The work of H.P. Lovecraft has had a rather uneasy relationship with film adaptations. The attraction of his fiction for filmmakers is understandable: this is classic horror, and the cosmic evil on display can potentially lead to huge payoffs. Yet his prose style is very difficult, and most of the attempts at adaptation have been, at best, flawed. Stuart Gordon is the director who most consistently returns to his work, but he doesn’t really have the right touch. Re-Animator is a hell of a lot of fun, and it he…ps that the stories it is based on are Lovecraft being deliberately silly, but there is nothing very Lovecraftian about the result. The closest Gordon has come to getting it right is Dagon (which is actually his long-awaited adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”).
Most of the other Lovecraft adaptations out on DVD aren’t really worth the effort to track down. There are a few that are rewarding. I’ll mention three. Two are mainstream releases. One will take a bit more effort (but not much) to obtain, and is more than worth it.
Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (on a double-bill with Tower of London) is ostensibly based on the Poe poem of that name, but is actually Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Though the visualization of the Old Ones is limited, the misty atmosphere is delightfully gothic, and the mutated townspeople are genuinely unnerving. Vincent Price plays both warlock and his unfortunate descendent, and Debra Paget has never been more beautiful. Of special note is the majestic score.
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness is not actually based on any specific Lovecraft tale (though the title echoes At the Mountains of Madness), but it is arguably the most faithful mainstream interpretation of his work to date. Think of this as a new addition to the Mythos. Carpenter goes the whole hog as far as the evil is concerned. What the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories fear comes to pass on a global scale at the end of the film. All this and cleverly metafictional to boot.
Lovecraft’s most famous tale is “The Call of Cthulhu.” Adapting it would present a challenge, given the rather epic scope of the story. But that is exactly what a group of enthusiastic amateurs attempted with The Call of Cthulhu (available at www.cthulhulives.org), and the result is quite brilliant. The decision to make the film as a silent, as if it had actually been produced at the time the story was written, was a stroke of genius. Any limitations of the special effects (which are still impressive, given the means) are thus part of the delightful period feel of the film. This feel is meticulously recreated, and even the opening titles will send film buffs into a delighted nostalgic reverie. This is undoubtedly the most slavishly faithful of all Lovecraft films. It follows the story word for word. For the hardcore Lovecraft fans out there, this improbable triumph is absolutely not to be missed. There may yet be more expensive versions of this story made in the future. But they will be hard-pressed to be better.