9 HP Lovecraft movies you need to watch

James Oliver

To celebrate the upcoming release of Colour out of Space, we take a look at some of the best HP Lovecraft-inspired films ever made 

A new Nicolas Cage film is always welcome, especially when he plays someone going utterly bonkers. So obviously you'll want to book tickets for The Colour out of Space, out soon.

But Cage-going-bonkers isn't the only reason to watch the film. Directed by cult auteur Richard Stanley (his first feature for 27 years!), it's adapted from a short story by HP Lovecraft and promises to give full-throated expression to an author who isn't always well represented by cinema.

It is Lovecraft that is our subject today, or at least those films that attempt to translate his uncanny visions on screen. A troubled man (both parents had serious psychiatric problems), Lovecraft published stories in pulp magazines that envisaged the world as a plaything for malign extraterrestrial gods, cramming his tales with words like “eldritch” and “ichor”. (His Thesaurus was well-thumbed.)


HP Lovecraft. Image via wiki commons 

He wasn't always appreciated in his own lifetime but since his death (of cancer, rather than gibbering madness occasioned by seeing an eldritch monster oozing ichor), a huge cult following has emerged, and the movies have followed.

Obviously the best place to start is with his thoroughly unnerving books but if you're too timid for those, why not try these movies first?

The Haunted Palace

HP Lovecraft (the initials stand for Howard Phillips) might have been a name in the field of pulp literature but his tales were too damn strange for Hollywood during his lifetime. Incredibly, the first movie adaptation of one of his books didn't happen until 26 years after his passing in 1937. And even then his involvement was downplayed.

It's taken from a novella called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, about an 18th-century warlock (Vincent Price) whose spirit possesses the body of his unfortunate descendant (Price again) to continue his unholy work. It was marketed as another Edgar Allen Poe adaption—director Roger Corman was having great success with The Pit and the Pendulum and Masque of the Red Death – but it's obviously a very different beast, darker and less tractable: they might have removed his name but the spirit of Lovecraft was no so easily exorcised.

Die Monster Die

No, that wasn't Lovecraft's original title: he called his story of a meteor that falls from the heavens and brings madness in its wake The Colour Out of Space—and yes, he did use the proper spelling of “colour”: HP was a New England man, from Providence, Rhode Island, and had no truck with modern American orthography.

Anyway, Die Monster Die takes The Colour Out of Space and tries to turn it into something a straightforward science fiction film without much success. It's most notable, in fact, for being Boris Karloff's last American horror movie: the king of old-skool horror meeting the writer who established a new style of terror... there's symbolism there, somewhere.

Curse of the Crimson Altar

Funnily enough, Karloff shows up again here, playing a sinister antiquarian in this (uncredited) adaptation of HP's The Dreams in the Witch House, which relocates the action from New England to Old and throws in Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele for good measure.

It was adapted by Mervyn Haisman and his writing partner Henry Lincoln; the latter went on to write Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which in turn inspired The Da Vinci Code, but don't hold that against Curse of the Crimson Altar; it's a fun little movie, even if it is rather more camp than anything Lovecraft might have penned: the most alarming thing here is a flabby man in tight black speedos—and antlers.

Read more: Everything you need to know about psychedelic cinema 

Re-Animator

There's no director who's done so much for HP as Stuart Gordon. He's made a string of (usually) low budget flicks derived from Lovecraft's work, including From Beyond, Dagon and Castle Freak (from The Outsider). Re-Animator, though, is the most celebrated.

It's taken from one of the writer's more conventional efforts (and yes, “conventional” here is a relative concept), concerning a young man called Herbert West. While his fellow students at Miskatonic University want to part-ay, West has other distractions: he wants to raise the dead. It would not be much of a horror movie if he did not succeed. And this is one hell of a horror movie.

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Interlude

There's a Lovecraft adaptation that isn't on this list for a boring—but sadly quite important—reason: it was never made. Guillermo Del Toro (you'll remember he won a bunch of Oscars for The Shape of Water) desperately wanted to make a movie of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and he even had Tom Cruise lined up to star. But no studio wanted to put up the bread since a faithful adaptation, such as Del Toro planned, would cost in excess of $150 million and would probably be widely banned, so horrifying would it be.


Guillermo del Toro. Image via wiki commons

As we've already seen, HP doesn't easily lend himself to movies and good adaptions of his work (such as The Colour Out of Space) are rare. In fact, odd as it might seem, if you want the true spirit of Lovecraft, you should look at films that at first sight don't seem to have anything to do with him...

The Evil Dead

It's odd to bracket HP and The Evil Dead together. He wrote tales of stressed atmosphere and suggested ghastly things we could barely imagine while Sam Raimi's film—the ultimate experience in gruelling terror, remember—throws everything at the audience and hopes that some of it sticks.

But Raimi's caffeinated rollercoaster is actually seriously indebted to our favourite spooksmith. For a start, it borrows elements from his yarn The Lurking Terror, specifically those sections set in a remote woodland cabin. More importantly, it features one of Lovecraft's most famous creations, a repository of forbidden knowledge called The Necronomicon. In The Evil Dead, the foolish protagonists read from this dreadful tome and in doing so summon all sorts of horrible creatures. It's the sort of thing that Lovecraft might have dreamed up if he'd drunk too many espressos.

Event Horizon

At the same time Lovecraft was writing horror for the pulp magazines, there were other publications that specialised in science fiction; Event Horizon is what might have happened if HP had been asked to write a story for one of them.

It's set in space. The Event Horizon was a spaceship that vanished mysteriously (never a good sign) and which has now—seven years later—reappeared. A crew are sent to find out why and rather wish they hadn't, since they discover that the craft has been to a parallel dimension and brought back with it some of the horrible things it found there. Sometimes described as “a haunted house movie in space”, Event Horizon can't truthfully be called a great film but contains some memorable moments, most of which owe a clear debt to you-know-who.

City of the Living Dead

Dunwich is a remote but lovely spot, a tiny village on the Suffolk Coast with a shingle beach, a fish and chip shop and—quite crucial, this—absolutely no demonic entities.

It's unlikely that HP ever holidayed there (it isn't much of a holiday destination, to be honest: there's not a lot to do if you don't like chips) but he borrowed the name to use as a fictional New England town for The Dunwich Horror, about some local residents who keep something appalling in their barn.

City of the Living Dead is also set in the unfortunate Dunwich; after recovering from the events related by Lovecraft, its poor citizens discover they're sitting atop one of the gates of hell and it's just been pushed open, prompting splatter and madness galore. Not the sort of thing you'd ever get in our Dunwich.

In The Mouth of Madness

With a title that nods to At the Mountains of Madness, the inspiration would be clear even before you settle down to it. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator recruited by a publisher to locate a best-selling author called Sutter Cane who has vanished, and taken the manuscript for his next (hotly anticipated) novel with him. Only... well, most writers hope their work will change the world but Cane's book actually can—and not for the better.

Director John Carpenter had nodded to Lovecraft previously—the horrible distortions in The Thing reminded many of HP's work—but In The Mouth of Madness is an all-out homage, from the New England setting to the cosmic apocalypse and collapse of sanity. It's an underrated movie, possibly because it's far too disturbing for mainstream tastes. Rather like the man who inspired it, then.

 

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