H.P. Lovecraft doesn’t translate to film very well. Many have tried, few have succeed. Lovecraft’s stories are mood-driven, using his dense antiquarian writing style to tell tales that say so much while unfolding so little in terms of action. This doesn’t exactly lend itself to a cinematic adaptation. Yet several films have found a way to tackle Lovecraft without actually adapting Lovecraft. The following films pay tribute to Lovecraft without actually adapting any of his stories.
Sam Raimi’s 1981 The Evil Dead features one of Lovecraft’s most widely known creations: The Necronomicon. Lovecraft used this book of magic, which was attributed to the fictional Abdul Alhazred, in several of his stories. This recurrence was one of the many Lovecraftian elements that gave a reader the sense of an ever-growing mythology — stories all loosely connected, existing in the same mad universe. Lovecraft wrote a short story called The History of the Necronomicon that has this rather blunt opening sentence: “Original title Al Azif—azif being the word used by Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of daemons.”
In Evil Dead, Raimi used the Necronomicon as a means for summoning evil spirits that wreck a weekend getaway for a group of badly dressed college students. Raimi eve managed to top Lovecraft’s version of the book, making the tome in Evil Dead etched in blood and bound in human skin. The film’s plot itself has Lovecraftian elements as well, particularly borrowing from the story The Lurking Fear. One part of that tale features characters trapped in a cabin, wherein one of them ends up having his face chewed off.
9/8. HELLBOY/HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY
Guillermo del Toro is a Lovecraft fan, and spent a considerable amount of time (unsuccessfully) trying to turn Lovecraft’s story At the Mountains of Madness into a film. But del Toro got to play around in the Lovecraft sandbox with his Hellboy films. Adapted from fellow Lovecraft fan Mike Mignola’s comics, both Hellboy films feature their fair share of large tentacled beasts that directly recall Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. Although del Toro’s films are less horrific and more playful — and playful was something Lovecraft rarely dabbled in.
7.THE LAST WAVE
If you never thought you’d see a Lovecraftian film as part of the Criterion Collection, let me introduce you to The Last Wave. Directed by Peter Weir, The Last Wave tells the tale of an Australian solicitor (Richard Chamberlain) who investigates a murder case that has weird, mystical connections. It may not feature any overt Lovecraft references, but the film expertly captures the feel of the typical Lovecraft tale of a man digging into things he doesn’t understand and slowly being driven to madness.
6.WE ARE STILL HERE
Ted Geoghegan’s recent We Are Still Here recalls Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery, but it also has Lovecraftian elements aplenty. It’s also set in Lovecraft’s favorite local, New England. And while it seems initially to be the story of a haunted house, there’s more afoot here. I won’t spoil it since the film came out this year, but suffice to say Geoghegan’s film is clever and enjoyable in the way it defies your expectations.
Based on Stephen King’s short story, The Mist finds a group of unlucky souls trapped in a supermarket while weird monsters appear in an unearthly mist outside. Frank Darabont keeps the film bustling along, throwing one unique monster after another at our heroes. These are unspeakable creatures that would be right at home in a Lovecraft story, from the huge tentacle that slides in under a garage door to the huge, lumbering Cthulhu-like creature the surviving characters spot near the end.
4.CABIN IN THE WOODS
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin the Woods wonderfully picks apart seemingly every horror genre and trope imaginable, so it only makes sense they fit some Lovecraft in there as well. The film’s characters are trapped in a horror movie scenario where the cabin they’re staying at comes under attack from forces of darkness — but it’s all a set-up run by a mysterious underground facility where technicians manipulate the environment to create the horror. But that’s not all! The characters lucky enough to make it all the way to the end of the film learn that the reason behind all of this is to appease mysterious, benevolent forces dubbed the Ancient Ones (or Elder Gods or Great Old Ones, if you will).
Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness featured characters in Antarctica, as well as creatures known as Shoggoths that could assume any physical form. If that sounds familiar to you and you’ve never read the story, that’s because it also reflects the plot of John Carpenter’s fantastic horror film The Thing. It’s a film filled with incredible special effects used to create nightmarish monstrosities that would’ve made Lovecraft smile, if he knew how to smile that is. Which he didn’t.
Much like At the Mountains of Madness and The Thing, Alien is another tale of explorers who venture to some place they shouldn’t, and pay the price. Alien is the rare film that manages to capture the feeling of unrelenting dread that permeates over all of Lovecraft’s stories, and while the franchise eventually morphed into a mishmash of action, sci-fi and horror, Alien is all-horror — non-stop, unspeakable horror. I suppose you could argue that Alien prequel Prometheus is more Lovecraftian, with its talk of Elder God-like “engineers”. But let’s just ignore that film, as we should.
1.IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
In the Mouth of Madness is, quite simply, the best H.P. Lovecraft film ever made. Which is remarkable, since this isn’t an adaptation of any of his stories. Then again, the argument could be made that this is, in fact, an adaption of all of his stories at once. Here, Sam Neill is hired to track down a missing horror novelist named Sutter Cane. And while Cane keeps getting compared to Stephen King, it’s Lovecraft that Kane’s tales are modeled on. Neill’s character ends up in a fictional town created by Kane, where all the author’s horrors are coming to terrible life. If you’re looking for the most successful film interpretation of Lovecraft’s work, look no further than this film.