Top 5 Films That “Do Lovecraft” Better Than Lovecraft

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Howard Lovecraft’s thematic influence is all over the popular media these days, draped like a flaccid mass of fetid shoggoth protoplasm over everything from comics to My Little Pony to the films of Guillermo del Toro, a director who gets HPL and mostly gets his world and Mythos right. But for every del Toro, there’s a dozen lesser directors for whom the addition of some tentacles and a raving scholar or two constitutes the apex of what can now be called “Lovecraftian horror”, a term that’s pretty execrable due to the raft of cinematic garbage it floats in on, sadly.

Still, there are some moviemakers out there who are #KeepingItRlyeh, and this without resorting to the obvious. (I’m leaving out direct or glancing adaptations of Lovecraft’s actual stories.)

The following are my Top 5 Films That “Do Lovecraft” Better Than Lovecraft

5. Absentia
(2011, directed by Mike Flanagan, starring Katie Parker and Courtney Bell)
Part of the power of Lovecraft’s fiction derives from the extreme paranoia he brought to his conceptions of life and the universe. In Lovecraft’s worldview, the boundaries of our existence are porous and fragile, and the threshold between our world and other, more raw and powerful worlds is constantly being tested, probed, and violated. His Great Old Ones walk “primal and unseen” just the other side of our perceptions; indeed, they are “as one with [our] guarded threshold.” Director Mike Flanagan’s excellent Absentia plays with these concepts to chilling effect, situating one such porous boundary in a simple suburban underpass, a short tunnel regularly used by joggers and commuters. It is, of course, also a “weak spot” in reality, and the things that live and roam and abduct humans at random from behind the tunnel’s seemingly solid concrete walls are cleverly shown not-at-all, or at least only suggested at. An indie film that knows and practices the excellent rules for effective monster-ing: don’t show. Don’t show, and barely tell. Thanks to the two lead actresses, Parker and Bell, Absentia is not only terrifying, it’s sorrowful and bleak, and the Black Gnosis their characters reach through their exposure to the unknowable is tone-perfect and Keeping It R’lyeh.

4. The Corridor
(2010, directed by Evan Kelly, starring Stephen Chambers, James Gilbert, and Nigel Bennet)
The five-friends-go-to-a-cabin schtick has been done to death in horror films, but this brilliant Canadian production manages to turn the trope on its head and gift the viewer with great characters, believable male relationships, compelling interpersonal histories, and a completely bizarre terror wedded to wince-worthy depictions of madness and death. The terror is largely a psychic one, involving the augmentation of merely human senses, with the expected costs to human sanity. What makes this film Lovecraftian, aside from the elements of super-science and the supernatural, the uncanny and the unknowable? Unlike the vast majority of “cabin in the woods” thrillers, there are no women present: The Corridor is an all Y-chromosome joint. Removing the female dynamic and gender & power differentials from the narrative strips it down to some very base, and therefore genuine, places. There are no heroes in the film, no one to save and no mind that’s safe from what’s coming. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the all-male casting is often spoken of as a negative (which isn’t entirely untrue – certainly some diversity would likely have benefited HPLs stories) but here, you can see how it works. It’s Man (or men) laid bare and vulnerable before something incomprehensible, and with no ladies present, the import is all the more stark.

3. Communion
(1989, directed by Phillipe Mora, starring Christopher Walken)
Mora’s film, based on the runaway bestseller by Whitley Strieber, didn’t exactly hit the sweet spot of the public consciousness during the “alien abduction” craze. It was pretty much universally panned at the time (I blame the soundtrack by Eric Clapton – fiendish! inappropriate!) Watching it with hindsight now, one can see why folks couldn’t get excited about it. Clearly, the Greys (and their stubby little grunting servitors) were only interested in abducting and messing with the heads of sensitive creative types like Streiber (played wonderfully by the irrepressible Walken – the film is worth watching for his performance alone, though Streiber himself disapproved of his portrayal). And that’s why Communion (dated and overlong as it may be) is a Lovecraftian film that’s Keeping It R’lyeh: as an examination of the psyche of a human being pushed beyond reason by forces outside his ken, it’s excellent. But more importantly for our purposes here, it’s the manner in which Streiber tenaciously pushes through his eldritch experiences and out beyond the place of madness to a kind of grudging acceptance of his place in the universe, if not a full understanding of that place and the beings that reside there. For an 80s audience primed to expect Close Encounters-style alien shenanigans, Communion was likely too cerebral and preachy. Still, worth a viewing, with some genuinely ominous and unsettling imagery…

2. Pontypool
(2008, directed by Bruce McDonald, starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly)
A common theme running through Lovecraftian media products is the idea that Language Is The Key. Know the Right Words, Intoned from Some Black Book, Pronounced Correctly in the Proper Conditions? Good. You’re on the fast track to Madness and Death. The “magic word” is resonant because it’s kind of half-true already: language does have an almost viral affect on the world, or at least our brains, which we use to shape the world. But as a plot device it’s been so overdone for so long (it was a gag long before Bruce Campbell stood in that graveyard talkin’ “neckties”) that when a film like Pontypool comes along and subverts it, we almost don’t notice. On the surface, this Canadian production (yes, another one – “true North, strong and weird!”) is a zombie film (and was marketed as such upon release) but it is so much more. It’s an examination of language and meaning itself (or at least the malleability of language) and the insidious ways meaning (and its attendant phantom of Truth) gets its hooks into the meat of us and makes us dance. For the viewer with a R’lyehian mindset, Pontypool  is almost a cautionary tale on the dangers of locking the Self down with arbitrary meaning. All words are made up / all words are magic / meaning is a cage / cages kill … embrace the Black Gnosis and be free? Sure. Good enough for me. Bonus points for a brutal and Lovecraftian not-happy-ending, and a very strong performance by Stephen McHattie doesn’t hurt either.

"Most Boss Lovecraftian Protaganist Ever"? I'ma go with YES. So grizzled.

1. Beyond the Black Rainbow
(2010, directed by Panos Cosmatos, starring Michael Rogers, Eva Bourne, and Scott Hylands)
I’ve written a long-ish review elsewhere of Cosmatos’ one-of-a-kind film. It’s my top pick here for a thousand reasons, not least of which is Michael Roger’s thoroughly unsettling portrayal of a man of Science invaded, used, and ultimately discarded, by an alien intelligence. Black Rainbow has a glacial pace, and yet every second is packed with dire foreboding, very bad very mad science, and Lovecraftian implications. These latter may be missed due to, yes, the pacing, but also the hyper-nostalgic 80s film techniques Cosmatos clearly loves (the story is set in 1982, after all) and emulates to perfection. There is a portal (of sorts) and an entity (of a kind – and, again, never seen, only hinted at) and an asylum-like institution (clean and minimalist in its lines, but crawling with a madness-inducing sterility) but besides these subtly Lovecraftian set pieces, it is the utter dread evoked by Black Rainbow, the slow, crawling, inexorable build to destructive revelation that puts it in the top spot. People will tell you to see it while high, and mean it as a slight against the film and its viewers, but don’t. Or at least, see it sober first. Best advice I can give? Sit with it, breathe with it, get inside it … and let it in. “Is it not an avatar of Nyarlathotep, who, in antique and shadowy Khem, even took the form of Man?” Light is dark, and dark is light, babies! Enjoy. My full review is HERE

Honourable Mention: AM1200
(2008, directed by David Prior, starring Eric Lange, Ray Wise, and John Billingsley)
AM1200 is a short, so not technically a feature-length film, but that hardly matters, since once you’ve sat through its 40 minutes once, you’ll immediate want to do it again. And then possibly a third time, or maybe just from the moment Eric Lange’s on-the-run embezzler flees the flashlight in the woods and finds his way to the radio station.

...or at least until this guy gets out of his handcuffs because DAMN! That's not right!

That’s enough of a tease, right there. Go find this film. Watch it. And keep on Keeping It R’lyeh!

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Are you Keeping It R’lyeh?

You may be, and just not know it! Unclear on the concept? Curious about the #BlackGnosis? Wondering how you, too, might take the #Cthulhusattva Vow? Order your copy of When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality by Scott R Jones and get right with the Great Old Ones! Limited physical copies remain, ebook versions plentiful like the electrons they’re made of!

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Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Open Call for Submissions RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond

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Tillinghast: "My ... god! It's ... a new anthology from Martian Migraine Press!" Dr. McMichaels: "I want to see more. FEEL MORE!"

In his classic story From Beyond, Howard Phillips Lovecraft introduced the Tillinghast Resonator: a monstrous device that stimulates dormant senses in man, opens up unseen worlds to unsuspecting eyes, and calls through terror and ecstasy from a realm far beyond our mundane perceptions. This is an open call for submissions to the third anthology from Martian Migraine Press…

RESONATOR: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond

We want to see weird fiction with the Tillinghast Resonator (and machines or processes like it) as inspiration. What creatures, both mindless and sentient, are revealed in its uncanny radiation? What worlds may be opened up to the user with the slightest change in frequency? What profit, what peril, what power and pleasure may be derived from its use? We want to see new and startling applications of Tillinghast Resonator technology, be introduced to bizarre new entities with motives and mentalities that beggar the imagination, and experience psychedelic perceptions in prose. We also wouldn’t mind clever riffs on the campy-cult goodness of Mr Gordon’s film! Mind-blasting horror, black humour, high-frequency kinkiness, and cosmic enlightenment are all part of the game when the Resonator powers up!

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES and PAYMENT INFORMATION

So turn on the juice, throw every switch, brace your pineal gland for some unprecedented growth, and get ready to go BEYOND!

Cold Blades and Cosmic Blasphemy!: A Review of “Sword and Mythos”

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Though I grew up in the era that saw the rise of Dungeons&Dragons as a cultural touchstone, I was largely clueless about the genre it drew most if not all of its cues from. An example: I had no idea what those kids were playing when I saw E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as a boy.

Child Me: "What're they doing?" Dad: "Satanism. They're doing Satanism."

I thought it was some kind of club meeting or something, and wondered when the spaceships were gonna show up. (I suppose it was a club meeting, after a fashion. And I was always waiting for spaceships to show up, anywhere.) This remained the trend into my teens: I was more into Heinlein than Hickman, more Bradbury than Brooks, more PKD than Piers Anthony.

When I did finally get into Sword & Sorcery, it was only through the British New Wave, and the work of Michael Moorcock, especially…

Elric. SO GOTH OMG. So not-Fruedian at all.

And back from there, to Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, to REH and Conan, and finally to Clark Ashton Smith, who I was learning about at the same time I was first encountering HPL. And even then, I burned out on Sword & Sorcery early, finding the majority of the stuff (aside from the greats already mentioned) to be derivative and dull. It’s a genre of necessarily broad strokes, easily becoming a parody of itself.

So, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Sword & Mythos, the new anthology from Innsmouth Free Press that melds S&S with the cosmic beasties and themes of HPLs world and worldview. The Cthulhu Mythos is itself a genre (or a thematic idea that attaches itself to genres, leech-like) that crumbles into pastiche in less-than-sensitive hands.

Thankfully, the diverse hands at work here are sensitive indeed, and editors Moreno-Garcia and Stiles have collected stories that are thoughtful, energetic, creative fusions that are (with one exception) a joy to read, and I’m happy to report there’s not a blonde-headed reaver of the standard S&S type anywhere.

Locales and times visited here range from Africa (Maurice BroaddusThe Iron Hut and Thana Niveau’s The Call of the Dreaming Moon), ancient Palestine (Ed Erdelac’s incredibly muscular and horrific The Wood of Ephraim), primal Mesoamerica (Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas’ creepy In Xochitl In Cuicatl In Shub-Niggurath), the island nations of Java (Nadia Bulkin’s regal Truth is Order and Order is Truth), and imperial China (the tone-perfect and truly excellent The Sorrow of Qingfeng by Grey Yuen), to more mythic zones: Arthur’s Britain (Adrian Chamberlin’s The Serpents of Albion), the Carcosa of Chambers (Sun Sorrow by Paul Jessup), and an interdimensional hell-realm ruled over by an avatar of Nyarlathotep (E. Catherine Tobler’s And After the Fire, A Still Small Voice).

This latter tale was a standout for me, and a good example of what makes Sword & Mythos such a good collection: Tobler’s heroine here is someone familiar to readers who know their history, and the tragic nature of her plight, and the nuanced way Tobler hints at her identity and reveals her character through the narrative is masterful. (I won’t spoil the reveal.) This mastery is on display in most every selection here, whether it’s used in the service of humourous broad-chested bombast (Balogun Ojetade’s Black Caesar: The Stone Ship Rises), revealing the terrible costs of sorcerous contracts (Spirit Forms of the Sea by Bogi Takács), or cleverly deconstructing the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Jon Carver of Barzoon, You Misunderstood by Graham J. Darling) and fairy-tale tropes (Orrin Grey‘s little gem, The Bones of Heroes). Each author’s mash-up of the genres is fresh and interesting, and their characters are anything but cookie-cutter Conans. There are plenty of strong women (I do not mean the execrable Strong Female Character), fully eight of the fifteen tales have female protagonists; and people of every race (human and otherwise) besides. This is an anthology that attempts, and I believe succeeds, in presenting a very wide world to the reader. “Myopic” is one thing Sword & Mythos is not, which is incredible, considering the subject matter.

The only exception to this rule, in my reading, was an irritating tale by the prolific William Meikle, No Sleep for the Just. This featured a sentient blade and its English master/slave versus a fairly standard Dagon cult. I’ve enjoyed Meikle’s stuff elsewhere, but here he employs a stylistic tic of italicizing certain words again and again (the sword is constantly thrumming, there are fish, and things, and so on), an amateurish effect that pulled me right out of the story. Maybe it’s my early exposure to the cult of Moorcock, but the living sword here could have been done so much better, as it is in the other, superior tale here, Jessup’s Sun Sorrow. Diana L. Paxson’s Light was similarly clunky, but I put that down to the modern day setting (an archaeologists dig, manned by at least two SCA members, possibly more, and referencing that organization at least once) meshing  poorly with elder Norse mythology more than anything else, and it is nowhere near as grating as Meikle’s entry.

Sword & Mythos finishes up with a quintet of short essays on the literary underpinnings, historical and otherwise, of both genres. Highlights here are G. W. Thomas and his Conan and the Cthulhu Mythos (a nice breakdown of the partnership-on-the-page of REH and HPL); editor Paula R. Stiles marks out the fine lines of the genre in What’s So Great About Sword and Planet?; and editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia has some fun with the Mexican comic-books of her youth in Spanish Conan: Manos, Guerrero Indomito.

Another great anthology from Innsmouth Free Press, easily one of the best small presses out there. Recommended. You can purchase the print edition directly from IFP and the title is also available in e-book formats (I strongly urge you to go print on this one: as with all IFP titles, it’s a very nicely put together book.)

Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

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