Lovecraft and the movies

the-thing-05My review of the Lovecraft audio-books narrated by Wayne June still needs work. Instead, since I am already invested in the subject and related ones, let’s take a look at the influence Lovecraft had and still has on movies.

Fairly recently it was attempted to bring At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen, in 3D no less (ugh), by Guillermo del Toro. A relatively large budget was deemed necessary, partly for recreating 30’s Antarctica, partly for convincing CGI. As a side note, those two terms seem to become more and more mutually exclusive. Maybe we get better at spotting fakes, well at least in movies.

Back to del Toro, there were big rating issues, with the studio insisting on a PG-13. Also the estimated return on investment was not satisfactory or not enough of a sure thing, so the project was put on ice indefinitely. Although I was curious about the end result, not a bad thing necessarily, since I do not think we need a CGI infested and toned down interpretation. And maybe the emphasis should not be on visualizing the cosmic horrors.

Although purposefully vague in general, Lovecraft’s descriptions sometimes seem exhausting in detail. But these just enable the reader (or listener) to slowly create a horrific image in their head. A very personal process that can not be emulated by plastic computer graphics. In my opinion a proper Lovecraft movie should focus on subtly building up an atmosphere, brooding, menacing, while racking up the suspense slowly, eventually culminating in a downbeat ending. So probably not a blockbuster then.

If you search for movies inspired by Lovecraft that actually got made, you will find many low to medium budget efforts, made by enthusiasts, and often situated in the realms of schlock horror. Ascending these is one of my personal favorites, John Carpenters remake of The Thing from 1982. Officially based on the novella Who Goes There (1938) by John W. Campbell and actually very faithful to it. But I like to think that Carpenter was or is also influenced by Lovecraft’s work in general (most obvious example, In The Mouth of Madness, 1995).

Also keep in mind that At the Mountains of Madness was originally written in 1931 and published in 1936, so perhaps Campbell took Lovecraft’s story into account when creating his novella. Yes, this is pure speculation of course. At the time The Thing was absolutely vilified by reviewers and basically a commercial flop, competing with E.T. The gross-out special effects were especially disliked. All mechanical and physical, using props, animatronics, models, pyrotechnics and make-up, they are still considered to be of truly exceptional quality today however. And fortunately Carpenter’s The Thing has seen a reevaluation over the past decades. I will have to admit that the strong special effects can be a turn off for some but the movie is absolutely masterful in creating atmosphere and tension, paranoia and loneliness become almost tangible, and it features a satisfyingly ambiguous finale.

By the way, did you know that The Thing is annually viewed by members of the winter crew at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station during the first evening of winter? (Wikipedia).

H.P. Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. “, The Call of the Cthulhu (1928) by H.P. Lovecraft.HPL-Smiling! Today, Lovecraft is considered to be one of the most influential writers in the realms of (weird) science-fiction and otherworldly horror. Elements of so called Lovecraftian horror can be found in numerous books, movies, computer games and more. In his days however he had to make ends meet (barely) by publishing his stories in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. Back then, Lovecraft was probably only held in high regard within his small circle of friends with whom he corresponded almost continuously. Biographer L. Sprague de Camp estimates Lovecraft wrote nearly 100.000 letters during his lifetime.weird_tales_1923 The mentioned inability to correlate all the contents of the world (or universe) was maybe something Lovecraft himself considered merciful (or wished to be true). While science tried its hardest to prove otherwise and was taking huge leaps, he remained skeptical of it’s discoveries and frightful of the new horizons. After all, besides knowledge science also did expand the “unknown”.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.“, from the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, first published in 1927.

Being an atheist, Lovecraft did however subscribe to the idea that man was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, just as science suggested, as opposed to man being special and created with a purpose. This is a recurring theme in his work, coupled with the idea that the search for knowledge inevitably will end in misfortune or disaster. With neither religion or science offering any direction or comfort Lovecraft had little else to put faith in and some call him a nihilist. Other labels are used, mainly focused on his less than politically correct opinions and world view (measured by today’s standards).

With all that said, I enjoyed his stories immensely and they played an important role when I was learning English at school. Later I discovered that modern writers and critics actually consider Lovecraft’s work a prime example of bad writing…9041977._SX540_The carefully structured and long sentences, rich in adjectives and descriptions, to me they always appeared to be some kind of sculpture or Escher lithograph made out of words. Recently I found the works of Lovecraft on Audible, marvelously narrated by Wayne June. A review will follow later, probably focusing on At the Mountains of Madness, about a doomed expedition into Antarctica. The continent was, as a symbol of the “unknown”, one of Lovecraft’s lifelong fascinations.