Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1947) was an early twentieth century horror writer with a dark and unique vision. In his stories humanity was usually treated at best like a pawn in the cosmic game and a dust speck at worst, with a race of elder gods called The Old Ones threatening to return and possess the earth once again. Try to imagine repo men who are several stories tall with lots of tentacles and working on a cosmic scale. Much of his work was published in Weird Tales and other fiction magazines of the period, but his readership was limited during his relatively short lifetime. Posthumous reprints of Lovecraft's fiction eventually garnered him a larger audience, but his work has been notoriously difficult to capture on film. That hasn't stopped filmmakers from trying, though.
When Fangoria magazine first printed a feature article about Re-animator prior to the film's release, they described it as a "moist zombie film." With all the blood and internal organs flying around, to say nothing of that pan full of blood in which Herbert West was keeping Dr. Hill's severed head alive, I find it hard to argue with the accuracy of the statement. This was the first of several Lovecraft adaptations from director Stuart Gordon, and probably his best. Everybody's got a roommate from hell story, but you'd be hard pressed to top Dan Cain's (Bruce Abbott) after he lets Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) move in with him. Both are med students at Miskatonic University, an institution that pops up many times in Lovecraft's work. West has just returned from Austria where he was working on a process of reanimating the dead. West and Miskatonic's Dr. Hill (David Gale) take an immediate dislike to one another, resulting in the good Doctor quite literally losing his head. The scenes of a reanimated Hill toting around his own severed noggin are not always convincing, but they're hard to forget. The film strays pretty far from the source material in both the details and the use of humor (if Lovecraft himself had a sense of humor, I don't recall ever seeing it on display in his fiction), but this remains one of the greatest horror films of all time.
From Beyond (1986)
For his second feature Stuart Gordon returned to Lovecraft country and brought along some of the cast of Re-Animator, including Jeffrey Combs and the lovely Barbara Crampton. Joining the fun this time is Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree. Dr. Edward Pretorious (Ted Sorel) and Crawford Tillinghast (Combs) have built a machine that stimulates the pineal gland and makes visible a smorgasbord of slimy creatures that float around us all the time. Unfortunately once you can see these critters they can see you as well. Pretorius is apparently killed by the beasties but eventually reborn as one of the extra-dimensional critters. The Lovecraft story that served as the basis for From Beyond is a fairly brief one. The early part of the film is a more or less faithful adaptation, but after Pretorius's apparent death the story becomes all Gordon's, and the film is much in the same spirit as Re-Animator. As luck would have it, this film has just arrived on DVD for the very first time, and I highly recommend it.
The Call of Cthulhu (2006)
I had the pleasure of reviewing this one for Cinematical's Killer B's on DVD. Not only is it the most faithful feature length interpretation of a Lovecraft story, but it's a fascinating exercise in retro film making techniques. Director Andrew Leman proceeded from the premise that his film was made in 1926, the same year the short story "The Call of Cthulhu" first saw print, so it's shot in black and white without sound and uses silent movie era inter-titles to convey dialogue. In the film, an unnamed protagonist follows up on his late uncle's research and learns of an ancient god known as Cthulhu, a monstrous winged and tentacled creature that slumbers in the undersea city of R'lyeh and will one day awaken and reclaim the Earth. Cthulhu is represented by stop-motion animation, and R'lyeh is a nightmarish vision of strange architecture and impossible angles. The film was a bold experiment but it works, and fans of Lovecraft should check it out.
The Dunwich Horror (1970)
I was seven years old when this movie came out, far too young for my folks to even consider letting me see it (and yeah, it probably would have freaked me out), but I have a vivid memory of seeing the poster outside our town theater. That poster, which depicts a woman recoiling in horror from a demonic face from whose scalp spring several hellish serpents, really stuck with me. Dean Stockwell stars as Wilbur Whateley an odd, intense young man who wishes to borrow the dreaded book The Necronomicon (an ancient tome of magic and evil) from the library at Miskatonic University, and while he's at it, the pretty young librarian named Nancy (Sandra Dee) is perfect for a human sacrifice he's planning. Wilbur is looking to bring back one of the old gods, a being known as Yog Sothoth, in order to deal with some family issues. It seems his biological father wasn't quite human. At times the film seems to liken Wilbur's actions with satanism, though Lovecraft's horror never drew from judeo-christian theology. The Dunwich Horror is available on DVD as part of a double bill with our next feature...
Die, Monster, Die (1965)
The one and only Boris Karloff stars in this film based on Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space." Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams who also did two Japanese giant monster flicks for Toho that same year) arrives at the remote Witley estate in England to rendezvous with his fiancée Susan (Suzan Farmer). Susan's father Nahum (Karloff) is experimenting with a radioactive meteor which is causing mutations in plants animals and people. Aside from the meteor, a scene in which Stephen passes a large crater on the way to the Witley estate, and the fact that the story takes place in Arkham (a fictitious town that Lovecraft used often) little remains of the original tale. Adams seems particularly stiff in the role, coming off as more of a parody of the square-jawed hero he is attempting to play. Not a masterpiece, but still a pleasant enough way for a horror buff to pass ninety minutes, and that scene where Stephen and Susan discover Nahum's mutated menagerie is downright Lovecraftian.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
Based on the novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, this adaptation from Roger Corman is much in the style of the Edgar Allen Poe films he was doing around this time. As with the Corman flicks The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and House of Usher, slavish devotion to the details of the original story was far from a priority, but also like the Poe films, The Haunted Palace is a fun little period creep-fest. The film opens with a warlock named Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price) being burned alive by some angry villagers, but not before he places a curse on them and their little New England town. Years later Curwen's descendant Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in town to claim the family estate left to him, but the townspeople don't want him there, thinking that Curwen's curse is responsible for all the mutations in town. Ward soon finds himself possessed by Curwen's spirit, and the descendants of those who did Curwen wrong begin dropping like flies. The revenge angle makes the movie a bit formulaic, but you get the usual Corman thrills and Price chews the scenery with utter glee.
The Resurrected (1992)
The Resurrected and The Haunted Palace would probably make an interesting double feature. Both are based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but with very different approaches. Of the two, The Resurrected is more loyal to Lovecraft's story, but director Dan O'Bannon (primarily a screenwriter whose only other directing credit is The Return of the Living Dead) adds his own elements like using the style of a filmnoir detective story. Gumshoe John March (John Terry who plays the recurring yet dead character Dr. Christian Shephard on ABC's Lost) is hired by Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett) to spy on her husband Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon). Ward has not been himself lately and has been spending most of his time in a family cabin conducting some odd experiments and receiving mysterious shipments of human remains. There are wizards, monsters, and some bizarre rites for reviving the dead. The film is pretty low key, which makes for a nice contrast when the scares kick in. All in all, it's an enjoyable little bit of B-movie fun.