In “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft introduced his most famous monster, an alien god with the body of a dragon and a head shaped like a giant squid. Cthulhu currently waits, dead and dreaming, in his house in “the nightmare corpse-city” of R’lyeh, which lies hidden beneath the waves in the most remote region of the Antarctic Ocean. From time to time—when the stars are right—R’lyeh rises to the surface and Cthulhu sends out a telepathic call to his human worshipers around the globe, whose assistance he requires to complete his resurrection. “Call” tells the story of one such moment in the spring of 1925, when the apocalypse was barely averted. But the cult of Cthulhu endures, and one day, inevitably, R’lyeh will rise again, and Cthulhu will emerge to destroy human civilization.
A Hollywood adaptation of this story could easily cost tens of millions in special effects alone. But in 2005, Andrew Leman and Sean Branney filmed The Call of Cthulhu on a shoestring budget of $50,000 by staging it as a classic silent movie, with many of the same effects techniques that would have been used in the 1920s. The waves of the Antarctic Ocean are billowing sheets of fabric with glitter for spray; R’lyeh is a stage set built from plywood and cardboard; and Cthulhu, when he appears, is a stop-motion animated model. Shot on video and computer processed to look like old black-and-white film stock, it’s surprisingly effective. And if you watch it on DVD (which you’ll have to, since it’s not available on streaming), you’ll have a wide choice of languages for the intertitles, including Basque, Romanian, Welsh, and Luxembourgish. Be sure to check out the “making of” featurette, too.
And if you’re up for a black-and-white double feature, I’d recommended pairing Cthulhu with The Laplace’s Demon, an original Italian-language film directed by Giordano Giulivi. The title refers to a hypothetical being imagined by Pierre-Simon Laplace, an early French scientist who believed in a deterministic universe; the demon knows the position and momentum of every atom in the universe, and can calculate with perfect accuracy any past or future event, including the actions of sentient beings. In other words, with enough information and processing power, free will is revealed to be an illusion.
In the film, a team of seven researchers working on predictive software are invited to the remote island home of the mysterious Professor Cornelius. Upon their arrival, the researchers and the boat captain who brought them to the island find themselves trapped inside the professor’s mansion. A videotaped message informs them that they are to be the subjects of an experiment. The same room where they found the videotape contains a scale model of the mansion, and looking inside they can see eight white pawns—one for each of them—whose clockwork driven movements exactly mimic their own. A careful examination of the mechanism reveals that the pawns are not being manipulated by remote control; their movements are pre-programmed. And every so often, the uncoiling of a large clock spring triggers the appearance of a black queen—corresponding to a mechanical monster inside the real mansion—that zeroes in unerringly on one of the pawns. This is the experiment: If they cannot figure out a way to defy the model’s predictions, they’ll all be dead by dawn.
The Laplace’s Demon is available to rent or purchase through Amazon Prime.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour out of Space,” a meteorite lands on the Gardner farm in the wooded hills west of Arkham, Massachusetts. The meteor is carrying some sort of alien life form encased in globules of a strange and indescribable color. The color contaminates the farm’s groundwater and mutates the local plants and wildlife; as the corruption advances, every living thing in the vicinity, including the unfortunate Gardner family, begins to decay and die. In the end, the color launches itself back into space, leaving behind a “blasted heath” of gray desolation where nothing will grow. The story’s narrator fears that something else might be left behind too. Referring to a reservoir that will soon cover the blasted heath, he writes, “Nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham.”
“Colour” was reportedly Lovecraft’s favorite of his own works, and it’s a favorite of filmmakers as well: IMDb lists a half dozen adaptations, beginning with the 1965 Boris Karloff film Die Monster Die! More recent versions include the 2008 Colour From the Dark, which sets the story in fascist Italy, and a low budget Spanish film, Blasted Heath (original title: Erial), which despite the name is really more of a Night of the Living Dead knockoff.
The latest take, 2019’s Color out of Space, is by South African director Richard Stanley. I’m a fan of Stanley’s two previous films, Hardware and Dust Devil, so I was really looking forward to this one, but ultimately it just didn’t work for me.
My main complaint about the film is that it can’t seem to decide what tone it’s going for. This is a tale of cosmic horror in which Nicholas Cage plays an alpaca farmer. I’d describe his character arc as Goofball Dad into Cranky Goofball Dad into Psychotically Angry Goofball Dad Slaughtering Mutant Llamas With a Shotgun. Which would be fine if the whole movie were an absurdist comedy, but if that was the intention, Cage is the only actor who got the memo. Joely Richardson as Mrs. Gardner plays her own descent into madness straight, and delivers most of the film’s truly horrific moments. But the tonal inconsistency undercuts this, and I found the result neither scary nor funny. It’s just weird.
There were things I liked. Visually the film is gorgeous. Tommy Chong turns in a good low-key performance as an aging hippie squatting on the Gardner’s land, demonstrating how comedy can work in a horror film. The Gardners’ daughter, Livinia (Madeleine Arthur), has a nice meet-cute scene with hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), though their relationship doesn’t go anywhere. And of course I was grateful for the excuse to make bad puns about the Necro-llama-con.
Color is currently streaming on Hoopla if you’d like to check it out for yourself.
My own pick for best “Colour” adaptation is the 2015 German film Die Farbe, by director Huan Vu. It relocates the doomed farm to the Swabian-Franconian Forest but is otherwise very faithful to Lovecraft’s story. Die Farbe is shot in black and white, except for the alien color, which, as in the Stanley film, appears as a pinkish purple. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi (free, with ads), and Kanopy (free with a public library card).
I also want to namecheck two other films. The first is Creepshow, the 1982 horror anthology by George Romero and Stephen King, whose second vignette, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (based on King’s short story “Weeds”), is clearly an homage to “Colour.” In this case, the meteorite is filled with an alien version of the goop you smear on Chia pets. Farmer Verrill (played by King) gets some on his fingers and soon has space moss growing all over his body. This one’s definitely a comedy, but everybody involved knows that, and it’s short enough that the joke doesn’t wear out its welcome.
My other recommendation is Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel of the same name. A meteor strikes a lighthouse on a remote stretch of coastline and creates an expanding zone called “the shimmer” that mutates everything inside it. The shimmer’s boundary blocks radio transmissions and knocks out drones. Human investigators sent inside don’t return, with the exception of a Green Beret played by Oscar Isaac, who shows up at his home a year after his disappearance, suffering from amnesia. Federal agents arrive shortly thereafter; they scoop up Isaac and his wife, a biologist and ex-soldier played by Natalie Portman. With Isaac now on life support and fading fast, Portman volunteers to join a team of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) on an expedition into the shimmer.
Though I haven’t read Vandermeer’s novel, the film feels like a cross between “Colour” and J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World. Like Stanley’s Color, it’s a visual feast, but the tone is consistent and the characters are a lot more interesting. Currently streaming on Epix and DirecTV.
To pass the time as I wait for the premiere of the Lovecraft Country HBO series—just over two weeks away, now!—I’ve been on a Lovecraft binge-watch. There’s a lot to choose from. For a guy who never set foot in Hollywood, H.P. Lovecraft has an impressive IMDb listing, with 214 writing credits at present. And those are just the movies and TV shows directly based on his stories. The two films I want to highlight today belong to the much broader category of original works that incorporate Lovecraftian themes.
Spring is a rare example of a Lovecraftian romance. Lou Taylor Pucci plays Evan, an American who flees to Italy to escape legal troubles at home. He hooks up with Louise (Nadia Hilker), who claims to be a local girl even though she doesn’t sound particularly Italian (“I’ve lived in a lot of different places,” she explains, adding matter-of-factly that she speaks a dozen different languages). There are some other unusual things about her: her eyes are different colors, and she has an unspecified medical condition that makes her sensitive to sunlight and occasionally requires her to run off to the bathroom and inject herself with a serum. Despite some misgivings, Evan is smitten, and believes that Louise may be the love of his life—the catch being that if he’s wrong, she’ll kill him. It’s a surprisingly sweet and funny story, a kind of Before Sunrise with tentacles.
The Void, a more traditional horror story, opens with a shooting massacre at a house in the woods. A lone survivor escapes and gets picked up by Sheriff Deputy Carter (Aaron Poole), who takes him to a small rural hospital. Soon afterwards, the hospital is surrounded by knife-wielding robed cultists, and a malevolent force starts driving the trapped occupants crazy and mutating their bodies. It’s a fun ride that compares favorably to the old John Carpenter classic Prince of Darkness.
Spring is streaming on Tubi right now (free, with commericals), and if you’ve got a library card, you can watch The Void on Hoopla, but both films are also available as cheap rentals on iTunes and Amazon.
This week I am a guest on the Fear of God podcast, talking horror and Lovecraft Country with hosts Reed Lackey and Nathan Rouse. This was originally supposed to be a ninety-minute conversation, but we were having so much fun I ended up chatting more than two hours. You can listen here.
FYI, we focus on the novel—and there are spoilers—but I’ll be back on the podcast to talk about the Lovecraft Country TV series after it airs.
Also, a reminder that tomorrow, July 1, starting at noon Pacific, I’ll be a guest on the Second Life Book Club. Hope to see some of you there!
Tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day, and to help celebrate, I’ll be appearing on a Speculative Fiction Panel at the University Book Store, along with authors Greg Bear, Robin Hobb, and Elliott Kay. The panel starts at 6:30 PM; feel free to come by and heckle us.
I was in Salem, Oregon, last Friday for a reading at the Book Bin. As I wandered around town before the event, my brain kept trying to reference memories from a trip I made to Salem, Massachusetts more than a quarter century ago. Although Oregon’s Salem is inland, there’s enough similarity in the architecture and the landscape that you can kind of confuse one for the other, at least on certain streets. It’s a cool little city.
Salem was, appropriately enough, the last stop on the Lovecraft Country book tour. My thanks to the Book Bin staff and the staffs of the other book stores that hosted me this time around.
My next public event will be in July, when I’ll be making a special appearance at the LoveCraft Brewing Company in Bremerton. Until then, you can still order signed copies of Lovecraft Country and my other novels from Secret Garden Bookshop.
In other news:
* Today’s New York Times has a story about the resurgence of the “contract for deed” market. A contract for deed, also known as a land contract or installment sale agreement, is an alternative form of home financing sometimes used by people who cannot get traditional mortgages (e.g., African-Americans during the era of redlining). Although the payment structure is similar to a mortgage, the seller retains ownership of the property until it is completely paid off, and in the event of a default can simply evict the buyer, keeping whatever money they have already paid—a feature that has historically been exploited by unscrupulous real-estate dealers.
* On the train ride home from Salem, I stumbled across this Twitter thread about the controversial decision to cast Scarlet Johansson in the upcoming Paramount/Dreamworks adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. I’m not an anime fan and I know nothing about the source material, but Jon Tsuei’s comments certainly made me curious.