When it was recently announced that Guillermo Del Toro’s long held ambition to adapt HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness to the big screen had been not only green lit, but has the backing of James Cameron and names like Tom Cruise and James McAvoy associated with the project, Lovecraft fans didn’t know whether to fall off their chairs with excitement – or sneer.
After all, Providence’s beloved dreamy-eyed son hasn’t had much luck with film adaptations of his work – even suffering the indignity of being ditched altogether from the title of Roger Corman’s somewhat, uh, Cormanesque attempt to bring HPL to the big screen in 1963…
Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward became “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace” (the latter being felt a more likely box office draw) and a precedent was set for retaining only the most superficial elements of Lovecraft’s work while neglecting what makes him so compelling as a writer in the first place. Throwing out the shoggoth with the protoplasmic pool, so to speak.
Although the author himself was already 15 years dead by the time that first attempt was released, it’s difficult not to squirm and shudder in sympathy at some of the truly execrable results subsequently offered by second rate schlock directors looking to trade on the Lovecraft name for a quick buck. Even when the results have been more reverential (e.g. 1970’s The Dunwich Horror), a combination of tiny budgets and an emphasis on exploitation rather than atmosphere often makes the viewer wonder why they bothered in the first place. Lovecraft scholar S T Joshi – a widely recognised academic authority on all things HPL and rumoured consultant on Del Toro’s film – agrees that these early adaptations leave something to be desired, citing “financial limitations and a general sense that horror films could never be other than schlock entertainment” as the two major contributing factors. He acknowledges that there have been noble efforts. “Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator films are entertaining in a campy, self-parodic way, but even his more ‘serious’ venture, Dagon, has its deficiencies. I think the real reason is that no director of a genuinely visionary calibre, with plenty of financing behind him or her, has really tackled Lovecraft. There is the standard contention (and I’ve made it frequently myself) that Lovecraft’s effects, engendered purely through a kind of incantatory use of language, are impossible to translate into the screen, and there may be something to that; but a skilled director could produce a kind of Lovecraftian atmosphere with deft use of film imagery.”
One of the very few film makers to have won critical acclaim for tackling Lovecraft is the team behind 2003’s silent movie treatment of The Call of Cthulhu. Although a labour of love shot on a shoestring by a team of volunteers, the lateral thinking involved in adapting one of the major stories of Lovecraft’s canon as it would have been done in the 1920s when it was written proved to be an inspired one. With the emphasis placed on pure story and atmosphere, rather than mind-blowing special effects, the film has earned a relatively unique position as an HPL film held in genuine esteem and affection by HPL fans. The same team are behind the forthcoming “talkie” version of Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness. Producer Sean Branney describes this project as being shot “in the style of the early 30s – the time of the great Universal horror flicks like Frankenstein and Dracula.” S T Joshi adds, “the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s adaptation of The Whisperer in Darkness will – if the 6-minute preview [I’ve seen] is any guide – be a wondrously faithful and evocative film”.
Interestingly, perhaps, when asked what other successful Lovecraftian adaptations are out there, both Joshi and Branney cited films that are Lovecraftian in spirit rather than direct adaptations. Joshi says, “Peter Weir’s The Last Wave may come closest to being a successful adaptation – and of course it is not in any sense an explicit adaptation, although I can’t imagine that Weir didn’t have ‘The Shadow out of Time’ in mind when he was making that film”. According to Branney, “the best ones are in keeping with a Lovecraftian tone, but they are both dramatic and cinematic. I think John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the best Lovecraftian films of all time.” For my money, I’d have to add to that list another truly dramatic and cinematic work, featuring a cruel, utterly inhuman extra terrestrial intelligence whose motivations are terrifyingly indifferent to our petty notions of ethics and morality, and wind-blasted eldritch planets incubating ancient evils ever ready to be resurrected into sanity-shattering life – Ridley Scott’s original Alien. Although Lovecraft’s influence is a secondary one via Swiss master H R Giger’s art and monster design, it still seems a very clear one, sinister hieroglyphs and existential dread included.
S T Joshi is understandably reluctant to be drawn on any detail of his involvement in Del Toro’s project at this early stage, although he was happy to offer a few general thoughts on how an adaptation of this – one of Lovecraft’s most widely-read stories – might be made to work. “Making At the Mountains of Madness into a film presents immense challenges. You certainly can’t have the protagonist just looking at bas-reliefs in the Antarctic, however convincing your set design may be! I also wonder if it is even possible – or desirable – to have any kind of flashback scene depicting the aliens (Old Ones) going about their business. Such a depiction could easily look absurd and comical. But I think these obstacles could be overcome. Film necessarily relies on action rather than mood or atmosphere, but if a sufficiently weird atmosphere has been laid out at the start, then the action can be accepted by viewers no matter how outlandish it may seem.”
A while ago, when the project was little more than a vague rumour, I’d asked Sean Branney what advice he would have, based on his experience making “The Call of Cthulhu”, if some big studio took it into its head to throw a King Kong sized budget at a Lovecraft story. He thought that, “King Kong was a good example of what NOT to do. They threw all the CGI stuff they had and lots of “exciting” sequences, but the story was really hollow and not particularly interesting…My advice would be that you can’t make up for good story telling with eye-candy. You have to really tell a story for it to be compelling to an audience.” In this respect, Del Toro seems a perfect fit for the job. He’s proven both his big budget action and low-key storytelling chops over and over again in an incredibly impressive CV. Lovecraft has already had a significant influence on his work, perhaps most noticeably in the Hellboy series, where the threats of gargantuan inter-dimensional alien entities returning to dominate Earth are clearly cut from the same slimy cloth as Cthulhu. At The Mountains of Madness’s Elder Things even put in a brief appearance in the second film. With Pan’s Labyrinth, also, there are clear nods to the Welsh writer and mystic Arthur Machen, one of Lovecraft’s literary heroes and biggest influences.
If the movie version of At The Mountains of Madness is successful, it’s difficult not to see it as something of a culmination of a decades long struggle to rehabilitate Lovecraft’s reputation. My English teacher’s assertion that I would do better to read a “proper” writer than Lovecraft has been sounding increasingly hollow since the publication of French intellectual bad-boy Michel Houellebecq’s critical appreciation “Lovecraft: Against Man, Against Nature”, since At The Mountains of Madness was published in an edition by the Library of America and since S T Joshi’s expertly edited and exhaustively annotated Penguin Classics editions have been lining the shelves of Waterstones. It seems a far cry from the days when, to simply read his work, UK fans had to wait months for a mail order delivery from the US, make a special trip to Forbidden Planet or visit shabby gaming shops where imported editions at vastly inflated import prices were sometimes held under the counter. Joshi seems unabashedly proud that “We Lovecraft scholars no longer have to be advocates – we no longer have to beat the drum and wave the pompoms. Lovecraft has arrived; it now remains to analyse his work even more detailedly and profoundly than has been done before.”
So maybe, after all, the stars are now right, and with Del Toro’s track record in directing artful, atmospheric, creepy and visionary work, James Cameron’s commercial muscle and a profoundly unique story of eldritch horrors, vast chasms of time and revelations that will threaten to blast mankind’s collective sanity, perhaps the Providence gentleman dreamer can now come in from the Antarctic cold.