A Strained Symbiosis: Lovecraft & the Cinema

a strained symbiosis: lovecraft & the cinema

‘(Cinema) . . . must be suited to the grovelling taste of the mindless & promiscuous rabble.’ – HPL 1916-17

It has often been said that the name of Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is practically synonymous with twentieth century supernatural horror fiction.

If you haven’t encountered any of his stories, then you’ve probably heard of him, and if you haven’t heard of him, then there’s a very good chance that you’ve either read or watched something influenced by his writing.

There can be no denying that Lovecraft’s creative legacy has almost invisibly permeated our lives. Over the decades since his death, it has subtly filtered down from the peripheries, finally leaching itself into the bedrock of mainstream culture.

Lovecraftiana has seeped towards us through an assortment of unlikely media: television, radio, audio recordings, graphic novels, role playing games, CD-ROMs . . . an Internet search of his name alone reveals in excess of 3,000 entries – ranging from things academic and critical to, somewhat bizarrely, an obscure software download of Mah-jong tiles for Microsoft Windows.

Then there are the films of course. More about those shortly.

All of this seems to be a remarkable feat for a man who (with the exception of pulp magazines, limited amateur press productions and a couple of anthology entries) never saw professional publication during his lifetime.

His fiction has influenced people as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Stephen King, and has received critical acclaim from luminaries such as Jean Cocteau, José Luis Garcia, Tzvetan Toderov and the artist Phillippe Druillet.

In addition to the completed works (three novellas, poetry, essays and a plethora of short stories), his unfinished manuscripts, fragments and notes have provided enough material for a series of posthumous ‘collaborations’ as well as a wealth of imitations, pastiches, parodies, and thematic contributions.

Literary accolades aside, what makes his continuing popularity all the more curious is that Lovecraft was not – by his own admission – a particularly proficient author, and his writing (when not compositionally derivative of his early Poe and Lord Dunsany influences) was for the greater part flawed. As Lin Carter noted:

‘He has no ability for creating character, or for writing dialogue. His prose is stilted, artificial, affected. It is also very overwritten, verbose and swimming in adjectives. His plotting is frequently mechanical, and his major stylistic device, which becomes tiresome, is the simple trick of withholding the final revelation until the terminal sentence – and then printing it in italics, presumably for maximum shock effect.’

So what is it about Lovecraft’s work that has preserved it from obscurity?

Examining the content of his better stories would, I suggest provide, the answer.. Whereas Lovecraft’s amateur press contemporaries concentrated on the standard fare of vampires, ghosts and werewolves, he began to investigate possibilities previously unexplored in the pulps:

‘I refuse to follow the mechanical conventions of popular fiction or to fill my tales with stock characters and situations, but I insist upon reproducing real moods and impressions the best way I can command . . . to make a fictional marvel wear the momentary aspect of exciting fact, we must give it the most elaborate possible approach – building it up insidiously and gradually out of realistic material, realistically handled . . . Every energy must be bent toward the weaving of a frame of mind which shall make the story’s single departure from nature seem credible.’ – HPL

From this self proclaimed agenda he attempted to fuse the realism that he valued so greatly with a new strand of supernatural horror, something that was itself entwined with an aspect of science fiction. To crudely generalise, in the contemporaneous and seemingly banal locations for his stories (mist shrouded gothic castles being few and far between in rural Vermont and downtown Brooklyn), the painfully naive protagonist(s) would inadvertently encounter monstrous entities that had come through time and space from unknown dimensions. Furthermore, if these terrors hadn’t arrived on earth by their own volition, then there was a very good chance that they had been summoned by ancient rituals that bore more relevance to quantum physics than malign sorcery.

Darrell Schweitzer, co-editor of Weird Tales believes that he made the fantasy and horror writing of his contemporaries seem almost pre-Copernican in comparison:

‘(he) . . . is aware of the whole cosmos and man’s place in it . . . Lovecraft’s uncontrollable horrors from other dimensions . . . could only be confronted with stoic fatalism, a metaphor for the C20th condition. He was uniquely able to link the inner substance of former spiritual beliefs with the (then) most recent scientific discoveries . . . the result was an irrational horror grimmer than anything a Puritan could conjure up. His bleak pessimism doesn’t comfort, but it does convince.’

Lovecraft was not averse to penning a good supernatural yarn or dream narrative either, and a considerable number of his tales have been squeezed into what has been termed the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’. This fragmentary pantheon was later revised and structured by his friend August Derleth, who along with Donald Wandrei, became the founders of Arkham House publishers. In addition to the many unique and positive qualities of his work, Arkham’s initial championing of Lovecraft eventually paid dividends, the perpetuation of which (Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Basil Copper et al) is evident today.

In film, things Lovecraftian crop up everywhere – if it’s not credited as being directly based upon one of his concepts then it’s been nastily mutated to satiate the presumed needs of a ‘target audience’. Undeniably Lovecraftian plots that fail to find homes in these two categories usually mean that something, somewhere has been blatantly ripped off (also known as ‘How to get mileage out of one idea in Hollywood’).

In addition to these, there are of course the films that acknowledge an HPL influence – Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy making a deft reference to The Necronomicon (the definitive forbidden text scribed by the ‘mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’), John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, the 1970s film (of the TV series) Doomwatch hinting at occurrences of ‘prognathous jaws’ and ‘degenerate inbreeding’, and countless others . . . No doubt some waggish X-Files scriptwriter will feature something tentacled and terrible in the future – after all, they do seem more than happy to plunder most unexplained weirdness, mythologies and folklore for their storylines . . .

But, I digress. If you look at the stockpile of ‘bona fide’ Lovecraft films, it soon becomes all too apparent that the vast majority take a truly inspired interpretation of the story they are supposedly based upon. From a marketing point of view, Lovecraft’s stories offer very little in the way of exploiting the crass expectations of the contemporary audience. As indicated in Beyond Books’ article TV Lovecraft:

‘In reality, Lovecraft’s prose is about as far from video imagery as you can get. It was aimed at producing, not visual images, but something emotional: like atavistic sensations of escalating dread. Worse, characterisation is slight, sex is slighter, and action is not aggressively provided. In short, a producer might ask, what’s there to film?’

Unfortunately, these ‘lacking’ prerequisites are often provided by the film. It seems that any excuse for cheap titillation, latex beasties and splatter FX can be indulged to the point of excess and then justified by their ‘marketability’.

Although these films are light and predictably linear in structure, they do fulfil their criteria – they do entertain. To be fair, the vast majority of the recent efforts rarely grace the big screen as they wouldn’t generate enough revenue to make it worthwhile for the investors, and so are released straight to video for the slow but accumulative profits provided by rental and sales. In addition to this, these films are generally low budget affairs produced by people whose enthusiasm far outweighs their ability, and despite the occasional dubious plot inclusion, have brought the work of HPL to a wider audience.

It was initially on the back of the late 1960s supernatural horror revival that the interest in Lovecraft began to increase. It is not too surprising to find that several films were spawned as an attempt to cash in on this: Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), for example, was loosely based upon a Lovecraft story – but ironically credited to Edgar Allen Poe! The following list of Lovecraftian films is by no means exhaustive, it merely serves as a loose chronological guide:

Die, Monster Die! (1965 adapted from The Colour Out of Space, featuring Boris Karloff);

The Shuttered Room (1967, also titled Blood Island);

The Crimson Cult (1968, based upon The Dreams in the Witch House, featuring Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff);

The Dunwich Horror (1970, starring a fresh faced Dean Stockwell);

The Music of Erich Zann (1980);

Re-Animator (1985, closely followed by Re-Animator II: The Bride of Re-Animator);

From Beyond (1986);

The Curse (1987, another based upon The Colour Out of Space);

The Unnameable (1988);

Cthulhu Mansion (1990, the only Lovecraft link being the title);

The Unnameable 2: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1992);

To Cast a Deadly Spell (1993, tongue in cheek parody of Cthulhu Mythos/detective genre – the protagonist is called ‘Philip Lovecraft’);

The Necronomicon (1993, three stories in a framed narrative – based upon Cool Air and The Whisperer in the Dark);

Witch Hunt (1994, sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell);

The Outsider (1994);

The Lurking Fear (1994);

The Resurrected (1995, based upon The Case of Charles Dexter Ward);

In the Mouth of Madness (1995, John Carpenter doffs his meta-cinematic cap to HPL);

Castle Freak (1995, loosely based upon The Outsider) . . .

As a generalisation, there appears to be no sense of artistry in popular cinema anymore. Recently, everything seems to be subject to the most base of sensations, appealing to the lowest common plot denominator and is set dressed accordingly with computer generated ‘eye candy’. This regression into realms of almost fairy tale simplicity and familiarity is endemic: recently; the author Rosemary Belben stated that she believed that contemporary audiences had more or less stagnated, and that she was considering ‘writing down’ under a nome de plume to ensure marketability. The cult of ignorance and laziness is by no means confined to literature – popular film is rapidly becoming the poor relation to challenging concepts and visuals – everything is becoming excessively linear, with little or no involvement of the imagination.

Sweeping statements aside, the fact that the narrative has to be painfully simple and comfortably predictable in its apparent ‘unpredictability’ offers very little in the way of firing the intellect or attempting to make the brain work instead of laying everything out on the plate of complacency. Even raved about ‘clever twists’ are old hat in film and literature – if you can be bothered enough to look. It is hardly any wonder that very few films have really encompassed HPL’s vision successfully.

What is required is a return to the basics of suspense. Consider the effectiveness of Ridley Scott’s direction in Alien. The fragmentary glimpses of the creature force the audience to use their imagination. This follows M. R. James’ maxim that what is only hinted at and not fully seen is therefore all the more terrifying. Complementing this, you have the sustain and build of the plot, devices successfully used in such films as The Wicker Man, The Stepford Wives, Carrie and Rosemary’s Baby where the ignorance of the central characters to the events unfurling around them becomes perfectly balanced against the fast approaching climax. It is then that the audience are struck with the final sense of realisation that thwarts the cultural conventions of traditional cinematic narrative.

With these films, overt special effects are not necessary. On the merits of plotting alone, they echo Lovecraft’s writing credo and successfully set about creating the correct atmosphere which enables the viewer to suspend their disbelief, drawing them seamlessly into the narrative’s world. It will be interesting to see how the currently touted Blair Witch Project matches up against these psychological/horror classics.

In an ideal world, my definitive Lovecraft ‘celluloid interpretation’ would follow the same principle as the early ‘70s film From Beyond the Grave – a framing device that encompasses four short stories. Firstly, the setting, screen writing and direction must be faithful to HPL’s period of writing. Failure to address these issues has been the downfall of many of the films based upon his work – contemporaneous reworkings of the stories do not for the greater part translate well at all. Second, I would choose set constructions reminiscent of the paintings of Edward Hopper, whose composition and attention to perspective, line, use of light and detail not only reflect the chronological period of Lovecraft’s characters, but also captures their increasing sense of alienation – a prerequisite so often encountered in his fiction. My choice of four tales would be as follows: The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, The Statement of Randolph Carter and The Music of Erich Zann.

Finally, adapting Roland Barthes’ notion of the reader as the producer of the text for the cinema, I would challenge the viewer to delve beyond the constraints of the two-dimensional projected image; encouraging them to arrive at their own conclusions.

In my mind’s eye I see a departing audience . . . raging discourse thickens the air as they shuffle from the aisles, their lives momentarily enriched by a fleeting mote of non-passive-interactive cogitation . . .


Comments are closed.