HP Lovecraft, much-discussed pulp horror author and Woodrow Wilson lookalike, was born (or transferred into this world from a watery beyond) in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a traveling salesman, went insane as a complication of syphilis when young Howard Phillips was three years old. The elder Lovecraft was confined to a mental hospital until his death in 1898. Sickly and somewhat unstable as a lad, HP Lovecraft showed a knack for writing (poetry, mostly) despite the fact that he spent little time in school. He was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather, and it was his grandfather who first read Gothic horror stories to HP. His mother disapproved, fearing that the stories would upset the child, who already suffered from, among other things, night terrors. Lovecraft’s academic studies, such as they were — he dreamed of becoming a professional astronomer — were stymied by his inability to do well in higher mathematics. Upon the death of the grandfather in 1908, the Lovecrafts hit upon hard times. The family moved into a smaller home, and young Lovecraft led a largely solitary existence, his mother being more or less the only person with whom he spent any time.
HP’s first experience as a published writer came after he sent a cranky letter to Argosy magazine, complaining about how poor their romance stories were. A debate flared up in the pages of the magazine, letter columns being the online discussion forums of the day. Through that, Lovecraft caught the eye of the United Amateur Press Association, which invited him to become a member. Shortly thereafter, Lovecraft wrote his first professionally published story, Dagon, which appeared in 1919 in the publication The Vagrant, and then was reprinted in 1923 in Weird Tales.
Weird Tales would become the home for the bulk of Lovecraft’s writing for his entire career. Although it’s easiest to drop Lovecraft’s writing into the genre of horror, anyone who has read his stories knows that they are more complicated. Lovecraft’s interest in science and astronomy led him to explore a more abstract realm, and ultimately, Weird Tales was the perfect title not just for the magazine that published so much of his work, but also for the genre of fiction he wrote. Most famously, Lovecraft created a pantheon of ancient… not even evils… ancient things that existed beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. Referred to collectively as the Cthulhu mythos, these legends caught the imagination of other pulp writers, who would sometimes pen tales in the style of Lovecraft and allude to Lovecraft’s ancient gods and his most famous creation, the damned tome The Necronomicon.
The Necronomicon was a book containing such foul and maddeningly evil knowledge and rites that to even know of the existence of the book — let alone read something in it — was enough to terrify a man into insanity. The Necronomicon took on a life of its own, being used as a prop in countless books and movies (the best known of which is probably Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead). Although the book was a fictional invention of Lovecraft’s, many believed that it existed, or that it was at least based on a very similar actual tome. Pranksters and hucksters both saw an opportunity. Phony card catalog entries for the book, under the purported author’s name Abdul Alhazred, started popping up in libraries. Sometime in the 1970s, an alleged “true” copy of The Necronomicon surfaced. It was printed in trade paperback in 1980, suckering generations of would-be occultists who thought they’d stumbled upon a tome of unspeakable power sitting next to the Edgar Cayce paperbacks on the shelves of Waldenbooks.
In 1923, Lovecraft got married and moved to New York. He finally made some friends, but he and his wife fell on hard times almost immediately. She moved to Cleveland to seek employment, and Lovecraft stayed in Red Hook. His inability to secure a decent job amidst all the gainfully employed immigrants contributed greatly to the racism that mars some of the author’s work but was not out of character for many pulp writers at the time. Lovecraft was raised in an environment that seems to have been equal parts hysterical insanity (his mother was eventually committed to the same asylum his father had died in) and the arrogance of entitled Anglo-Saxons who have fallen from grace. Lovecraft eventually moved back to Providence, and though the return to his place of birth marked the beginning of his most prolific and successful period as a writer (most of his best-known stories come from this time), he was unable to do anything other than eke out the most meager of existences. In 1936, his long-time friend and correspondent Robert E. Howard committed suicide, casting Lovecraft into an even deeper pit of depression. Shortly after that, Lovecraft was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. His remaining few months were spent malnourished and in constant pain. He died in March of 1937.
Even though his works have since been embraced as exceptional, and even though many of them have been adapted into movies, Lovecraft himself remains a little-used character in film — especially compared to, say, Edgar Allan Poe, who pops up as a character (sometimes in movies based on his own writing) with some frequency. In 1993, after a successful partnership with director Stuart Gordon that yielded two well-regarded Lovecraft adaptations (Re-Animator and From Beyond), producer Brian Yuzna began work on a solo Lovecraft project, Necronomicon, in which HP Lovecraft is an actual character, though the Lovecraft of Yuzna’s creation bears little resemblance to the actual man.
Necronomicon is an anthology film. Considering the names behind this anthology — besides Yuzna himself producing the movie and directing two segments (the final story as well as the wrap-around story that features Jeffrey Combs as HP Lovecraft), two other directors were called in for the project—Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill) and Shusuke Kaneko (the Gamera films from the 1990s. Like all anthology films, this one features a framing story, one in which Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond) plays HP Lovecraft, comes to the library of some esoteric monastic order in search of The Necronomicon. While perusing its pages of evil, Lovecraft is inspired to write three short stories which, miraculously, all take place in time periods that came years long after Lovecraft’s death. If you were going to pick someone to play Lovecraft, it might as well be Jeffrey Combs. After his turn as the delightfully cracked and amoral Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator, Combs was (and is) as identified with Lovecraft as Yuzna and Stuart Gordon — perhaps more so, since he was the face in front of the camera. And although Combs plays Lovecraft with all of his signature twitchy quirkiness, there’s really very little of the morose, haunted, and perpetually defeated author in the depiction. Instead, Lovecraft is slightly unhinged, and uncontainably enthusiastic about unlocking the incomprehensible truths of the universe (presumably so that he might sell them to Weird Tales for a pittance and buy himself a can of beans).
The first tale is “The Drowned, “directed by Christophe Gans. It’s supposedly based on the story The Rats in the Wall, but that’s an extremely loose “based on,” which I guess is nothing out of the ordinary for Lovecraft adaptations. The written story is of a man and his ill-named cat who purchase and rebuild the ancient family estate in England after World War One. As is always the case, the locals shun the place with manic terror that the new owner scoffs at. As the renovations near completion, the man and his cat hear scurrying behind the walls, presumably caused by rats even though there’s no history of a rodent infestation, even when the estate was in disrepair. They eventually trace the sound to an underground catacomb, where, after assembling a team of academics to excavate this exciting new site, a nightmarish discovery awaits them. “The Drowned” film version is about a man who inherits an old ancestral home. And that’s about the sum total of what it has in common with The Rats in the Walls.
Set in what looks like sometime in the 1940s, despite the framing story being set in Lovecraft’s lifetime, “The Drowned” tells the story of unfortunate Edward De Lapoer (Bruce Payne), who inherits a decrepit old manor perched atop a cliff overlooking the tumultuous sea. You know the place. You all wish you could inherit one, too. I know I do. The real estate agent implores De Lapoer to sell the place before the entire foundation crumbles into the sea. De Lapoer seems hesitant, and he spends the night in the old property, reading a letter left to him by an ancestor. The letter is a fever dream of horrors, telling the story-within-the-story of Jethro De Lapoer (Richard Lynch), whose wife and son were drowned. Avowing that no God would let such a tragedy happen, he swears off Christianity. Later, he’s visited by a bizarre fisherman who gives him a mysterious tome: The Necronomicon (cue dramatic musicial sting). Jethro De Lapoer uses it to resurrect his loved ones, but soon discovers the price of meddling with such dark and arcane knowledge. Faced with the unspeakable horror of what he has done, Jethro throws himself from the ledge. Edward De Lapoer, who lost his own beloved in an auto accident, takes the wrong lesson from this cautionary tale.
Although not directly based on any Lovecraft tale, “The Drowned” does feel suitably Lovecraftian. Gans certainly puts effort into cramming as many Lovecraft tropes into the short running time as he can. There’s the mysterious, crumbling New England location, the sea, fish monsters and squid things, and of course, at the center of it all, the book that unlocks secrets so dark that the human mind that seeks them can never hope to comprehend the true cost of delving into such things — at least until it’s too late. It’s a pretty effective segment. Paine’s acting tends toward the melodramatic. Richard Lynch is great, as is his way. It’s got some good creepy stuff, as well as a decently action-packed finale. The scene in which Jethro realizes how little he understood about the resurrection process is superbly chilling, and though Edward’s mistake results in a more monster-fight oriented finale, it’s in keeping with the spirit of Lovecraft.
Savor it, because the next segment, Shu Kaneko’s “The Cold”, will leave you cold when it should be chilling. Har har. Believe me, as bad as that sentence was, this segment is worse. Based on the Lovecraft tale Cool Air, Kaneko’s segment is about a reporter who confronts a young woman (Bess Meyer) about her mysterious past, which includes the disappearance of a local scientist and the discovery of a number of bodies around her neighborhood. Once again, this is a modern setting despite the framing story placing Lovecraft’s discovery of it in the 1930s. But really, what are you gonna do? Just let it go at this point (otherwise the third segment of the movie is going to drive you bonkers). The woman tells the reporter about her mother, who moved into a boarding house and befriended the reclusive Dr. Madden (David Warner). Madden is reclusive not because he doesn’t like people, but because he suffers from a rare ailment that requires him to stay in near-freezing temperatures lest he burst and boil. He and the woman strike up a friendship which turns into a romance, much to the consternation of the landlord (Millie Perkins), who also loved the afflicted doctor. Of course, this is a scientist in a Lovecraft story (sort of), so it’s not like he’s working on anything sane or a project that doesn’t require a fresh supply of bodies.
It’s hard to believe that the man who breathed such life and energy into the Gamera series, then did the same thing for Godzilla, could have been responsible for such a lifeless slog. There’s no Lovecraft about the tale. The twist is more of a Twilight Zone twist. No, scratch that. It’s more of a Tales from the Darkside twist. Kaneko was aiming for something relatively high, relying on characters and melodrama instead of gross-out outrageousness, but everything falls flat. There’s not really any character to the characters, and thus there’s no real reason to invest oneself in their situation. Whereas the first story relies on its share of head-clutching melodrama and howling in terror (as befits a Lovecraft story), the characters are broad enough for it to work. There is nothing subtle about them. But this second segment seems to think it possesses subtlety. It doesn’t, and that leaves us with a thin, unengaging failure. Kaneko was a good director, and his screenwriter, Kazunori Ito, had written some incredible stuff (including Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, and Dirty Pair). He had what it took to write a good Lovecraft story, but the end result is a misfire.
Perhaps sensing the lackluster quality of the middle segment, the final story goes to Yuzna himself. As a writer and director, Yuzna benefits greatly from having someone around to reel him in. Otherwise, his enthusiasm and fondness for the outrageous can get the better of him, causing his directorial efforts to collapse in a delirious mess. His story in this anthology, “The Whisperer,” seems like it’s about to go totally off the rails at any moment, with Yuzna perched atop it clutching the reigns in a desperate attempt to keep some sort of control. He doesn’t pull it off, but in this case, his wildly careening insanity is a welcome injection of energy after Kaneko’s dry corpse of a story.
To say that this segment is based on Lovecraft’s The Whisperers in the Darkness is to stretch the meaning of “based on” even more than the first segment did. The Whisperers in the Darkness is both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories and one I find intensely irritating. It’s the story of a young academic who associates with an aging man who is convinced that his remote farmhouse is being stalked by strange creatures from deep within the woods. In time, the young academic sees and hears the physical proof of what the professor fears. The story is slow but well-paced, building effectively up to one of the stupidest “we’re just doing this because the author says to” moments I’ve ever read. The academic is terrified as he watches his aging friend being driven mad by these mysterious creatures. The correspondence he receives becomes increasingly panicked and hopeless. And then all of a sudden, a new letter arrives, written in a completely different tone, typed instead of handwritten, assuring the young academic that everything is cool. He should come out for a visit. Also, bring every shred of evidence he has about the existence of the creatures. And the idiot falls for it!
Yuzna’s adaptation makes brief mention of one element of the original story’s plot — brains being transferred into canisters that allow a person’s consciousness to travel immense distances through space — but that’s about it, and that occupies about fifteen seconds of time in a story that is such a parade of manic insanity that it’s easy to miss. Yuzna’s version of the story is about Sarah (Signy Coleman), a cop chasing a serial killer. When her squad car crashes and her partner/lover (and the father of her unborn baby) is dragged out of the wreckage by the killer, Sarah is launched into a bizarre netherworld beneath the city where dwells a slimy “monster” and a completely insane couple, one of whom is Don Calfa (Ernie the embalmer from Return of the Living Dead). The unabashed insanity is welcome, and although the manic tone of the story is far from the brooding menace of Lovecraft, Yuzna’s story still manages to identify with the author by presenting viewers with a nearly incomprehensible horror.
After that madness, we return to Jeffrey Combs’ HP Lovecraft, finally realizing the horror that reading The Necronomicon has unleashed beneath the monastery library…but, really, it hardly even registers after Brian Yuzna has delivered a full, concentrated blast of Brian Yuzna. So, a mixed bag. It seems like the middle story in an anthology is always the crappy one, and while I understand that dropping the bad story in the middle means you can start and end strong, it also kills momentum. Instead of putting the weakest story in the middle, why not just avoid having a weak story in the first place? If only Yuzna had been able to nab Stuart Gordon for a segment instead of Kaneko, who just seems out of his medium.
Oh well, like Meatloaf says, two out of three ain’t bad.