Sunday, August 24, 2008

LOVECRAFT IN FILM Pt. 2 : Beyond The Horror Cosmic

     The notion that the universe is not only far beyond man's understanding, but hostile towards him as well, was a common theme in H.P. Lovecraft's stories. Woe to the poor soul who crosses paths with one of these malevolent, extraterrestrial forces.  Few films come closer to epitomizing this idea than Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece, ALIEN.   A seminal contribution to Cinema, taking the Horror and Science Fiction genres to new levels of believability and raw intensity. 

 I saw the film when I was 8 years old, and it's had an everlasting effect.  I'm confident that I'm not alone in this declaration, as the impact of the film has been felt for decades, and it's titular creature is one of the very pinnacles of Film Design.  A good deal of H.R. Giger's inspiration can be found in Lovecraft's work.  Giger used the title NECRONOMICON for a collection of his work published in the seventies.  This omnious name refers, of course, to the ubiquitous tome that appears in many of HPL's stories.   This collection of Giger's work caught Ridley Scott's eye and became the visual foundation for the Alien design work in the film.  Giger's BioMechanical Imagery channels Lovecraft, I think, and certainly the scene in the Derelict Spacecraft feels like a tableau from a Lovecraft story.  The image of tiny astronauts dwarfed by a vast cathedral of ancient, biomechanical decay...ominous and humbling and deeply chilling.  

  The Alien itself is one of the all time great movie monsters. Countless imitations attest to the originality and vision in the design and execution of Giger's Star-Beast (also the original title of Dan O'Bannon's and Ronald Shusett's screenplay ).  Structurally, ALIEN borrows more or less from two films, IT!: The TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.  Ridley Scott also cites THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE as a major influence.  In it's sophisticated exectution, though,  the film becomes something much more powerful.  No one was prepared for the sort of deep, primal terror it stirred. 

   To this day, the 'ChestBurster' scene is one of the most profoundly unsettlng and shocking moments in movie history.  That scene visualizes, quite literally, one of the deepest fears rooted in the H.P.Lovecraft tales, a total ALIEN domination of the self.  The harsh use of the body as incubator gets under the skin of even the toughest moviegoer.  There is also, clearly,  an extremely sexual dimension to the horror of ALIEN, and it is part of the reason the film is so disturbing.  The connection to Lovecraft there is less overt , I think, and it is the air of sexual repression that is more dominant in his stories.

   This idea of 'Alien Domination', and the fear and paranoia it provokes, is also evident in a number of Sci-Fi/Horror films from the Fifties.  Over and over again, we are at the mercy of Malevolent Cosmic Terrors.  While it could be argued that these films may not owe as much to H.P. Lovecraft's work as they do to the state of the Cold War and McCarthyism in the Fifties, I think they bear mention and consideration...

INVADERS FROM MARS,  IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE,  and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS all deal directly with the idea of aliens taking over humanity from within and without.  John W. Campbell's story WHO GOES THERE?, the inspiration for THE THING, also covers this territory.  Whether through mind control or body replication, all of the ET's in these films have an anti-human agenda.  

   Both the 1956 and 1978 versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS owe a debt to Robert A Heinlen's novel THE PUPPET MASTERS, which also inspired it's own film adaptation.  I think that of them all, Phillip Kaukman's interpretation is my favorite, and I think it channels H.P.Lovecraft in several ways.  There is a genuinely creepy mood throughout the film.  The stark sense of realism is offset by peculiar sound design and brief, unsettling glimpses of background characters, who may or may not be the OTHER.  It reminds me of THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH, with it's shambling, gilled townsfolk going on about their business...

   Perhaps the most Lovecraftian element in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS , though, is the tragic, iconic figure of Donald Sutherland, the intrepid Journalist/Scientist/Scholar  who finally loses to a Cosmic Evil.  Throughout H.P.L.'s works, there is some form of this character. Usually a learned skeptic or realist, these Protagonists will often go mad by the end of the story, or be consumed in some way by these powerful otherworldly Antagonists.  This root idea is very common in Lovecraft's work: Those who are Cosmic are not friendly.  Beware... 

next up:   LOVECRAFT IN FILM Pt.3

Staring into MADNESS...


Jason Barnes said...

hahah, how amazingly well-thought and interesting. looking forward to your thoughts on Madness.

Tom Rubalcava said...

I do concur Derek, Alien got to the core of the horrible thing lurking in the shadows, taking it's victims by surprise. Though Lovecraft had this other aspect, that perhaps Alien so craftily defied and that is that most of the horror in Lovecraft stories tended to be in there for all to see in all it's ghastly glory. But your right that Giger's Alien, once visible, reflects the best of Lovecraft.


EL GRANDE said...

Elio and I just saw that you have this blog. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts with us at San Diego brother. We really took a lot of your suggestions to heart and made many changes to our book.

Hope all is well with you.

Joe y ELio

The In Crowd said...

Hey Derek, nice to run into you at APE.

Just found your blog after stumbling onto the DVD News piece about Wall-E that included you talking about storyboards. Very cool.

- - And funny to find you talking about Lovecraft in film. A friend & I just saw the first half of the 1970 'Dunwich Horror' on TV on Halloween, the night before running into you.

Unfortunately too cheesy and too late to see it through to completion, but it sparked some good Lovecraft & film conversation - - including looking up the origins of HP's Necronomicon, and discovering that the 1970 'Dunwich' was indeed filmed just up the coast in Mendocino.

Also, that Dean Stockwell has a role in a brand new remake. He was in the original as young and mysterious Wilbur Whateley, but plays the aged occult expert Dr. Henry Armitage in the new version. Whether his new performance is another exercise in sleepwalking remains to be seen...


Pop-Monkey said...

Another terrific examination featuring another formative childhood movie. I saw ALIEN when I was 4 years old. My parents couldn't find a babysitter for my brother and I so we were supposed to be asleep in the backseat of the station wagon at the drive-in. I woke up at the beginning of ALIEN, which was the second feature, and I remained terrified through the remainder of the film and for many many years afterward. It was an obsessive sort of terror, though, and despite the frequent and recurring nightmares, I pored over my dad's copy of the Heavy Metal comic adaptation by Walter Simonson (which I still own) and the book detailing the making of the film. I played with his giant action figure of the Alien, built the puzzle that came in a "panty-hose" alien egg, and drew countless pictures of the beast and its victims.

It's remained my all-time favorite film. Nothing about it seemed fake or the result of some special effect at the time, and it's held up remarkably well over the years. I do regret the path that the film "franchise" has strayed down, though. I think they have turned from the Lovecraftian elements, for the most part, and lowered the alien to the status of mere "action movie monster", when it could be so much more than that. I keep hearing rumors that Ridley Scott is interested in returning to the franchise at some point, but I keep thinking that with each successive AVP abortion that possibility drifts even further from realization.

Anyway, keep 'em coming!