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Fish People and Mad Scientists: Lovecraft on Film

Fish People and Mad Scientists: Lovecraft on Film

I’ve written a lot about Lovecraftian horror for this outlet. I’ve written about how various movies utilize his themes of cosmic nihilism and human insignificance, about Stephen King’s use of cosmic deities, about several of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories that deserve to be big movies, and even why there aren’t that many direct adaptations.

H.P. Lovecraft‘s writing continues to be insanely popular and spark inspiration and creativity in other writers and artists, but it remains incredibly difficult to adapt him directly. While great films have been made over the years, the vast majority of them are not very good, or don’t capture the Lovecraft spirit or sense of impending doom, especially with regard to his famed Cthulhu Mythos. Luckily, Vestron Video has released two stylistically different but certainly interesting films adapted from his work: Stuart Gordon’s 2001 movie Dagon, and Brian Yuzna’s 2003 movie Beyond Re-Animator.

Gordon is rightly hailed as the father of Lovecraft cinema. Though he was not the first to bring a Lovecraft story to the screen (that would be Roger Corman with his 1963 movie The Haunted Palace), Gordon’s 1985 films Re-Animator ushered in a brief renaissance of Lovecraft movies, for which the author’s name above the title would actually mean something, much the same way Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King’s still do. Gordon followed up Re-Animator with From Beyond, and he had meant to complete his Lovecraft trilogy with an adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth in 1991, but that fell through for a decade until he made Dagon.

“Dagon” is the title of one of the very earliest H.P. Lovecraft short stories, but the film is an adaptation of Innsmouth, though the ancient being Dagon does feature. For my money, Gordon’s Dagon, written by his longtime collaborator Dennis Paoli, is one of the more faithful adaptations of Lovecraft, and is the only “mainstream” movie to directly deal with the Cthulhu Mythos, on even a minor level.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth, written in 1931, is one of Lovecraft’s most exciting and terrifying stories, detailing an unnamed narrator (they’re always unnamed) as he goes on a genealogy tour of the Massachusetts fishing hamlet of Innsmouth. The city has a strange reputation, and very few outsiders go there. The narrator himself probably wouldn’t go but for his family’s history with the town, and he has long heard about the villagers and “The Innsmouth Look” they’re all supposed to have: eyes a bit bugged, skin a bit clammy, large, down-turned mouths.

Naturally, because it’s a Lovecraft story, there’s some seedy stuff going on, and the narrator soon learns the people of Innsmouth are descended from a pact made long ago with an ancient fish god, that if they allowed him to create offspring with humans, he would provide a bountiful catch of seafood. And the people of Innsmouth, fishy and all, don’t like people poking around where they don’t belong, which leads to one of the more exciting sequences of Lovecraft’s fiction, where the narrator is chased by the pitchfork-and-torch-wielding villagers, all keen to tear him limb from limb. But wait, didn’t the narrator say his family had some Innsmouth lineage…?

Gordon’s Dagon follows this basic formula incredibly closely, only veering due to the necessities of film. The narrator in this has a name, the humorously named Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden), and it’s no longer Innsmouth, MA, but Imboca, a small Spanish town. The location was changed when it was proved more cost effective to film in Spain with a mainly Spanish crew and cast. It doesn’t change much else of the story having it in Spain, except adding the wrinkle of language barrier. There’s also more characters, with Paul getting a girlfriend (Raquel Meroño) and a pair of dumb friends on vacation with them.

The movie’s other major addition is the character of Uxía Cambarro (Macarena Gómez), a sort of queen mermaid type character who attempts to seduce Paul and mate with him to appease Dagon. This is made even creepier by the realization that, because Paul is part of the Imboca bloodline, they’re definitely related. Lovecraft’s fiction is chaste almost to a debilitating degree, to the point that there’s rarely any female characters at all, much less any sex or romance. However, because of the nature of B-horror cinema, and especially the outrageousness of Re-Animator‘s sex scenes, Lovecraft adaptations post-1985 almost always have a fair amount. And a sexy tentacle lady is definitely all over this movie.

Dagon stands as a very worthy third entry in the Lovecraft features trilogy by Stuart Gordon, and is a movie I’m glad is getting a proper Blu-ray release. It contains a lengthy conversation between Gordon and horror legend Mick Garris about the making of the film, a fascinating interview with the world’s foremost Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, and several archival featurettes.

A less worthy outing is Beyond Re-Animator, the third in that saga, once again starring Jeffrey Combs as the titular re-animator, Dr. Herbert West. Lovecraft’s 1922 serialized story “Herbert West–Re-Animator” was the author’s attempt to do a bit of comedy, and was told by the editor of the amateur publication Home Brew that he could be as over-the-top as he wanted, which it was. The short story told of another unnamed narrator who was the assistant to West in his experiments to bring corpses back to life, though always it resulted in ambulatory, teeth-gnashing zombies rather than anything truly alive.

The first Re-Animator movie is rightfully hailed as a horror-comedy classic, and its 1989 sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, directed by producer Brian Yuzna, ups the silliness but brings in a lot more variety in the creature department, strengthening the connections between Lovecraft’s story and its direct inspiration, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Beyond Re-Animator, made a full 13 years later, once again in Spain, is a misstep, finding West in prison (basically a castle) for his crimes and made to once again start re-animating stuff by an upstart medic. Combs is great as always, but the fact that the movie was picked up by the Sci-fi Channel for distribution in the U.S. is a sign of its quality.

But to date, the Re-Animator films are the movie well-known of the H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, and while that story is only moderate, the first film is a cult classic steeped in American horror.

Beyond Re-Animator Blu-ray from Vestron is, like Dagon, a pretty stacked disc, with interviews from cast and crew. The feature I found most enlightening was another interview with S.T. Joshi, who gives the proper context for Lovecraft’s life and writing.

So, when you come right down to it, fish people and mad scientists are really the width and breadth of Lovecraft cinema. Maybe one day we’ll get a proper adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu or At the Mountains of Madness, but for now, Re-Animator and Dagon are some of your best bets.

Images: Vestron/Lionsgate

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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