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.
This column’s last four articles have encapsulate my issues with the majority of Lovecraft adaptations. They’re dull, uninspired, and non-Lovecraftian. They don’t reflect the strength of Lovecraft’s works and add nothing to his stories or the horror genre. They lack interesting questions, themes, or even moments that linger. So why is Black Mountain Side (2014; wide release 2016) different? It certainly shares flaws with lesser adaptations, and it’s not going to make many “Best of 2016” lists. But Black Mountain Side does something different from all of those other movies: it tries. That alone elevates it above the others in terms of style, horror, theme, and Lovecraftian essence.
Okay, I apologize for using the term “Lovecraftian essence,” but it describes what Black Mountain Side understands that those other movies don’t. It describes how Lovecraft told his stories, and what he was trying to accomplish. Did Lovecraft simply want to communicate his hatred of fish and seafood when he described Cthulhu? No, of course not. He chose his words, structure and style to invoke a deep loathing and dread of an indescribable horror, of something that tells humanity how insignificant it is just by existing. He used his words to generate horror by tapping into the fear of the unknown, and then used that horror to ask questions about our role in the universe. He created a cycle of dread where his monsters and nightmares make us ask questions, and those questions horrify us further. Some of us never forget Lovecraft’s words and ideas because once you enter this cycle, you cannot escape it.
Black Mountain Side knows this. It knows that the fear is both primary and auxiliary. But as a narrative, it knows that how you communicate these ideas to the audience is as important as the physical manifestations of that fear. Writer/director Nick Szostakiwskyj indicates his awareness of this when he opens with intertitles followed by massive, panning shots of northern Canada’s uninhabitable tundras. These devices and shots tie Black Mountain Side to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, a story of scientists exploring similar landscapes in the Antarctic. While the weather is the most obvious connection, Szostakiwskyj deepens the relationship by emulating the diary-like structure of Lovecraft’s novella with the intertitles. We feel these guys’ isolation from the rest of the world, and we understand that the story will be formatted like a scientist’s log, reflecting Lovecraft’s style in the very foundations of the script.
While the script has some great ideas and principles, though, it also hinders Black Mountain Side. Szostakiwskyj emulates a dialogue-heavy style most often tied to Quentin Tarantino, but without much of the direction and charm. The writing lacks a sense of purpose and drags as a result, deflating the quiet moments that Szostakiwskyj wisely leaves between major plot points. Further, the wanton use of indigenous mythology and rarely-differentiated masculinist character types is typical of a film school project written by a jaded Guy In Your MFA.
Further, while Szostakiwskyj captures the slow-build of At the Mountains of Madness—a discovery here, a technological issue there, a huge shock, silence, dread, another huge shock, etc.—he does not fill in the gaps with the thematic exploration and contemplation that Lovecraft uses to bridge the big moments in his book. This is Black Mountain Side‘s biggest flaw; it does have the right ideas in terms of the horror, in that it doesn’t throw in jump scares to taste, but rather builds tension through long periods of escalating terror. Those bridging shots and scenes need to be filled with something to think about. In effect, we need the questions returning us to the fear of the cycle that Lovecraft perfected.
Fortunately, Black Mountain Side still has at least the fear leading to some questions, however scant they may be. That is to say, the movie is able to evoke fear at all, which puts it above the vast majority of Lovecraft adaptations. I was tense throughout the majority of this film, and there was never a cheap trick or unearned moment. The fear is always there in a slow pan or eerie disembodied voice, because—to repeat myself—Szostakiwskyj knows that there’s more to horror than the monster. He uses the cinematography (with director of photography Cameron Tremblay) to capture the sense of “the sublime” made famous by the opening scene in The Shining (1980); he uses it to build tension through long, uncut takes. He leaves as much in the frame as out, thus using the unknown to build fear without just obfuscating. He uses sounds, angles, blocking, and all of the other tricks to make you participate in the building of a scene. You’re not a passive viewer, but an active participant.
All of this matters. It matters more than big monsters and scare chords. It matters more than references (Black Mountain Side might be one of the most Lovecraftian movies I’ve reviewed, but it has the fewest direct connections to any of Lovecraft’s stories). So, even though the small budget does make the interior shots look far cheaper than the exterior shots, I can look past it. Even though some of the performances are at best stilted, I can look past it. Because Black Mountain Side puts thought into the story it wants to tell, and actually tries, I can look past the flaws that keep it from greatness. Besides, many of Lovecraft’s stories have the chills and the tension without great characters, or thematic depth, so a cautious pardon here is warranted.
Black Mountain Side is not the end-goal of indie horror or adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. However, having written well-over 20 articles for this column, I will stand up and applaud it for being amongst the most worthwhile entries into a set of adaptations that rarely make me ask anything beyond, “What am I doing with my life?” Whereas 2007’s Cthulhu, another adaptation I mildly praised, tried to take a Lovecraft story and move it somewhere new—an attempt that I applaud—Black Mountain Side tries to capture what makes Lovecraft work and adapt it to film. If Szostakiwskyj can combine the thematic ambition of Cthulhu and improve some of the practical hiccups and poor character-writing exhibited here, then he could be not only a promising Lovecraftian director, but a powerful new talent in the world of indie horror cinema.