Body Count: Volume 7
I did a report on H.P. Lovecraft back in the seventh grade and my teacher thought I was fucking insane. Up to this point, I hadn’t really read much by the guy but my mother turned me on to his writing via The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and an article about him in the Boston Globe and I was immediately seized by this brand of horror that I had only flirted with. At twelve years old, my contemporaries were still reading whatever spooky stuff was on the shelves at the school library and even though Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was pretty much the standby when it came to scarring us all for life, there wasn’t much that was actually challenging there. The year before, I had read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and had to give an oral report about it in front of the class which led my teacher demanding to see an actual copy of the book because she swore I was making the report up as I went along. So I had my head in some strange places at a reasonably early age. Few others at my age, in my school, were breaking new ground for themselves. A few had read whatever Stephen King their parents had lying around and that was step in the right direction but I went for the source. Without a doubt, my money is on Howard Phillips Lovecraft for the most important horror writer of the 20th century.
Given the sheer volume of his work, you’d think that he would have left a larger dent on Hollywood, right? Practically everything Stephen King has ever written has wound up optioned and subsequently produced for the screen. Through the 80’s and 90’s the movies were released within a year of the book’s publication and while there’s more than a few Lovecraft movies, most of them take wild liberties with the source material and some are more or less Lovecraft adaptations in name only. So what is it about the man’s writing that is so difficult to take from the page to the screen? For years, the token excuse has been that Lovecraft leaves so much to the imagination and is so effective at giving us the right suggestions that our minds do all the work for us and to try and make that happen in a movie, where the point is to be descriptive and visual, you would kill the effect. Something exceptionally important gets lost in translation. But this is not true at all. Lovecraft tells you, in no uncertain terms, exactly why the rising of R’Lyeh in The Call of C’thulhu is so maddening to the sailors who find it. C’thulhu, himself, is described. It’s easy to put together a frightening mental image of what that creature looks like based on his explicit descriptions of the beast.
Many of Lovecraft’s stories wind up as movies with varying degrees of failure and success. Remarkably, Lovecraft’s journey from the page to the screen would take quite some time, beginning in 1963 with the Roger Corman picture, The Haunted Palace. The title is actually from a Poe piece and the movie is meant to cash in on the wild success of Corman’s Vincent Price Poe movies but the flick is actually an adaptation of The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and a reasonably accurate one even if the bookish Ward from Lovecraft’s novela is replaced by the suave and completely kickass Vincent Price. It also takes some cues from The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Colour Out Of Space. Given Corman’s penchant for taking crazy liberties with his source material, this one sticks pretty close to Lovecraft’s work with a script from one of the Twilight Zone’s regular pens, Charles Beaumont. Beaumont is clearly a fan and delivers a typically strong script for one of Corman and Price’s most underrated pictures from their peak.
1980 brought a curious and criminally unseen short film, The Musich of Erich Zann, which went out of its way to stay faithful to Lovecraft, only taking the liberty to name the main character, a nameless student in the short story, here in the film known as Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft’s story tells of a reclusive old man living on the top level of a decrepit old boarding house, the lone sentinel at the threshold to dangerous dimension. His frantic and alien music keeps the creatures beyond his window at bay but a student downstairs, mesmerized by Zann’s music manages to befriend the old man and eventually forces his hand to reveal the horrible nature of his crazy-ass violin playing. The movie, by director John Strysik (who hasn’t done much since, apart from some television), more or less tells that story verbatim and does a fantastic job at it, conveying the mood and dread of Lovecraft’s creepy setting.
Everything changed, however, in 1985 when one of the best, most fun adaptations of a Lovecraft movie came along, creating three very important careers in the horror genre. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, based on the series of serialized shorts, Herbert West – Reanimator. Jeffrey Combs’ entire career is, from here on out, defined by this role. Producer Brian Yuzna would be the third element in the trifecta and along with Gordon, would produce many Lovecraft adaptations over the years. Though the movie is bona fide horror classic, it bears only a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s original shorts, borrowing only the most essential plot devices. It is the first in Lovecraft canon to mention Miskatonic University, the fictional college set in the fictional Arkham, Massachussetts, said to be a stand-in for a combination of Salem and Danvers, Massachussetts, and the movie actually sets it there, but that’s about where the similarities end, save for the fate of Miskatonic Dean Hallsey who is, in fact, reanimated to become a ghoulish walking corpse. There’s no severed head sex, though. Gordon, Yuzna and Combs would team up for Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator, each a decent entry into the series even if the third in the series has absolutely nothing to do with the Lovecraft origins. House of Re-Animator is the last in the series, an unproduced riff on the Bush administration that came together too late to be a good jab at the policies of that 8 year fiasco.
Yuzna, Gordon and Combs would team up again, shortly after Re-Animator for From Beyond, a reasonably close adaptation of the original Lovecraft short but would prove to be another excellent excuse to show Barbara Crampton naked. The movie exchanges the main character from the short, Crawford Tillinghast and makes him the sidekick to the antagonistic Dr. Praetorius. The original short was, in fact, quite short and ends on an abrupt note but Gordon’s feature takes the original premise and runs wild with it, adding an entirely new dimension to the picture and a great reason to drench the picture in blood. It also stars Ken Foree. Combs and Crampton would again show up in Gordon’s Castle Freak, based on Lovecraft’s The Outsider for Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures in the 90’s.
And on and on it goes. It seems as if the Gordon/Yuzna productions gave license to producers to create vision of Lovecraft that were wildly out of step with their source material. Often schlocky and laced with boobs and blood, the Lovecraft adaptations barely had anything in common with the titles they were allegedly adapting until coming full circle in the new millenium with the absolutely fucking brilliant amateur silent production, The Call of Cthulhu, produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. This short film is a direct adaptation of the source material, word for word. It takes no liberties and even make an outstanding pass at representing the often ignored “non-euclidian” geometry of Lovecraft’s horror. This film is the last word on Lovecraft and is the picture that every Lovecraft adaptation should strive to be.
Most recently, Providence, Rhode Island based director Richard Griffin and Scorpio Film Releasing produced the much hyped and exceptionally accurate representation of The Dunwich Horror, throwing in buckets of blood and setting it to the tune of a Lucio Fulci movie called Beyond The Dunwich Horror, a righteous tribute to one of their hometowns greatest heroes. The road is never ending, too. What lies ahead for fans of Lovecraft and horror movies in general is the proposed At The Mountains of Madness adaptation from fan favorite Guillermo Del Toro, another H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society adaptation for The Whisperer In Darkness (this time a talkie) and Darkest Evil, another Dunwich Horror adaptation from Asylum castoffs, Bullet Films, starring none other than genre legend, Jeffrey Combs.
If you’re not familiar with Lovecraft, you’re really missing out. Why not kill some time and catch up on these stories? Since most of it exists in the public domain, many of his best stories can be found online for free.