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May 17-23, 2006

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Cult Leader

Cult of Cthulu: Finding H.P. Lovecraft on film

By Steve Palopoli

Though only a fraction of H.P. Lovecraft's stories dealt with what has come to be known as the "Cthulhu mythos," his legacy has been all about the tentacles. Today his name is synonymous with creeping chaos, visions of other-dimensional horror and a pantheon of ancient monsters that stand in all too well for modern anxieties—if the bank doesn't take your house, the Old Ones just might.

With adaptations out there of nearly everything Stephen King ever put on paper (including, with the recent commercials, his credit-card signature), it's crazy that there aren't more films made from the work of Lovecraft. But who better to ask about worthwhile Lovecraftian flicks than Andrew Migliore, who has not only been producing an annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, since 1995, he also literally wrote the book on Lovecraft films (Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft, which has just been released in a new and updated edition). Migliore also releases DVDs of hard-to-find adaptations he likes through his company Lurker Films, and has himself produced two, 1999's Cool Air and Return to Innsmouth.

I asked Migliore to offer up his top picks for Lovecraft adaptations and Lovecraftian variations. Here are 10 of his favorites, followed by a Q&A about the festival:

The Resurrected (1992)
Shockingly faithful adaptation of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," directed by Dan O'Bannon, one of the top talents for combining sci-fi and horror.

Migliore: "I have a real soft spot for this movie. I went down to see the vice president of Lions Gate a year ago because I wanted to release it—get Dan O'Bannon to do interviews and all that kind of stuff. Once I mentioned it to them, they released it themselves. Lovecraft wasn't even mentioned on the cover; none of the key art had anything to do with the film. It was just kind of sad because I really wanted to do a good job on it. But it's a great one."

Re-Animator (1985)
The first Lovecraft adaptation from director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna. Horror fans couldn't get enough of its black-comedy shell and gooey layer of latex, but at the center of this hard-R candy were Gordon's years of experience with theatrical stagecraft.

Migliore: "With Re-Animator, Stuart set out to make a totally serious film. What happened was, when they went to compose the music, and they all got together, they said, 'You can go either way with this, you can try to make it all totally serious and have serious music and cut out the little one-liners and stuff, or you can go more for humor.' And obviously they made the right choice—Re-Animator is a cult classic because of that dark humor. It's a fun film, and actually it's fairly faithful to the story. People don't think that, but it really does pretty much follow the story line."

The Thing (1982)
Director John Carpenter's adaptation of John W. Campbell's short story "Who Goes There?" While Howard Hawks' 1951 version, The Thing, was square-jawed and almost uplifting, Carpenter's version originally turned off critics and audiences with its bleak, truly nightmarish vision. It's now considered a cult classic.

Migliore: "I think it's a really Lovecraftian film, only indirectly so. Campbell was a contemporary of Lovecraft, and he eventually became the editor of Weird Tales. My theory is that ["Who Goes There?"] is deeply rooted in Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. It's really hard not to believe that Campbell basically took the premise: these Shuggoths, who can change into anything, and Antarctica. Of course, he added his own unique elements to it, like the blood tests and all that stuff. But there's enough parallels, and the timing of it is just very interesting, you know; that story comes out a year or so after Lovecraft's death. You just gotta wonder."

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Made for $50,000 and now causing quite a stir among Lovecraft fans.

Migliore: "It was done by some friends of mine down in L.A., and they did a great job. They took the premise of doing a silent film in Lovecraft's time, using the techniques of the time."

Marebito (2004)
Japanese film about mysterious beings in the subways of Tokyo.

Migliore: "It's not a pure Lovecraft adaptation. It's modern and it kind of does an inverse of 'The Outsider,' but there's definitely some references. It's creepy. We screened it at the film festival last year. It's different; it's not for everyone. But it had some interesting themes in it, that's all I'm gonna say."

Quartermass and the Pit (1967)
Classic Hammer sci-fi about an ancient spaceship dug up in London.

Migliore: "Here's another example where it's Lovecraftian, but it's not Lovecraft per se. Nigel Kneale adamantly denies any influence from Lovecraft, but it's kind of hard to believe he wasn't influenced by this stuff at all growing up."

Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1998)
Not a documentary but a TV adaptation of Lovecraft stories with the author himself interspersed as a character

Migliore: "I'm releasing it, so it's a total self-plug, but I thought it was really good."

Alien (1979)
It would take an entire column to list all the movies and texts Dan O'Bannon cribbed from in writing Ridley Scott's landmark film.

Migliore: "Alien is more peripheral, but it's cool."

Dagon (2001)
This adaptation of "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" was a long-awaited reteaming of director Stuart Gordon, writer Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna

Migliore: "Stuart has been a big supporter of the film festival, and he's been up three, maybe four times now over the years. He's definitely listened to the fans; Dagon I think is much closer in ways than some of his other attempts. It misses the mark in spots. Dreams of the Witch House [Gordon's entry in the "Masters of Horror" series] was fun, too. It went over well among the Lovecraft fans. There's an example where he updated and modernized everything and it worked, it didn't detract from the story at all."

Uzumaki (2000)
Trippy Japanese manga adaptation. The English translation is "spirals," and they aren't kidding.

Migliore: "The thing about that film is it gets to you. It's about a town going insane. They put little spirals in the film so you as an audience member are beginning to be affected just like the townspeople are. It's clever stuff, they put little spirals in the corner where the leaves are or up in the sky, or you look at diagrams as you're going by and there's little spirals in them. And you start obsessing after you watch the film, you're like, "Oh my God, spirals are everywhere!" Again, it's secondhand-influence kind of stuff, it's not direct. It's drenched with Lovecraft, but it's more a pastiche or tribute kind of thing."

Q&A with Migliore on Lovecraftian cinema and the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival

SP: Did the book inspire the film festival or the other way around?

Migliore: Well, you've got to back further than either of those projects. In '95, I was working for a software company called Electronic Book Technologies, EBT for short. I was a principal software engineer trying to figure out what people had to deal with when dealing with ISPs. So I needed to create some content and host it on a server so I could see what people went through. So I was stuck with "What am I going to use as my content?" and I thought, "Well, I always liked H.P. Lovecraft, so I'll make a faux movie review site. Well, I guess it wasn't faux—I actually wrote reviews. I called it After I reviewed 20-some films, I started getting people saying, "Hey, I was a filmmaker in college and I did a Lovecraft film." One of them was John Strysik, who was a staff director for Tales From the Darkside. He did an adaptation called The Music of Erich Zann. There was another individual named Aaron Vanek, who did an adaptation of "The Outsider." John contacted me first, and I said, "Hey, I'll do an interview," and posted the interview. Then Aaron found that and contacted me. It didn't take very long to realize that, hey, I had a couple of shorts, I could throw a couple of films together and do a screening. John Strysik and I had talked about this, and then I took it to the next level and said, "I'll make a film festival!" Which I've been stuck with ever since.

That first year, how was the reaction?

Enthusiastic. But it was a modest beginning, I think we had 160 people. Through John's help, I had contacted Brian Yuzna, who had at the time recently finished Necronomicon. It wasn't allowed to have a theatrical release because I guess of a disagreement with the principal people involved. But they were allowed to screen it at film festivals, so he said, "Hey, I've got this print, no problem—and let me put you in touch with Jeffrey Combs." So basically with his help and a little arm-twisting, Jeffrey Combs came up for the first year, too.

What was the reaction of Yuzna and Combs to being at the festival? By that time their Lovecraft films had big cult followings, but I'm sure they'd never been asked to be at an H.P. Lovecraft festival before.

No, and at first Jeffrey was a little turned off. But we got a few beers in him and boy, he loosened up and he was having a great time. And Brian has been a really big supporter of the film festival over the years. He sent up a screenwriter, the guy who did Revenge of the Nerds and Beyond Re-Animator, his name is Miguel Tejada-Flores. He came up to make sure Jeffrey felt at home. So the first year was small, but I had John Strysik, Aaron Vanek, Jeffrey Combs, and we showed Necronomicon. And a band contacted me called the Darkness of the Hillside Thickets. They dress up in costumes like the monsters, and they even had a Cthulhu costume. And all their lyrics are pretty much inspired by Lovecraft. So "Going Down to Dunwich" and things like that. The first year was a hoot, for sure.

You had Patti Smith as a guest at the festival last year, reading Lovecraft's poetry, which is quite a coup.

It was amazing. She's a very generous woman.

I always figured her more for a William S. Burroughs fan; I never knew there was a Lovecraft angle to her work.

She said something that was really cool, something like "If I find a kindred spirit, even if he or she is dead, we're friends." I can understand. This is what makes the Lovecraft community so interesting; it brings the most disparate people together. The thing about the festival—and it's hard, because it gets harder to maintain the intimacy as it gets bigger and bigger—is this weird group. There's satanists on one side, there's pencil-neck geeks on one side, yet they all have a common interest, and they're all talking together. It's really funny to see.

What inspired you to turn it into an annual thing?

To tell you the truth, it's been so long I don't really quite remember. My neurons occasionally spark and I think, "I'll see if I can do it next year!" And sure enough I got a few more films. It was slow at first, it was word of mouth mostly, with a few fliers put in the college towns around Portland. I guess I just thought I would try again, and it worked.

Then the book came out of that?

Yeah, basically. I had the website, and the website had these reviews, and it was already beginning to start shaping into a book, because people started contacting me. Brent Freedman, who did the screenplay for The Resurrected, which is one of my favorites, he contacted me and did a little online interview. And some other people. Soon I said, "This is practically writing a book," so I talked to John Strysik about partnering on this, and we co-authored The Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft. After a year or two of work, it came out in 2000, and the new edition of it just came out this month.

Other than Andy Black's Necronomicon journal and maybe a couple of other obscure spots, no one was paying much attention to Lovecraftian cinema before you stepped up. Why do you think that is?

Well, it's decidedly a niche, right? It was early days back then. It's gotten much more prevalent, and I feel like the film festival and the book had a part in it. It's funny, there was a submission to the film festival a couple of years ago that was kind of a tribute to the book. We had joked about how Hollywood can never stay faithful to the stories, and they always have to put in these unnecessary devices like token satanists or leaking sacs of iridescent protoplasm. So they did a film and they mimicked my name and John's name and I'm listening to the script and they're parroting the words I wrote back, and I thought, "Wow, it's come full circle."

We could go even further and marvel at how few Lovecraft film adaptations had been produced before Stuart Gordon went and put Lovecraft's name in the title of Re-Animator. Do you think that's what cracked the industry for Lovecraft films?

Well, that was the first time anybody really used his name "above the fold," as they say. In the past, [the stories] were mostly ripped off. There's actually a lot more adaptations than people realize. I constantly find these films that have done little tributes, or ones are obviously based on one of his stories, but never mention him at all. You have to go back to that whole cloud around the copyrights. Lovecraft died around 1938, and back then the copyrights lasted 28 years. So you'll notice that the first real film adaptations started occurring in 1965, about 28 years later. Now, Arkham House, which was the publisher, they did some type of contract with the Lovecraft estate at the time for royalties and whatnot. They never owned the copyrights. So over time, people started going, "This is a little gold mine, the copyright lapsed, let's take advantage of this stuff." Certainly Roger Corman and the like were of that mind-set. People were making stuff and not attributing it because they were kind of worried about putting Lovecraft's name on the film.

What do you think about those very, very loose adaptations in the '60s and early '70s, The Dunwich Horror and all that?

It was very formulaic back then—they had what I call Walking Around in a Large Empty House Syndrome. You see this often in these films, where they did a lot of filler, and they didn't really focus on the story as much. Roger Corman says he really wanted to do "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but the marketing powers at AIP said, "No, we've got to make this more a Poe film," and changed some things around [for The Haunted Palace]. According to him, he set out to make a Lovecraft film and it got a little bit subverted. The Haunted Palace I like, I'm a Vincent Price fan, so I have a soft spot for it. Die Monster Die, it's just dreadful. Then there's even looser adaptations, like The Crimson Cult with Barbara Steele. Again, it's more of an interesting time capsule than anything else.

What is it that makes Lovecraft so difficult for filmmakers?

It's hard to capture the essence of cosmic horror. There's a difference between terror and horror, right? Most horror films typically deal with immediate physical peril. Lovecraft's stuff is much more cerebral. It's much more you coming slowly to realize that the reality we know isn't the reality we know, and that there are these alien forces in other dimensions that are indifferent to us, but will crush us nonetheless as they try to come back to our dimension. It's that horror that you're insignificant, you're doomed. That's the stuff. And that's hard to capture, because you have to build up a lot of atmosphere. With Lovecraft, it was all in his writing—it's almost poetic in some ways. He was very meticulous in developing atmosphere. Today's audiences and filmmakers are much more action-oriented.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite Lovecraftian film.

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