Miskatonic U.’s Film School

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One need not necessarily like the work of H.P. Lovecraft to like that of Robert E. Howard — witness biographer/blogger [redacted], who has been known to break into the Special Collections section of the Brown University Library in Providence for the sole purpose of rubbing spoiled seafood against the Lovecraftiana kept there. But one can’t be a serious Howard aficionado without recognizing that REH really liked HPL’s weird fiction and striving to understand why. And being forced, or forcing oneself, to choose between the 2 writers, championing one while cold-shouldering the other, is a form of self-inflicted impoverishment like forcing a choice between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Sure, it can be done, but why would one want to? Joseph Curwen and Xaltotun both make life better (although they might not be pleased to hear it).

It won’t be long before a set of shelves designed in accordance with non-Euclidean geometry will be required to house all the new books “by” or about Lovecraft. One of the most enjoyable is Andrew Migliore and John Strysik’s The Lurker in the Lobby: The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema, which has been expanded and updated from the 2000 edition. The fact that expansion and updating were so obviously warranted serves to underscore the realization that an equivalent book for Howard would cry out for a title like The Hours of the Drag-On or Clay Pigeons from Hell and make for brief and depressing reading. The Lurker in the Lobby comes tricked-out with a preface by S.T. Joshi and “Pickman’s Gallery,” a full-color midsection of “preproduction art, movie stills, and promotional posters” by Richard Corben, Mike Mignola, William Stout, Bernie Wrightson, and other artists.

From an REH perspective, Joshi’s stance toward many of the movies discussed is surprisingly relaxed: “But as this book demonstrates, the true value of a ‘Lovecraft adaptation’ is the degree to which filmmakers have used Lovecraft’s works as a springboard for the release of their own imaginations.” Sounds good in theory, and has paid off in practice with Lovecraft-esque offerings like Alien (the authors see the Nostromo‘s “twisting corridors [as] yet another branch of Lovecraft’s growing mythos” John Carpenter’s pomo pastiche In the Mouth of Madness, and perhaps even, as Joshi suggests, Peter Weir’s allied-in-apocalypticism The Last Wave. Hasn’t worked for Howard, though, not at all — his characters, contexts, and conflicts are less adaptable (if by adaptable we mean disposable).

Not 1 but 2 serviceable Lovecraft documentaries turn up in The Lurker in the Lobby: 1999’s The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, made for French television, and 2005’s The Eldritch Influence, which features interviews with Joshi, Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, and Brian Lumley. How frustrating is it that no one ever videotaped Novalyne Price Ellis or Tevis Clyde Smith or E. Hoffmann Price or, from a later generation, Karl Edward Wagner when he was still drinking the Jack Daniels instead of the other way around, talking Howard at length and in depth?

Many of us remember Stuart Gordon’s frolicsomely transgressive Re-Animator and From Beyond back in the 80s, but his 1995 Castle Freak, a riff on “The Outsider,” is deemed by the Lurker authors to be a “near-classic,” “very serious and very adult,” and he went on to assay “Dreams in the Witch House” for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series in 2005 — inexplicably, the toystores have not been inundated with Brown Jenkin merchandise. Gordon tells the authors that “Destiny — in Lovecraftian terms — really means genetics; you’re a slave to your genetic code and there’s no way you can escape what you’re going to become.”

Dan O’Bannon’s 1992 The Resurrected, a go-for-broke attempt to translate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward to film, is singled out as “the best serious Lovecraftian screen adaptation to date,” even if director’s cut was overruled by producer’s butchery. O’Bannon, whose working title was The Ancestor and who is interviewed for the book, identifies the “clinical, casebook quality” of Charles Dexter Ward as crucial and emphasizes that “trying to hit Lovecraft’s particular note of cosmic fear is a very narrow window, and lurking all around it are horselaughs and just an awful collapse of mood and atmosphere. So it has to be done with great delicacy, and no one has found it yet.” Amen — Howard’s window is different but also narrow in its own way, and while “delicacy” might seem like an odd desideratum for an ideal REH-adapter, it is exactly what has always been needed, and never been supplied.

It was interesting to read about a 2005 The Call of Cthulhu in which director Andrew Leman and screenwriter Sean Branney set themselves the challenge of “re-creating” a state-of-the-art black-and-white pre-talkie, as if “Cthulhu” had been sold to the movies as soon as the February 1928 Weird Tales hit newsstands. . .The Japanese, who find uses for tentacles in the hentai sub-genre of anime that Lovecraft never dreamed of (or did he?) are well-represented in the pages of Lurker. But if the book has a hero besides the Old Gent himself, it is Guillermo del Toro, whose 2004 Hellboy stayed loyal to the Mike Mignola source material while also working anthropocentrism over in a dark alley with the imminent cosmic jailbreak of those Great Old Ones stand-ins the Ogdru Jahad.

And del Toro has not yet begun to Lovecraft; he’s planning, and apparently has already pitched to Dream Works, an epically-conceived, bountifully-budgeted adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, of which he says “I’d rather not do it than do it wrong.” On the evidence of his interview, he’s as perfect for this project as, say, Robert Rodriguez was for Sin City. He insists that if “you do not give a sense of cosmology and a sense of ‘otherness’ that is absolutely devastating, then it’s not a Lovecraft movie,” and generously admits that “the perfect adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, in a way, was the first 20 minutes of Alien.” Lovecraft’s albino penguins will be souped-up, and the storytelling will be reinforced with a wartime framework of Allied and Nazi expeditions racing each other to the City of the Old Ones: “I’m trying to set it up with Hitler’s rise to power — so as to say that the entire world is going mad.” One of the survivors of the earlier Miskatonic venture will turn out to have been susceptible to a “contagion of culture,” and although it is not of course this interview that will end up being shown in multiplexes, Del Toro convinced me that he’s loaded for not just bear but shoggoth: “Your very notion of sanity, and your very notion of your place in the universe, is in danger.”

Catch me in the right mood, and I’ll argue that the single most successful foray into matters Lovecraftian in all of popular culture is David Bowie’s pre-Ziggy Stardust album The Man Who Sold the World, but it would be wicked cool if the People of the Green Eyeshade permitted del Toro to contend for the title. Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy, and even the non-Snipesian interludes in Blade II all indicate that he’s earned the right to do so, which is more than can be said for recently-announced Conan-relauncher Boaz Yakin, whose filmography is approximately as exciting as the prospect of Ann Coulter starring in Basic Instinct III.