With the exception of Edgar Allen Poe, few authors have cast longer shadows over the history of the horrific than that of H.P. Lovecraft. Although his tentacles run deep beneath much of the horror that we know and love today, attempts to bring him to the big screen often fail to capture the potential of his writing.
While many believe that Lovecraft’s Eldritch horrors are simply too nebulous to work on film, some directors still step up to the plate to try and deliver the goods, either as straight adaptations or by borrowing his more famous motifs.
These attempts have had decidedly mixed results, but here is a selection of notable examples which run the gamut from “masterpiece” to “noble effort” and right through to “miserable dreck”.
1. The Call of Cthulhu
An indie flick which compensates for its lack of budget with enthusiasm and inventiveness, The Call of Cthulhu presents an adaptation of Lovecraft’s most famous short story in the style of the era in which it was written.
As a modern movie, an adaptation of Call of Cthulhu could be very difficult to pull off, dealing with an indescribable monster living in a city of “non-euclidean geometry”. Shoot that film in the style of a silent 1920s epic, however, and you might come up with something very special indeed.
Borrowing the style of German expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari to achieve the twisted angles of Cthulhu’s sunken home, and from Ray Harryhausen’s classic stop-motion creations to realise the elder god himself, Call of Cthulhu is as much a tribute to the history of cinema as it is to the short story.
The HP Lovecraft Historical Society put together another Lovecraft-inspired movie of note; The Whisperer in Darkness, a story that they chose to Adapt in the style of a 1950s B-movie thriller.
As Edgar Allen Poe is to Roger Corman and Vincent Price, H.P. Lovecraft is to Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs.
This is probably their finest work. Based on the Lovecraft Story: Herbert West: Re-Animator, the film is a plethora of cheesy acting, fantastic plastic effects and hilarious dialogue:
“No-one will let you take credit for my work, who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a JOB in a sideshow.”
Amidst the laughs, it’s easy to lose sight of how well a lot of the effects stand up. Stuart Gordon’s evident love for the grotesque should endear him to any fan of 80’s horror, and Re-animator sees him at his most inventive.
As a fun-filled gore fest, Re-animator can stand toe to toe with Braindead, The Story of Ricky and Evil Dead. Also worth a look is the sequel: Bride of Re-animator which, among many other noteworthy achievements, features a dog with human arms.
Considered by many to be Stuart Gordon’s most successful Lovecraft adaptation, the mis-named Dagon (actually an adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth) represents Stuart Gordon at his technical best.
Although updated to a modern setting and moved to Spain, the waterlogged fishing village in Dagon still drips with Lovecraftian menace. Gordon has succumbed somewhat to the temptation to use CG in place of the brilliant plastic effects of his earlier work. Thankfully this is still pretty minimal, and his commitment to interesting production design, creative deaths and the blackest of black humour remains intact.
Dagon is an accomplished piece of work. It’s well worth a watch, if lacking somewhat in terms of both laughs and scares.
4. From Beyond
In another Stuart Gordon venture, a mad scientist has built a machine which allows humans to see into other dimensions. Unfortunately, once the field is activated, the human subject can be seen as well as see…
The film has some failings as an adaptation, although these can in part be explained by the fact that From Beyond is one of Lovecraft’s shortest stories. The film struggles at times to find enough content to flesh out its running time, and there are certainly a few sequences that should have been left on the cutting room floor.
At its best, From Beyond delivers the same great, grotty effects work and sense of fun and adventure as Re-animator. On the other hand, it lacks discipline in terms of structure and pacing, which means that unlike Re-animator, it drags in places.
There aren’t many authors you could give a directing project to and have them so spectacularly knock it straight out of the park on the first swing. With Hellraiser, Clive Barker produced one of the most enjoyable and accomplished horror films of all time and, in Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, a horror icon to rival Lugosi and Karloff.
Hellraiser doesn’t pretend to be an adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s stories, but the influence that he had is written all over it. A seeker after arcane knowledge has travelled to the middle East to retrieve an artefact that supposedly opens a gateway to another world. He disappears only to re-emerge when his family accidentally re-awaken something in his old house, but he may not have returned alone…
Hellraiser touches on Lovecraftian themes throughout its plot, but more importantly it manages to capture some of the mood and feel of one of Lovecraft’s best stories. In truly Lovecraftian style, the villains of the piece are not evil as such but simply beyond human comprehension. Demons to some, as Pinhead tells us, and angels to others.
6. Hellraiser 2
A successful sequel, the only sin that Hellraiser 2 can really be accused of is not being Hellraiser. The Cenobites, the puzzle box and two of the characters from the original return. This time we even get to travel to the surreal and terrifying dimension of the Cenobites, lorded over by the dark god Leviathan.
There are certainly hints of the Lovecraftian in the depictions of hell (achieved by some striking, if dated, matte painting effects) and the introduction of Leviathan, the cold indifferent god of the underworld, is certainly something of which Howard would have approved.
The setting of a brutal and cruel mental institution also chimes with much of his work, and the film has one particular resurrection sequence involving a mattress, a mental patient and razor blade which might even have had the man himself reaching for the smelling salts.
However, the film suffers from a slight case of sequelitis; the belief that bigger is better and that the ante must be upped from the first film. This results in a final sequence that feels more like a video game than a Hellraiser movie.
7. The Thing
When it comes to filmmakers who let the mythos bleeds into their work, Stuart Gordon is by no means the only name worth noting down. Horror giant John Carpenter’s love for the stories is well known, and rarely more evident than in arguably his greatest work: The Thing.
In The Thing the crew of an outpost in the arctic discover the abandoned camp of a rival Norwegian team with a horrifying, monstrous corpse kept in an icy pen. Soon they are beset by a shape shifting alien vulnerable only to fire.
The film is an adaptation of the 1938 John Campbell novella Who Goes There, but it owes a huge amount to H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness as well. Although the film features no Alien city, the premise is ripe with Eldritch horror and the creature may well be the definition of “unknowable”, shifting from form to form at will, consuming the living and threatening the sanity of all who encounter it.
The effects are simply fantastic. This film will always be the backbone of any argument in favour of puppetry and physical effects over computer wizardry. In spite of the visual fireworks, it never loses track of the human story and is at its best as a portrait of a group experiencing a descent into paranoia and insanity in a terrifyingly enclosed space.
8. In The Mouth of Madness
In another Carpenter classic, Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator hired by a publishing house to look for author Sutter Kane, a reclusive runaway who owes them a book. Sutter Kane writes cosmic horror which has been known to “affect” his readers in peculiar ways. His new book In The Mouth of Madness is reputed to be something very special indeed…
Littered with Lovecraft references but with enough substance to it to elevate it above a mere pastiche, In The Mouth of Madness is John Carpenter’s H.P. Lovecraft love letter.
Carpenter referred to The Thing, In The Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness as the “Apocalypse Trilogy”. All three films deal with themes of cosmic horror and the implied destruction of our small planet in an indifferent universe.
Prince of Darkness, a film about a team of investigators performing tests on a mysterious substance in an abandoned church, does not get its own spot on this list, as its links to Lovecraft are somewhat more tenuous. However it is still worth a look, if only for Donald Pleasance’s performance and the fact that Alice Cooper kills someone by stabbing them with a bicycle.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is a masterpiece and there aren’t two ways about it. We won’t provide a synopsis as it seems redundant if you have seen it and you should be as unprepared as possible for the terror about to unfold if you haven’t.
What’s particularly notable about the film is H.R. Giger‘s art design. Himself a big fan of HPL, he has produced several books inspired by the fictional Necronomicon. Truly he is one of very few artists capable of bringing Lovecraft’s vision to life.
The stories hint at strange, alien artwork with no link to any existing form of human expression, and if you had to try and sum up Giger’s artwork in a sentence, it would probably be just that. The monolithic, uncannily biological structures that form the alien ship and the gruesome yet strangely graceful movements of the alien itself all capture the disgusting yet alluring power of Lovecraft’s writing.
Much like The Thing, Alien owes a great deal to At The Mountains of Madness and, also like The Thing, it deftly captures the terrors of isolation, claustrophobia and paranoia amongst a small group of people faced with cosmic dread.
10. The Resurrected
Alien writer Dan O’Bannon directed his own low budget Lovecraft adaptation in the 90s. The Resurrected is a fairly faithful adaptation of One of Lovecraft’s longer stories, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, with a modernised setting and a private investigator protagonist to drive the plot forward.
The budget is minimal and dangerous levels of 90s make this a difficult film to get into at first, but it develops well and commits to retaining all of the major plot points of the original story.
If hammy performances are likely to deter you from enjoying a film then this offering may not be for you, but if you can see past the cheese what you end up with here is a well-paced, moody and atmospheric piece of work. A respectable adaptation which perhaps bites off a bit more than it can chew, with a few tense sequences along the way.
11. Die Monster Die!
How do you adapt a story in which a meteorite falls to earth and infects everything with a new, previously unknown colour? Not very well, apparently.
A radioactive meteorite is being experimented on by a scientist, who fails to do much more than mutate his family and servants, and drive them insane.
This film is best remembered simply because it was one of Boris Karloff’s last acting roles before his death. Andrew Migliore and John Strysik memorably called it a “textbook example of the walking-around-endlessly-in-a-big-house school of filmmaking”.
It’s a difficult recommendation for all but the most die-hard Karloff completists.
12. Event Horizon
An awesome piece of cosmic horror and proof, if proof were needed, that NO crew of futuristic space marines is complete without Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee.
Sam Neill (of In The Mouth of Madness) is the irritating whiny scientist heading up a group of space marines as they travel to the experimental spacecraft Event Horizon which disappeared for several years after a failed experiment into faster than light travel.
Aesthetically Event Horizon owes a lot to Alien, but it brings some individual touches to the look of the Event Horizon as well. At its best, the corridors of the ship have a grimly foreboding “meat-grinder” feel that promises nothing good for the hapless would-be rescuers.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from harsh cuts (as much as 30 minutes of graphic content) that had to be made in order to achieve a lower certification. This means that, although the film has plenty of promise, it lacks the teeth and the guts to follow through on the audience’s expectations of violence.
13. City of The Living Dead
Praised by horror aficionados for combining the grotty nastiness of American grind-house pictures with the visual sensibilities of Italian Giallo cinema, Lucio Fulci is certainly a director of note.
Clearly a Lovecraft fan, Fulci peppers his more occult-oriented work with references to Lovecraft’s worlds. For example, the setting of Dunwich.
The plot of City of The Living Dead concerns a priest who, by hanging himself, opens a portal to hell which sees the dead rising from the grave and imbues his re-animated corpse with the ability to kill with only a stare (and how! all over the upholstery!) also, unlike Romero zombies, these can teleport.
Although a stalwart of horror cinema, Fulci’s work can be hard to swallow for some. The dreamy, surreal atmospheres he attempts to create are often rife with internal inconsistencies, illogical characters and deliberately strange physical effects. For some, this all adds to the sense of waking nightmare. For others it can be frustrating and off-putting.
14. The Beyond
Another Fulci creation, The Beyond is often considered the director’s finest work. All of those alienating aspects of his work are still there; inconsistent settings, characters and monsters, surreal plastic effects (with what look like wooden dummies used as stand-ins for the dead) and a fairly convoluted plot. However, if you allow yourself to be swept along with the insanity of the whole experience, this bizarre and brutal film will begin to grow on you.
A young woman inherits a hotel only to discover that it was built over one of seven portals to hell, which opened when a lynch mob murdered a painter in the cellar (in a particularly gory opening scene). All is not quiet in the building, as her renovation work opens the portal afresh, allowing the dead to cross over into the land of the living.
Even if the plot leaves you cold, there’s some stellar nastiness on display here, and fans of the eye gouge and headshot will not be disappointed. Once again, Fulci doffs his hat in the direction of Lovecraft, including as a plot point The Book of Eibon, an occult work mentioned in several of Lovecraft’s stories.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fulci’s work, this is definitely the film to start off with. It combines style, gore and genuinely frightening set-pieces in a heady cocktail that most American offerings were unable to replicate at the time.
15. The Dunwich Horror
It’s time to be date specific. This is very much the Dunwich Horror of 1970 and NOT the 90s remake, unless you have strange aeons to kill and really nothing better to do than watch both.
A librarian working at a library which happens to house a copy of the Necronomicon (a bad place to be) is kidnapped by a man named Wilbur Whately who keeps her drugged for use in an occult ritual, in a house with an unspeakable monstrosity in the attic.
What to say of this? It’s not great, yet nor is it stomach-churningly awful. Performances are so-so and it has all the requisite allusions to hippie counterculture that you expect from an early seventies film, but frankly you’d be hard-pressed to find anything particularly note-worthy about this film. Solidly unremarkable.
16. The Crimson Altar
Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele AND Boris Karloff? We’re in.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t all that much to like about this one besides the all-star cast. It’s a mess, but a fairly enjoyable one. Occasional creative touches and trippy camera work keep the audience interested but there’s an awful lot of running about and not a great deal of getting anywhere.
Overall your enjoyment of this film will largely depend on how much you feel the presence of horror greats makes up for failings of plot and pacing.
17. The Borderlands
One of our favourite found footage movies here at Vampire Squid towers, The Borderlands had a twist that none of us saw coming and that left us chilled to the bone.
An unlikely trio is sent to a remote English village by the Catholic Church to document and investigate claims of a miracle in the local parish church.
A slow burn at first, but as the team inch towards the realisation that something far older and more malevolent is at play, the tension builds to boiling point. Making excellent use of its minimal budget and with a set of highly convincing performances, The Borderlands was a breath of fresh air when it debuted in 2013.
18. The Void
A more recent offering, The Void premiered in 2016 and impressed audiences with its stripped-back plot, practical effects, and unrepentant love for all that was 80s and covered in fake blood.
In an Assault on Precinct 13-style setup, a group of hapless victims are besieged in a hospital by knife-wielding cultists. Then the hospital itself starts filling up with gooey ick-monsters who want to eat their fleshy bits, and it swiftly becomes clear that this is an end of the world situation.
A tribute to John Carpenter, Lucio Fulci and George Romero, The Void was derivative in all the best ways possible, delivering an enjoyable 80s-infused tale of gory cosmic horror. Enthusiasm for its subject matter is it’s greatest strength but also a leads to a bit of a failing. So keen is it to get to the gore that it more or less throws out the atmosphere creation and character development scenes that are necessary to make its audience care. Still, it’s a good effort and definitely deserving of your time.
19. The Unnamable
Pretty much the nadir of all that is a total waste of time and money, The Unnamable is a Lovecraft adaptation in name only. We’re not really sure why it’s on this list.