Lovecraft, Films and TV
Despite the interpretations of Cthulhu that have rather missed the point (or understood it and gone cutesy anyway), the cultural impact of Howard Phillips Lovecraft is unmissable even if you don’t fully comprehend what you’re seeing. Computer games seem to be the chosen platform for recreating the mythos of his particular horror style, being able to properly immerse the player in the role of someone seeing their world view broken wide open, the shadows deepen and reach into their very soul. It’s effective, and may even have a more profound impact than the original literature, but there’s still so much that has yet to be explored.
It’s a long distant pipe-dream at this point, but there were plans for Guillermo Del Torro to bring the classic tale The Mountains of Madness to the screen. The project was shelved by concerns for budget and a high age rating in 2011, reignited in 2013 following the success of Pacific Rim, but it seems to have faded along with hopes for a Pacific Rim sequel. Anyone familiar with Del Torro’s body of work may already have spotted the inspiration of the early 20th century horror masters, the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, the tooth fairies from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and let’s not forget the giant monsters that came out of the sea from a distant dimension.
What is lacking is a real shot at the limelight for the real thing. Vampires, werewolves and zombies hog the screen, and while they most certainly have their place it still leaves a rather gaping hole in the horror genre, one that has previously seen only small productions and fan-made independent works. The works of the authors who formed the collected “Lovecraft Mythos” would easily form the basis of a film or television series filled with rich narrative and genuinely terrifying themes. So what exactly would such a thing involve?
The classic monsters deal with the philosophy of humanity, what separates us from animals, the line between life and death, so on and so forth. In an age of rapid scientific advancement, Lovecraft dug a deep hole in those gaps that remained in our knowledge and filled them with nightmarish visions. The furthest depths of the sea, the far reaches of the stars, unrecorded parts of history and even the unseen spectra of light, suddenly contained beasts, degraded monsters and terrible intellects that could snuff out our existence on a whim.
For example, we all know Cthulhu emerged from a sunken city somewhere in the unexplored depths of the pacific (which is still highly unexplored), and some may even be aware of the Shoggoth cities deep within the mountains of the Antarctic that feature in the Mountains of Madness. less well known are the creatures that dwell deep underground that were once the Martence family, or the fishmen of the insular and disconnected town of Innsmouth. What we don’t know is the thing that often gets us killed, it’s the reason why we fear the dark, or death itself.
A Lovecraft based film or TV series would leave viewers afraid of something, or at the very least fill them with a new sense of wonder at the mysteries that the universe still has left to offer. The Twilight Zone managed a few episodes that did exactly that, but perhaps the closest we have as a serious attempt is the X-Files. Perhaps my favourite example in modern film is Mr. Jones.
Walk around your home town or nearest city. How many painted-over doors and rusted-shut gates do you walk past? What buildings do you never notice, always seem vacant, or are perpetually enshrouded in scaffolding? The world we assume is perfectly normal is actually full of places where terrible things could be taking place without us ever knowing, like Redhook, the district occupied by a criminal element who have been secretly worshipping a squat heretical god. Or in the Thing on the Doorstep, the character Upton can never be sure who is in control of the body of his old friend Edward Derby, even in mid-conversation.
Frank Belknap Long’s work Hounds of Tindalos (a story co-opted into the Lovecraft mythos) took horrors that existed long before time and had them creep into our world through corners. Any corner! The protagonist is driven mad by their attention and plasters his room until it resembles the inside of an orb. Most horror is based upon known things, but to make us look twice at something we see every day, perhaps something we even take for granted if we think about it at all.
John Carpenter’s “The Thing” perhaps challenges the notion of what is known to us best, when one cannot fully be sure of anyone they know. That level of doubt in ones surroundings and companions is deeply unsettling and makes for great tension.
Characters in any such series would more than likely have strong personal ties to the terrors that they are investigating. Most famously in A Shadow Over Innsmouth, the main character and narrator is suggested to have hints of the infamous “Innsmouth look”, a visual commonality brought about by inbreeding and a unique heritage, but it is only as the story reaches a conclusion that he is shown to be a descendent of one of the town’s oldest families.
Our self is the one thing that we can usually depend upon, but when we begin to explore the depths of insanity, when not even your senses or memories can be trusted then you can never live comfortably again. Many of Lovecraft’s works are written by the fictional author as a form of confession or “true account” from the cells of a mental institution, or are admitted to as part of a hallucinogenic trip.
This makes it very easy to create protagonists for such a project, as the characters involved will almost automatically have some strong ties to the narrative. In shows like The Walking Dead our characters only real connection is that they have survived, but in American Horror Story the characters seem to live out cursed lives again and again, taking different approaches in similar guises.
Here above all is where the Lovecraftian school of thought really takes hold. Much of what goes into this particular form of horror is in the incredible smallness of our every action, and this is why I included the Extra Credits episode above. Using the themes described above to shatter the viewer’s perceptions, open their minds to new and terrifying possibilities and making them aware of their own mortality and existence sets the stage for those creatures that we perhaps associate first with Lovecraft.
Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlthotep, Hastur, all of these beings are cast in such a way that their incredible potency and impossible scale make us look as utterly powerless as insects in a fire. It is not their purpose to be the threat, the great destructive monster like the Kaiju of Pacific Rim, they are present to make us aware that there is nothing we can do, nothing we can prepare for that cannot be overcome. This is something horror has tried repeatedly to do by making it’s creatures and hauntings immortal by leaving the eternal cliffhanger, but none have left us feeling impossibly overcome.
My talents do not lie in script writing, and it is a strength to recognise ones weaknesses. So I leave this idea to flap uselessly in the wind in the vague hopes that some more stage-and-screen oriented writers happen upon it and leave with some thoughts provoked.
In the mean time I put to you that the stars are right for a project like this to happen. Special effects now blur the lines of reality so much that we can make the familiar unrecognisable, and the market is saturated with stubborn horror stalwarts, so all that is required is belief, funding, and someone with the guts to televise the impossible.