Sunday, August 10, 2008

LOVECRAFT IN FILM Pt. 1 : The Horror Cosmic

  One of the hallmarks of the Lovecraftian stories is the element of COSMIC HORROR.  In many of his stories, the antagonistic force is from beyond space, a sometimes unnameable, often insanity-inducing thing that is quite beyond human comprehension. Lovecraft actually crafted an entire pantheon of alien beings, the ELDER GODS or OLD ONES, and elements from these mythologies pop up all over the stories in various ways.  

   This idea of persecution and death at the hands of an unknown alien force is also a common ingredient in a lot of Science Fiction movies. Some of the most influential films for me growing up are brimming with these Lovecraftian ingredients...

   John Carpenter's THE THING is based on the short story WHO GOES THERE?, by the author John W. Campbell Jr.  While it's arguable that his story was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft ( they were both being published regularly in the 30's ),  I think the film is gets right to the heart of imagery and themes that are typical in HPL's work.  In fact, I'd argue that this film is one of the BEST of it's kind, and that John Carpenter succeeded here in making the ULTIMATE Lovecraft film.

   From the setting of of an isolated Antarctic Research Base, where a group of scientists discover an ancient spacecraft in the ice, to the UNSPEAKABLE horror that emerges from it, this film covers the gamut of Lovecraftian elements. But it isn't simply superficial ingredients that make THE THING so effective.  It amplifies the horror even more by delving into the deep, psychological trauma and paranoia felt by the men as they are infiltrated by the chameleonic visitor.  

   From a DESIGN standpoint, THE THING is also a high water mark.  Most of the original Lovecraft stories only vaguely hint at what the the creature looks like, while the protagonists risk insanity if the look too closely.  I think it's one of the most unsettling aspects of the original stories ( I will touch on this idea in more detail in later posts... ).  

   INSANE might be the best term to describe Rob Bottin's creature design work in THE THING.  Testing the limits of Animatronics in the early 80's, the work in the film still has quite an impact.  The very nature of the THING, a creature who mimics the cellular structure of it's  victims, is realized to great effect... With it's different biological components mixing and taking elements of man and dog and more, it's whipping tentacles, oozing and gibbering...It is the EPITOME of Lovecraftian imagery.

   Bill Lancanster wrote the screenplay adaptation of the original story , and he does a great job capturing the tone of it, as well as preserving a number of great scenes and characters.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how closely the film adheres to the original story, since the the first film adaptation, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, strays a bit further...I'm still personally curious what sort of influence Lovecraft had on Campbell.  HPL's classic AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS  was serialized just  a couple of years before WHO GOES THERE?and they have some definite parallels.  The remote Antarctic expedition, evidence of ancient alien 'things' preserved in ice and brought to the camp, mayhem and death and madness...I'm sure John Carpenter was aware of these things too, but regardless of his sources, he  has a clear appreciation for the Lovecraftian sensibility.  I think THE THING remains one of his very best films,  a quintessential exploration of the HORROR COSMIC.

next up : LOVECRAFT IN FILM Pt.2 : 


Ted M said...

Awesome post. I one of my favorites of the horror cosmic is "The Color Out Of Space"...

Matt Jones said...

GREAT subject- I guess Guillermo del Toro is probably the most successful director working in the 'Lovecraftian' realm-interesting to speculate how he'll combine this aesthetic with Tolkein on THE HOBBIT ?

Bryan Wynia said...

I could not agree more with you Derek. Watching The Thing as a kid is one of the main reasons I'm doing what I'm doing. It was great to meet you again at the con and get a copy of your book. I'm one of the Art Institute Grads by the way who studied under Elio, thanks again for being so cool and taking the time to talk with us.

Matt said...

What I appreciate most about H.P. is how you follow these characters of his and really feel for them because they kind of seam like slow thinkers. Professors, doctors and such just not that clever.

Lovecraft wrote horror really before there was standard horror. His characters couldn't have known to get the hell outta the house or not try to drain the haunted bog all the villagers warned them about. I know not to investigate that scary noise coming from the basement but that's just cause a bunch of slasher flicks have taught me to know better.

Best of all there is no tacked on twist at the end!

I tend to get a lot of enjoyment out of old time radio productions based on Lovecraft. Here's a great one for The Shadow Over Innsmouth:

Oh, the old-timey goodness!

Pop-Monkey said...

Hi! Just discovered your site and had to chime in! Tremendous work, and I love your exploration of Lovecraft in film. I'm a big Lovecraft fan, and you've touched on one of my top favorite movies, THE THING. I saw the movie at an early age (probably earlier than I should have) and it had quite a formative effect on my developing mind and cultural tastes. This movie was the height of Carpenter's achievements, in my mind, and I'd put IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS in a close second (also with heavy Lovecraftian themes).

Anyway, keep it up, and I'll stay tuned!

Pop-Monkey said...

Oh, and by the way, that first picture of the Thing is upside-down. It's supposed to be the thing that burst out of Norris' chest clinging to the duct on the ceiling. You can see the "goop" dripping upward off the duct if you look carefully.