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The Crawling Celluloid Chaos

The history of Lovecraft and Howard film adaptations would horrify Conan himself

By Zack Stentz

FORGET TENTACLED aliens, Mongol armies or terrible cannibals living in the forest. A horror that would really frighten H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard is the fate that befalls their stories when they reach the silver screen. Sad to say, despite the abundant cinematic potential of their work, the track record of Lovecraft and Howard-derived movies isn't a good one, with the few examples of successful films being ones that stray far from the authors' source material yet somehow stay faithful to their spirit.

This extremely loose, gory film version by Stuart Gordon of the admittedly lesser Lovecraft story "Herbert West: Reanimator" remains the best-known and most popular of the adaptations to date, and also signaled the emergence of Lovecraft as a marquee name capable of selling tickets and moving videotapes. Horror movie aficionados hold Re-Animator in the same exalted company as Peter Jackson's Dead/Alive, which is high praise indeed. Sure, the notoriously sex-shy Lovecraft would probably close his eyes and cross his legs during the infamous "head" scene, where the villain's decapitated noggin, er, takes liberties, with the trussed heroine, but so what? It's probably the most arresting image to come out of '80s horror cinema.

Conan the Barbarian
The best Robert E. Howard­based film, not that it's saying much. The pace is plodding, the action only semi-diverting, and Conan himself, described by Howard as "lean" and "wolfish," is positively bovine in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bonus points, though, for the screenplay, by Oliver Stone and John Milius at their most testosterone-addled. Best dialogue--Mongol General: "Conan, what is good in life?" Conan: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the women!"

Cast a Deadly Spell
Not a faithful adaptation at all, but easily the most fun of the Lovecraft-influenced films thus far, this horror/detective/comedy features hard-boiled detective "Phil" Lovecraft searching for a lost copy of the Necronomicon on the dangerous streets of a postwar Los Angeles where "everyone uses magic." Swank nightclubs, wizard gangsters and a Great Old One From Beyond Space & Time cameo all figure in this inspired, genre-blending goof, with wonderful character actors Fred Ward and David Warner ably representing the forces of good and evil, respectively.

The Haunted Palace
After Roger Corman's AIP horror-film cycle ran through most of the available Poe stories, he turned to Lovecraft. Despite taking its title from a lesser Poe poem, The Haunted Palace is actually a loose adaptation of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," Lovecraft's longest story. But aside from having Vincent Price and Boris Karloff in the cast, there's not much else to recommend in this one.

Red Sonja
Really, really bad, but amusing in a sort of Beastmaster way when viewed on cable on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Sly Stallone ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen plays the titular Howard heroine, a proto-Xena woman warrior out to (what else?) avenge the slaughter of her tribe. A pre-megastar but still slumming Schwarzenegger plays comrade-in-arms Kalidor (another studio must have had dibs on the Conan name).

Die, Monster, Die!
Don't let the wonderfully over-the-top title fool you. This 1965 Anglo-American version of "The Colour out of Space" (the setting moved from backwoods Massachusetts to England) is as dry and lifeless as farmer Nahum Gardner after the poisonous meteorite that lands in his field finishes having its way with him. The winking homage to the story in Stephen King's Creepshow is actually a lot more faithful to Lovecraft's pessimistic vision, and a lot more fun as well.

Conan the Destroyer
Not a film so much as a live-action Dungeons and Dragons game, the sluggishly paced sequel forsakes Nietzschean blood baths for animatronically silly monsters and stunt casting (Conan's party of adventurers include Wonder Years sister Olivia D'Abo, Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones). However, the summoning of the "Dreaming God" that climaxes the film does represent a prominent theme in both Howard's and Lovecraft's fiction.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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