The Lovecraftian and Horror Movies

[Heads up! This post is a lot longer than some of my previous ones. Please let me know in the comments whether or not you like content of this length.]

Look, I’m not a Lovecraft scholar. I haven’t read each and every word he ever put down: stories, letters, diaries, etc., etc. But I have read a lot of his work, and I’ve read at the very least the stories relevant to the films I’m writing about today. Beyond that, I will say that I’ve read a fair amount of deconstruction of Lovecraft’s work, supernatural horror as a whole, and, more importantly, the concept of cosmic horror, a genre that Lovecraft didn’t necessarily create but which he undoubtedly defined. All of this is just to say that I am not trying to make any generalized claims about Lovecraft’s work. I am a fan, but not anything more. There, maybe I could have just led with that.

What I will be focusing on, and will be making many generalized claims about, are two film adaptation of Lovecraft’s work. When there are so many, how did I choose these two? Well, to be honest, they’re just the two I’ve seen most recently. Still, since I honestly don’t think I’d ever write about either of them individually, I believe that they can at least serve some purpose by exposing two takes on representing what we like to call “Lovecraftian.” The two films are Dagon (2001) and Color Out of Space (2019). Naturally, the latter is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” The former is not actually an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dagon,” but rather his short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” This makes sense only because the town in the film is not called Innsmouth, but it’s still a bit silly and confusing.

Before we further analyze how these films represent the Lovecraftian, I suppose we should do our best to define the term. If you want an academic essay on that topic alone, there are certainly hundreds of them already out there, so go ahead and take your pick. I have done that myself since my own definitions seem to fail miserably by comparison. The following comes from Vivian Ralicka’s paper “‘Cosmic Horror” and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” She writes that cosmic horror is

“That fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance–compels the expansion of the experiencing subject’s imagination.”

It’s essential to distinguish how the Lovecraftian is different from an “IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE”-Esque creature feature. The Lovecraftian is not the horrible, nor the murderous. In fact, generally speaking, it’s quite the opposite. The Lovecraftian monster is the callously indifferent, the sublimely and incomprehensibly powerful. It’s the abyss that stares back into us.

Remember when I said I wouldn’t be generalizing about Lovecraft? Whoops. I’m sure there are a million ways to nitpick the above statements. Still, I will defend the point that this core idea remains at the heart of every story of Lovecraft’s I’ve read. However, I will add the caveat that this applies only to those Lovecraft stories that have come to define his legacy. This category indeed does not encompass his entire oeuvre. 

Now that we have some common understanding of the Lovecraftian, let’s address the broader issue at the root of this question about cosmic horror on film, namely the problem of “are there realms of emotion (in this case specific to horror), which film is capable (or incapable) of evoking?” It’s a big question and probably one to preferably be kicked to the philosophers rather than some guy with a blog. Oh well, I’m already five paragraphs deep into this sucker, so I suppose I may as well kick off the exploration of our two films, starting with…

Dagon (2001)

I should just be upfront about something: this is not a good film. Judged purely by my fundamental personal standards as a critic, I would not classify Dagon as a success on just about any front within the genre, much less the world of film itself. However, that’s not to say that it can’t have touched on something special in the Lovecraftian sense.

So, as I always do when the bad is so apparent to anyone who watches the film, I will instead take the opportunity to focus on the film’s successes. And believe it or not, there are still a few good qualities to this adaptation. First and foremost is how the filmmakers captured the Lovecraftian through its production design. I’m definitely not talking about the early-2000s CGI, which Dagon makes unfortunately liberal use of, but rather the attention to detail in the set and character design. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” I believe, is one of Lovecraft’s more impactful stories in terms of a sense of place. The imagery he conjures of a run down seaside-town on the New England coast has never left me. There’s an ineffable quality about the windblown and neglected state of the structures he manages to create with his words, which set the perfect scene for this particular tale. Having been so affected by Lovecraft’s words, I feel confident saying that the filmmakers succeeded in capturing “Innsmouth’s” atmosphere (Technically Imboca’s atmosphere, since this film takes place somewhere on the coast of Spain rather than in Lovecraft’s beloved/feared New England). 

So, they did an excellent job of translating the words to the screen. But is that in and of itself a feat worthy of the term “Lovecraftian”? Not quite, but in this case, it’s an essential step towards executing a genuine representation of an incomprehensible world (as mentioned in our definition of “Lovecraftian.”)

The film eventually falters (as unfortunately so many do) in its eventual desire to represent the monstrosity of the townspeople and their god, Dagon. This is where the limits of film as a medium really begin to come to the fore. In Lovecraft’s writings, he has the luxury of having narrators who are literally incapable of describing what they see since they are, in fact, the one experiencing those “phenomena beyond comprehension.” How is one expected to the incomprehensible? To do so would be a contradiction, and therefore Lovecraft puts his reader in the shoes of his narrator: face to face with something they cannot fully reconcile, and therein lies the horror. The makers of Dagon were, however, faced with a horrible choice. They could try to imitate Lovecraft and resort to vague expository dialogue (the best example I can think of is this scene from the all-time classic Wet Hot American Summer). Or, they could play to the core strengths of film as a medium and actually put the thing in the frame. Show don’t tell, right? Well, maybe not in this case. Honestly, if there’s a correct answer between the two, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. One seems to lead down the road of sloppy screenwriting, while the other leads down the equally undesirable road of ruining the incomprehensible with its visual representation. 

Some attempt was made with concern to Dagon itself (the eldritch diety, not the film). Dagon is mostly left to the viewers’ imagination, represented only as enormous tentacles emerging from a pit. While the horror certainly isn’t “cosmic,” it is at least half of what I think qualifies since the obscuring ocean ultimately hides the form of the beast itself. 

This problem (the “need” to have a third-act monster) is thematic between these two films, so I’m going to move on to discussing Color Out of Space now.

Color Out of Space (2019)

Well folks, I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to have to repeat my disclaimer from Dagon: this is not a very good film. While I have seen some positivity for Color out of Space floating around online, I can’t say that I got much out of this film other than some top-notch Nicholas Cageisms. However, since this isn’t a film review, I won’t spend any more time talking about its virtues and flaws as a film, but rather as a cinematic execution of Lovecraftian horror techniques.

 Color Out of Space manages to get a few things right and can even be considered an admirable adaptation. Like Dagon, I think that the production design really takes the cake. Clearly, the filmmakers had a vision of the New England farmstead from the short story and were able to execute it in a way that modernized it (the film takes place in the 21st century, rather than the late 19th or early 20th of the original) without sacrificing the essential details and atmosphere. The major players are there — the house, the woods, the well — and are done so in a way that feels loyal and reminiscent of the world laid out in Lovecraft’s story. 

Unfortunately, the script and performances don’t especially compliment the product design and generally distract from and squander whatever goodwill the film managed to earn with its ambiance. Melodrama abounds, and while unrealistic situations are a core part of weird literature and cosmic horror, the horror itself must rise out of realistic reactions to those situations. In this case, the characters seem to be fighting against their own interests to the point that they seem to want to go insane, which is antithetical to creating sympathetic characters and generating a Lovecraftian story. This is not helped that by the time the film has turned into more or less a gross-out creature feature (similar to the pitfalls of Dagon), I found myself once again torn between characters who I care little for (or am even rooting against), and an ultimately very generic horror experience. This is when the age-old experience of just waiting for the film to be done kicks in, and mercifully Color gets it over with relatively quickly (had it gone over 2 hours, I would be complaining much more.)

The ultimate lesson to take away from Color (and to a lesser extent from Dagon) is the filmmakers’ apparent discomfort with the abstract and psychological nature of the Lovecraftian; and their sudden retreat to the classic creature-feature tropes (even though, to their credit, the “creature” in this case is itself relatively abstract.) It feels like a betrayal and a parody of the source material to have the film’s story lead to our protagonists’ gun-toting escape through the woods, a la any number of run-of-the-mill horror features of the past two decades. (Note: I’m not against any particular recurring theme in horror films in and of themselves, its just that it’s such an out of place experience in what purports to be a cosmic-horror feature that it deserves a certain level of scorn.)

So once again, we have a film that delivers in the aesthetic and fails miserably in the dramatic. Am I surprised to find this same theme running through both our films? Not especially. But to get into that, let’s move on to our…

Conclusion!

Ultimately, and this is perhaps not the answer you (or I) was searching for at the start of this wall of text, I do not believe that the Lovecraftian can adequately be put to film. Any attempt to capture the essence of his work seems to be self-defeating in that it either shoots itself in the foot by being overly specific — a quality that feels wholly antithetical to the heart of Lovecraft’s horror — or excessively vague. Of course, one can theorize a middle ground that expertly balances the level of subtlety, psychological depth, and genuine scares needed for its product to be genuinely Lovecraftian or “cosmic” in its brand of horror. However, what I cannot theorize are the conditions in which that film could be realistically made. Is it even possible to capture all of the above in under two and a half hours? Working through these themes in a series seems like an obvious solution, and we have HBO’s recent Lovecraft Country to look to for some of the advantages and pitfalls of that form, but perhaps that’s a blog for another time. 

I’m now also realizing the primary self-defeating aspect of cosmic horror in film is the issue of representing madness from a first-person perspective. This is the realm of madness, which is utterly intangible to any but the mad. Lovecraft and his adaptors love to populate their story with raving loonies. Still, it has been only through writing that we have so far been able to receive an inkling of their otherwise incomprehensible worldview. Lovecraft’s narrators, their experience of the inexplicable, and the inevitable breakdown of what they perceived to be the universe’s rock-solid rules are essential aspects of cosmic horror. To truly deliver that experience on film would necessitate the parallel breakdown of the laws of cinema, which could much more easily (but not necessarily) result in absolute tripe than anything resembling the intense nuance required. It’s a real catch-22, and I don’t envy the filmmaker who finds themselves at that particular crossroads.

I hope to be proven wrong. Cosmic horror is my favorite kind of horror literature (perhaps because it is, at the moment, a horror experience that seems unique to literature), and maybe one day the right director will come along to deliver that experience. I’d say that one strong (possible) contender is Robert Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, who I’m currently working on another post about (hopefully coming in the next few weeks).

Oh, and thanks for reading.

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