Two takes on Lovecraft.

Howard Philips Lovecraft had a profound influence on the horror genre. Every author of horror fiction since Lovecraft has owed him a debt, whether they have carried on his tradition or rejected it.

It is a shame, then, that film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work are almost uniformly terrible. True, Lovecraft’s stories are difficult to translate to the screen; his was a particularly literary variety of horror. Nevertheless, one might think filmmakers would at least make an attempt. Lovecraft, despite having produced most of his work during the 1920s, dealt with concepts that are still groundbreaking, yet most film adaptations of his work resort to the same horror movie clichés that glut the market.

The Dreams in the Witch House is no exception. Despite a positive review at DVD Verdict, the short film (54 minutes) repeats the missteps of far too many such adaptations. One of Lovecraft’s most successful short stories, The Dreams in the Witch House established a disturbing and alien atmosphere, despite its quaint New England setting – a Lovecraft specialty. The character of Brown Jenkin, a rat with a human face, was particularly unsettling. The story’s only flaw was the sudden introduction of a Christian crucifix at the end, the efficacy of which was inexplicable given Lovecraft’s staunch atheism.

The adaptation takes all of this and chucks it out the window. The atmosphere is typical TV movie stuff (this was originally part of the Showtime Masters of Horror series). The characters are clichés. Instead of an exploration of the role of mathematics and angles in ancient magical rituals, we get the worn-out story of an endangered baby, its mother, the new tenant, and the old guy downstairs who may know what’s going on, but nobody believes him.

The movie’s disrespect for Lovecraft is encapsulated in a single line, spoken by the new tenant himself:

Witches were astrologers. They knew science.

Lovecraft is now rolling over in his eldritch grave.

Fortunately, we have a counterpoint: The Call of Cthulhu. Almost 10 minutes shorter than the above film, it provides a fitting and respectful adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story of the same title. Maybe it was all in the style: The Call of Cthulhu is filmed in the style of a movie from Lovecraft’s own era: black & white, and silent (there is a period-appropriate musical score, but no dialog). The effect is not entirely successful – that it was shot on video is pretty obvious, and I’m pretty sure those were fluorescent lights in the background of one scene – but the accomplishment should be applauded. It is obvious that this was a labor of love by Lovecraft enthuiasts.

In The Call of Cthulhu, the narrator uncovers a strange and ominous mystery while going through his deceased uncle’s records. Throughout the world, evidence of a bizarre cult has been uncovered. Common to all is a statue of a winged, tentacled creature sitting on a throne, identified by a captured Louisianan cultist as Cthulhu, one of the Old Ones who came to earth from space before the evolution of terrestrial life. One flashback brings it all together, in which the crew of a ship explore an uncharted island covered with oddly-angled buildings, and come face to face with Cthulhu himself. It is only modern travel that has allowed all the evidence to be brought together, and modern science may be able to put it together to form a truly ominous and terrifying conclusion.

The silent style allows the filmmakers to suggest more than they explicitly show. Appropriately, this was much the same approach to fiction that Lovecraft himself took. The Call of Cthulhu exemplifies this style: although the main story takes place in the present, the action takes place in flashback through the investigator’s records. It is the importance of what was revealed during these flashbacks that produces the horror, not buckets of gore or knife fights with interdimensional witches – and the effect on the reader lasts much longer.

Lovecraft left a library of potential cinematic masterpieces. Not all of his work would work on screen, but many of his short stories and novellas beg for adaptation. It would take the right kind of director to pull it off, however, and those are in short supply. Besides, thought-provoking horror doesn’t fill theaters, and no studio exec, lusting for the next summer blockbuster, is going to take a chance on intellectual horror. Until that stops, Lovecraft fans will have to keep waiting.

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