Films of High Adventure: H. P. Lovecraft
By Bob Brinkman
Earlier this year we introduced the Films of High Adventure series, starting out with an article on the adapted works of Robert. E. Howard. This time out, we’re continuing the celebration of H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday with an article on all of his works that have made their way to the big (or small) screen.
The works of H. P. Lovecraft are among the most frequently adapted of any Appendix N author. To date, I’m aware of over 700 film and television offerings that either directly adapt or are heavily inspired by Lovecraft. As you can well imagine, that is a bit more than I can cover in a single column.
As an Appendix N author, the weird darkness of Lovecraft’s work is profoundly inspirational and provides solid groundwork for both adventures and campaigns. While his dreamlike imagery can be difficult to bring to the screen, that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from creating 700+ attempts. Here then, are just a sampling of the more notable ones.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
Billed as being based upon the works of Edgar Allen Poe, this movie is, in fact, based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Starring both Lon Chaney Jr. and Vincent Price (an actor capable of elevating anything he appeared in), one might think this the perfect movie. However, having been directed by Roger Corman, this gothic-style telling of Lovecraft’s story draws heavily from Corman’s Poe adaptations—which is its undoing.
Charles Dexter Ward inherits an estate from an unknown ancestor with sinister designs. From there, the yawns begin!
This movie simply doesn’t feel like a Lovecraft tale. It lacks horror, or even tension. While it is a nice-looking film, it is a flat telling of the story that leaves the viewer with a faint sense of ennui—if feeling anything at all. Utterly, and bitterly, disappointing.
Now, compare this film to…
The Resurrected (1991)
Dan O’Bannon directs this adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, starring Chis Sarandon in the dual role of Charles Dexter Ward and Joseph Curwen. On every facet upon which The Haunted Palace fell flat, this film succeeds—and even excels.
Rather than technicolor dreaminess, The Resurrected opts for a more grimy, visceral approach. This time, the wife of Charles Dexter Ward hires a PI to investigate why her husband is behaving so strangely…and just who are his strange visitors?
Told in the style of a detective story, the plot unfolds slowly, leaving the viewer on edge awaiting the next horror to be revealed. This film is among the truest adaptations of Lovecraft’s work I’ve seen (and is certainly among my very favorites). It doesn’t shy away from providing glimpses of the twisted, failed experiments of the sinister Joseph Curwen and its ending packs some real punch. Having been nominated for a few awards, this is one worth putting on your “must-see” list.
Die, Monster, Die (1965)
The Colour Out of Space has been adapted a number of times (both directly and indirectly – I’m looking at you, Annihilation. You aren’t fooling anyone!) and, sadly, very few attempts have been successful. This earliest attempt, starring Boris Karloff, is far from perfection but still surpasses a number of later efforts.
Scientist Nahum Witley, having discovered a meteorite that emits strange radiation, took it home to experiment with. When his daughter and her fiancé come to visit, things rapidly spiral out of control. Karloff lends a sense of gravitas that the original material lacks and that helps offset the wooden performance of Nick Adams as son-in-law-to-be Stephen Reinhart. Unlike Corman’s Poe-esque work, this comes off as a serious attempt to adapt Lovecraft’s story. Despite the liberties taken from the original story, it feels Lovecraftian.
Of course, this isn’t one of Lovecraft’s strongest stories to begin with, but it remains entertaining, as opposed to…
The Curse (1987)
This movie is probably best known for having its star, Wil Wheaton, openly discuss (on numerous occasions) how much he regrets being involved in this movie and how awful the experience was. As bad as his experience was, the movie is worse. It is the second adaptation of The Colour Out of Space on this list.
Despite my soft spot for The Curse, I make no pretense that it is anything other than so bad you might enjoy it. Claud Akins of BJ & the Bear and Sheriff Lobo “fame” appears as a struggling farmer. When a strange meteorite plunges to earth, a mysterious plague sweeps through his crops and livestock. To his son’s horror, it spreads through the family as well.
If only it had spread through the production crew.
This entire movie feels like something from the 70’s, a forgettable movie of the week set in the country that deals with a family spiraling into insanity and murder. Of course, in 70’s fashion, an alien lifeform spreading across the farm cannot be horror enough—oh no, we need a hard-nosed real estate agent who cares more about the TVA building a reservoir in the area than the potential for contamination to the groundwater.
Don’t drink the water. You’ll likely regret it. Thankfully, there is still hope.
Colour from the Dark (2008)
Director Ivan Zuccon serves up a dark, war-torn re-telling based on The Colour Out of Space, thus completing the trifecta (though there are other adaptations we don’t mention, and yet another hitting theaters this year).
Moving the story from rural America to a small farm in WWII Italy, Zuccon succeeds where others failed, making an adaptation of this movie that carries a profound sense of the creeps. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is ever truly frightening, so much as it wields an unsettling aura that stays with the viewer.
The phantasmic imagery of the film, set in the stark confines of World War II, makes for surprisingly complimentary horrors, both extraterrestrial and man-made. The family here is confronted, not merely by a terror from beyond the stars, but also by man’s inhumanity to man. It paints a bleak picture, but one very worth watching.
The Unnamable (1988)
Standing alone on this list, The Unnamable—based on the short story of the same name—is unlike anything else (other than its sequel) and is only the loosest of Lovecraftian adaptations. Taking the concept of Lovecraft’s story and distilling it down to a sentence or two of dialog, this film rapidly becomes “Young College Kids in Trouble.”
Yes, some students at Miskatonic University find themselves trapped in an abandoned house, pursued by a monster bent on killing them all. That is, the long, the short, and the sideways of it. Despite that, this is on my must-see list for two reasons.
First, the costume for the creature, Alyda, is simply breath-taking. Designer E Christopher Biggs went on to do Imagineering work for Walt Disney and, even at this early stage, the quality of his work shows. So, despite this being a fairly simple story, the viewer isn’t wrenched out of it by a cheap rubber mask.
Second? Mark Kinsey Stephenson. Many feel that Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West is the guilty pleasure of Lovecraft cinema. If this is true, then Mark Kinsey Stephenson as Randolph Carter is Lovecraftian cinema’s hidden gem. Stephenson’s Carter is witty, charming, and fun. He also is quite adept at pointing out the obvious that most people would like to overlook. Stephenson’s dry delivery steals every scene in which he appears. It is fair to say that, much like the late Vincent Price, Mark Kinsey Stephenson is an actor who immediately elevates any production, simply by taking part. If you must, ignore the movie and just focus on the performance.