Hollywood has never done justice to H.P. Lovecraft. Second only to Edgar Allen Poe as American literature’s most influential horror writer, Lovecraft penned macabre tales involving unhinged narrators and unspeakable god-demons that, until the advent of CGI, defied cinematic special effects. Lovecraft fans tasted keen disappointment last year when director Guillermo del Toro failed to secure a green light for his epic adaptation of the novella At the Mountains of Madness, despite the participation of Tom Cruise and director James Cameron. To date, the films that best capture Lovecraft’s spirit of apocalyptic dread aren’t adaptations but such original works as Peter Weir’s The Last Wave or John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. Today’s Blu-Ray release of a clever new take on Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” inspires this list of the most eerily effective adaptations on the big and small screen to date.
Hollywood took a few awkward stabs at Lovecraft, including 1970’s The Dunwich Horror, but until the 1980s the best takes on the author appeared on “Night Gallery,” Rod Serling’s supernatural anthology series of the ‘70s. “Cool Air” sets an overly deliberate pace but builds to a creepy payoff in its account of a woman who falls for a professor with a strange attraction to the cold. “Pickman’s Model,” however, better captures Lovecraft’s pet notion that unearthly creatures lurk just outside our field of vision. Bradford Dilman gives an intense but understated performance as a Boston painter obsessed with a secret population of lupine ghouls. The teleplay sets an appropriately menacing tone, despite an inadvertently hilarious monster costume. Lovecraft knew better that nothing we see with our eyes can ever be as scary as what we imagine.
Published in Weird Tales in 1928, “The Call of Cthulhu” introduced Lovecraft’s most famous creation, the titanic, squid-headed elder god Cthulhu. While Cthulhu has recently began generating internet memes and made an appearance on “South Park,” the story’s interconnected vignettes resist a conventional, cinematic through-line. Filmmakers Andrew Leman and Sean Branney had the ingenious notion to adapt “Call” as if it were a silent film from the era of its publication, so it unfolds in “Mythoscope,” with dreamy, sepia-toned black and white cinematography. Featuring deliberately primitive special effects, a la the original King Kong, The Call of Cthulhu succeeds as a clever stylistic exercise in which the moody expressionism fits the story’s pulpy origins and nightmarish subject matter.
In another loose adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a professor returns to his home town following his mother’s death and discovers weird goings-on that anticipate an apocalyptic event. Writer/director Daniel Gildark and co-writer Grant Cogswell bring some contemporary themes to work, notably by exploring the relationships of the gay main character, so while Cthulhu doesn’t feel entirely faithful to Lovecraft, the filmmakers seem personally invested in the story. Uneven and ambiguous, Cthulhu takes narrative risks that mostly succeed, including the casting of a surprisingly effective Tori Spelling. The most memorable moment has the title spoken aloud.
Stuart Gordon reunited with Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton for an equally freaky kinky horror flick, in which Ted Sorel’s deranged Dr. Pretorius develops a means to permit people to perceive extradimensional creatures, while stirring up their sex drives and homicidal impulses. With wonderfully icky monster effects, From Beyond, like Re-Animator, is one of the rare horror-exploitation flicks that gets the mix of violence, sex, fright and comedy exactly right. In later years Gordon filmed lesser versions of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “Rats in the Walls,” under the titles Dagon and Dreams of the Witch-House respectively.
The second “Mythoscope” adaptation makes a stylistic leap forward a few years, paying homage to the talkies of the early 1930s, with visuals that nod to 1950s science fiction. Matt Foyer gives an increasingly unstrung performance as Albert Wilmarth, a folklorist and skeptic who becomes ensnared in small-town conspiracy involving cultists and alien crustaceans. Once you make allowances for the low-budget special effects and deliberately theatrical overacting, you can savor The Whisperer in Darkness’s atmosphere of barely-controlled hysteria. The film adds some old-school action scenes, but ends on a paranoid note that keeps faith with the original author.
Ironically, the most entertaining take on the author is the least “Lovecrafty.” Stuart Gordon established himself as cinema’s leading Lovecraft adaptor with a juicy take on the story “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” about a student who concocts a disturbingly flawed means of reviving the dead. Re-animator more closely resembles a zombie film than Lovecraft’s signature brand of occult sci-fi, but it boasts masterful suspense scenes, great jokes and Barbara Crampton as a smart, totally hot love interest. Jeffrey Combs established himself as the Anthony Perkins of his generation as West, a hilariously insolent and reckless genius whom he played in two Re-Animator sequels. The actor even played Lovecraft in the anthology film Necronomicon.