One of the more disappointing moments in 2011 came when I learned that Guillermo del Toro would not be making At the Mountains of Madness. This was doubly disappointing because I had only recently discovered the brilliant terribleness that was H.P. Lovecraft. But I begin to wonder if it is really such a bad thing that we won’t be gifted with Tom Cruise in this adaptation of epic terror?
Lovecraft is probably the best bad writer I have ever read. The sheer number of adjectives and adverbs that populate his prose can be quite daunting. Nothing ever ‘moves’ in Lovecraft; it drips, it oozes, it seeps, it traverses. No one goes mad; everyone is ‘pushed beyond the endurance of the human psyche’. And there are any number of nameless terrors, unspeakable stenches, horrific things from beyond the cosmos, and unmentionable horrors of the cyclopean deep. Right, if you’ve read him, you know what I’m talking about.
So, why are there so few mainstream films using Lovecraft as a basis? Lovecraft is insanely popular among a certain set. He’s as widely read as Poe, and his cult following could fill the sunken city of R’lyeh. He’s tailor-made for the CGI generation: his monsters are all massive nasties from beyond the cosmos. The great barrier to producing a spiritually faithful film of Lovecraft’s work is that the proof is, as it were, in the pudding. H.P. was a rather verbose, linguistically driven writer, and not much of a plotter. Stripped of the purple prose, the stories are pretty much the same: Edgar Allan Poe rip-offs with a lot more dripping and oozing. Lovecraft’s power is that he makes something that is inherently campy, even stupid, not only enjoyable, but quite frightening. It’s a talent that he had. But it is a talent that lies, for the most part, in language, not in visual images.
The only moment I did not like in Hellboy was when del Toro went and transformed Rasputin into a … squid. Whatsit. Squid-whatsits are not scary. And neither, for that matter, are any of Lovecraft’s monsters. Cthulhu, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods … all very frightening in conception, all very silly in actuality. Alien squids with wings. It’s no wonder that there are so many ‘unspeakable’ and ‘indescribable’ things in his work; because as soon as the monster gets revealed, it turns out to be a big blob, or a octopi. His most effective stories are the ones that wait until the very end to reveal the monster, or that never really reveal the monster at all. So much of his work is based in dreams and half-remembered images; images that are indescribable and impossible to picture in this world. That’s awfully tough to do onscreen.
How exactly does a filmmaker touch on the spirit of Lovecraft ? I did not believe that it could be done, not with any kind of faithfulness. There are a number of Lovecraftian themed/adapted movies: Reanimator, The Dunwich Horror, Die Monster Die, Dagon, The Haunted Palace, The Crimson Cult. I’m certain there are more, but I am young in the ways of this genre. Most of these however are more Lovecraft influenced than actual adaptations of the stories they’re based on. All of them are what are usually called B-grade pictures. And they’re all camp.
One notable exception is the more recent The Call of Cthulhu, and the reason why I felt the desire to write this article now. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest roadblock to making a really good (and not just totally campy) adaptation of ol’H.P.’s work is making it scary and tense without revealing the nasty creature too soon. The makers of The Call of Cthulhu hit just the right note. They adapted the story with a remarkable faithfulness and made it into a silent film in the style of Murnau or, perhaps a better comparison, Tod Browning. If spoken with the level of earnestness that the stories demand, Lovecraft’s dialogue would be ridiculous. But written on intertitles with organ accompaniment, they work. What’s more, backdating the story to the 1920s, when Lovecraft was actually writing, seemed to fulfill its purpose far more than a modern talkie. After all, these are the kinds of films that Lovecraft would have watched in the first place. But what impressed me most was actually the eventual reveal of the monster, that seemingly unpronounceable master of chaos, Cthulhu. Rather than going the CGI route, the filmmakers opted for puppetry and stop-motion animation a la King Kong. They held back on the reveal, building the suspense as the sailors flee from the emerging monster on a canted, Expressionist set. While there’s not much terror to be had from an obvious puppet, the build-up of suspense – brief glimpses of tentacles, shadows on the walls, multiple close-ups of horrified men – wonderfully recalled the old scary movies of the 1920s and, by extension, the intelligence of Lovecraft’s prose.
Unless mainstream Hollywood can pull off something like that, I’ve actually arrived at the opinion that perhaps we really should leave Lovecraft in the realm of the cult and the B-pictures. Hollywood has a tendency right now to throw a lot of CGI at films like that, and I actually think that a little circumspection in this case would be better. I’m not certain I want to see the blob that shows up at the end of At the Mountains of Madness; not because it’s not there in the book, but because on-screen I fear that it would look … ridiculous. Not scary. The nice thing about old B-pictures is the lack of funding, and therefore the need for a little imagination to be used. If you can’t show the monster, like Val Lewton in Cat People, it’s sometimes actually scarier. Maybe we should actually take a cue from Lovecraft. There are some things that are simply unimaginable.