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’ve written fewer and fewer articles on adaptations of Lovecraft’s work over the past year, largely because there are only so many ways that I can be disappointed. However, there is one movie that I kept hearing about, but had never seen: Necronomicon (1993), an anthology horror film with such, uh, people who exist as Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans, and Shusuke Kaneko. The frame device centers on H.P. Lovecraft (Jeffrey Combs), who seeks out the dreaded Necronomicon in a library run by monks, as libraries are wont to be. Therein he finds stories of “horror,” which constitute the individual narratives in the film, and he writes down these barely recognizable renditions of “The Rats in the Walls”/”Dagon,” “Cool Air,” and “Whisperer in Darkness.”
This frame, although a bit cheesy, offers a lot of potential. Although playing Lovecraft as not a fiction writer but a conduit of eldritch creations is old hat at this point, having him see versions of his own stories in a book sets up a lot of wiggle room for the creators. First of all, there’s the metafictional angle, which can be used to comment on Lovecraft as a writer, his stories as pieces of fiction, or the border between creator and creation. Second, there’s the ability to alter the stories while staying true to their spirit, because obviously Lovecraft could not dictate them exactly, and we might even see how his conservative sensibilities as a human caused his fictions to differ from their “origins.”
Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—none of this potential is met. Each story is Lovecraft’s fiction translated through the worst cadences of gory schlock horror, because apparently there’s not enough out there already. But before I rehash old qualms with Lovecraft’s bibliography being plundered by middling directors who don’t care for the guy’s actual work, I should note that Necronomicon‘s use of the genre is particularly frustrating because it wants to be “mature” while simultaneously relishing in B movie bullshit. For example, the segment “The Cold” shows a young woman’s bruises in the shower (preceding an attempted sexual assault by her father) to display her abuse, but includes one of the most gratuitous topless shots I’ve ever seen. Moments like this make Necronomicon resemble directors who put out a film for popular consumption but deflect criticism by saying, “Dude, you just need to turn off your brain and have fun.”
Even though “The Cold” carelessly wheels out the sexually abusive father trope—plus some “women competing for love of a man with no other motivating characteristics”—for easy character (non-)growth, it’s far from being as nonsensical as the other two segments. “The Drowned” experiences an identity crisis halfway through, going from a gothic horror story about a depressed middle-aged white dude who inherits a house (really excavating new territory), to shlock horror, to a swashbuckling horror-adventure story. The transitions are jarring, and quickly smother the potential set up by the prologue. Instead of being content to view one of Lovecraft’s eeriest tales from a new angle, Gans (the segment director) never realizes that the story is worth diving into. Instead, it’s just a way to film some bad effects and pointless gore.
“The Drowned” disappointed me the most not only due to the optimism I had from the irreverent-yet-thoughtful prologue, but because it too showed moments of care. The metafictional aspect returns when the protagonist, Edward De LaPoer (Bruce Payne), finds an old story about a man who finds the Necronomicon, only for Edward to find the Necronomicon himself later. Think about that for a second: we’re watching a story about a dude who finds the Necronomicon, which is being read by a dude who later finds the Necronomicon, which is being told to H.P. Lovecraft, who is reading about all of this in the Necronomicon. You think there’d be something to poke at there other than increasingly fetishized female corpses, yet Gans can’t be bothered, apparently.
For all of the laziness of “The Drowned,” though, “Whispers” might be the most baffling part of the movie. The segment starts with a chase scene where two cops swap cliches with zero irony or self-awareness. Suddenly, though, the car flips, and the female cop, Sarah (Signy Coleman) chases after her partner—who’s the father of her baby! Oh my! The tone 180s from a by-the-numbers script to an aimless search through a dark, abandoned warehouse. The stylistic incongruity, though, is not quite as damning as the bizarrely conservative undertones. We learn that Sarah planned to abort her child, but this decision leads to insane emotional and physical trauma at the hands of alien bats (because why not). She loses her right to motherhood even after she begs for it (to save her own life); her baby is transplanted to a bat-lady and she is left as food. I don’t think one needs a PhD in Feminist Theory to pick apart the blatant misogyny going on there.
All of these tropes, and ultimately the ending of the frame story, tie back to a batch of shared problems: none of the directors know why they’re making these pieces, they just make ’em, hoping to please some audiences who are happy as long as breasts, blood, and tentacles are in the mix. But further, no one is content to just chill, to explore a setting or story without dialing it up to 11 with as much or little leisure as possible. Lovecraft’s stories are famously overwritten, but they also breathe. The world is alive and massive, even though the characters’ journeys through it are often slow. Lovecraft’s success wasn’t in brainless action and blood. If that’s what the directors wanted, then that’d be fine if they stuck to it and did it well, but these segments are a mess in every conceivable way. Necronomicon is just another example of lazy directors abusing a famous name to sell crap. As much as I wish we could get more big-budget adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, Stuart Gordon’s imprint on Lovecraft adaptations has—for now—damned an entire body of work to D movie fodder.