The James Clayton Column: Looking for Lovecraft

As John Carter and The Raven bring American literature of the past up to date, James wonders if it isn’t about time Hollywood got around to making a Lovecraft movie…

Unfathomable, eldritch cosmic forces are stirring, the Elder Gods are getting restless and in his house at Ry’leh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. It’s about time the abomination woke up.

I know that these malevolent entities are moving, because I can feel it in my gills and because they’re haunting my dreams. I’m sure I’m not alone in discerning this, and I’m willing to bet that, right now, a disparate bunch of afflicted individuals across the globe are experiencing a similar overwhelming sense of dread in anticipation of something epic and earth shattering. The Esoteric Order of Dagon are also no doubt operating in the shadows, whispering in arcane tongues and performing their rites with increased vigour.

Ladies, gentlemen and fishfolk, I talk of the Lovecraftian uprising that must surely be coming. The signs are strong and – according to my understanding and assessment of the current environment – I’d say that the time’s right for Cthulhu to wake or at least some figment of the mythos to break out and breach the fragile boundaries of ‘the mainstream’, dragging wider society into the darkest depths of cosmic despair just as the author Howard Phillips Lovecraft intended.

It’s common knowledge that you’ve only truly made it once you’ve made it in Hollywood. The late rise of Lovecraft lore to eminency will, thus, only be achieved absolutely once a box office-smashing blockbuster movie has been made. This is a feat long overdue and, in my humble Dagon-dazed view, now is the ideal time to make it happen.

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Sure, there’s Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, a few loose adaptations from way back and aspects of the Lovecraftian present in a variety of films (for example, The Thing, the Alien franchise and the Hellboy films) but we need a straight-up, up-to-date motion picture event. Other mediums like literature, role-playing games and comics have tapped this rich vein but, in contrast, it appears to me that the silver screen has overlooked this seminal, singular figure and his legacy.

My suspicions are confirmed when I consider other great authors dealing in similar material and see how many films their writing has inspired. See, for instance, how moviemakers have repeatedly returned to the works of Robert E Howard and brought us action movie takes on Red Sonja, Solomon Kane and, king of them all, multiple versions of Conan The Barbarian. This is all good for fans of old-school pulp fiction, but where’s the big-screen respect for its peculiar primogenitor? Doesn’t the high priest of weird fiction (and his devoted fans) deserve more attention from Hollywood?

You might start wringing your hands and asking whether there’s really a demand in the marketplace for adaptations of obscure fantasy fiction and antiquated macabre short stories. This is a reasonable question, but I’d like to draw your attention to two big releases drawing blood at the multiplex right now. I spy both John Carter and The Raven, which are films that exploit rich traditions in American literature and cinematically represent the respective legends of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe in a new age, possibly introducing them to fresh audiences.

The fact that these films got greenlit, got made (in spite of tremendous doubts in the case of John Carter) and will be seen by global audiences suggests that there’s an enthusiasm for this sort of material – old-fashioned adventure serials and suspense horror of the old-school variety.

Burroughs and Poe already have a rich film legacy, but what these new releases do is revive their spirit for the present day, taking their ideas and tackling them with advanced technology and more contemporary filmmaking aesthetics and sensibilities that older adaptations lack to their detriment. Both authors need these movies to maintain their names and for Poe I see The Raven as another stage in perpetuation of the writer’s reputation.

Just as silent adaptations like Murders In The Rue Morgue kept his work alive in the early days of cinema, and the Corman cycle of the 50s and 60s (The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Masque Of The Red Death, etc) tuned younger audiences to his work, I figure James McTeigue’s The Raven to be an update spreading the good word into the 21st century through the form of an alternative history detective thriller.

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Burroughs, likewise, has left his mark on the movies with masses of Tarzan flicks (and impersonators aping the concept) but John Carter finally delivers the long-awaited feature based on the writer’s Barsoom novels. What’s more, it’s backed by Disney, is the first live-action feature by Pixar director Andrew Stanton, features a cast of esteemed stars and is packed with otherworldly special effects bombast. It’s like somewhere along the line, somebody decided that pulp fiction is worthy of respect and grand cinematic treatment.

Amidst all this vindication, though, there’s a Lovecraft-shaped hole and a void where tentacular polyps from outer space and things that should not be should be. The collapse of Guillermo del Toro’s At The Mountains Of Madness is a tragedy, and in my view Universal’s decision to shelve the project because it’d be too expensive and risky as an R-rated blockbuster was a foolish one. Universal will have undoubtedly upset the Shoggoths, for a start, and I reckon they’ve potentially missed a trick as others work to deliver the overdue Lovecraftian pic I predict will soon come to great acclaim and popular enthusiasm.

The Woman In Black has played a great part in my renewed desire to see a Lovecraft adaptation, and after having my nerves shredded by the Hammer ghost flick, I believe that director James Watkins would be the perfect man for the task. That film is a masterclass of suspense cinema that evokes the uncanny sense, eeriness and atmosphere of Lovecraft’s stories and it’d be brilliant to see Watkins apply the same sensibilities to something like The Shunned House, The Dreams In The Witch House or The Moon-Bog.

There are many further diverse possibilities for the author’s bibliography. Perhaps in light of John Carter’s success, someone could fabricate The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath as a rich myriad vision made with the motion-capture technology used by Steven Spielberg for The Adventures Of Tintin film. I could also see one of the ‘Asian extreme’ auteurs doing a superb job of the scariest fishy tale ever conceived, The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

This material is crying out (or flapping squamous appendages and ululating wildly) for modern day big screen treatment. The Elder Gods and audiences want and need that Lovecraft movie. “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn…”

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James’ previous column can be found here.

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