Bringing HP Lovecraft to the big screen

Just in time for Halloween, James considers the weird tales of HP Lovecraft, and the ones that could make great films...

(Warning: this article contains spoilers for several H.P. Lovecraft stories and also contains material that may upset the balance of your sanity. “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”)

Dear readers, I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain since by tonight I may be no more. The end is near and soon will come the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnameable. Hallowmas has arrived and I hear the howling from that awful reef, the horrible croaking voices and the slippery bodies lumbering against the door.

The nauseous fishy odour seems to have mounted suddenly, the shrill whippoorwills have burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which fills the countryside and I am certain that everything is coming to a head. Or, at least, a gibbering mockery of a head. The mere recollection of It – of Them – drags me out of the sane world of wholesome life into abysses of blackness and alienage.

Erm, yes. To explain, I’ve been re-reading a whole hock of H.P. Lovecraft in the build-up to Halloween. I thought that I could do with some suitable seasonal mood music (well, literature) and it made sense to re-acquaint myself with one of my favourite writers as a timely diversion in bleak October. It was a bad idea. It was a very bad idea, for Lovecraft is – I’m forcefully reminded – a terribly disturbing proposition.

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In engaging with his vivid, verbose, gloriously vile prose I’ve found myself re-encountering atrocious arcane secrets, abhorrent eldritch beings, sinister cults hailing the blasphemous and unnatural and inhuman things that should not be all over again. My wits are scattered and I’m fear-frozen but, yet, simultaneously I’ve really enjoyed my grand Lovecraft re-read.

The curious fascination has a grip on me and I’m compelled to keep on turning these pages and imbibing his malodorous visions. “Doe not call up Any that you can not put downe”, as Jebediah Orne of Salem once wrote to Joseph Curwen in a particularly pertinent letter (see The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). Wise words, indeed, but it’s too late for me now. I know too much. I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror. Thanks Howard. Thanks a lot, man.

Still, in spite of the nightmares and nausea I do really love Lovecraft and my pre-Halloween reading list has really re-asserted that affection. It’s also rekindled an old fire inside and that burning issue is the desire to see HPL’s horrors hitting the big screen with force. If a stalk-and-slash flick or classic B-movie re-runs aren’t cutting it tonight, I know that I’d love nothing more than a few hours with a film adaptation of a Lovecraft story. Alas, those are rare beasts and, generally, the iconic weird fiction author has yet to truly receive the motion picture treatment that he deserves.

Very much a paragon of posthumous success, Lovecraft’s cult following and conceptualisation of what we term ‘cosmic horror’ has ensured that his influence spread far and wide. The Cthulhu Mythos and ‘Lovecraftian horror’ have flourished across literature (both prose and comics), heavy metal music, roleplaying and videogames and geek fashion to cite a few contaminated mediums. We can only imagine how the man himself would have felt about the abundance of cute Cthulhu knitwear that you can now acquire without having to go to such extremes as enrolling at Miskatonic University or joining the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

When it comes to the screen, however, Lovecraft is more conspicuous by his absence and it’s a dearth I find difficult to fathom. The strikingly cinematic plots, the presence of both genuinely affecting visceral and vague horror, the sheer terrifying imagination and the psychological dynamism of his writings all point directly to motion picture adaptation. Yet, as already noted, it’s lean pickings for the fans of his weird fiction eager to get their teeth into filmic expressions.

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Over the ages there have been a fair few indirect adaptations and spirited indie efforts. Stuart Gordon deserves special praise for continuing to bang the drum for HPL and for directing such classics as Re-Animator and From Beyond. In spite of those, though, there are no massive, major blockbuster box office botherers and Lovecraft’s cinematic legacy is confined to the stylistic influence blatantly displayed in original masterpieces like Alien, The Thing and the films of Guillermo del Toro.

Del Toro, of course, came close to changing things as he developed At The Mountains Of Madness though Universal pulled the plug on that one – the perfect marriage of director and material and the most exciting prospective literary adaptation I think I can probably think of. The only positive to come out of this travesty is Pacific Rim (tentacular in itself) and, well, I’ll take that, but it still leaves us lacking an A-grade 21st century Lovecraft movie par excellence.

It’s high time Howard Philips’ febrile imaginings troubled the mainstream audiences that flock to the multiplex. I still hold out hope that Del Toro’s At The Mountains Of Madness will be revived one day but, in the meantime, how about other filmmakers coming forward to push the cult pulp fiction icon onto the modern day movie scene?

With advanced special effects technology and the best actors, crews and auteurs in the business on the case, Lovecraft’s literature could finally get its due treatment. Simply expand the narratives, mythos and underlying themes in creative fashion and expunge the more unsavoury aspects – namely Howard’s horrific racism – and we’re laughing (maniacally, because an odd nervous affliction has us in its grip and we’ve succumbed to hysterical madness).

A fascinating character in his own right, a biopic chronicling Lovecraft’s life, times and unique genius would be very welcome. (The contenders to play the main role: Andrew Scott, Tom Hiddlestone, Cate Blanchett and Jake Gyllenhaal). Failing that, the movie-ready material is all right there in his fiction and most of the HPL’s weird stories are worthy of adaptation. Going over the bibliography, I’ve picked out an extraordinary few that really leap out and call out in a bestial babel of croaking, baying and barking “greenlight me!” while staring with unblinking eyes that appear absolutely inhuman in aspect.

Here are six Lovecraft yarns that I reckon to be ripe for big-screen adaptation, with a few thoughts on how the tales could be handled (tentacled?) and who might be the best director to do it…

The Colour Out Of Space

How was it that what used to be the Gardner farm West of Arkham became the “blasted heath” – five acres of grey desolation, miasmal odours and “too much silence”? It all dates back to the “strange days” following the meteorite that landed there in June 1882. Scientific inquiry discovers indescribable colour globules embedded in the extra-terrestrial object but, alas, it shrinks away and there the mystified Arkham academics depart from the scene.

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The Gardner family remain, however, and over the course of changing seasons abnormal things start to occur, first to the environment and then to the family themselves. The Colour Out Of Space is a fantastic exercise in insidious escalation chronicling the spreading of contamination from an unearthly source. It’s detailing of the resultant absolute disintegration, decay and death – physical, mental and environmental – is both brilliantly disgusting and one of the best showcases of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror philosophies in action.

Though lacking much in the way of social commentary (though it certainly has the foundations for some), the science fiction concept and the shocking body horror experienced by the affected organisms has me reckoning that this could be a great project for Neill Blomkamp. The South African director knows how to make tremendous special-effect heavy blockbusters with brains and human feeling. What’s more, if Blomkamp was behind The Colour Out Of Space it’s a guarantee that Sharlto Copley would be perfectly cast as the accursed Nahum Gardner.

Pickman’s Model

Richard Upton Pickman (current whereabouts unknown) was an incomparable genius and his morbid artworks perfectly captured the physiology of fear on the canvas. His grotesque scenes of ghoul feedings, “dog-things” and mephitic monstrosities moving through the urban landscape were so realistic that he found himself ostracised from Boston’s art scene. Our narrator is an admirer, however, or at least he was until his hero showed him his secret studio in a cellar beneath the city’s antiquated slums. “I verily believe they were alive!” he cries, recalling the figures on display during an exclusive sneak peak at Pickman’s works-in-progress. That’s because they were, for the “nauseous wizard” had got actual life reference for his hideous portraits, his studio implied to be a nexus point for artist and his inhuman, ghastly subjects.

It’s the story of an artist whose obsession with perfection draws them deep into a self-destructive, dark nightmare world. It offers plenty of opportunity for upsetting lurches into reason-obliterating surrealism. Pickman’s Model is rife with psychological torment and graphic imagery. Altogether, it sounds to me like it’d make an excellent Darren Aronofsky movie. 

The Festival

It begins with our lead protagonist walking through the picturesque winter New England scenery on his way to the secluded, antiquated small town of Kingsport. Bidden by family command, he is heading there to connect with his ‘people’ and observe the Yuletide festival of the elder time – a festival predating Christmas, kept alive by his ancestors so “that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten”. He discovers that his people are silent, strange folk with waxy faces and soon he’s flicking through a copy of the Necronomicon and being moved with an odd mass of gatherers down into the depths beneath Kingsport’s old church. Sinking deeper into a subterraneous Stygian grotto with an oily underground river he comes to understand that festival involves cavorting with flopping “membranous winged things” rising from the “putrescent juice of earth’s inner horrors”.

Reading through The Festival I get visions mirroring moments from The Nightmare Before Christmas and ParaNorman and that leads me to the conclusion that this would make for a wonderful stop-motion movie. In an ideal world it could be another Henry Selick and Laika Studios collaboration and, of course, it could be made ‘family-friendly’. Alternatively, it could be realised as a resolutely terrifying, very adult stop-motion flick which would certainly be something unusual. Regardless, it’d be a creepy Christmas cracker and essential viewing for anyone looking to celebrate the Yule season with a flourish of cosmic horror.

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The Music Of Erich Zann

A humble metaphysics student takes residence in a now un-findable down-at-the-heel part of what seems to be Paris and discovers one of his fellow lodgers to be a gifted German violinist named Erich Zann. The mute musician’s frenzied late night violin sessions are quite spectacular to the ears of our narrator though he becomes increasingly unnerved by his neighbour’s eccentricities and the nature of the music. His wild performances don’t sound like the practice of one person and Zann appears to be increasingly physically and emotionally disturbed. The apparent truth is not easy-listening, for it seems that the music – “the daemon madness of that night-baying viol” – is actually sonic intercourse with an abyssal other dimension of chaos and pandemonium.

I’m not sure how you’d go about composing Zann’s unearthly music but I am certain that this tale would be best adapted as a Sylvain Chomet animation. Chomet’s beautiful-grotesque, old-fashioned French style would blend perfectly with the world that Lovecraft conjures up in this rare Europe-set yarn. What’s more, the absence of dialogue and the fact that it’s about a melancholy monomaniacal performance artist means The Music Of Eric Zann would fit naturally into Chomet’s oeuvre.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Possibly Howard Phillips’ most abhorrent work, this novella chronicling the worst day trip in history definitely has the legs (or fins) for feature-length treatment. Our narrator’s coming-of-age trip around ancestral locales across New England leads him to Innsmouth – a dilapidated, degenerate port populated by furtive decadent and abnormal folk with unblinking eyes and loathsome aspect (“the Innsmouth Look”). In spite of his overt revulsion, the grim portents and the warnings of outsiders, our surrogate delves deeper in hope of getting to the bottom of the town’s enigmas. Eventually, after hearing the horrifying recollections and revelations of local historian-cum-alcoholic hobo Zadok Allen, our stranded subject gets embroiled in an escape and chase sequence as he attempts to flee the Esoteric Order of Dagon. The actual real end of the five-chapter story is arguably Lovecraft’s most devastatingly traumatic climax.

This may seem an unorthodox approach to Innsmouth, but I’d peg this as an ideal project for Wes Anderson. In a weird way it makes sense, for the Texan director specialises in the offbeat quirk and meticulously-crafted worldbuilding that the novella requires. It has a character coming of age, thematic concern with dysfunctional extended families, an in-built sense of adventure and a large ensemble cast of distinct idiosyncratic characters ready-made for Anderson’s many regulars. Presented in deadpan fashion with a plinky-plonk Alexandre Desplat soundtrack so ‘funny unnervingly peculiar’ becomes more ‘funny ha ha’ – or, rather, ‘funny heh’ – ‘The Life Aquatic with Obed Marsh’ would be fantastic. And it’d all be worth it just to see Bill Murray rocking ‘the Innsmouth Look’.

The Call Of Cthulhu

The story devoted solely to the most infamous of all Lovecraftian deities – the “gelatinous green immensity” operating as the centrepiece of the entire mythos – is an epic adventure that crosses continents and time periods. From New England to New Orleans to New Zealand to the newly-discovered, newly-surfaced city of R’lyeh in the South Seas, the tale has incredible scope and strikes me as the most cinematic of Lovecraft’s narratives.

An exercise in dread and uncovering of unimaginable secrets and frightful revelations, The Call of Cthulhu is essentially a detective story as Francis Wayland Thurston and other intrigued parties scramble together evidence of the Cthulhu cult. Altogether it gradually builds to an astounding nigh-apocalyptic climax in the South Pacific and said spectacle represents perhaps the ultimate ‘release the kraken!’ moment ever in pop cultural history.

But who could handle Cthulhu? David Fincher is possibly the world’s best when it comes to crafting gripping, painstaking low-lit investigative thrillers that are punctuated by shocking moments of strong violence and madness. I’d leave it to Fincher and his sadistic streak to stir up and wake the Great One, bringing “the madness from the sea” into the multiplex and, possibly, onto the red carpets of award season.

The Cthulhu Mythos would thus sweep Hollywood and horrified audiences across the face of the Earth would be driven to either ecstasy or apoplexy. Picture it all: Lovecraft’s creations made real, the cult gaining power and the return of the Great Old Ones to rule the Earth. Greenlight, now. They command you. “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

James Clayton is, yaaar aaaaaaee  iiiiiooo iiiiiooo, *flap flap flap* ph’nglui mglw’fahh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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