While cosmic horror is often inspired by Lovecraft, many modern filmmakers have delivered terror beyond realms previously explored.
Cosmic horror is having something of a renaissance right now. Usually, H. P. Lovecraft is considered the grandfather of this mysterious subgenre. While Lovecraft’s influence can definitely be felt across the last century of horror fiction, in more recent decades, cosmicism has expanded beyond its pulp literary roots and become a major theme in films, television, and video games.
But what distinguishes cosmic horror from other kinds of horror?
I would narrow this down to two closely related features: weirdness and anti-anthropocentrism.
“Weirdness” seems self-explanatory, but I mean something very specific with this term. As Mark Fisher explained in his book The Weird and the Eerie (2017), the weird is different from the uncanny. Uncanniness describes something familiar that is made strange. By this definition, most classic monsters are uncanny. Zombies, vampires, and werewolves are uncanny entities because they take the familiar form of the human but transgress or distort that category in some way.
The weird, on the other hand, describes something that “should not be” that is completely alien to human experience and defies explanation.
When Lovecraft’s characters try to describe non-Euclidean geometry or entities outside space and time, these images are nearly impossible to wrap our heads around. We can only imagine them through suggestion, and their motivations are largely unknowable.
Weirdness effortlessly elides with the anti-anthropocentrism so common to cosmic horror.
By anti-anthropocentrism, I mean the theme of human insignificance in the larger context of the universe. In cosmic horror, the human encounters something weird. Narratively, this usually results in a realization of how expansive the universe is and how meaningless human experience is in comparison. The weird entity exceeds the epistemological bounds of the human; we don’t have categories to understand it or to describe it properly. Our ways of explaining the universe are insufficient and can never capture something so beyond us.
In cosmic horror, fear emerges out of this moment of revelation and the ensuing existential dread. Here are five of the best cosmic horror films that aren’t direct Lovecraft adaptations.
1. Dark Waters (1993, dir. Mariano Baino)
Dark Waters is a strange production.
It was made by an Italian filmmaker with an English script and shot in Ukraine right after the fall of the Soviet Union. It also combines cosmic horror with an unlikely bedfellow: nunsploitation.
In Dark Waters, a woman named Elisabeth (played by Louise Salter) travels to a creepy island convent that her now-deceased father has been supporting through financial donations. But the nuns on the island may have more sinister motives than meet the eye.
Drenched in atmosphere and meticulously creepy sound design (the constant rain and dripping water is just one example), Dark Waters is a slow-burn that is ultimately quite rewarding, as long as you don’t mind a thin narrative.
Despite its low budget, the film maintains a foreboding tension throughout and never quite becomes cheesy; it’s definitely worth checking out.
2. Banshee Chapter (2013, dir. Blair Erickson)
Banshee Chapter is sometimes described as an adaptation of Lovecraft’s From Beyond, though it only preserves that story’s main concept.
In Banshee Chapter, a reporter named Anne (played by Katia Winter) investigates the disappearance of her friend James and, in the process, teams up with the slightly deranged counterculture writer Thomas Blackburn (played by Ted Levine).
This movie combines the US government’s MK-Ultra drug experiments with the classic cosmic-horror scenario of tearing the veil off reality. And what lies behind the veil is truly terrifying.
This might be the most traditionally “scary” film on this list. Some people don’t like that Banshee Chapter sometimes relies heavily on jump-scares, but these jump-scares are just one aspect of the horror.
The all-pervading atmosphere of dread is what elevates this movie and makes it essential viewing for cosmic horror fans.
3. The Void (2016, dir. Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie)
The Void is a marvel of low-budget Canadian horror.
Made for less than 100,000 dollars, The Void manages to deliver perfectly convincing performances, a creepy setting, and amazing practical effects.
Policeman Daniel (played by Aaron Poole) and several other people (including veteran Canadian horror actor Art Hindle) become trapped in a hospital besieged by hooded cultists. Their motivations are entirely unclear at first. But the true threat may be connected to someone within the group of protagonists and something buried deep in the bowels of the hospital.
The Void wears its influences on its sleeve, with obvious visual references to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987).
If you don’t mind the lack of originality in concept, you’re bound to love the goopy effects and the creepy, enigmatic conclusion.
4. They Remain (2018, dir. Philip Gelatt)
They Remain is an unfairly maligned film.
Yes, it is an extremely slow burn in which very little actually happens. But while it lacks standard narrative drive, it makes up for this with an eerie atmosphere and absolutely stunning cinematography.
The film really only has two characters: scientists Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and Keith (William Jackson Harper). These scientists are sent out to investigate a mysterious wilderness site that was the habitation of a doomsday cult. The cult has inexplicably disappeared, but the natural environment might have traces of its presence.
As scientists study this site, they begin to be affected by it.
Based on a short story by Laird Barron (a writer deeply influenced by Lovecraft), They Remain might bore you to death, or it might suck you into its foreboding world of subtle hallucinatory horror.
Don’t expect to get many answers at the end of the movie; the journey is the point.
If you liked Annihilation (2018), this one is probably for you.
5. The Empty Man (2020, dir. David Prior)
The Empty Man (2020), directed by David Prior, is perhaps the most successful cosmic horror film I’ve ever seen.
While its reception was mixed, it deserves praise for perfectly capturing the elements of weirdness and anti-anthropocentrism central to the subgenre. This can be seen in the film’s astounding twenty-five-minute cold open, in which a group of backpackers in Bhutan (one of which is played by The Void’s Aaron Poole) encounter a grotesque, inhuman skeleton in a rock crevice. This thing’s very existence defies explanation.
In The Empty Man’s primary plot, former police officer James Lasombra (played by James Badge Dale) decides to assist his friend Nora (played by Marin Ireland) in locating her missing daughter, who may have become involved with a murderous cult. As the narrative progresses, James starts to piece together the mystery of various murders and disappearances and starts to realize that his own past might be implicated.
The Empty Man is a deeply fatalistic and almost misanthropic film; it comes very close to capturing the nihilistic tone of the best cosmic horror literature, from Lovecraft to Thomas Ligotti.
If you like your cosmicism with a dash of police procedural, check this one out.