The Christmas tradition is one of hope and cheer, a time for us all to come together in the spirit of peace and love and forget about our troubles in the name of fellowship and goodwill. Indeed, the Christmas Spirit swells inside us with every sip of hot cocoa we take, with every bauble we place on our majestic evergreen trees, with every story – from the Nativity to Santa Paws – told to us while warming our hands and hearts by the fireplace. The storytelling tradition is the great leveler, a way for all of us to gather and share the human experience. Along with presents, the holidays bring us hope that all mankind can unite in love and prosperity.
But enough of that sappy morale, let’s get cosmically creepy!
However you may feel about H.P. Lovecraft as a person and as a writer, there’s no doubting the lasting influence he bestowed upon creatives and arts enthusiasts alike. The dread and general feeling of powerlessness against vast and infinitely unknowable forces – physical and mental – he put his characters through time and again still concerns us to this day. The reach of Lovecraft’s work has spanned so many decades because even though the original fiction may be old-fashioned by now, the unfathomable horrors it contains remain universal despite the constant advancement of science and technology. In Horror, Lovecraft’s influence is everywhere and we may not exactly even realize it. So if the stories Grandpa is telling by the fire this Christmas are too sentimental for your tastes, here are our suggestions of Lovecraft adaptations and inspired cinema to ease yourself back into that old eldritch dread.
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
An adaptation of “The Colour Out of Space,” this picture was paired by American International with Mario Bava‘s Planet of the Vampires as a double feature upon its release. Just imagine being in that theater, immersed completely in such rich, luxurious colors for 168 minutes. It’s like a dream! Die, Monster, Die! stars Boris Karloff and is a silly title for what the movie actually is, but it seems they were banking on Karloff’s reputation when deciding what to call it (the working title The House at the End of the World would have made more sense). Instead of an outside researcher acting as narrator of the story (as Lovecraft loves to do), our protagonist is a young man visiting the ancestral English home of a young lady he met while she was studying abroad in the United States. When he arrives in the town of Arkham he’s immediately shunned by the locals when asking for directions to the Witley Estate. He’s forced to walk as no taxi will take him there and no one will rent him a bicycle. As he enters the grounds, he’s taken aback by the scorched earth (Lovecraft calls it “blasted heath”) leading up to the home, giving him the first signs of “this place is weird.” As more weird stuff is revealed, we’re treated to marvelous cinematography of strange, overgrown wildlife, hidden alien-esque creatures, and an exceptional special effects sequence of Karloff entering some sort of astral existence. Especially for 1965, this film is astounding.
The Lurking Fear (1994)
In what proves to be one of the most ambitious productions from Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, horror outlier C. Courtney Joyner directs Lovecraft screen veteran Jeffrey Combs in this adaptation. It is true this film is ambitious, but perhaps does not succeed everywhere it needs to, with much of it feeling more like a stage production than a cinematic presentation. However, years removed from its release and the poor critical reception it received at the time, that low-budget value actually makes The Lurking Fear more appealing to fresh, more forgiving eyes. This is a very classic horror story that involves gravedigging, a treasure map, an abandoned church, and an evil lurking beast on the attack. Combs is of course professional as can be, and the addition of character actor Vincent Schiavelli is a definite plus. But what sets this film apart is that stageplay feel, and how that’s used to an advantage when the characters interact with each other because it weirdly keeps the audience captive and interested. The film does start off a little rocky, but don’t sweat it – if you keep going you might be in for a pleasantly terrible surprise.
Before David Prior struck cinematic gold with The Empty Man (2020) and creeped us all out with his turn in Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (“The Autopsy”), he wrote and directed a short film about a lonely traveler who falls under the hypnotic influence of a distressing AM radio broadcast. This short is not based specifically on any Lovecraft story, but the paranoia and strange behavior exhibited as the plot progresses are right out of H.P.’s playbook (in fact it won an award called The Brown Jenkin at the 2008 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival). Not to spoil anything else, but this underseen small masterwork is a must for those who like their fear lurking in dark corners and deep inside dank wells. Sci-fi/genre fans will also take hideous delight in seeing veteran actors John Billingsley and Ray Wise in this exceptionally spooky short film.
Banshee Chapter (2013)
Inspired by the story “From Beyond,” this sleeper horror film is part faux-documentary and part faux-investigative journalism. Banshee Chapter mixes several well-known conspiracy stories into one big web of total creep-out that will leave fans of The X-files drooling. A college student sets out to discover what happened to her close friend after he disappeared while researching the CIA project MKUltra. It’s a mad story involving the drug dimethyltryptamine-19 (DMT-19), experimenting with the human pineal gland, “numbers stations,” and shadow figures from presumably alternate dimensions. The big draw is actor Ted Levine who absolutely excels in his role as a counter-culture writer clearly based on Hunter S. Thompson. The jump from how mad science is represented in classical literature as a singular mad genius playing God to contemporary questions of government experimentation and anxieties of “trust no one” seems logical given how societal structures and interaction have progressed in the modern age. Still, the same fear is there, of meddling with forces we shouldn’t and paying the consequences thereof. Banshee Chapter is a rare example of a horror film based on conspiracy that doesn’t come off as trite or amateurish, due mainly to world-building that seems real even if mixed with the irrational and fantastic.
From Tyler Peterson:
Color Out of Space (2019)
What does it take to make a Lovecraft story connect with not just a movie audience, but a modern movie audience? It’s not just a matter of updating the anachronistic science and changing a cat’s name here and there. Lovecraft’s writing style – lore-heavy, extremely plot-driven narratives doled out in blocks of dialogue-light, florid but sober prose – takes some hammering out to fit into the big screen. But beyond that, the awed cosmicism of the Lovecraftian worldview seems quaint in an age where we know so much more about the world than we did in Lovecraft’s time – we’ve combed over the whole world with Google Earth, and there’s no massive obsidian supercities or colonies of sentient fungus anywhere. Color Out of Space (2019) addresses this problem by staging its battlefield in one region we’ve barely explored any further today than in the 1920s – the human psyche. In place of the family of stolid 1880s rural Yankees depicted in the original story “The Colour Out Of Space,” the movie features a contemporary family of big-city bougies who made a midlife move to the sticks to LARP as farmers. Unlike in the story, the family has an identifiable dynamic, its members have distinct personalities, and their relationships, anxieties, and unspoken frustrations with one another are teased out with a level of subtext that Lovecraft was quite incapable of. The impact of the indescribably-colored meteor from space, and the bizarre changes it causes to the landscape and the ecology, are well suited to a visual medium, but the movie really outdoes the story in its depiction of the creeping madness and interpersonal decay of the family. Each character affected by the Color suffers a flavor of mental derangement unique to their psychological profile, none more so than the failed-artist patriarch Nathan Gardner, played by Nicholas Cage. Characteristically unbothered by looking the fool, Cage embodies madness in ways Lovecraft never could. He does a lot of unhinged hollering (between this and Mandy, Nic rivals any Scream Queen in horror history for sheer duration and volume) but he also makes disarmingly bizarre acting choices like slipping into a kind of lilting Valley Boy accent whenever the Color is taking over Nathan’s mind. Deployed with careful judgment, a really goofy voice can be the creepiest, most eldritch thing imaginable.
From Brian Miller:
DAGON (2001) / UNDERWATER (2020)
Relentless fleeing from danger is a common trope in films inspired by Lovecraft. Some use an unreliable narrator thrust as seen in In the Mouth of Madness (1994), where the lines are blurred between the protagonist’s insanity and actual supernatural events occurring. Even in a movie like Oculus (2013) that takes place almost entirely in one house, with no physical chase, that push and pull between what is real and what is not is a sort of psychological chase. The problem with the narrative device of madness is that movies themselves aren’t real so why should audiences care about which scenes “actually” happened? It dilutes the story to a meaningless form, almost the antithesis of 4th wall breaking. 0th wall. It also allows the supernatural threat to have no rules, no basis for the audience to feel like there is a struggle occurring; just forced to witness the lead get toyed with and tortured. Both Dagon and Underwater avoid this problem though by rooting their Lovecraftian nightmare in a physical chase. In Dagon, the protagonists attempt to flee from a small seaside village, increasingly overrun by monstrous inhabitants with nowhere safe to hide. Underwater grounds the chase in a flee from the collapsing portions of the, yes, underwater station the characters are trapped in ~ hoping to find an escape pod to the surface. In terms of Lovecraft, Dagon excels in delivering a story ripe with his sort of demonic styling and energy. Underwater saves these elements for the end, but in a sort of yin yang with Dagon, lands the giant supernatural conclusion in a matter that doesn’t quite work in the former. Combined they would be the ultimate portrayal of Lovecraft on screen, at least in terms of going for a thrill ride delivery absolutely soaking in fear. That isn’t to say these films are lacking, they both are stellar. Of course, one day it might be nice to get something even more blockbuster and just have a Godzilla Vs Kong (2021) style beat-em-up between Elder Gods. Who is really trying to learn anything from Lovecraft anyway?
from carl jennings:
“Pickman’s Model” [Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities] (2022)
At the best of times, adapting one medium of artwork to another is an arduous task. At the worst of times, it’s foolhardy. I’m reminded of my attempt to translate Goya’s Black Paintings into the medium of kazoo music. I can’t say that it went over well from the start, but when I reached Saturn Devouring His Son and began eating my kazoo, I was promptly escorted off the premises with prejudice. That’s the last time I’m going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I don’t think I’ll be welcome back anyway.
Digression aside, one of the most common medium translations is book to movie. Look up any list of movies and it’s guaranteed that there will be at least one book-to-movie adaptation. While it may be as common as knockoff merchandise in China, there are some writers who are more difficult to adapt and plenty that should have been left alone altogether. With that being said, the adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft short story “Pickman’s Model” from Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities anthology series on Netflix saunters in like a horse that had been shot in the leg but is still making a valiant effort to put on a show.
Netflix is no stranger to adaptations, for better or worse. Or, more accurately, for mediocre or worse. Fans of Resident Evil know this all too well. Thankfully, it seems that Del Toro was given a loose rein to produce the show how he wanted. But, as an anthology series, each episode was directed by a different person. “Pickman’s Model,” specifically, was directed by Keith Thomas. Thomas himself is no newcomer to horror, having started his director-writer debut with The Vigil (2019), nor is he new to adaptations, having directed the 2022 adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Firestarter. So did Thomas bring a good version of “Pickman’s Model” to the screen? Well… yes and no.
As far as faithfulness to the source material, only partial credit can be given. But, in truth, partial credit was the best that could be hoped for. The costumes and set design of the time period (for the budget of an anthology series) are rather faithfully done. Add to that quite good practical effects (thankfully there are plenty) and really creative camera usage ensures that it’s not at all boring to watch. The dialogue is given a more modern style so as to not make the entire episode feel like a high school play, but not too much–it still feels “old.”
The actors do quite a good job with what they were given, all things considered. Ben Barnes (best known for the Chronicles of Narnia movies. Yikes.) is given the lead, William Thruber: a character, in the short story, that is pretty much a vehicle to express the horror brought about by Pickman. Pickman himself, played by screen legend Crispin Glover, probably comes off the best in the adaptation. Glover gives him an appropriate sinister and mysterious bearing, a character that is far removed from his peers due to his odd, macabre nature. I’m not sure if this should be touted too loudly, however, as Glover himself is an odd character.
A number of liberties were taken with the plot, which is where the adaptation both rises and falls. There are plenty of characters added- more, honestly, than there should have been, as they’re not given enough to be recognized in later references (especially considering the time jump and the character’s appearance aging.) Although a good addition is Thruber’s wife and child. It takes the protagonist from a half-crazed narrator to an actual character, giving the story stakes when his family is threatened by his association with Pickman. Pickman himself is a bit more fleshed out, with his past playing a more prominent role, which is the good kind of fat in all the right places.
Time to address the elephant in the room, and that is that “Pickman’s Model” was a poor choice for adaptation. The short story really wasn’t one that should have been produced with something that had a specific run time needed. Probably more of an independent short film on YouTube, if a real faithful adaptation was going to be made. It’s not a lengthy story, and it’s anemic in anything other than Lovecraft’s patented cosmic horror. It’s all build-up for a big reveal at the end. A reveal that, in the adaptation, was revealed a bit too much (especially considering the mystery around the actual Pickman’s model being handled quite well.) For a modern audience, wanting more from their streaming shows, a lot would be needed. That is where the adaptation is going to sink or swim: in what’s added. “Pickman’s Model” may not be gliding through the Olympic pool like a dolphin, but it is keeping its head above water with quite the competent breaststroke.
From Jay Alary:
There aren’t many filmmakers who made such a notorious cinematic debut as Stuart Gordon. With a deep-seated background as a theatre director, Gordon’s first feature film is an assured effort, adapting a notable H. P. Lovecraft novella, “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” while also imbuing the film with wit, dark humor, and a generous serving of gore. Now-legendary genre character actor Jeffrey Combs stars as Herbert West, a med student who’s created a serum that re-animates dead tissue, including dead cats, dissection cadavers, and a couple of medical school instructors, including the dean, Dr. Halsey, and the nefarious Dr. Hill (a memorably malevolent performance by David Gale), a villain who gives new meaning to the term “giving head.” The entire cast commits to Gordon’s spirited take on Lovecraft and the result is a frenetic blend of horror and comedy. (It pairs nicely with fellow 1985 horror-comedy, Return of the Living Dead!)
FROM BEYOND (1986)
Stuart Gordon returns a year later with another lively spin on Lovecraft, this time with plenty of inner-spatial goo! The film’s MacGuffin is the Resonator, an awesome machine that reaches into another dimension, which is never a good thing for our terrestrial characters. Jeffrey Combs continues playing weird scientists, though this time his Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is a bit more sympathetic than Herbert West. Barbara Crampton gets much more time to shine here and not just scream or be naked (though she still does both), playing Dr. Katherine McMichaels, a psychiatrist who examines Tillinghast after he’s wrongfully accused of killing his mentor, the mad scientist Dr. Pretorius (a devilish Ted Sorel buried beneath layers of makeup and prosthetics), the inventor of the Resonator. Despite a limited budget, Gordon conveys trans-dimensional worlds that Lovecraft could only imagine in his prose, employing plenty of memorable slimy practical effects in order to create a vivid horror film. Unfortunately, From Beyond often lurks behind Re-Animator’s considerable shadow—maybe its otherworldly concept is not as “grounded” as reviving dead people? While I love both films, if given the choice to only keep one, I choose From Beyond and its manic machinations. Sadly, the Scream Factory Blu-ray has been out of print for a few years now, so it would be lovely if another boutique label could license the film from MGM and give it the 4K treatment it so richly deserves!
From Justin Harlan:
The Mist (2007)
For some, to be “Lovecraftian” just means tentacle monsters. For others, it’s about the sense of cosmic dread. In the case of the Frank Darabont adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist, it’s clearly about both. With monsters that blend post-war nuclear scare sci-fi with Great Old Ones lore of HP himself, King was clearly and admittedly paying homage a couple of his favorite influences. But, it’s Darabont’s silver screen adaptation of King’s words that really took the Lovecraftian lovefest to new heights.
In addition to great monsters and lore, Lovecraft loved to make his tales woeful and bleak. With this in mind, it’s Darabont’s adjusted ending to the King story that took the bleakness to great nihilistic depths that even Lovecraft’s own Deep Ones may avoid diving down to. Often discussed as one of the biggest gut-punch endings in Hollywood history, Darabont first presents a final solution that saves the protagonists of pain but rids them of their own lives. Yet, it’s what comes after this that really rips the heart of the viewer rip out of their chest.
The Mist is a fantastic and fun creature feature on its surface, but there’s a sinister dread underneath. Both aspects of this film truly lend themselves to what being a Lovecraftian film really is.
Merry Christmas to all from Grumpire! We wish you mad tidings of great despair!