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Jason Thorson

Cthulhu Week: The Lovecraft Movie Dilemma

Posted on August 21, 2010 by Jason Thorson

Next up for Cthulhu Week we asked reviewer Jason Thorson to tell us about his favorite Lovecraft-inspired movies. Not an easy task to say the least, but we were certainly willing to risk his sanity for this investigation.

Read on to learn of the challenges he faced…

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to give you some background on what you’re currently reading – what’s now become a ranting blog on H.P. Lovecraft film adaptations.  My initial intention was to write a feature about the nature of Lovecraftian flicks and then list the five best examples.  However, I immediately anticipated some difficulty.  My original thesis was that most of these films don’t work, but surely there have been so many attempts to adapt Lovecraft’s work that I’d certainly be able to find five movies worthy of recommendation.  Right?

Wrong.

I honestly detest all but one of these movies and we’ll get to that exception in a bit, but first let me cover some history:

The early film adaptations were made by Roger Corman starting with a movie called Edgar Allen Poe’s The Haunted Palace (1963) which was actually a relatively faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  As was typical of Corman, he didn’t feel Lovecraft was well-known so he slapped on Poe’s name and poem title, and with that the Lovecraft film adaptations were birthed.

Corman made two more adaptations before moving on and soon other filmmakers helped “The Old Ones” and their ilk make it to television, although sporadically and mostly in the early 1970’s.  But in the 1980’s a filmmaker named Stuart Gordon reclaimed Lovecraft for his own.  Gordon adapted the story, Herbert West: Re-Animator, which was a little known Lovecraft tale.  Gordon released Re-Animator in 1985 to instant cult status and much fanfare, although not necessarily from Lovecraft fans. 

Re-Animator is the one and only Lovecraft film that I enjoy.  It’s extremely entertaining in an odd, freak show sort of way.  It’s gory, nasty, silly, and completely over the top, and honestly, it barely resembles its source material in any way.  And in a bit of strange irony, that’s why it works.  Stuart Gordon went on to draw from his muse several more times over the last 25 years, but never as successfully as he did in his ostentatious debut.  And in the meantime one filmmaker after another has tried and failed to succeed where Corman could not and where Gordon struggled mightily.

So, why do Lovecraft’s do stories fare poorly as films?

Well, the obvious reason is that many of them have been made by filmmakers with little to no talent and an equal measure of resources with which to make their films.  But the real answer is bigger than that.  The real answer has everything to do with the mechanics of “Story” and the differences between the mediums through which stories are told. 

Lovecraft’s work is timeless, abstract, and entirely unique.  He’s arguably the most influential horror writer ever.  He’s been imitated so often you’d think his style would be old hat by now, but amazingly he’s never been replicated, not even in the slightest.  And this failure is that of the wordsmiths working in Lovecraft’s own medium – prose, and includes some writers whose tales actually inhabit the universe Lovecraft invented.

The narrator in a prose story is entirely omnipotent and bound by literally nothing.  Much of the conflict in the Lovecraft stories is internalized and brought to a head within the psyche of the protagonist.  The external forces of antagonism are abstractions, universal impossibilities that can barely materialize in the reader’s imagination.  The dual nature of Lovecraft’s horror is both anomalous and expertly crafted.  In short, Lovecraft is one of a kind.

Now consider this: A filmmaker’s job is to externalize the internal.  He is bound by the camera’s capacity to show us the story.  You can’t film a thought.  Only expert filmmakers succeed at conveying thoughts visually.  They tend to win awards, make lots of money, and not make horror films.  The level of complexity and abstraction and the abominable universal paradoxes and metaphysical entities that inhabit Lovecraft’s tales render them nearly impossible to adapt to the medium of film, and particularly by novice filmmakers.

So, if you need to satiate your Lovecraft fix, grab your reading glasses and plan a trip to the nearest book store or library.  Read The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror; read whatever you can find.  And in the meantime, go rent Re-Animator, make some popcorn and have yourself a laugh riot.

Jason Thorson – 2010

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14 Responses to “Cthulhu Week: The Lovecraft Movie Dilemma”

  1. Tumble says:

    Lordy. What a colossal failure of imagination.

    “Dagon” is every bit as silly and nasty as Reanimator, and every bit as much fun. The same could easily be said of “In The Mouth of Madness”. Dan Gildark’s “Cthulhu” was undoubtedly flawed, but it still managed to conjure up a load of menace, and it’s one of the best portrayals yet of the rising tide of insanity accompanying the time when The Stars are Right. “The Ressurected” had a lot going for it, including a great depiction of the old Curwen place, and Chris Sarandon is always fun. Heck, even “From Beyond” had moments of greatness.

    But aside from all the shlock, what about the HPLHS’s masterful “Call of Cthulhu” silent film? It is, quite simply, magnificent; hands-down the best Lovecraft movie to date.

    To be honest, I find myself wondering if Jason Thorson is basing this article on anything other than the Reanimator sequels and The Unnameable…

    Reply

    Jason Thorson

    Jason Thorson Reply:

    My opinion that filmmakers have failed miserably in the Lovecraft department is based on, wait for it….my opinion! Not to mention the opinions of the vast majority of film aficionados. And like me, you’re entitled to your opinions, that Dagon is good for example. I happen to wholeheartedly disagree. But if you’re curious about what people who’ve studied film aesthetics for years and make their livings analyzing movies think about any of these (I know, I know, movie critics are idiots) then check out RottenTomatoes.com.

    Aside from Call of Cthulhu, which I admit I haven’t seen yet, but I’ve heard is fantastic, your list of examples is comprised of movies that are generally considered bad and at best they ascend to mediocrity, such as From Beyond (which is as faithful to Lovecraft’s story as Jesse James was to Sandra Bullock). I like plenty of bad movies, but they’re still bad movies. And bad movies that manage to do one thing or another well are likewise still bad movies. I plan to check out Call of Cthulhu soon and I’m fairly certain I’ll like it, but regardless of whether or not it’s good, it doesn’t change my thesis.

    And rest assured I’ve seen the vast majority of Lovecraft adapted/inspired films. And fortunately this exercise in masochism hasn’t made me hate television, theatres, or even popcorn. And not to be outdone in the honesty department, I too find myself wondering how many Lovecraft films you’ve actually seen.

    Reply

    Tumble Reply:

    I’ve seen pretty much everything I could get my hands on. I’ll put a list at the end of the post, just for the hell of it. Of course, yes, you’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m in no way suggesting that it should be modified. What works for you works for you.

    However, I do believe that it’s unhelpful, when asked to select a list of the better Lovecraftian movies, to simply refuse to do so. You may detest them all, but unless you have perfect equal loathing for every film, you’ll be able to rank them in quality.

    Many readers would have found it useful to have a list of the better efforts, and simply saying “I hate them all” is utterly unhelpful. That was the failure of imagination I referred to.

    Disclaimer: I’m a professional author and editor, and if you’d turned that piece in to me, I’d have pleasantly asked you to pick some anyway. The main point of my comment, in fact, was to attempt to make sure that if someone actually wanted to get some suggestions for the better attempts at Lovecraftian movies, that there were actually a few titles to see.

    That list of films: All the ones I first mentioned, obviously; plus (*racks brain*) Bride of Reanimator, Unnameable 2, the Necronomicon portmanteau, the Dunwich Horror, The Crimson Cult, the Lurking Fear (poor Jeff!), Die Monster Die, Creepshow, Rough Magik, Chilean Gothic, The Testimony of Randolph Carter, Cast a Deadly Spell, The Shuttered Room, Cthulhu Mansion (*shudder*), Dreams in the Witch-House, and Succubus.

    Reply

    Jason Thorson

    Jason Thorson Reply:

    First of all, I wasn’t “asked” to do anything other than write something about Lovecraft in honor of the good man’s birthday. Secondly, I’m not here to help Lovecraft neophytes find the least crappy movies to watch or to write something dishonestly. What I did do is breakdown what I find to be a frustrating phenomenon – that despite the brilliance of Lovecraft’s work, the track record of successful film adaptations is dismal at best. It begs the question, why? The stories are outstanding, the films have failed. There has to be a reason other than bad luck. That’s the focus of the piece and I believe I provide a well-reasoned theory as to why this “dilemma” exists so consistently.

    Secondly, my opinion of these film adaptations isn’t exactly outside the general consensus. I mean, if I were writing an analysis of Bogart’s career and I stated that Casablanca is considered a good movie, I wouldn’t exactly be swinging for the fences with crazy, outside-the-box loony talk. The same can be said for my statements about the quality of the vast majority of Lovecraft films. I looked at them all objectively, separating them from both the appeal of Lovecraft and the horror genre in general.

    Given the fact that it’s “Cthulhu Week” at Flames Rising, I was fully aware that I was writing a risky piece and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. In fact, I’m sure the good folks at Flames Rising are sitting back and enjoying the debate. Sometimes journalism pushes buttons, looks under the rocks to see what scurries out, and discusses things that may be considered unpopular. Again, you’re more than welcome to challenge my opinion with a well-reasoned argument of your own. But you keep straying off course, first by implying that I haven’t seen enough movies to justify my opinion – a huge and hasty assumption, and then you resort to feigning outrage that my piece was even published. Both of these tactics are silly and undermine what could be an interesting argument. I would like to know why you think some of these films are good, rather than how offended you are that I didn’t write Lovecraft puff piece. I appreciate that you disagree with me, but please leave my integrity and the integrity of the people in charge of the site’s content out of it.

    Jason Thorson

    Jason Thorson Reply:

    P.S. Having read the piece as it’s posted on the site, I now see why you’ve accused me of “refusing” to do what I was asked to do. The line in the intro, “Next up for Cthulhu Week we asked reviewer Jason Thorson to tell us about his favorite Lovecraft-inspired movies,” is unfortunately misleading. Flames’ intent is to write nice, quick introductions for each piece this week and in doing so that line was included. However, I wasn’t asked to do anything other than pitch ideas for Lovecraft coverage. I pitched my idea, in which I discussed my “dilemma” and they accepted the pitch. Either way, Flames’ intro to my piece unintentionally creates a false impression about my approach to the topic and their subsequent acceptance of the article. Obviously that wasn’t done on purpose (at least, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, ha!), but given what it says I can certainly see why you challenged my approach.

  2. Will Hart says:

    If you haven’t already seen it, find a copy of the 1992 film, “Shatterbrain;” which was originally called, “The Resurrected.”

    There are probably DVDs around under both titles. And make sure you find a wide-screen copy!

    It is an excellent (but rarely mentioned) version of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

    And Chris Sarandon does a fantastic job in the dual-character lead roles.

    The other reason I’m here is to share the following:

    Great 120th Birthday Presents to/from H. P. Lovecraft!

    Happy 120th. Birthday H.P.L.!

    Freebies released in celebration of H. P. Lovecraft’s 120th. birthday on 20-August-2010, and to stir up excitement for the possible making of the Universal Studios 3D version of “At the Mountains of Madness” by Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron; and as a celebration by Will Hart of the 20th. anniversary of his being at Lovecraft’s grave-side on his 100th. birthday.

    Released during the last few hours in MP3 Format on:
    http://cthulhuwho1.com
    (The audio companion to the CthulhuWho1 Flickr collections.)

    “Fungi from Yuggoth”
    H. P. Lovecraft’s complete 36 sonnet set; in an all-new recording by William (Will) Hart; in single file, and multiple file versions. A dark poetry reading if there ever was one…

    “What If H. P. Lovecraft Had Lived Into The 1960’s?”
    A 163 minute panel recording in six parts, of Professor Dirk W. Mosig, Professor Donald R. Burleson, J. Vernon Shea, Fritz Leiber, Jr., and S.T. Joshi at the 36th World Science Fiction Convention in Phoenix in 1978. A must-have for Lovecraftians!

    Plus, behind the scenes recordings including a live reading by Don Burleson of his darkly funny, “The Last Supper.”

    And more audio goodies too!

    And there are now over 1200 Lovecraft, Cthulhu, and Providence related images for the taking at the CthulhuWho1 Flickr page at:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cthulhuwho1/collections/
    (The image companion site to the http://cthulhuwho1.com audio site.)

    All of the above items (and more to come) were created in honor of H. P. Lovecraft; but since he’s not here with us, it’s up to you, and everyone you can share them with to enjoy them!

    Will Hart
    aka CthulhuWho1
    aka California Cthulhu
    willhart-at-roadrunner-dot-com

    Reply

  3. Tumble says:

    My apologies, Jason. I took the intro at face value!

    Reply

  4. Pat says:

    I wouldn’t say Mouth Of Madness was considered a bad film. It’s slowly being accepted as one of John Carpenters better films, and certainly his best since the 90s. Copped flack when it came out, but that’s a given. I would say it is its own work though, and despite the references shouldn’t really be included in the Lovecraft canon.

    I agree though; from what I’ve seen, most Lovecraft adaptations suck balls. I like From Beyond for the campy horror qualities it shares with Reanimator.
    Dagon was the first film that I hated as much as I loved. Certain aspects were so good, but it seemed to jump from great scene to absolutely atrocious scene over and over again.

    I’m not sure I agree with your reasoning as to why Lovecraft’s films are shit, though. I think that would apply to an author such as Stephen King, who has completely unoriginal and uninspired plots, but hooks his readers through wonderful character development and internal monologue. Lovecraft’s internal monologue is pretty much always the same – “It’s hideous beyond description; I’m going insane just thinking about it; ahh the horror…” He is very much a pulp writer, just a really good one. I’d say it’s because his stories are always adapted by horror aficionados, who in all fairness are usually people with extremely bad taste, and the ability to be frightened by ridiculous and tame things. Lovecraft is all about atmosphere (which is why I couldn’t entirely hate Dagon), and fear of the unknown, but most of the Directors who adapt his work are big kids who like monsters. Shame, really.

    Reply

    Jason Thorson

    Jason Reply:

    Hi Pat,

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about why we agree….or something like that.

    I find it unlikely that every filmmaker who’s attempted to adapt Lovecraft since 1963 has merely failed because of bad taste. In fact, unless you’re arguing that Lovecraft’s stories themselves are bad, then it’s difficult to make the “bad-taste” argument at all.

    I think it’s safe to say that there are well-established, and long held criteria that stories must attempt to meet in order to be successful. There’s a positive correlation between a well-told story (one that “works”) and a story that’s considered “good.” My thesis is that there must be something inherently difficult to adapt on film in Lovecraft’s stories. After sort of listing various aspects of Lovecraft’s narrative approach and then listing narrative elements that are difficult to represent on film, I looked for commonalities and came up with the article above.

    Either way, you and I agree that the vast majority of the movies have been terrible and that makes us kin on this here thread. Thanks a lot for commenting!

    -Jason

    Reply

  5. RedRazor says:

    There are quite a lot of bastardized versions of Lovecraft stories. However I WOULD recommend these Lovecraft inspired works:

    Altitude
    In the Mouth of Madness
    the Thing

    As for actual works it becomes more difficult because everyone insists on their own interpretations. Take the Dunwich Horror. A story that requires very little special effects as the main monster is for the most part incorporeal. Every movie INSISTS on adding a love story angle, or adding magic powers to Armitage (the university professor) or just generally changing the story to fit how they would have written this classic.

    Below are a list of Lovecraft adaptions:

    The Ressurected (the Case of Charles Dextar Ward)
    The Haunted Palace (the Case of Charles Dextar Ward)
    Castle Freak (The Outsider)
    The Dunwich Horror (1999)
    The Re-Animator (Plus Sequels)
    Dagon (Shadow over Innsmouth)
    Die, Monster, Die! (The Colour Out of Space)
    The Curse (The Colour Out of Space)
    Colour from the Dark(The Colour Out of Space)
    The Crimson Cult (The Dreams in the Witch House)
    The Lurking Fear
    Bleeders aka Haemoglobin (The Lurking Fear)
    Necronomicon
    The Unnamable
    The Unnamable II
    Beyond the Wall of Sleep (Terrible, terrible movie)
    The Tomb

    Independent Films:

    The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
    The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Volume 1: Cool Air
    The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Volume 2: Rough Magik/Dreams of Cthulhu
    The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Volume 3: Out of Mind
    The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Volume 4: Pickman’s Model
    The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Volume 5: Strange Aeons
    Pickman’s Model
    The Testimony of Randolph Carter
    The Thing on the Doorstep

    If I missed any my bad its hard to read, as there is only one more candle…until the darkness comes….

    Reply

  6. lol, not even balls enough to post my comment.
    How pathetic.

    Reply

    Matt-M-McElroy

    Matt-M-McElroy Reply:

    Anders, I can’t seem to find a different comment from you in the queue, so I’m not exactly sure what you are referring to here.

    -Matt

    Reply

  7. Jody says:

    Hey there. Don’t know if anyone is still monitoring this post, but I was wondering where the Cthulhu image in the post originated?

    Reply

    Jason Thorson

    Jason Thorson Reply:

    Hi Jody. I’m not sure where that image is from. I believe editor-in-chief Matt McElroy found it. I apologize for my comment’s lack of usefulness! 🙂

    Reply

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