects Lovecraft’s works by taking itself seriously, by putting great care into every aspect of it, rather than saying, “Well, we said the word Necronomicon. What else could you possibly want?”
“Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” is a prime example of how to adapt Lovecraft while exploring a new style or idea, and while it’s not perfect, it reveals the extent to which a writer’s and director’s ingenuity make the difference between a hackneyed adaptation and an homage that’s worth your time. This episode of Night Gallery might not have revolutionized television or Lovecraft adaptations, but it was enjoyable, and that places it above far too many of its kin.
NOTE: I saw someone ask where he or she can watch Night Gallery. I watched it on Hulu, which has ads, but does not require a subscription (so no, you do not need Hulu+).