Cosmic Horror

HP Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos in Film

cosmic horror/re-animator

The Nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” –The Call of Cthulhu, Howard Philips Lovecraft (1928)

Cosmic horror is a subgenre of classic horror. It often contains a good mix of classic horror and science fiction, but what makes it unique is how it emphasizes the fear of the unknown. Here our heroes, to the extent they can be called that, are lined up against the “unspeakable” and “indescribable” in stories where humanity is irrelevant and insignificant in a cosmic context. We face cruel creatures and insoluble mysteries far more significant than ourselves in these tales of ego, hubris, madness, and existential hopelessness. Here the best we can hope for is survival with our minds intact.

You may have watched movies or read books in this genre. You may also be familiar with the American writer Howard Philips Lovecraft, whom we’re about to meet. Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms “Cthulhu Mythos” or “Lovecraftian”? Do names like Azathoth, Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog Sothoth, and Shub Niggurath sound strangely familiar?

For how do you describe the “indescribable” and “unspeakable”? Filmmakers have found inspiration in this genre, even though it is difficult to film. Director Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, starring Nicolas Cage, is just the first in his trilogy based on the short stories of Howard Philip’s Lovecraft. Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro has long wanted to film Lovecraft’s science fiction classic At the Mountains of Madness– and Stuart Gordon made several horror films based on Lovecraft’s stories.

But first, let’s meet the man who started it all.

Lovecraft – A Man and His Demons

American author Howard Phillps Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890. Controversial and eccentric, he is perhaps best known for establishing the cosmic horror sub-genre.

Lovecraft had a difficult childhood. After losing his father at a young age, he became subject to what can only be described as emotional child abuse by his conservative and strictly religious mother. This led to several mental disorders, such as severe depression, agoraphobia, anxiety, paranoia, violent nightmares, and a fear of everything new and unknown. As a result of these phobias and the conservative attitudes he learned in his upbringing, Lovecraft also developed what one might call enthusiastic racism, even compared to the standards of his time. It also influenced the short stories he wrote and the thousands of letters he sent to friends and colleagues.

Despite alleged fear of sex and a lack of respect for women, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene in 1924, and the couple soon moved to New York. Lovecraft was deeply discouraged in the multicultural city, and the problematic marriage lasted only two years. In a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1925, he describes the city’s melting pot of cultures as follows:

“I certainly hope to see promiscuous immigration permanently curtailed soon. Heaven knows enough harm has already been done by the admission of limitless hordes of the ignorant, superstitious, and biologically inferior scum of Southern Europe and Western Asia.”

-Howard Philips Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s racist attitudes softened somewhat as he got older. He began to travel more and came into contact with other American writers, such as Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, and Donald Wandrei, with whom he also shared ideas and stories. The stories he wrote at the end of his life, such as The Whisperer in Darkness, hinted at a growing tolerance of minorities and other cultures. Lovecraft never got rich from his work as a writer, mainly because of poor self-esteem, self-criticism, and an opinion that real gentlemen should not charge for artistic creation.

In 1936, Lovecraft suffered several health problems, but his fear of doctors prevented him from receiving treatment in time. In 1937, Lovecraft died of small intestine cancer. He was 46 years old.

H.P. Lovecraft, 1934

The Adaptations – Cosmic Horror in Film

Despite the controversies surrounding the author, his stories, and perhaps even the genre he established, Lovecraft has become especially popular in the years after his death. Several well-known authors, such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Ramsey Campbell, mention Lovecraft’s literature among its most significant sources of inspiration. Lovecraft’s mythology, or “Cthulhu Mythos,” constantly creeps into movies, series, computer games, and other media.

There have been many film adaptations based on Lovecraft’s stories and works, from blood-dripping horror to character-driven dramas and even comedies (if you have a somewhat twisted sense of humor, that is). Filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, Jordan Peele, John Carpenter, Richard Stanley, and Stuart Gordon are often inspired by Lovecraft. Cosmic horror plays an essential role in films such as AlienIT, The Thing2001: A Space Odyssey, Hellboy, War of the Worlds, Annihilation, Bird Box, Underwater, Event Horizon; series True Detective and of course Lovecraft Country.

Here is a selection of film adaptations directly inspired by Lovecraft’s short stories and stories.

Color Out of Space (2019)

“It was just a color out of space. A messenger from realms whose existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the gulfs that it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”

-Ward (Elliot Knight), Color Out of Space

The eccentric director Richard Stanley gives us the first film in his planned trilogy of movies based on Lovecraft’s short stories. The cast includes Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, and Julian Hilliard.

Color Out of Space is the story of the Gardener family, who have recently moved out into the countryside and started alpaca farming. Theresa has recently undergone surgery for breast cancer, which presents challenges to her husband, Nathan. The dysfunctional family relationship also affects their three children, who try to deal with the obstacles in their ways.

The Gardener family’s everyday life is turned upside down when what appears to be a meteor land in the garden, leading to a series of mysterious events. Strange plants and insects spread on the property, and an inexplicable light shines at night. Soon the events begin to affect the Gardener family, both physically and mentally.

Color Out of Space is one of my favorites among Lovecraft’s short stories, and I was pleased to see how close Richard Stanley stayed to the action, despite being moved to the present. The movie works- and Nicolas Cage, as usual, delivers his familiar madness on screen. It is often horrifying and grotesque, and it gives me hope that Stanley’s next film in the trilogy, which will be based on the Lovecraft story The Dunwich Horror, will be good. Color Out of Space is recommended for those who like good, grotesque, surreal, and colorful horror!

Nicolas Cage and Brendan Meyer in The Color Out of Space.

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)

“Shall I tell you? Are you ready? Come closer. Let me whisper it to you.”

-Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), The Whisperer in Darkness

The Whisperer in Darkness is a low-budget indie film from 2011 directed by Sean Branney. Produced by Lovecraft fan club The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the movie was shot in a visual style that resembles films from the 1930s and 1940s. It all feels very authentic Lovecraft, and although the budget is minimal, the result is excellent.

The film, which is based on the Lovecraft short story of the same name, begins after a torrential downpour that has caused rivers to pass over their shores in New England. Large, crayfish-like creatures with wings are found washed up on the riverbanks, and Professor Albert M. Wilmarth of Miskatonic University begins investigating the case. It all leads Wilmarth to a remote valley where humans are in league with the alien creatures known as the Mi-Go.

Although Whisperer in Darkness is an indie film, the low budget is never a hindrance when setting the Lovecraftian feel. The action follows Lovecraft’s short story rather closely. However, an extra act has been added at the end of the film to round off the movie in a better way than the original short story, which ends (as so many of Lovecraft’s works) with the protagonist running screaming into the night.

Matt Foyer as Albert Wilmarth in The Whisperer in Darkness.

Cthulhu (2007)

“I don’t know what they were. There were things, and they were on the ground, they were on the ceiling… everywhere!”

-Russel Marsh (Jason Cottle), Cthulhu

Dan Gildark directed this film based on Lovecraft’s short story Shadow Over Innsmouth. Cthulhu was made on a relatively low budget and quickly forgotten by both audiences and critics after it came out in 2007.

The film follows the young history professor Russ, played by Jason Cottle, who returns to the small seaside town he grew up in to be present at his mother’s funeral. Russ is gay and faces opposition from his family and the conservative coastal community. But gradually, he notices that there is more to the strange behavior of the town’s inhabitants.

Cthulhu is a peculiar film. It’s often slow-moving despite being based on one of Lovecraft’s best and most action-packed short stories. And despite bizarre sects, monsters from the sea, and strange rituals, there is relatively little action and special effects to be seen in the film. But what Cthulhu delivers on is the mood, and the film is at times quite eerie.

The horror beneath the waves!

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

The Call of Cthulhu is an indie film produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. It is shot in the style of 1920s silent films, making it unique among the Lovecraft adaptations on this list.

Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s best-known short story, the film revolves around an investigation of the mysterious Cthulhu cult. As more mysteries are unraveled, such as a policeman’s pursuit of a sect in the southern states of the United States and a Norwegian sailor’s tale of encounters with monsters at sea, a clearer picture emerges.

The Call of Cthulhu is a unique and exciting film. It was shown at several film festivals in 2006 and has received excellent reviews, especially for its visual style. However, the film is an acquired taste and might appeal more to those primarily interested in Lovecraft’s stories or the film style of the era. 

The rituals in the swamp!

Dagon (2001)

“No one leaves Imboca. People come, but no one leave.”

-Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal), Dagon

First, let me clarify some confusion about names, especially for those who have read Lovecraft. Like Cthulhu from 2007, Dagon was inspired by Lovecraft’s short story: Shadow Over Innsmouth, which Lovecraft wrote in 1936, a year before he died. But Dagon is another Lovecraft short story about a shipwrecked sailor meeting a deity of the deeps. And Cthulhu refers to Call of Cthulhu,  Lovecraft’s best-known work. Confusing? Yes, quite so.

Dagon follows Lovecraft’s short story Shadow Over Innsmouth somewhat loosely. It is, however, a very different film from Cthulhu, as I mentioned earlier, and has everything we can expect from a Stuart Gordon horror. This Spanish-produced film moves its story from New England to the fictional town of Imboca while changing up some of the names of the characters. 

Four friends are sailing off the coast of Spain when their boat capsized in a storm. Two of them make their way into the coastal town nearby to get help, but things don’t go as expected when it turns out that grotesque fishmen and other monsters inhabit the city.

In true Stuart Gordon style, Dagon is full of blood, gore, and violence. It follows Lovecraft’s story, although the mood is entirely different from that of Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Ezra Godden as Paul Marsh in Dagon.

From Beyond (1986)

“Humans are such easy prey.”

-Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel), From Beyond

I almost hesitate to write about From Beyond. As a fan of Lovecraft’s short stories, I’m glad that Stuart Gordon at least chose to keep the correct title. Whether this is a cult classic can be discussed. It received good reviews when it came out but was probably too much for the audience, which showed at the box office sales. And it is understandable, as it is so disgusting and grotesque at times that it is difficult to watch.

The film follows the same genal idea as in Lovecraft’s short story. But as this is a Stuart Gordon film, the mystery is quickly thrown out to make room for the exaggerated and grotesque. The result is a science fiction horror film that goes out of its way to shock and disturb.

We meet the scientist Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), assistant to Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel). The two have invented a machine that emits signals that stimulate an organ in the brain to reinforce the senses. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan, and after slimy eel-like monsters emerge from the open air, carnage ensues.

Compared to other horror movies from the 80s, From Beyond has some excellent special effects. However, the story is quickly overshadowed by Stuart Gordon’s love for the grotesque, violent, and perverted.

Ted Sorel as Dr. Edward Pretorius in From Beyond.

Re-Animator (1985)

“You’ll never get credit for my discovery. Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!”

-Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), Re-Animator

Stuart Gordon’s film, Re-Animator, is considered a cult classic and is one of the great horror comedies of the 80s. The film is based on Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Reanimator and was the author’s only published attempt to mix horror with humor (Lovecraft was generally not seen as an intentionally funny man). The film was well-received by both audiences and reviewers and has won several awards.

Meet Herbert West, an arrogant and ambitious medical student who has invented a serum that can bring dead bodies to life. The short story is a kind of “Lovecraftian Frankenstein,” with grave robberies and experiments. But this being a Stuart Gordon film, things quickly go off the rails.

Re-Animator is, in true Stuart Gordon fashion, bloody, gory, and perverted. Unlike From Beyond, it does this with rather cunning humor and a clear and precise twinkle in its eye. Jeffrey Combs is great as the eccentric and downright insane Herbert West, which only helps to make this movie unforgettable.

But, as with other Stuart Gordon films, this isn’t for everyone. The film contains several disturbing scenes, including one involving oral sex and a severed head!

Jeffery Combs as Herbert West in Re-Animator.

Lovecraft’s Popularity

Lovecraft has rarely been more popular than he is now, and I sometimes wonder how he would have experienced this if he had lived in our time. Would this eccentric and controversial author continue to soften his attitudes if he had lived into his old age? A lot of people think so, but I’m not so sure. I admit that I find it difficult to look beyond the author’s toxic worldview with which he filled his short stories and letters, especially at the start of his career.

So why is he so popular now? It is perhaps more correct to say that it is the cosmic horror genre, not the man, that is popular. But with interest in cosmic horror in movies, books, games, and other media, there is also interest in Lovecraft himself. It might be easy to put his attitudes on the time he lived, but that is only partly the case. Lovecraft was racist, anti-Semite, and xenophobic, even compared to the standards of the 1920s and 1930s. He received negative attention for this while he was alive, and even Lovecraft’s good friend, the American writer Robert E. Howard of Texas, and the man behind literary figures such as the Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, asked Lovecraft to tone it down a little.

Okay, so how about we forget the man and embrace his art? It has been over 80 years since his death, after all. It might be a little too easy to ignore HP Lovecraft’s worldview. At the very least, we should keep it in mind if we choose to read his short stories and the letters he wrote. And those who want to adapt Lovecraft’s stories, whether for film, books, games or other media, can do it just as they please, especially since his stories have long since ceased to be protected by copyright.

Regardless of Lovecraft’s attitudes, the world and mythology he created have become part of our popular culture. His most famous monster, the demigod “Cthulhu,” can be found everywhere. Fans play Cthulhu Monopoly, buy Cthulhu plushies and attend Lovecraft conventions. Lovecraft and Cthulhu even appear in animated films for kids, like Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom and South Park.

Great Cthulhu wreaks havoc in South Park.

And filmmakers have begun to understand the cosmic horror genre. We’ve been watching Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, one of the better Lovecraft film adaptations to date. Jordan Peele and Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country had its action set in the 1950s USA under Jim Crow laws, directly criticizing Lovecraft’s racism. And I think many of us are crossing our fingers that Guillermo del Toro is finally being filmed At the Mountains of Madness.

But it remains to be seen whether we gradually forget his man and his opinions while we continue to embrace the mythology he created. Can we? Should we?

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