HP Lovecraft and his lasting impact on cinema

News Ryan Lambie 14 Oct 2011 - 16:23

With The Thing and Prometheus on the way, Ryan looks at the lasting influence of writer HP Lovecraft on modern cinema…

There are two sad ironies surrounding the work of author HP Lovecraft. The first is that, although now widely read and enormously popular, Lovecraft’s stories were never published in book form during his lifetime, and appeared instead in the pages of pulp magazines such as Astounding and Weird Tales. It was only in the decades after his death in 1937 that his stature as a writer of the macabre began to match that of his forebear, Edgar Allan Poe.

The second irony: although enormously influential on filmmakers and other writers, Lovecraft’s tales have only occasionally been adapted into movies themselves.

As we heard earlier this year, Guillermo del Toro’s plans to direct a big-budget rendering of Lovecraft’s 30s novella, At The Mountains Of Madness, were sadly put on hold, and del Toto has since diverted his energies into another project, Pacific Rim.

To date, Stuart Gordon’s camp horror, Re-Animator, remains the finest, if not exactly faithful in tone. But while official adaptations of Lovecraft’s work have only appeared sporadically on the large and small screen, the influence of his personal brand of cosmic horror can be seen and felt everywhere.

December will see the release of The Thing (at least in the UK, it's already out in the States), a belated prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic that will return audiences to the wastes of Antarctica, where an unspeakable shapeshifting menace awaits.

It’s a well-known fact in geek circles that The Thing is an adaptation of sci-fi author John W Campbell’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There. Already adapted once by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951, it was Carpenter’s rendition that hewed closer to the original story, wisely dumping the alien carrot of the Hawks’ picture and reinstating Campbell’s protean monster. But in his take on The Thing, Carpenter also brought something else to this chilly tale: a sense of apocalyptic doom, emphatically underlined by a conclusion that, unlike Campbell’s story (which ended on a portentous note and musings about the grace of God), was startlingly bleak.

Carpenter’s The Thing is an unmistakeably atheist creation, full of angst and existential coldness. When the luckless survivors, Childs and MacReady, sit utterly defeated outside the burning wreckage of their shelter, they don’t pontificate about divine providence, but simply take a swig of Scotch and wait for the inevitable end. There’s an astral chill here that’s straight out of Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of Madness, which Campbell once admitted was a direct inspiration for Who Goes There.

Like The Thing, At The Mountains Of Madness sees a group of scientists discover an ancient alien menace in the Antarctic, and both stories share a remarkable similarity in atmosphere and tone.

John Carpenter is an outspoken admirer of Lovecraft’s writing. The Thing may have contained hints of the author’s ideas, but the under-appreciated In The Mouth Of Madness (1995) was a Lovecraft tribute writ large. Its dramatic title could have been dreamed up by the author himelf, as could the scenario, in which a horror novelist experiences a looping, supernatural nightmare that ultimately drives him insane. One pivotal character is even named Mrs Pickman, taken from the Lovecraft story, Pickman’s Model.

Regarding HP Lovecraft, Carpenter once correctly asserted the following: "A master craftsman, Lovecraft brings compelling visions of nightmarish fear, invisible worlds and the demons of the unconscious. If one author truly represents the very best in American literary horror, it is HP Lovecraft."

The largely unspoken influence of Lovecraft can be seen in subtle forms elsewhere. The sci-fi classic Alien, for example, bears all the hallmarks of the author’s cosmic horror. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was undoubtedly under the Lovecraft influence when he wrote the early drafts of the script – it even contained such Lovecraftian words as squamous, as the writer Ian Nathan recently pointed out in his exhaustive chronology of the film’s making, Alien Vault.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to talk briefly to director Guillermo del Toro not only about his movies, but also about HP Lovecraft (we’ll be bringing you the full interview next Monday). When I asked him what he thought about my theory that Lovecraft was one of the great influences on modern sci-fi and horror writers and filmmakers, he said, “I would agree wholeheartedly, and I’d say he’s not only influential, but one of the great unacknowledged writers.”

Del Toro then pointed out the many similarities between At The Mountains Of Madness and Alien, including the excised plot point in Dan O’Bannon’s early screenplay in which the protagonists encounter an alien temple decorated with mysterious hieroglyphs.

“When you read the original draft of Alien they discover an ancient alien city – or in this case, a city slash space ship,” del Toro said. “They discover the life cycle of the creature, which is sort of shape-shifting, and they even discover a mural that describes how that life cycle works, which is very much like Lovecraft’s story.”

(Interestingly, 2004's Alien Vs Predator bore an even closer resemblance to At The Mountains Of Madness, where an ancient alien pyramid is discovered in - you guessed it - the Antarctic.)

The influence of Lovecraft even leeched into the look of Alien’s monster. When hunting around for a sufficiently horrific look for their creature in the late-70s, Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott settled on the disturbing art of HR Giger. Giger, himself a huge admirer of Lovecraft, had named his collection of paintings Necronomicon, after the book of ancient forbidden lore that repeatedly pops up in the author’s work.

And not unlike the hideous monsters in Lovecraft's stories, Giger's monstrosity is an unspeakable amalgam of claws and teeth. The famous Space Jockey skeleton, also designed by the artist, with its hollow eyes and tentacle-like facial protruberance, bears a passing resemblance to Lovecraft's discriptions of menacing Cthulhu.

Of course, Giger is but one influential creative type to have fallen under Lovecraft’s spell. Stephen King, who has himself inspired legion writers and filmmakers with his tales of horror, has spoken openly of his debt to Lovecraft, as have Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola, Clive Barker and Alan Moore.

For final proof of Lovecraft’s lasting influence on filmmaking, meanwhile, look no further than the synopsis for Ridley Scott’s sort-of Alien prequel, Prometheus, due out next year: “A team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a thrilling journey to the darkest corners of the universe.”

It’s a scenario that yet again recalls At The Mountains Of Madness (explorers find evidence of ancient extra-terrestrial intelligence) and would fit perfectly into Lovecraft’s rich Cthulhu mythos, in which a race of god-like beings from outer-space – referred to as the Great Old ones – once dominated our planet, but lurk dormant on the edges of reality, just waiting to be reawakened. Last year, Ridley Scott said of Prometheus, “We are talking about gods and engineers. Engineers of space” – dramatic words that could almost have come from the pen of Lovecraft himself.

The themes and ideas in Lovecraft’s work appear to have permeated popular culture in much the same way that fear and madness crept into the characters in his stories. His tales haven’t become the subject of blockbuster movies, as Stephen King's have, but bits of them have been smuggled in elsewhere, like little Trojan horses.

To the two ironies introduced at the start of this ramble, let me introduce a third. Almost to the end of his life, when his opinions softened somewhat, Lovecraft was a deeply conservative man, with oddly backward (and sometimes deeply unpleasant) social and political views. And yet, this writer, with his most misanthropic and backward notions, created a body of work that is strikingly modern in its ideas and atmosphere.

In staring into the depths of space for inspiration, Lovecraft brought back a collection of tales that spoke of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. And as movies such as Alien, The Thing and next year’s Prometheus prove, it’s a collection of tales that has had a lasting impact on filmmakers, screenwriters and artists of all kinds.

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