When I was a teenager, I read my fill of H.P. Lovecraft, the man responsible for the Cthulhu Mythos and the current dust-up about the World Fantasy Award statue. Widely considered unfilmable for literally decades, we’ve only recently begun to see his weird and uniquely bleak visions translated into cinematic fever dreams.
To be completely fair, Lovecraftian cinema has been in effect since the 1960’s; it’s just not been done very well. Compromises were made in nearly every movie bearing Lovecraft’s name, some of them so egregious that it makes one wonder why they even bothered in the first place.
I think the best movies that encapsulate Lovcraft’s themes, tropes, and ideas tend to be the original movies made with a Lovecraftian sensibility; this notion that the more you know about the things just outside our consciousness, the more insane it makes you. This is an effective horror motif, and done correctly, like many of the movies below, it’s some of the most effective scares in book or movie form.
I would be remiss if I didn’t name-check the first season of HBO's True Detective here as something you should check out if you’re interested in seeing the idea of unspeakable and unutterable horror translated straight across into a police procedural. The book of blasphemous lore becomes a VHS cassette, rendered no less horrifying, and forever changing those who watch it. If you like the non-tentacled portions of Lovecraft’s work best of all, then you need to watch the series.
5. Yellowbrickroad (2010)
In the 1940s, a whole town in New Hampshire got up, walked into the wilderness, and was never heard from again. Now, it’s the modern age, and a group of people are in the deserted town, trying to find out what happened to the town’s population. What starts out as an investigation into the cover-up of the town turns into a story of survival, and ultimately, chilling horror.
I have to admit, I almost didn’t like this movie the first time I saw it. But it stuck with me, and I watched it again some months later and was blown away. Yellowbrickroad gives a new definition to the meaning “slow burn,” as you are surely and intentionally numbed by the sameness of what the people are doing for long stretches of time. When all hell breaks loose, however, you won’t see it coming, and worse, you’ll be glad it’s happening because at least SOMEthing is happening, and that’s when you become complicit in the horror movie and yeah, by then, I’d creeped myownself out. If you have a short attention span, give this one a pass. But if you’re in the mood to think about your horror and you’re okay with never quite knowing the what and the wherefor behind it all, then Yellowbrickroad has your number.
4. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Five college kids all pile into a van for a weekend getaway at a Cabin in the Woods and end up driving into a night full of terror and madness and...oh, you know how this goes. It’s been done to death, right? I mean, even the previews made this seem like another cookie-cutter movie about the same old, same old...right? Right.
I’m not sure if this is even scary to a dyed-in-the-wool horror movie fan, but it is absolutely required viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of the genre. If you haven’t seen it yet, then stop right here, because spoilers abound below (and what’s the statute of limitations on that, anyway? One year? Two? It’s not short enough, I’ll tell you that for sure).
The very idea that Cabin in the Woods is both a meta-movie that not only explains the reason for every extant slasher film cliché, but that also posits a world wherein we are just barely keeping insanely huge cosmic forces at bay through the efforts of government employees doing what amounts to a sanitation job, is one of the darkest, most brilliantly conceived and executed ideas in modern horror films. If you can find a more dark, more cynical movie than this, I would welcome the discussion. That we have, in the film, moved well past the point of soul-sucking horror for the situation to the “it’s just a job, ma’am,” is all the more telling, and intentionally so, at that.
3. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
An investigator tracking down a popular author who goes missing finds more than he bargains for. The author’s fictional town suddenly seems all too real, and clues lead the investigator into a shocking realization about fiction and reality and I really wish I could tell you more than that, but if you haven’t seen it, you won’t want me to give anything else away. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of meat on the bones here to give you lots to think about.
Tom Baker once called Sam Neill one of the most boring actors alive, but I’m pretty sure he hadn’t seen In the Mouth of Madness at the time he said it. The movie is rife with asides, references, and horror Easter eggs, but Neill ignores all of that in the pursuit of the truth, which, from his point-of-view as an insurance investigator, must always make sense. The more it doesn’t make sense, the worse off he gets. It’s a good performance from Neill, who was coming off of Jurassic Park at the time. Maybe he hit his stride. Carpenter certainly did, as director of the film. This is the last good horror movie he made.
2. From Beyond (1986)
Poor Crawford Tillinghast. He’s accused of killing his mentor, Edward Pretorious, in a gruesome fashion. Only, it wasn’t him, you see? It was these creatures that they summoned up from the ether with their resonator, see? Only, you can’t see them because they exist outside of our consciousness...hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s send the hot psychologist over to investigate these claims and put her in the house with the machine. What could possibly go wrong? Heh. Everything.
The second outing from Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon (the follow-up to their cult classic, Re-Animator), again we find a young Jeffrey Combs in the movie along with Barbara Crampton battling grossness and goo with terribly un-subtle sexual overtones. As much as this film flies in the face of a lot of Lovecraftian ideas (particularly the sex stuff), I think it’s a much more successful film than Re-Animator and also I think it’s a scarier movie. The idea that there are things living all around you, outside of your vibrational range, is pretty unnerving, and this movie gets it across well. Crampton herself provides the final freak-out image that elevates this above the usual fare.
1. Prince of Darkness (1987)
The last member of a forgotten order of monks known as The Brotherhood of Sleep has died, and his death opens up a church investigation that brings local theoretical physicists into a lonely and forgotten church to study...something. Soon thereafter, the dreams start, and reality begins to distort, and oh yes, the creepy homeless people led by Alice Cooper (no, really) gather around the church entrance. After that, it gets very, very strange.
What John Carpenter did extremely well in this movie was delineate the alien vastness of evil. Granted, it’s trading heavily on Biblical history for its scares, rather than tentacled monsters from the abyss, but one of the scariest, most troublesome things in the movie for me is the “dreams” which are actually transmissions back through time. It’s a concept that the people in the movie don’t seem to grasp, not until the very end, of course. But boy, it’s disturbing in the extreme. A layered and complex movie that stays with you long after you’ve seen it.
I’ll never forget the movie review I read for Prince of Darkness in the newspaper that described the plot line as “a group of scientists all stand around and try to disprove the existence of Satan-in-a-Can.” Satan in a can? Talk about a guy who missed the point completely. I never read another of that schmuck’s reviews.