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Why film-makers find it tough to adapt H.P. Lovecraft

New Netflix show ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities' may have finally solved the puzzle of how to adapt ‘weird’ horror stories

A still from 'Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities'.
A still from 'Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities'. (Courtesy Netflix)

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“I was keen to confront the audience with that essential Lovecraft moment, where a lone, wholly inadequate human being is forced to face something they have no hope of dealing with, something indescribably more powerful than themselves.” Director Richard Stanley pretty much hit the nail on the head during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter two years ago. He was talking about the weird horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and how difficult it is to adapt them for the big screen.

Stanley should know all about it, since his entire career has been defined by his ouster from the movie adaptation of the science fiction classic, The Island Of Doctor Moreau. That happened back in 1996, and Stanley waited till 2019 to deliver his return to fiction, with an unhinged and extremely effective adaptation of the classic Lovecraft story, Color Out Of Space. The American’s short stories and novellas, with their cosmic dread, body horror, xenophobia, and visions of madness-inducing monsters from outer space, have been notoriously difficult to adapt for filmmakers. Stanley is one of a select few to have actually succeeded, along with the two Lovecraft adaptations in the current Netflix horror anthology Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities: Pickman’s Model and Dreams In The Witch House.

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A still from 'Color Out Of Space'
A still from 'Color Out Of Space'

Ever since Lovecraft first wrote his stories in pulp magazines back in the 1920s and 30s, his fiction has gradually grown in influence, with generations of writers—from Stephen King to N.K. Jemisin to Neil Gaiman—using or subverting ‘Lovecraftian’ tropes with great success. But though the first Lovecraftian film came as early as 1963, The Haunted Palace by Roger Corman and starring the excellent Vincent Price (based on the novella The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward), adaptations have mostly been more miss than hit.

One of the main reasons for this is that few Lovecraft stories have conventional plots. Rather, they’re meditations on mounting dread and paranoia that almost always end in the protagonist going insane. This isn’t something that readily lends itself to a movie’s traditional three-act structure. To counter this, filmmakers have often resorted to creating a plot, while also trying to stay true to a sense of the ‘eldritch’ (a word loved by Lovecraft and his successors). This ploy hardly ever lands.

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Take the B-grade cult favourite Dagon (2001) by Stuart Gordon, based on the Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth.It stays true to the creeping horror of the original, right down to its obsession with monstrous genealogies arising out of the sexual union between humans and monsters. It also delivers some effective set-pieces, but ultimately fails by being comically over the top. The same can be said of Gordon’s other Lovecraft adaptations, Castle Freak (1995), From Beyond (1986) and Re-Animator (1985). With their vivid colour palette, intense melodrama and misfiring special effects, they fail to maintain any tension for the entirety of the films’ running times.

A still from 'In The Mouth of Madness'
A still from 'In The Mouth of Madness'

In this regard, probably the best schlocky takes on “Lovecraftian” horror are the three classics that aren’t actually based on any Lovecraft stories: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon(1997), John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness (1994) and The Thing (1982). They’re all campy, but terrifying; their monsters real but essentially unknowable; and the sense that ‘reality’ is a fiction that can disintegrate any minute is brilliantly depicted. This is also true of another Lovecraftian film, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018). Although it is loosely adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s eponymous novel, it too hits that perfect Lovecraftian note of alien life as something that’s impossible for human minds to grasp.

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The one thing that runs through the otherwise wildly stylistically different films mentioned above are exceptional lead actors who help us navigate the weirdness of the stories. If your film has to have a supremely rational character who slowly goes stark raving insane, who’re you gonna call? Sam Neil of course. He’s the beating heart of both Event Horizon and at In The Mouth Of Madness. Similarly, both Annihilation and Color Out Of Space would be lesser films were it not for Natalie Portman’s grieving scientist in the former, and Nicolas Cage’s eccentric pater familias in the latter.

A Lovecraftian viewing list.
A Lovecraftian viewing list.

The two Lovecraft adaptations in Cabinet of Curiosities also profit from excellent actors: Ben Barnes and Crispin Glover in Pickman’s Model and Rupert Grint in Dreams In The Witch House. While Barnes and Glover brilliantly portray a cat and mouse game of madness by art, Grint throws himself into the role of a manic man desperate to bring his sister back from the dead. Despite the episodes being the handiworks of different directors—Keith Thomas and Catherine Hardwicke respectively—both share Del Toro’s sensibility: a love of the baroque and the decadent, a gift for atmospheric sets and lighting, and the ability to craft an unhurried narrative.

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Turns out, these are all characteristics that perfectly suit the telling of a Lovecraft tale. Del Toro is clearly a Lovecraft fan, because several of the other episodes in the show, though not written by Lovecraft, are certainly engaged in a conversation with the cult writer’s many legacies. The show references both Lovecraft’s virulent racism and his fascination with the occult in Lot 36(directed by Guillermo Navarro), based on a short story written by Del Toro himself. Meanwhile, another episode, Graveyard Rats (directed by Vincenzo Natali and based on a short story by Henry Kuttner), manages to reference several Lovecraft stories at once, including The Rats In The Walls. Other episodes, like David Prior’s The Autopsy and Panos Cosmatos’s The Viewing are distinctly brilliant riffs on Lovecraftian alien body horror.

This begs the question, is Lovecraft’s horror best suited to tightly scripted episodes in horror anthologies? After all, it is clear that not many filmmakers have the stamina to actually flesh out an entire film out of dread, paranoia and gigantic, tentacled monsters lurking just beyond the edge of sight. After all, the best Lovecraftian yarns by writers of horror and weird fiction have been short stories. Maybe the same is true for film adaptations? At least until Del Toro finally makes At The Mountains Of Madness with Tom Cruise, I’ll stick with that thought.

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