How do you film the unfathomable? That’s long been the challenge filmmakers interested in either adapting Lovecraft’s stories for the movies directly or crafting stories and visuals similar to those HPL employed. So much of what’s still disturbing and awesome (in the older definition of that word) about Lovecraft’s work are the ways in which he not only describes alien and magnificent visions, but also just hints at much worse waiting. Some Lovecraft adaptations, in my opinion, fail when they try ham-fistedly portraying his Elder Gods and minor monsters, throwing rubber suits or poor CGI at us instead of fleshy abominations. Other adaptations don’t do so well at trying to add a human element to the stories, all those emotions and full characters and interesting dialogue that HPL is most certainly not known for writing.
That, the issue with character and heart, is something that must be worked carefully, and some of the following movies excel at it, but the issue with special effects is probably why we are only recently seeing decent HPL movies. Simply put, before the mid-eighties or so, it was too difficult to create visual analogues to Lovecraft’s fictitious monstrosities. That doesn’t mean that any movie with a good set of special effects will succeed either. Something most of the films on this list do great at is creating a sense of a vast and uncaring multiverse looming just behind the more intimate events of the movie. And that, more than bizarre creature effects, is the heart of the Lovecraftian.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
Don’t let the posters or trailers fool you: this Roger Corman directed and Vincent Price starring movie is based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft, not Edgar Allan Poe. That novella is “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and it will appear twice on this list. Here, Corman gives us a movie based on its broad outlines. The necromancer Joseph Curwen has gone a step too far in using the people of Arkham as his occult guinea pigs. After he performs a ritual on a young village girl, a mob burns Curwen alive, his last words being a curse upon the village. 110 years later, his descendant Charles Dexter Ward arrive at his estate, Ward having just inherited the old palace. It isn’t long before he and his wife are being given the rundown on the Necronomicon, the Elder Gods, and Curwen’s plan to create a new race of super beings. Ward soon falls under the spell of the dead warlock, and Curwen begins his wicked plans anew.
Corman uses Poe’s poem “The Haunted Palace” as a framing device in part, I think, to try to tie this movie in with his other Poe adaptations. That, a subplot about erotic obsession, and the 19th century setting of the movie do lend it some Poe-esque touches, but this is Lovecraft’s baby. So far as I can tell, it was the first adaptation of one of his stories, or at least the first cinematic one. If you dig Corman’s Poe adaptations, you will likely enjoy this. And if you haven’t see any of them? Over-the-top, colorful, and filled with some most excellent scene-chewing by Vincent Price, they are a vital part of horror heritage and are a lot of fun.
From Beyond (1986)
In the 20 years or so separating The Haunted Palace from Stuart Gordon’s Herbert West: Re-Animator, Lovecraft’s work popped up in at least one TV show (Night Gallery) and one film adaptation (The Dunwich Horror: super campy), but otherwise the Mythos, cinematically speaking, was fairly dead. Then came Re-Animator. I’ve covered that movie already in my list of comedic horror greats, so I’d like to focus here on From Beyond, a movie which is honestly a lot more disturbing than those about Herbert West. This one too was directed by Gordon and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, but with an excellent addition of Ken Foree, best known for his starring role in the original Dawn of the Dead. From Beyond is an eye-popping and gaudy movie, and I mean that in the very best way.
It concerns the mad Doctor Pretorius, a classic over-reacher who has found a way to see into another dimension. Unfortunately, the forces there can look back on him and anyone near his machine, and at the film’s beginning, the doctor has been decapitated by something from the other side. His assistant, suspected of his murder, is soon brought back to his cursed house by his psychiatrist and a cop. All sorts of madness ensues, with (IMHO) some of the best special effects used in a horror movie of the 80’s. Perhaps the 90’s as well. Seriously: this is some gooey stuff. The leads give a lot of fun acting that treads just close enough to camp to be entertaining while not overstepping the line and making it impossible to take the movie seriously. Also, in a move I seriously doubt would’ve worked for the Puritanical and sex-phobic Lovecraft, Pretorius’s machine is revealed to stimulate lust in those near it, and the film dabbles with kink in a fun and funny way.
Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
While the idea of cross-splicing the Lovecraft Mythos with Noir conventions is by now fairly old hat, it was fairly surprising when this HBO movie was first released. Cast a Deadly Spell mixes a heady brew, setting a Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett mystery in a world in which magic is commonplace. Harry Lovecraft is a private investigator working in Los Angeles. Everyone around him uses magic for everything from lighting cigarettes to laying down nasty Mafia curses, but not Harry, this despite being pulled into cases involving voodoo and a missing book called the Necronomicon.
This movie has a lot going for it like its cast, which includes Fred Ward, David Warner, and a young Julianne Moore in what appears to be her first starring role. The special effects are also a lot of fun, most of them being done practically. There is a subplot about a transwoman that is handled very poorly, an element that dates the movie more than anything else. This and other small issues makes me wish they’d reboot this with more modern effects and mores. HBO made a sequel, Witch Hunt, in which McCarthyism is represented by a literal witch-hunt and Lovecraft is played by Dennis Hopper that has its moments too.
The Resurrected (1992)
This is the second adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and this one is far more faithful to the source material than Roger Corman’s was, as well as being a much scarier, gorier affair. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original Alien (he based the chestburster concept on abdominal issues that plagued him) and directed the first Return of the Living Dead, this movie is one of those criminally underrated pieces that’s due a revival.
Claire Ward hires a private investigator, John March, to investigate her husband, a chemical engineer. After looking into his family history and his discovery of a painting of one of his ancestors, who appears to be a dead ringer for Charles Ward, the man bought his old familial farmhouse and cut off contact with his wife. Soon, a neighbor is dead, hideously mutilated, and March finds the engineer apparently on the verge of madness. The special effects in this one are great, mostly practical ones from what I can tell, and Chris Sarandon plays an intense dual role as Ward and Joseph Curwen. It is a darker, grittier take on HPL than Stuart Gordon’s movies usually are.
Dark Waters/Dead Waters (1994)
This hallucinatory arthouse horror film mixes Lovecraftian tropes with Catholic imagery, producing a unique and truly strange experience for viewers. The movie is about Elizabeth, a young woman with hazy memories of her childhood. Her father has just died and in going through his finances, she’s discovered he donates money regularly to a convent on an isolated island. When she visits it, she finds dark secrets that involve her past. This one is a treat for the eyes. A little violent in places, it isn’t focused primarily on grossing you out but rather creating this dark and dreamy atmosphere. It’s funny that so many Lovecraftian-inspired works involve people investigating their murky pasts. I suppose it ties in with HPL’s fictional ideas about humanity discovering that it too has a strange and rather horrible pre-history. In this movie, though, that search takes on a sort of spiritual resonance that I very much enjoy.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
The concept of this adaptation of Lovecraft’s most famous story is kind of brilliant. Basically, what if instead of being a cranky recluse and small-time cult writer, Lovecraft had been famous enough during his time to warrant a movie adaptation of his work? What would a silent, black-and-white version of “The Call of Cthulhu” look like? As it turns out, it looks pretty good. Leman enlivens his movie with some good Expressionist-inspired shots and settings, something that lends the project a sense of the madness that the Great Old One tends to bring in his wake. Your patience for this movie is going to depend on how entertained you can be by pre-sound, pre-color horror. Although this movie is now a curio and I have no idea how many people actually watch it, I’d like to think that had it come out in the 1920’s it would have been a big hit and altered the course of cinematic history. As it is, it’s a fun and melodramatic show.
The Mist (2007)
I have to include this movie because I didn’t really grasp the idea of cosmic horror until I read the Stephen King novella it’s based on. An ominous mist rolls across a small Maine town. As it chokes out the light, monsters of all sorts start appearing, an entire ecosystem from another dimension. This is Lovecraftian horror without any guiding mega-minds like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, as if we’re being given a safari tour through the sort of natural life those beings must have evolved within.
Our primary characters find themselves trapped in a supermarket, and as fear and fanaticism develop amongst the crowd gathered there, they find that there are horrors in the human mind that may rival any tentacular beings from another world. The creature design in this one is amazing, even if a lot of it is CGI. They do a great job of selling these alien creatures as real. I have lots of feelings about the end of this movie because honestly, it’s easily one of the most upsetting endings that I’ve seen in a horror movie, one made all the more impressive by how bloodless it is. Don’t watch this one if you really need to feel good, or maybe do if you want to see people worse off than yourself.
The Void (2016)
Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
I love this movie and it makes me irritable that it’s not more widely known. Lovecraft is all over this one though neither he nor his Mythos are invoked in it. In terms of monstrosities, The Void is up there with John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it adds this vast, cosmic flavor that puts it above most similar movies. When Deputy Sheriff Daniel Carter finds a wounded man in the woods, he brings him to the local hospital, a big rambling place recently damaged in a fire. Robed cultists show up and encircle the place, silently threatening to kill anyone who tries escaping. And then the madness inside begins.
The creature effects in this independent movie are to die for, organic and mutating and hideous. Underlying all the supernatural violence is a mystery, one that will draw Carter and his ex-wife into an encounter with another dimension and the strange beings that make it their home. This one is intense, for sure, but so worth checking out. Some may complain that parts of the ending are too similar to a movie by Lucio Fulci, but (and this will likely lose me “horror points” with some aficionados of that director’s work) I think The Void does it better.
Color Out of Space (2019)
When something fallen from the sky infects the Gardner’s family farm with a bizarre alien color-disease, it’s members must try surviving the fallout. This adaptation of Lovecraft’s story of the same name is, in my opinion, one of the most Lovecraftian of all Lovecraft adaptations. Sure, it adds some light humor and heartfelt familial dynamics, both of which are fairly alien to HPL’s corpus, and yes, it changes some of the particulars of what happens on this farm. But it conveys the sheer weirdness of the interdimensional color in beautiful and horrific ways. The movie skimps on neither monstrous special effects nor awesome glimpses of the much larger cosmic forces behind all the strangeness. Just beware: no one is safe in this movie.
In the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean (that we know of), an earthquake slams an underwater drilling facility, forcing the survivors of the initial destruction out into the black sea. Somewhere out there is a way back up to the surface. Unfortunately for these people (but fortunately for us), so are dangerous and hitherto undiscovered creatures. Cue a fast-paced movie with excellent effects.
There are some significant Lovecraftian touches to this monster movie, including particularly tentacular monsters, but what struck me most about Underwater was how well it transforms the bottom of the ocean into an eerie alien landscape, a creepy reminder that we may not have to leave this planet in order to find the eldritch and the unfathomable.