Resurrecting H. P. Lovecraft on the Big and Small Screen

Before Stephen King (and after Edgar Allan Poe), the master of American literary horror was H. P. Lovecraft. Born a decade before the turn of the century in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft grew up a sickly kid who never left his house and read all the time. Adding to his circumstances, both of his parents died in insane asylums.

Though Lovecraft was reportedly a prodigy – a poet by the age of six – he didn’t really get into writing full tilt until his mid-twenties, through the then burgeoning amateur press association scene of the early twentieth century. This would lead to a massive collection of correspondence with other amateur writers across the country, some of whom went on to become big names in genre fiction (including Pyscho author Robert Bloch and Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard). Lovecraft eventually parlayed this into a professional writing career (though financial success forever eluded him), selling short stories to fantasy and horror pulp magazines like Weird Tales, and even doing some ghost-writing work, most famously for legendary magician Harry Houdini. Upon his death in 1937, Lovecraft remained obscure and unknown, but in the decades since he’s become a cornerstone of the fantasy/horror genre with a colossal and fervent fan base, alongside writers like King and Neil Gaiman, who often cite him as a major influence on their work.

For the most part, Hollywood has benefited more from the influence and themes of Lovecraft’s writing than the actual stories themselves. The writer’s most famous premise of a larger hidden cosmology that humanity is unable to fully comprehend has become so prevalent in the sci-fi and horror film genre that it borders on cliché. And thanks to Lovecraft’s meticulous self-referencing and off-handed callbacks in stories to previous works, his bibliography consists of a constant and underlying mythology known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Arguably, the author’s most prominent legacy is probably the adjective “Lovecraftian,” which (like fellow literary descriptors “Dickensian” and “Kafkaesque”) refers to a story featuring similar themes to the writer’s work.

Still, there exists a wide canon of Lovecraft tales turned into films and television. Here’s a look at the most noteworthy instances in which his writing has been adapted for the screen.

Brought to Life by “Re-Animator”

By the 1980s, Lovecraft’s legacy was pretty much secure in horror literature. Through collections and anthologies, his short stories and handful of novellas had finally found a sizably large audience with readers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction around the world. His work was even praised in proper literature; legendary Argentina short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote a Lovecraftian short dedicated to the horror master nearly forty years after his death. Unfortunately, the film industry hadn’t really found a way to directly bring the gruesome horrors of Lovecraft’s imagination to the silver screen. Sure, there were more than a few attempts in the 1960s, but none were particularly good: a Roger Corman production adapting the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; not one but two Boris Karloff vehicles made at the end of the famed horror actor’s life, which heavily borrowed from Lovecraft stories; and the dreadful Dunwich Horror b-movie adaptation in 1970. It seemed that a successful, straightforward Lovecraft adaptation was impossible. His dense exposition-heavy storytelling and serious lack of female characters make any straight page-to-screen translation tough, and his early twentieth-century settings along with gigantic, grotesque creatures would strain even the wealthiest studio’s pocketbook.

Enter 1985’s “Re-Animator.” Although not a direct adaption of Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West, Re-Animator, the film by writer/director Stuart Gordon, starring Jeffrey Combs as West, retains the basic premise about a pair of medical students who resurrect dead people through science – and solved many of the problems challenging Lovecraft movie adaptations. It contemporized the setting; added a strong female character/ love interest for the viewpoint character, Dan Cain; and featured zombies, relatively low-maintenance Hollywood monsters. The film also successfully blended humor with its gross-out concept; how seriously can you take a film whose villain is a disembodied head trying to steal credit for the scientific discovery of human re-animation, and that features the line, “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!”?

“Re-Animator” was a box-office success, due in part to its relatively low budget, and it remains a cult favorite to this day. It even inspired two low-budget sequels: “Bride of Re-Animator” in 1989 and “Beyond Re-Animator” in 2003. Gordon and Combs would go on to collaborate on two more Lovecraft adaptations: 1986’s “From Beyond” (which wasn’t a hit like “Re-Animator” though it does have somewhat of a cult following) and the 1993 direct-to-video anthology film “H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon” (with Combs playing Lovecraft in the wraparound story).

Paintings in the “Night Gallery”

Before interest in adapting H. P. Lovecraft’s tales of horror and gore for the screen was renewed with “Re-Animator” (and after the disastrous adaptations of the sixties), Lovecraft’s work found a home on the television dial in the early 1970s. Rod Serling, best known for creating and hosting the groundbreaking 1960s sci-fi compilation show “The Twilight Zone,” found himself once again hosting an anthology TV program, though with darker and more macabre themes. “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” ran from 1969 to 1973 with the gimmick that a haunting painting, introduced by Serling in a dark and mysterious museum/art gallery, would lead into each teleplay – and while Serling wasn’t the executive producer, as he was on “The Twilight Zone,” he did write many of the scripts. Serling used many short horror fiction stories unknown to the general public as source material, including some belonging to Lovecraft. The best example is probably the Serling-penned “Cool Air,” based on the short story of the same name. The vignette follows Lovecraft’s tale of a Spanish scientist living in America, who is kept alive by staying cold, fairly closely. The show also adapted – with some major changes – the Lovecraft story Pickman’s Model, which is about an artist who draws gruesome imaginary monsters that turn out to be real. The show featured other shorts and skits that were chock-full of references to the author, mostly through character names and references, like a babysitter assigned to watch the child of a vampire and a werewolf presenting herself at the door by proclaiming, “Miss Lovecraft sent me!”

Films for Lovecraft Fans by Lovecraft Fans

Following “Re-Animator,” adaptations of Lovecraft stories were far apart on quality and few in number throughout the years. The Unnamable, a story about a monster that is undetectable by the five senses, was adapted into a clichéd “college kids get killed one by one” horror flick of the same name in 1988 – and it got a sequel a few years later. Even the folks behind “Re-Animator” were involved with some pitiable Lovecraft adaptations: Combs co-starred in 1994’s “The Lurking Fear,” which is about a clan of humanoid creatures living in a series of underground tunnels; Gordon made a 2001 film based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which features a town populated by human-amphibian hybrids, re-titled after an earlier Lovecraft work, Dagon; and an adaptation of Dreams in the Witch House for Showtime’s “Master of Horror” series that was passable.

Of course, there are some gems that have accumulated over the years. The 1991 film “The Resurrected,” which uses a detective noir narrative to adapt The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is surprisingly good (though only really known to serious Lovecraft fans). The independent films, “Cthulhu” – which despite its shared name with Lovecraft’s most famous creature is mostly another Shadow Over Innsmouth adaptation – and “Pickman’s Muse,” which combines details from the stories Pickman’s Model and The Haunter of the Dark, received some critical praise.

The best modern adaptations, however, are the ones by the biggest Lovecraft fans. The H.  P. Lovecraft Historical Society was originally created by college buddies Sean Branney and Andrew Leman in the 1980s as a way to organize live-action role-playing games based on the world of Lovecraft’s creations. Years later, they found themselves reforming the group over the Internet and building an online community of Lovecraft fans. From there they created various short films, audio dramas, and even an album of Christmas carols – all based around works by Lovecraft.

In 2005, the HPLHS produced its first feature film, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s most famous work, “The Call of Cthulhu,” about a giant alien god imprisoned in a city under the ocean and the cult that worships it. The film, written by Branney and directed by Leman, ingeniously used modern movie techniques to give the film the look and feel of an old silent movie, a style Branney and Leman call “mythoscope.” “The Call of Cthulhu” is considered by many to be the best Lovecraft adaptation ever filmed. The HPLHS returned with another feature in 2011 – “The Whisperer in Darkness” – which is about a folklore professor invited to the countryside by a man claiming to have interacted with legendary alien monsters. This time the film was made in the style of a 1930s monster movie and Branney directed, while he and Leman worked the screenplay.

Currently, the group is promoting its rock opera album based on Dreams in the Witch House, which is set for release in October. And although there’s no word of a film version, it wouldn’t shock us.

Tell us: What Lovecraft-inspired film is your favorite? And from the canon, which is most underrated?