by CHRIS MORGAN
In a culture that ascribes to authors no small amount of neuroses, however true or untrue they may be, H.P. Lovecraft is its banner example. He was a man of many dysfunctions; he was a sexually repressed homebody (for the most part anyway), possessed with an intelligence and virulent racism, both of which rivaled Thomas Jefferson, and all of which permeated his work whether by implication or fact. It was his phobia of doctors that was his ultimate undoing.
Lovecraft lived to the age of 46, having died from a neglected — and thus very excruciating — case of intestinal cancer. He did not live long enough to make any real money off of his writing, he did not live long enough to see it bashed by Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker, and he certainly did not live long enough to see it steadily, if not subtly, seep into the voice and style of modern horror and science fiction until it became a stamp of artistic quality, if not a general rule, for both genres.
H.P. Lovecraft is a writer who is at once nowhere and everywhere. His gaze, at all times unassuming, awkward and painfully Anglo-Saxon, is unrecognizable to most and unknowable to all. Yet by contrast few have been able to avoid his influence. His break from the gothic tradition of Poe, Bierce and M.R. James, into something far more terrifying and imaginative, like a greyscale proto-psychedelia, has given this personally anti-modern writer a very modern appeal. For a while it was limited to books, starting with younger acolytes like Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch, continuing through to Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti and others. Even Borges saw fit to rip him off at least once.
Those confines were broken soon enough into other media with a legion of filmmakers easily entranced by his borderline misanthropic fiction, brimming with monsters terrorizing earth simply because they could. Films like The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness, The Evil Dead, Alien, Prometheus, It, The Mist, and The Cabin in the Woods have visualized Lovecraft most successfully, but they have done so in pieces. For all the possible willingness to take on the whole, it is not easy.
Lovecraft was himself a fan of the cinema and saw movies when he could, yet his writings were about as uncinematic as writing can get, rivaling even the inadaptability of the work of postmodern icons like Ballard and Burroughs. His stories are dense blocks of arcane British English with hardly any dialogue. The philosophical and thematic foundations were brutally amoral and anti-humanist. His protagonists are virtually identical to one another: sexless white male academics, essentially prototypes of Fox Mulder. His antagonists, on the other hand, are famously distinct, but too distinct, almost hallucinogenic in appearance.
At the Mountains of Madness (the plot of which bears a striking enough resemblance to Prometheus that Guillermo Del Toro essentially gave up on his own adaptation) talks of a race of “barrel-shaped” Elder Things that lived on earth well before mankind. The citizens of the titular town in “The Shadow Over Insmouth” show varying degrees of ancestry to an amphibian-like race. The color in “The Colour Out of Space,” Lovecraft’s favorite story (and indeed his best), could not even be described specifically. It is no wonder that Cthulhu, with its batwings and octopus-shaped head, is the most accessible Lovecraft creation.
Direct adaptations of Lovecraft stories, that is, those that bear Lovecraft’s name in the credits of the film, have a consistent track record for failure, both as adaptation and as art. The Haunted Palace, a 1963 Roger Corman-directed Vincent Price vehicle was one of the earliest. Based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it took second-billing to an Edgar Allan Poe poem which provided the film’s title and nothing else. Corman followed up with a similarly budget adaptation of The Dunwich Horror, setting a pattern of Lovecraft’s “psychic biographies” (as Joyce Carol Oates described his work) into mediocre schlock. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would seem an exception to this rule, perhaps because “Herbert West—Reanimator,” a modestly humorous story of a mad scientist raising the dead, is the least Lovecraftian of all Lovecraft stories. And the less spoken about Beyond the Wall of Sleep the better the world shall be.
Lovecraft’s unusual imagination and the challenging style in which he rendered it make the idea of a casual fan, let alone wide commercial viability, all but impossible. Adapting Lovecraft is not so much a worthy commercial venture as it is an act of tribute, made or broken by the terms set by Lovecraft himself. In a way it is an extension of the kind of cults one sees surrounding most genre authors, the kind that produces roleplaying groups and fan fiction (Lovecraftian fan fiction, in fact, is notable for its participation from major horror authors.) This, at least, is the kind of energy that drives ventures like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), which produces films exclusively based on Lovecraft’s work.
The people at HPLHS know their way around Lovecraft’s oeuvre and are always finding ways to apply that knowledge. Their roots go back to the 1980s when they were a group of live-action roleplayers; now they are running a business which produces all manner of Lovecraftian merchandise from Miskatonic University t-shirts to Lovecraft-inspired “solstice carols” to Mercury Theater-style radio dramatizations of Lovecraft stories. The Call of Cthulhu was their first full-length film, released in 2005. Its source material was Lovecraft’s most famous but most complicated work, with a web-like structure of diaries, newspaper clippings, and other found accounts from all over the world, often retold secondhand by a single protagonist after finding some weird stuff among his dead great-uncle’s papers.
Taken apart there are hints of compelling, if shallow, conventional movies — based on the mad cultists in the middle of the New Orleans swamps, for instance, or on the sailors marooned on Rl’yeh. HPLHS’s Andrew Leman and Sean Branney (Leman as director and both as writers and producers), however, managed to condense most of the story into a 47-minute silent, black and white film, mimicking the state of the art in 1926, the year the story was written. It was as inventive as it was quirky, solving both their budgetary limitations as well as Lovecraft’s narrative limitations. It played at Slamdance and at the Seattle International Film Festival. The Stranger called it “an absolutely gorgeous telling.”
Six years after Cthulhu’s release, HPLHS followed up with The Whisperer in Darkness, pursuing the same retro concept but with the added ambition of sound and a longer running time. At the time of its source material’s publication in 1931, Universal had released Dracula and Frankenstein, from which Leman and Branney took as inspiration in authenticating their vintage talkie, despite those two films representing the gothic horror establishment just as “The Whisperer in Darkness” broke away from it.
“The Whisperer in Darkness” is one of Lovecraft’s last stories. By that time in his career Lovecraft had come into his own stylistically, his self-proclaimed “weird fiction” having evolved into what is now more chillingly called “cosmic horror.” The story was inspired in part by the discovery of Pluto (referred to as Yuggoth) in 1930, the plot (as usual) concerns a stiff Miskatonic professor, Albert Wilmarth, who gets in way over his head in a small Vermont town, the caves of which are populated by an alien race called the Mi-Go, “pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would ordinarily be.” Unlike other Lovecraft creations, the Mi-Go seem to have peaceful intentions towards humanity, offering long life and space travel once their brains are transplanted from their bodies and into a special cylinder. Though as the story progresses their sincerity becomes more questionable.
Lovecraft’s plot, as in the first film, is retained almost entirely, but not without some tampering needed to suit the medium. In this case Branney (now serving as director) and Leman had to add those elements of story that Lovecraft habitually avoided, such as dialogue, action, multidimensional characters and a climactic ending. Whole characters and scenes were required to accentuate rather than obscure the story, creating action around the otherwise vacuum-like interactions, mostly in letters, between Wilmarth and a Vermont farmer (Barry Lynch). Some additions were more radical than others, such as giving Wilmarth a wife and family (and ergo, a sex life), adding in an adolescent female character to give Wilmarth previously unheard of levels of emotional depth, and a climax in which Wimarth does battle with the Mi-Go on a small aircraft. Such additions would have been seen as useless by Lovecraft, who neither had a mass audience nor sought one out, but his core concepts have been butchered far worse than in this film.
As a film itself The Whisperer in Darkness is at least admirable. On the one hand this is the kind of film in which production design goes unnoticed the least. The film is not a period piece, but a piece made to look as if it came out during a certain period. Extra pains are taken to reduce the instances of anachronism, and budget limitations deny them certain technological and logistical luxuries. The “making-of” segment of the DVD extras reveals, for instance, the effort to film a few minutes of train travel using a vintage train that runs through New England, but on its own schedule and as it served tourists. Meticulous lighting and costuming, too, cannot be taken so easily for granted. It helps, though, to have a crew of consummate Hollywood professionals working on this out of sheer enthusiasm. Regrettably the filmmakers relied on CGI in creating the Mi-Go rather than the stop motion animation that was used in The Call of Cthulhu, though considering Lovecraft’s design of the Mi-Go is vastly more bewildering than Cthulhu this is excusable at least in part.
On the other hand one can find certain discrepancies in the actual performances, at least in tone if not in ability. Foyer and Lynch are commendable leads playing the straight, earnest and overly articulate characters as envisioned in the original text. Others performers are tasked with simply trying to recreate the acting styles of the times, with the heavy inflections a la James Cagney, which sometimes has a hammier, campier effect than might have been intended. Daniel Kaemon’s turn as P.F. Noyes, a human antagonist to Wilmarth, for instance, lays on a thick New England accent and a shifty glare and speech pattern that barely conceal the intentions he is trying to conceal. At one point Noyes admits to Wilmarth of a “frustrating brush with amateur dramatics in my youth,” much to my amusement, and possibly the writers’.
The Whisperer in Darkness is, overall, a curious film, just as curious as The Call of Cthulhu was. But it is all the more curious for me as to why they chose to adapt “The Whisperer in Darkness” to begin with. It is a good story, one indicative of the new territory Lovecraft was exploring before he died, but because of that the material does not seem entirely suitable. “The Whisperer in Darkness” was a little too ahead of its time for filmmakers of the Universal period, let alone the Depression-era audiences they made movies for. One could imagine Lugosi, Karloff or Tod Browning being at least a little more receptive to the idea of adapting “The Rats in the Walls,” a mid-period story that’s every bit as unsettling as Lovecraft’s best but still tethered to his gothic influences. It even takes place in an old mansion. Perhaps, though, Leman and Branney are saving it for a Hammer horror-style adaptation which would be just as effective.
Regardless of what I say, however, The Whisperer in Darkness comes with a built-in audience of Lovecraft fans, retrophiles and a good helping of people who are likely to be both. They will love this film for it is itself a labor of love; a tribute to what the filmmakers feel is the best Lovecraft has to offer. It is a love on par with the love fans feel for J.R.R. Tolkien, but one that is stifled by the author’s aggressively fatalistic and amoral vision. We are far from assured of, say, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath getting the sweeping Peter Jackson-style treatment it deserves, even requires. It is a fine film dedicated to Lovecraft, but not the most Lovecraftian one by any means.
For all their picking and choosing of Lovecraft’s themes for their own purposes, I can’t help but think that The Thing, Alien, etc. are at least closer to the spirit of his work. These are the most terrifying, most visually challenged films in horror and science fiction. They defy easy answers and are indifferent to the audience’s ability to comprehend any of the questions posed. “I admire its purity,” says Ian Holm’s Ash of the titular antagonist in Alien, “A survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Though it’s not as florid as Lovecraft would have put it, it is his flag of conquest placed deep into the shores of horror, leaving no question as to who governs the territory now.