If you had to name the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, there's almost no question that it would be H.P. Lovecraft. His cosmic horrors, alien entities, reanimated corpses and black magic rituals, just to name a few elements of his canon, have reverberated through the work of every chronicler of the supernatural, from Stephen King to Guillermo del Toro. To this day, the overarching theme of Lovecraft's output -- that the world we perceive around us is just a thin fabric stretched over the true, horrifying reality hovering just underneath -- is a cornerstone of the horror genre both in literature and on film.
And yet, despite his vast and unimpeachable influence, Lovecraft has had a remarkably difficult time making it to the screen. That's probably because his stories, often told through the eyes of unreliable narrators, favor atmosphere and tone over tightly developed and incident-heavy plots -- something not easily transferable from page to film. In addition, his stories usually hint at the horrors he creates without fully manifesting them -- and in Hollywood, it's traditionally been all about the money shot when it comes to monsters and demons.
Yet filmmakers keep trying, and while there have been a lot of shoddy adaptations, some very good movies have also been made from Lovecraft tales. Let's also not forget the films that have been indirectly inspired by the man's work: Pictures like The Evil Dead, The Mist, Alien, Ghostbusters, Hellboy, The Last Wave, The Cabin in the Woods, We Are Still Here, Cloverfield, YellowBrickRoad and John Carpenter's classic "apocalyptic trilogy" -- The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness -- might not even exist if one of their creators had not picked up a Lovecraft tome at one point in their lives.
We'll keep hoping that Guillermo del Toro gets to one day make At the Mountains of Madness or that Richard Stanley's adaptation of The Colour Out of Space turns out to be special, but in the meantime, here's a roundup of some of the more notable films we could find based on the work of the man from Providence. Dead Cthulhu waits dreaming ...
The Haunted Palace (1963)
This is the first feature film adapted from a story by Lovecraft, in this case his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Directed by Roger Corman, it was actually marketed as part of Corman's successful Edgar Allan Poe film series, right down to the title (taken from a Poe poem) and the star (Vincent Price). But make no mistake, this is a Lovecraft joint all the way, and a darn good one. Price is creepy as Ward, the descendant of a warlock named Joseph Curwen whose spirit possesses Ward in order to enact revenge on the village -- Lovecraft's infamous Arkham -- that condemned him to death 110 years earlier. Lovecraftian elements like deformed townspeople, references to the Elder Gods and a cosmic monstrosity in a pit make this first stab at the master's work an effective one.
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
Despite a groovy psychedelic credits sequence, Die, Monster, Die! (the first of two Lovecraft films directed by Daniel Haller) quickly falls into a rut, with a lot of scenes of people walking and talking in a vast mansion without much else happening. Luckily, one of those people is Boris Karloff, who brings his usual class and impeccable craftsmanship to the role of Nahum Witley, whose experiments on the remnants of a crashed meteorite cause horrifying mutations to the plant and human life on his property. Based on "The Colour Out of Space," one of Lovecraft's most acclaimed works, the movie has a few moments of atmospheric weirdness but is brought down by a miscast Nick Adams as the hero and some cheesy special effects.
The Shuttered Room (1967)
Gig Young and the luscious Carol Lynley star in this adaptation of an HPL short story that was reportedly completed after his death by August Derleth. The pair play a couple who travel to the village of Dunwich to take possession of the abandoned mill left to Lynley -- who was raised in foster care -- by her birth parents. They find the townspeople either distant and hostile or, in the case of Lynley's cousin, played by Oliver Reed, outright aggressive and threatening. But nothing compares to what is hidden in the room at the top of the mill. Kind of a weird mix of Lovecraft and Straw Dogs, the film is bolstered by its cast, music and cinematography, and plays a bit stronger and more effectively than its reputation suggests.
The Dunwich Horror (1970)
The second Lovecraft adaptation directed by Daniel Haller (who went on to work extensively in television) is hamstrung by its horribly dated fashions, design and even cast. Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell are simply wrong as Nancy Wagner and Wilbur Whately, with the latter a professor/sorcerer who lures the former, a student, back to his estate for some decidedly inappropriate behavior, including sacrificing her to the "Old Ones." The Dunwich Horror is ludicrously slow-moving and stale, and easily qualifies as the worst of the four Lovecraft movies made during the initial period between 1963 and 1970. A low-budget remake premiered on Syfy (!) in 2009 and was quickly forgotten.
It took a decade and a half for HPL to reach the screen again, with results that were somewhat controversial but undeniably entertaining. Re-Animator is based on one of the author's lesser-known tales, with director Stuart Gordon and writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli updating the story to the modern era and adding a heavy dose -- make that several bucketfuls -- of gore, humor and sex to the proceedings in the tradition of 1980s horror. The end product drifts fairly far afield of Lovecraft -- to say the least -- but still captures some of the queasy atmospherics of his work as Herbert West (an outstanding Jeffrey Combs in his signature role) attempts over and over to resurrect the dead with increasingly chaotic and even funny results. It's a classic, but we bet that HPL never imagined a scene like the one with Barbara Crampton on the examining table. You know which one we're talking about.
From Beyond (1986)
Stuart Gordon and his team reconvened for a second go at HPL, again updated to a modern setting but this time featuring a touch less humor and a more intensely creepy tone. As with Re-Animator, the colors pop and the blood runs freely, but there's a much more Lovecraftian vibe to the proceedings as scientific experiments gone wrong open a doorway to a dimension of depraved pleasures and grotesque, gooey creatures. Combs and Crampton are back (the latter leaving very little to the imagination this time out) and are joined by Dawn of the Dead vet Ken Foree. From Beyond is over-the-top and kind of insane -- sort of like the HPL tale it's based loosely upon.
The Unnamable (1988)
This more obscure adaptation (also based on a short story) strives for something along the lines of Re-Animator, but a bit more grim and just as gory. The famous Lovecraft character Randolph Carter (often a stand-in for the author, himself) is "re-imagined" here as one of a group of college students who spend the night in an old house and discover an ancient horror waiting for them. It's an exploitation flick to be sure, and only loosely related to HPL's tale, but it does feature some good use of atmosphere and pretty icky creature effects. Somehow this spawned a sequel, too.
The Resurrected (1992)
Surfacing briefly in theaters before going to direct-to-video, this underrated little gem is directed by Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote Alien and who wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead. The modern setting aside, this is one of the more faithful HPL adaptations and is based on the same source material as The Haunted Palace -- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Sadly, what O'Bannon conjures up in chills and creepy visuals is let down somewhat by the cast, which features a pre-Lost John Terry. Let's just say that there's no Vincent Price in this group. But The Resurrected deserves a look ,anyway.
HPL's stories seem to work better in a shorter film format (more on that a bit later), but this anthology based on three of his tales is kind of uneven across the board -- an aspect of many horror anthologies, actually. Jeffrey Combs is here, this time playing the author, himself, as he introduces stories based (loosely) on "The Rats in the Walls," (directed by Christophe Gans) "Cool Air" (helmed by latter-day Godzilla director Shusuke Kaneko) and "The Whisperer in Darkness" (directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna). The first segment is probably the best, which just the right amount of dread and suspense, while the third and weakest relies on gore to make up for weak writing. The film may be for HPL completists, but worth their time.
Castle Freak (1995)
Stuart Gordon -- who made something of a cottage industry out of HPL films for a while -- adapts his third story from the master ("The Outsider"), again updating the setting and taking a lot of liberties with the material. But Gordon also dispenses with the raunchy humor and tones down the copious gore, instead striving for an intensely grim and exceptionally bleak atmosphere that is closer in spirit to HPL's work than Gordon's two previous outings. The movie reunites Combs and Crampton, this time as a married couple who, along with their blind daughter, move into an ancestral castle only to find that they are not alone. Let's call this one a minor classic.
Gordon's fourth and next-to-last exploration of HPL's work is based not on the early short story that shares its title, but on one of the author's more acclaimed novellas, The Shadow over Innsmouth. The town is renamed Imboca and set on an island based off Spain (since the movie was a Spanish production), where a vacationing couple find themselves trapped by a hideous cult that worships beings who emerge from the sea to mate with human women. As with Castle Freak, Gordon goes for a dead serious approach here and frequently gets close to the same feeling generated by Lovecraft's own writing. The movie's onslaught of horror and uneven acting get tiring after a while, but Gordon still manages to create something that's faithful in many ways.
Cool Air (1999)/Dreams in the Witch-House (2005)/The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
As we mentioned earlier, HPL has done well in shorter media, and these are three of the best examples. Cool Air is a 50-minute black and white film based on the story of the same name and largely faithful to it despite limited resources, while Dreams in the Witch-House was produced as an episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror and is Stuart Gordon's so-far final HPL adaptation, featuring Dagon star Ezra Godden as a student who moves into a boarding house haunted by a malign presence. It's faithful, yet quite nasty. The Call of Cthuhlu is not just incredibly true to HPL's classic story, but is shot as a silent black and white film, giving it a period feel that adds so much to the 47-minute film's oppressive atmosphere. A great cast and score place it near the very top of HPL adaptations.
Like Dagon, Cthuhlu is based liberally on The Shadow over Innsmouth, but places the story in a modern setting in the Pacific Northwest. It also makes lead character Russ (Jason Cottle) gay, adding a new layer of metaphor to the story of a young man who returns to his hometown after years, feeling like an outsider, only to learn that a malignant cult lurks in the town intent on summoning some human-hating gods from the sea. The film is slow-moving but undeniably eerie and ambitious, even if its lower budget occasionally lets the movie down. Worth tracking down.
The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
Following their unique The Call of Cthuhlu, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society next came up with this full-length feature film, based on another acclaimed gem. Like the earlier film, The Whisperer in Darkness was shot in the Society's "Mythoscope" style, giving it an aged, vintage look that is utterly appropriate to the material and creates a surreal, dream-like quality. Available on home video, this entertaining and eerie movie -- about a man who discovers a cult that wants to open a doorway between Earth and Yuggoth -- may requite some legwork to see, but may be the most Lovecraftian film yet.