10 Lovecraft-influenced films to watch if you're enjoying Lovecraft Country
Written by Martyn Conterio
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) penned eldritch yarns for pulp magazines. In doing so, he transformed his sleepy corner of New England into a forever haunted place, a bucolic landscape of dormant menace; a locale where unsuspecting travellers sojourned and lost their minds uncovering secret histories, pagan idols, arcane rites, bizarre folk traditions and assorted humanoid terrors lurking in the deep, dark wooded valleys where locals feared to tread.
Dead at 46 from cancer, his distinctive writing seeped into the cultural ether via other authors, then 1950s comic books. By the 1960s, filmmakers began adapting his stories and ‘Lovecraftian’ subsequently became an umbrella term for the wide range of tropes and scenarios the writer explored in his work. So encompassing is Lovecraft’s legacy, there’s hardly a horror film around today that doesn’t display Lovecraftian attributes. He’s there in everything from Alien (1979), The Evil Dead (1981), The Thing (1982) to Annihilation (2018) and the brand new HBO series, Lovecraft Country, based on Matt Ruff’s acclaimed novel.
What stoked Lovecraft’s own imagination wasn’t blood and guts, it was the emotion of fear. He aired his thoughts on horror and literature, extensively, in letters to magazines and friends, offering all sorts of theories. One of his most famous is this, from an essay titled, Supernatural Horror in Literature: ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’
While movies inspired by his tales of terror have long featured gore effects, the writer was far more interested in creating dread and existentialist levels of horror. Human characters are insignificant, our daily grind trivial to the grand scheme of diabolical things. It’s Cthulhu’s universe, we just live in it.
1. Dark Intruder (1965)
1965’s Dark Intruder was originally a made-for-TV movie. Made by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, it was subsequently unaired, NBC sold it to Universal, who repackaged it as a short feature (it clocks in at just under the hour mark) and sent it out to do the drive-in circuit.
Penned by Hollywood screenwriter Barré Lyndon and scored by Lalo Schifrin, Dark Intruder is an occult affair, in which a detective (played by Leslie Nielsen) in Edwardian-era San Francisco attempts to solve a puzzling series of homicides. The demonic possession angle lifts a little from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, as well as The Thing on the Doorstep. Early on, too, Nielsen’s dapper sleuth namechecks old gods Azathoth and Dagon, establishing Dark Intruder’s Lovecraftian credentials: ‘There are certain religions in the Hoggar region . . . the Crimson Desert . . . Azathoth . . . Dagon.’
2. City of the Living Dead (1980)
Much like Dark Intruder, Lucio Fulci’s supernatural chiller boasts only cosmetic allusions to Lovecraft, specifically The Dunwich Horror. After an opening sequence in New York, the action shifts to the small town of Dunwich, where the protagonists, a psychic and a reporter, find a portal to a malevolent realm located beneath a creepy graveyard.
Where the Italian godfather of gore really strikes a homerun is in replicating– most triumphantly–a Lovecraftian atmosphere of creeping dread and inescapable fate. Fulci and his cinematographer Sergio Salvati deserve major kudos for cinematically conjuring spine-chilling moods and scenes matching Lovecraft at his spooky best. The film is famous for featuring one of the yuckiest moments in horror history: a woman puking up her own intestines. Fulci followed up City of the Living Dead with the even more bonkers Lovecraft-inspired The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, released months apart in 1981.
3. Ghostbusters (1984)
One of the biggest hits of the 1980s, and a film with a legion of nostalgic fans, Ghostbusters’ Lovecraftian bona fides are rarely discussed, but the connection is totally justified. Kicked out of Columbia University for causing havoc and producing what their enemies see as shoddy research, four eggheads interested in exploring the boundaries of reality, reconvene as paranormal investigators and stumble into a ghoulish world where old gods from other dimensions are intent on invading our planet and creating hell on earth. It doesn’t get any more Lovecraftian than this, folks.
Played for laughs and providing plenty of iconic moments, Ivan Reitman’s cosmic horror comedy feels indebted to old H.P., even if there’s no single direct line or concrete nod. It’s a prime example of the writer’s influence on the sci-fi horror genre, which showcases Ghostbusters as thoroughly Lovecraftian.
4. The Resurrected (1991)
For a novella unpublished during his lifetime, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has proven a major text for a generation of filmmakers. Dan O’ Bannon’s faithful rendering gives the material an early 1990s update, switches the novella’s protagonist from a medical professional to a gumshoe, but the central spine of the story remains true to source.
Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon) is acting weird. Ever since he inherited a house and became suddenly infatuated with his distant ancestor, said to be a necromancer, his wife has grown concerned. Told in flashback, The Resurrected is a well-mounted mystery solidly directed by O’Bannon, while Sarandon is excellent in a dual role. His portrayal of the sinister dark magician, Joseph Curwen, is executed with theatrical aplomb and hammy relish. O’Bannon had less luck with 1997’s Bleeders, a low-budget effort based on Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear, and which sadly was the last screenplay O’Bannon wrote which made it to the screen.
5. Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
Directed by Martin Campbell, best known as the man who rebooted James Bond twice (Goldeneye, Casino Royale), this HBO potboiler unfolds in an alternate 1940s Los Angeles, where everybody uses magic and monsters are real. Zombies, for instance, undertake manual labour gigs, building middle-class homes for the expanding city (a reference to the servitude of workers in Haitian Voodoo legend).
A cracking cast featuring Fred Ward, a pre-stardom Julianne Moore as the femme fatale, genre stalwarts David Warner and Clancy Brown, Cast a Deadly Spell is an engaging blast of pulpy goodness with amusing period pastiche dialogue, a sultry Emmy-winning music number that gives Jessica Rabbit a run for her bunny, and a lively plot involving the search for the fabled Necronomicon (the book of esoterica invented by Lovecraft). Cast a Deadly Spell’s mix of noir tropes and cosmic terror undoubtedly served as the chief inspiration for Joss Whedon’s Buffy spin-off, Angel.
6. Lurking Fear (1994)
To be frank, C. Courtney Joyner’s Lurking Fear, made for indie producer Charles Band, is only ever a hair’s breadth from being absolute crud. But given its super-lean running time, 71 minutes, interesting cast of B-movie actors (Jeffrey Combs as a chain-smoking doctor, Ashley Laurence in kickass Sarah Connor mode, Vincent Schiavelli as a plot device, Jon Finch as the human Big Bad) and a script which pre-empts Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn by a couple of years, Lurking Fear has just about enough going for it as a low rent creature feature, to be included in this list.
A hunk of sentient beef (played soap-opera plywood by Blake Adams) discovers his deceased old man left him a map to buried treasure, located in an old cemetery, in Lefferts Corner, a ghost town whose few remaining residents are terrorised by ungodly critters. The map was stolen from a Cockney mobster, played by Macbeth and Frenzy star Finch, ultimately leading to a collision of genres à la From Dusk Till Dawn.
7. Dagon (2001)
Stuart Gordon made his name turning Lovecraft stories into neon-coloured, gooey transgressive nightmares. Re-Animator and From Beyond, especially, are classics of the genre, beloved by fans to this day. His final effort translating the author’s work, Dagon, is primarily a take on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, though it lifts certain aspects and its title from an earlier short story, published in 1919.
Made in Spain, where the blood spills mainly on the plain, the film’s claustrophobic, rain-soaked coastal atmosphere is its key attribute, while the sight of Spanish actor, Paco Rabal (in his final role), being flailed alive, is a delicious moment in the special effects department. Dagon is an enjoyable bloody romp, successfully relocating the story’s action to Europe and infusing the narrative with a subversive erotic frisson, making it a kind of nightmare take on The Little Mermaid as much as a Lovecraft flick.
8. The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Screenwriters in general have had a tough time adapting Lovecraft stories because his prose style doesn’t easily translate to film. It’s uniquely literary. The Call of Cthulhu, arguably the most famous tale of all, has long been described as unfilmable. Director Andrew Leman, however, proved otherwise.
Distributed by the HP Lovecraft Society and made by amateur filmmakers in the style of a silent movie from the 1920s, this 2005 effort is a wee marvel of invention and made with so much reverence for the writer’s brand of strange. It might even count as the most successful adaptation of Lovecraftian material yet, as it maintains so much of the mystery, the unknown and sense of awe pivotal to any story by Providence’s most famous son.
9. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Panos Cosmatos’ masterful trance film is a cult gem. With its stoned pacing, lava lamp visuals and electronic score offering a dreamy marriage between 1980s pop cinema and experimental arthouse fare, in Beyond the Black Rainbow a mad scientist experimenting with spiritual transcendence, returns from a trip to another dimension completely out of his gourd. Years later, this same scientist, Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), is running the Arboria Institute, ostensibly appearing to be a health clinic, only beneath the facility is a dungeon-style space full of weird creatures and a young girl (Eva Allan) with telekinetic powers being held captive.
Cosmatos took the quintessential Lovecraftian scientist figure and planted him in a weird fairy-tale. Nyle is quiet and softly spoken, his initial experiments seemingly altruistic, but the journey to realms unknown transformed him into a maniac, and he disguises his physical transformation with a wig and contact lenses.
10. Underwater (2020)
Kristen Stewart’s role as an engineer fighting for survival, in Underwater, offers a glimpse of what a next gen Ellen Ripley might be. In William Eubank’s sci-fi thriller, a submerged oil rig facility goes kaboom, leaving the few survivors in a race-against-time situation. As well as this fraught ordeal, they’re being pursued by humanoid monsters awakened by humans drilling for oil in their aquatic kingdom.
Taut throughout, it makes excellent use of tight frames and crumbling sets forcing characters into claustrophobic spaces and pressurised situations. It’s a compellingly told, yet strangely melancholic picture, with Stewart’s lead on a journey of self-discovery while battling off mutants and a gigantic beast heavily informed in design by Cthulhu and Dagon.