For years, Guillermo Del Toro has been trying to get an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness made. Any true Lovecraftian, though, would be appalled by the Pacific Rim-sized creatures Del Toro would likely contribute to the novella, for readers know an actual viewing of the horrific beast lies outside of the pages. Lovecraft’s monsters typically defy the conceptions of the human brain, so they tend to fall into a formula: man ends up in bizarre circumstance, man sees something indescribable, man goes insane or commits suicide. It doesn’t quite sound like ideal fodder for a visual medium.
For the uninitiated, said monsters come from a mythology of deities called Old Ones, evil beings that once ruled the planet and are intent upon returning. The most well-known remains Cthulhu, a giant, winged octopus-squid who reigns in the lost city of R’lyeh. These deities and ways to summon them are contained the fictional Necronomicon book, an item used in films ranging from The Evil Dead to Jason Goes To Hell.
Early Lovecraft adaptations, such as the laughably bad The Dunwich Horror (1970), skirted the issues of the texts by bearing little resemblance to the works on which they were based. Their failure also stems from many of the stories often being under ten pages in length; an adaptation of roughly 90 minutes often created quite a hurdle.
Herbert West, Re-Animator was written by Lovecraft as a cheeky response to Frankenstein, a film he greatly detested. It’s fitting that the most successful Lovercraft adaptation is Stuart Gordon’s 1985 adaptation, which takes itself as seriously as its source material. Both Re-Animator and it’s first sequel, Bride of Re- Animator, are surprisingly faithful. Jeffrey Combs, in a manic, unhinged performance, plays West, a student at Mistkatonic University (a Lovecraft staple) studying the possibility of life after brain-death.
There is nothing subtle about Re-Animator, from Charles Band’s opening score (bordering on plagiarism from Bernard Hermann) to a Talking Heads poster featured prominently during a sex scene (foreshadowing the famous, gruesomely absurd ending), though there is a hard streak of self-consciousness flowing out of every popped artery, head, and sawed-off arm. Critics at the time praised the film’s glorification of trash without ever turning its nose up at it. That’s why Re-Animator remains both a critical darling and a midnight movie favourite today.
Gordon’s follow-up was another take on Lovecraft, more in line with the author’s ouvre. 1987’s From Beyond again finds Combs working in a lab, though its tone is much more horrific. Comb’s mild-mannered Crawford Tillinghast works under Dr. Pretorius as they study the effects of stimulating the pineal gland, which opens up another dimension of creatures. Soon, Pretorius is presumed dead and Tillinghast declared insane. A psychiatrist played by Barbara Crampton (who was Re- Animator‘s damsel in distress) takes Tillinghast back to the lab.
Lovecraft wrote often on the human pineal gland, but never explored its relation to human sexuality as Gordon does. The gland is known to regulate the sex drive and, as Crampton and Combs further investigate it, things get, well, downright Freudian. It doesn’t take a psych major to draw such connections from a female protagonist biting off a man’s protruding third eye.
Despite the gruesomeness being much more unnerving than Gordon’s previous effort, From Beyond remains an interesting and clever work. As for the third Re-Animator, directed by longtime producer Brian Yuzna, well…
Just as other authors took inspiration from Lovecraft’s work, so too did filmmakers. In the thematicaly-related In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter references numerous stories, as well as lifting the insane narrator structure directly. Madness finds Sam Neill as an insurance investigator looking into the disappearance of famed horror novelist Sutter Cane, whose work seems to have the unwanted added effect of driving readers mad. Cane’s writings even quote direct passages from Lovecraft’s work.
Madness is by no means perfect, bordering somewhere between inappropriately campy and overtly stupid, but it serves as perfectly decent fan service for purists. For the worst side of such fan service, one need only look at Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. That film finds Neill again going mad as he searches for a lost spaceship. Anderson, a barely workman-like director, jettisons almost any of his initially interesting concepts for a film more in line with what was probably the studio pitch,: “It’s hell…in space!”
Perhaps there will never be a perfect Lovecraft adaptation, though The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society released their own attempt in 2005, creating a silent film adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu. Like many Lovecraftian creatures, a satisfactory adaptation will forever remain maddening and elusive.
– Kenny Hedges