by Mark McLaughlin
Part 1: What Gives a Movie a Lovecraftian Flair?
There are plenty of great movies based on the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu Mythos. And, there are many, equally entertaining movies of a Lovecraftian nature that aren’t based on his stories – but they have a lot in common with his works, so they are often associated with him.
What elements make a movie appear to be Lovecraftian? Basically, if the movie features any of the usual trappings one might find in a Cthulhu Mythos story, that will forge a connection in the minds of viewers. Those elements can include:
1. Hideous life-forms with tentacles and/or misshapen bodies. These life-forms can include otherworldly gods with strange, polysyllabic names. Monstrous, otherworldly oceanic beings also give off a Lovecraftian vibe. A shark movie like JAWS would not be considered Lovecraftian, since a shark is simply a large, ferocious beast out of nature.
2. Gateways to Hell-like alternate dimensions. PHANTASM, with its bizarre, barren dimension of evil hooded minions, provides a great example.
3. An evil book with unholy powers. Lovecraft’s age-old grimoire, the Necronomicon, plays a pivotal role in the Cthulhu Mythos, since it’s the Bible of Lovecraft’s universe. If a horror movie has an evil book in it, chances are, the filmmakers were trying to capture that Lovecraftian Necronomicon vibe.
4. Lost races and human regression. Folks who have devolved into subhuman or fishlike creatures are essential to Lovecraftian fiction. The Lovecraft stories The Rats in the Walls and The Shadow over Innsmouth are prime examples.
5. Obscure pagan cults and rituals. A movie about a Satanic cult, like THE DEVIL’S RAIN, would not be considered Lovecraftian because it concerns Christianity. THE OMEN would not be considered Lovecraftian for that same reason. The sinister, inhuman cult in THE VOID is extremely Lovecraftian.
6. Egyptian horror. Lovecraft’s character Nyarlathotep is an essential element of the Mythos. The androgynous god Ra in the movie STARGATE is an example of a Nyarlathotep-like being, though less sinister than Lovecraft’s character. If the horror element is just the presence of mummies, that’s not enough to regard the movie as Lovecraftian. Mummies are really just undead folks, and Lovecraft covered the topic of the undead extensively in two stories (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and Herbert West–Reanimator) that had nothing to do with mummies.
Part 2: Honorable Mentions
Below, I list the top 13 Lovecraftian movies that are not based on the Cthulhu Mythos. But before I do, here are some honorable mentions.
GHOSTS OF MARS (2001), written and directed by John Carpenter, tells of malevolent Martian spirits who enter and possess human visitors to the red planet. The combination of science-fiction and undead alien souls has a strong Lovecraftian feel to it. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, 1967, (also known as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) also concerns malevolent Martian spirits. In this movie, alien spirits have come to Earth and they begin to possess humans. The Martians look like a horrific cross between gargoyles and locusts.
Many of director John Carpenter’s movies, like THE THING (1982) and its 2011 prequel of the same name, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., have a Lovecraftian feel to them, since they feature shape-shifting, otherworldly monsters. But, they are ultimately great monster movies, without the surreal or mystic complexities to be found in true Lovecraftian movies. John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) also had a Lovecraftian feel to it, but it concerned a Satanic cult, not a pagan or otherworldly cult, as one might find in a Lovecraft story.
The PHANTASM franchise, which began in 1979, features a strong mix of horror and science-fiction elements, including gateways to a dimension of evil robed creatures, as noted above. STARGATE (1994) features an androgynous, evil pharaoh, reminiscent of Nyarlathotep, also noted above.
THE MAZE (1953) is a black-and-white 3D movie about a family curse, and the plot has a few elements in common with The Shadow over Innsmouth. BLACK SUNDAY (1960) is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Both feature a deceased practitioner of the dark arts who strives to take the place of a look-alike modern descendant.
Part 3: The Top 13
I now offer you the top 13 movies that appear to be Lovecraftian, but aren’t – revealed in reverse order. I also provide the year in which each was released.
13. MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958): Most people probably would not associate this movie with Lovecraft. Even so, I think Cthulhu Mythos enthusiasts would enjoy it. A scientist accidentally discovers a way to turn life-forms into devolved/prehistoric versions of themselves. The pseudo-science of this B-movie epic is delightfully bizarre.
12. THE CAT CREATURE (1973 TV movie): I’ve always loved this moody film. The title monster is an Egyptian shape-shifter, and in one of its forms, it reminds me of Nyarlathotep when taking on a human form. Also, the tone of the movie, like that of some of Lovecraft’s stories, is reminiscent of a detective mystery. Lovecraft wrote during the era of pulp magazines and many of his stories featured the breathless tone found in mystery tales at that time.
11. THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956): Lovecraft wrote frequently about lost races, secret societies, and beings that dwell in darkness. With that in mind, THE MOLE PEOPLE is entertainment pay-dirt for anyone who enjoys Lovecraft’s work. It’s a thrilling adventure set deep underground in Asia, where a race of albino Sumerians dwell in an ancient stone city. The Sumerians have enslaved a grotesque mutant race of mole-like humanoids, who make great pseudo-Lovecraftian creatures.
10. GARGOYLES (TV movie, 1972): Like THE MOLE PEOPLE, GARGOYLES is an exciting tale about a lost race. I rank this one a notch higher than THE MOLE PEOPLE because it works to establish the fact that gargoyles are a part of human history. We learn that long-ago memories of the gargoyles are what led to humanity’s belief in demons. That assertion actually makes the movie seem more real – because it makes sense. The gargoyles do look demonic.
9. HELLRAISER franchise (first movie 1987): HELLRAISER, as most horror movie fans know, is about the Cenobites, a cult of sadistic pleasure-seekers who visit Earth from their Hell-dimension. The Cenobites are always working to bring recruits into their realm of horrors. The cult has a highly sexual, pain-oriented manifesto, which detracts from the more Lovecraftian themes.
8. DAGORA, THE SPACE MONSTER (1964): Dagora is a gigantic, jellyfish-like space creature that feasts on carbon in its many forms. This Japanese movie monster is quite interesting, but it never really captured America’s imagination as Godzilla did. Dagora looks very much like a jellyfish and so has no eyes. Audiences probably would have connected more with the creature if it had been given expressive eyes. Still, the movie is well-developed and entertaining.
7. THE GREEN SLIME (1968): THE GREEN SLIME comes alive with a swarm of tentacled, one-eyed, human-sized monsters, all invading a busy space station. The single red eye of each monster gives them a savage, evil look … far more malevolent than eyeless Dagora. The movie is unintentionally campy, but I rank it fairly high because it doesn’t skimp on the monsters. It trots out a veritable space-army of rubbery mini-Cthulhus, and that makes me smile.
6. THE BEYOND (1981): This brooding Italian horror is reminiscent of Dreams in the Witch House. A woman inherits a hotel which may also hold a gateway to a Hell-like dimension … just as the witch house offers access to an evil realm. The film is surreal, nightmarish and mesmerizing, and the presence of a grimoire entitled Eibon amps up the Lovecraftian mood. The Cthulhu Mythos includes a grimoire called the Book of Eibon, but that name is probably the most that the two fictitious books have in common.
5. GODZILLA franchise (first movie 1954): Like Cthulhu, Japanese movie monster Godzilla is a gigantic, dragon-like horror that rises from the sea to destroy humanity. Also, both Godzilla and Cthulhu can hibernate for great lengths of time. Many of the later Godzilla movies are campier than the original, and so, are less Lovecraftian. Godzilla’s universe also features many other oversized monstrosities, just as Lovecraft’s universe features more creatures than just Cthulhu. A rival studio released a different movie series about GAMERA, a gigantic turtle – but let’s face it, a turtle isn’t all that scary. Most Gamera movies were aimed at younger, pet-turtle-loving viewers.
4. ALIEN franchise (first movie 1979): The monster in this movie franchise isn’t as big as Godzilla, but it is far more terrifying. Its appearance is completely unearthly, and more insectile than humanoid. It is also a ravenous eating machine, a predator with no concern whatsoever for other living beings. It does not try to connect with its victims in any way. In that regard, the Alien is just like Cthulhu, who has no concern whatsoever for humans.
3. EVENT HORIZON (1997): EVENT HORIZON presents the concept of a haunted house in outer space, a spaceship being the house. The movie fulfills that vision with horrendous, Lovecraftian gusto. What we have here is a spaceship that has visited a Hell-dimension … and brought back some of that Hell with it. After all, can anyone dip into a universe of evil and emerge unscathed? It’s a gloriously dark, multi-layered movie that has become a cult classic.
2. THE VOID (2016): Speaking of cult movies…. THE VOID is, in fact, a cult movie about a cult. A small town is besieged by the robed followers of an unearthly religion, and before long, a group of people find themselves trapped in a hospital. The followers have black triangles for faces and are genuinely disturbing. Tentacled monsters and horrific rituals are plentiful in this nightmarish adventure throughout the film. The movie is practically condensed cream-of-Lovecraft soup, with all the things you love about the Cthulhu Mythos, boiled down into a thick, savory bisque.
1. This list began with a John Carpenter movie (in the Honorable Mentions section), and ends with one: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994): I’ve watched this one several times, and it never disappoints. I always notice something new with each viewing. What we have here is a robust horror film with thinly veiled references to the works of Lovecraft and Stephen King. This movie is the ultimate Lovecraftian meta-fiction. But really, isn’t a meta-fiction, in itself, a surreal concept worthy of Lovecraft himself – an unearthly story within a story? IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS captures the very essence of insanity: not being able to tell fact from fantasy. It also features macabre mysticism, passageways to other dimensions, ghoulish monsters, and of course, plenty of tentacles.
So there you have it: my top 13 Lovecraftian movies not based on Lovecraft. If you love the works of H.P. Lovecraft as much as I do, perhaps you might enjoy reading my tales of Lovecraftian horror, co-written by Michael Sheehan, Jr.:
These books are all companion volumes, and many of the tales are continuations of Lovecraft’s best stories. In addition to co-authoring the books, I also created the cover art for the books. I feel the effort was well worth it.