The works of H. P. Lovecraft have always had a hard time of it when it comes to the silver screen. Whilst many a film buff could point to well-known films with Lovecraftian influences direct adaptations of his work, or films explicitly set within the Cthulhu Mythos are few are and far between. Genuinely good ones are rarer still.
Some might argue Lovecraft’s material has never really been able to rise above a certain degree of schlockiness. This isn’t all that surprising; after all, the original stories were published in pulp magazines with pictures of semi-nude women at the mercy of slavering ghouls on the cover.
Lovecraft As Adaptation
There’s nothing wrong with schlock per se, and there are a few B movie gems that should be compulsory viewing for any serious fan. 1993’s anthology film Necronomicon is a good one (although the third segment is very gory), with Reanimator’s own Jeffrey Coombs putting in a solid performance as the reclusive New England author himself. Likewise, 2001’s Dagon is worth a watch for a surprisingly faithful adaption of The Shadow over Innsmouth, gratuitous nudity notwithstanding (“Yes! F*ck Dagon!”). Probably best of all is John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, which puts a clever meta twist on Lovecraftian themes of forbidden lore and the bending of time and space, all whilst still delivering a tense and engaging narrative.
But a big problem with most Lovecraft films to date is that they equate the ‘look’ of Lovecraft with its underlying themes. Stick the Necronomicon, a bunch of tentacles and references to Great Old Ones in a movie, and hey presto; one dollop of horror served with HPL sauce, right?
‘Cosmic horror’ is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot these days, but at its heart, it’s a fear of insignificance in the face of a universe that we ultimately don’t understand. At his best, Lovecraftian horror was one of disempowerment. It was showing us that we are small and weak, that there are forces so vast that our actions are irrelevant in the face of them, and that above all our conceptions of how the world works or ought to work mean nothing.
‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’H.P. Lovecraft
Vanishing on 7th Street
So where can filmmakers looking to do justice to the philosophy of cosmic horror look for inspiration? Cue 2010’s Vanishing on 7th Street. Directed by Brad Anderson and starring Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, Jacob Latimore and John Leguizamo, the film was a commercial flop when it released, clawing back only about 1/10th of its $10m budget at the box office, and even today most horror fans probably haven’t heard of it. This is a shame, as it arguably evokes Lovecraft far better than actual Lovecraft films.
The movie follows a group of Detroit-dwellers following a city- (and possibly world-) wide mass disappearance. Surviving the initial onset of this phenomenon thanks only to sheer luck, these residents find themselves plunged into a nightmarish reality where each day grows shorter and shorter, and those without a light are swallowed up whole by the darkness. All the survivors can desperately try and do is to stay in the light and avoid the shadows.
Vanishing on 7th Street has all the hallmarks of cosmic horror. For one thing, it emphasizes disempowerment by robbing us of our ability to properly comprehend the threat the darkness poses. In Lovecraft’s own works, the threats to the individuals in his tales were quite often straightforwardly comprehensible. In Pickman’s Model or The Lurking Fear, the dangers were simply mutilation and death; hardly pleasant, but at least known quantities, whilst in other stories the horror lay in the prospect of genetic mutation. But in Vanishing on 7th Street the viewer is haunted with the possibility of a fate so vague but terrible that death or deformation may very well be far more preferable. It’s all the more disturbing because we cannot explain why it’s disturbing.
Likewise, the film does a sterling job of making its central ‘entity’ vast and terrible in a way not even Lovecraft managed. His hellish deities were intended to convey the image of things not merely powerful, but powerful to a degree impossible for human minds to fathom, and to underscore the absolute insignificance of mankind by comparison.
The Problem With Azathoth
The problem with creating monsters to do this is that no matter how many times you toss in the word ‘eldritch’, we can still clearly visualize a monster. Cthulhu was an octopus-dragon creature, Azathoth a mass of slime. With names and forms, the fear can be comprehended and diminished. But in Vanishing on 7th Street the terror that besets the characters is nothing so simple. It is a perversion of a fundamental law of nature, the normal operating of which we had hitherto taken for granted, and whose sudden malevolence towards us we are given no means of understanding. It is not a looming beast, but simply a force, its motives (if it has any) as inscrutable and sinister to us as a tsunami would be to an ant colony.
The Vanishing and A Lovecraftian Legacy
So what can Vanishing do for the Lovecraftian genre? In a world where you can by Necronomicon cookbooks and plushie Cthulhus, it’s safe to say that Lovecraft’s Mythos has become as much a trope as werewolves and vampires, just one that hasn’t spawned a ridiculously popular series of romance novels aimed at teenagers… yet.
Doing Lovecraftian terror right in such an age means being willing to move beyond the established window dressing of this trope and digging down to its core philosophy. Here, Vanishing on 7th Street offers a light in the dark to show us the way forward.
James is a freelance writer based in not-so-jolly old England. When he’s not scrounging for his next writing gig he’ll be watching old horror films and wishing it was the 90s again.