It seemed like an easy project at first: I would try putting together a list of "Lovecraftian" films for the YSDC Wiki. What could possibly go wrong? After all, on one hand, there seemed to be only so many films out there that were definitely based on Lovecraft stories, and it seemed that most of us who were familiar with Lovecraft and with horror films must surely have seen most of them; on another, there were a few more films that most folks could agree were in some way "Lovecraftian", even if they weren't based on any particular Lovecraft story. And then, there were a few film suggestions of my own which I could see some possibility in, even if nobody else noticed them - my first hint that a sort of "rating system" wold be needed.
As I said, it seemed easy at first: I'd simply raid a few lists of recommended "Lovecraftian" films, weed out the silliness, and easily start a basic list, which I could leave other folks to finish.
But, the list began to spiral madly out of control, and I thought that sorting out how and why this happened might be instructive. Thus, this blog series...
Lovecraftian to Me?
One of the first things I had to come to terms with after I started was the fact that "Lovecraftian" means different things to different people, and until I could understand some other points of view on this subject, there were going to be a number of film recommendations that I would never understand.
I've since been asked a couple times what "Lovecraftian" means to me, a thought-provoking question that I might have benefited from asking before I started the film list. And so:
Conflict: Man vs. Unknown - Lovecraft essentially identified this as the conflict that interested him the most, and can be seen in at least most of his stories. Some of the best (IMHO) "Lovecraftian" movies and stories make good use of this theme, revealing layer after layer of unknown but menacing things lurking behind the ordinary and mundane....
Conflict: Man vs. Time and Space - or, "Cosmic Horror", related to a conflict with the Unknown; Lovecraft tended to find the weight of vast distances of time and space ominous and unsettling, and typically involves unearthing horribly ancient things best left unseen, or crossing thresholds or an agoraphobic fear of barriers into distant "outside" spheres and places byond borders where Man does not belong. These times and places are often marked by ruins that indicate that these places do not just belong to time and space, but were taken by time and space in conquest over something ancient and alien and better suited to fight time and space than mere Man, with any conquest Man might make over time and space being only limited and temporary.
Body Horror - at least a few of Lovecraft's stories tended to dwell a bit on body horror, especially where it concerns decay, dissection and reassembly into something inhuman, birth defects and a related fear of an unreliable genetics and ancestry.
The Unreliable Narrator - one of my favorite literary devices, and apparently one of Lovecraft's favorites as well, as most (if not all) of Lovecraft's better-known stories tend to be told from the point of view of self-educated, eccentric, over-imaginative, high-strung, unstable, and often mentally broken narrators who attempt to describe the indescribable to the best of their ability by alluding to hidden mythologies, occult secrets, and the vaguest mysteries of the latest discoveries of super-science; in some extreme cases, Lovecraft will even layer the accounts of several narrators who are unreliable in different ways on top of each other, leaving the audience to try to interpret what really happened based on conflicting stories....
"Weird" Genre - named by Lovecraft for the stories published by "Weird Tales" at a time before the genres of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy were fully defined, Lovecraft's "Weird" fiction tended to blur the lines between these genres; many of the "least Lovecraftian" films I would still include in a list of "Lovecraftian" films tend also to blur the lines between these genres.
The "Mythos" - there is, of course, Lovecraft's famous "Mythos" of alien names and races, and imaginary mythologies, tomes, New England towns, eccentric families, and so on. In many ways, these were the least important part of Lovecraft's work, but they are the most visible and easily-identified elements. Toss a couple references to the Necronomicon and "the Old Ones" into a Gothic story, and most Lovecraft fans will be happy to embrace it as a "Lovecraftian" work.
The Gothic - combining several of the above themes, the Gothic tends to work with accounts written by unreliable narrators, buried secrets of the unknown, decaying old buildings and towns, eccentric families, uncertain ancestries, madness and deformity, and so on.
Those are themes I could understand and easily embrace. Then, there are...
Themes That Were New To Me:
Some themes that might seem "Lovecraftian" to other reviewers, which I wouldn't normally think of as "Lovecraftian", but which turn up frequently in film recommendations that were hard for me to understand at first:
Period Pieces - it appears that some viewers seem to find horror and science fiction stories set in the 1920s or other historical eras to be "Lovecraftian", as long as the era is realistically portrayed. I've come to interpret this as an extension of Lovecraft's carefully attention to portraying a normal setting, before introducing his elements of the "Weird".
Tentacles - infamously, films or stories with tentacles in them get bundled up alongside films more likely to be considered "Lovecraftian" by purists; a couple of Lovecraft's creations did, actually, have tentacles; this wasn't characteristic. More often, the others were based on radiate animals (starfish, jellyfish, and that sort of thing), vegetables and fungi, mythology, and (fairly often) were simply chimeras assembled from various disparate animal parts, described in vague terms. Still, Lovecraft is known more for his usually bizarre monsters than anything else.
The Sea and Oceans - horror stories set on, in, or around oceans seem to find their way into lists of "Lovecraftian" films, too, even if I don't see any other connection. Lovecraft does seem to have had a phobia of seas, oceans, and fish, and I interpret this theme to be an extension of that, as seen from stories like "Call of Cthulhu" and "Shadow Over Innsmouth".
The Cold - horror stories set in, on, or around the frozen polar regions or in other permanently cold and frigid places seem to appear in lists of "Lovecraftian" films, which I think can be interpreted as an extension of viewers' connection to Lovecraft's phobia of the cold, as seen in "Cool Air" or "At the Mountains of Madness".
Surrealism and Dream Imagery - it seems that at least a few viewers will find stories involving dreams, nightmares, and hallucinations to be "Lovecraftian", especially if coupled with, for example, tentacles, the cold, the ocean, a period setting, or the uncovering of some terrible secret from out of the distant past, or from an isolated, desolate place.
In future posts, I will write about how this led to the "Tentacles" rating system, and about how Short Films and cartoons blew my list up!