Translating a Lovecraft story into a film is no easy task, but here are ten underrated adaptations worth exploring for cosmic horror fans.
H.P. Lovecraft has always been — and continues to remain — a hot commodity in the world of horror. Recently (July 5th, 2022), Horror Wasteland Pictures International released a new horror film, H.P Lovecraft’s Witch House, based on Lovecraft’s short story The Dreams in the Witch House.
Last year, news broke that Spike Lee was helping produce a new film for Netflix featuring Lovecraft’s most well-known monster, Cthulhu. Titled Gordon Hemingway & the Realm of Cthulhu, no release date has been announced, but Variety reports that Stefon Bristol (See You Yesterday) is on board to direct the feature that was written by Hank Woon.
However, as popular as Lovecraft is, fans of his literary work know that turning his fictional tales of cosmic horror into an effective film is not a simple task.
To depict the sheer otherworldliness of the terrifying Elder Gods bent on humanity’s destruction challenges even some of the industry’s best directors. Guillermo del Toro, a Lovecraft fan, has had a decade-long dream of bringing AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS to the silver screen.
There are rumors of screenplays that have been written and shelved multiple times due to project cancellations, and because to be successful at a Lovecraft adaptation it all relies on building the right atmosphere of dread.
It is a challenge to give shape to the indescribable horrors that exist somewhere on the edge of a reader’s psyche, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t tried. And while these films may not win any Academy Awards and tend to stray a bit from the original source material, they are our closest attempts to bringing the Cthulhu mythology to film.
Here are the Top Ten Underrated H.P. Lovecraft adaptations that have been released since the 1960s.
1. Dagon (2001)
Dagon is a Spanish horror film directed by Stuart Gordon and It is based on Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It also shows elements of his earlier short story Dagon, which this film is named after. It has some pretty cheesy CGI effects, but it is one of the best adaptations because it shows great respect and appreciation for the source material.
From the moment the first storm comes and traps Paul, Barbara, Vicki, and Howard at sea, you can already sense the dread surrounding them. The atmosphere builds upon itself as the villagers slowly begin to show that they are something more than human and are driven by a sinister unseen creature whom they worship. It is a dark film that holds nothing good for anyone involved and this easily comes across to the audience.
Dagon is a low-budget film, but it shows a lot of heart and reverence for the unknown terrors of Lovecraft’s world. Watch it for free now on Tubi.
2. Re-Animator (1985)
Re-Animator is an undeniable cult classic. It was also directed by Stuart Gordon (who you will see often on this list) and produced by Brian Yuzna. Both men have made significant portions of their careers based on film adaptations of Lovecraft’s literature. This is also the film where we are introduced to now horror legends Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton.
It is loosely based on the 1922 serial novelette “Herbert West – Reanimator”, known to be one of Lovecraft’s least favorite of his writings. Re-Animator adds elements from the short story such as West’s constant drive to reanimate the dead, his relationship with our Narrator (who is Dan in the movie), and the conflict between West and Dean Halsey. But that is as far as the movie goes in being a faithful adaptation.
Once Dean Halsey is killed and reanimated (which does happen in the short story), the film goes a tad off the rails and gives the audience of the 80s what they want to see: practical effects, lots of blood and a naked woman. Re-Animator becomes less about the horror of West’s unethical pursuit to conquer death, and more about the chaos that ensues. However, what also makes this a good adaptation is Jeffrey Combs’ portrayal of Herbert West.
Combs has the perfect look and delivers each line with a conviction that would make an Arkham cultist concerned about his modus operandi. Watch Re-Animator for free on Tubi or Shudder.
3. Bride of Re-Animator (1990)
This film is the sequel to Re-Animator and was written and directed by Brian Yuzna. Once again it is loosely based on the short story by Lovecraft and includes elements such as West’s time in the military and his experimentation with body parts that lead to a showdown with the undead.
This is adapted from the story “V. The Horror from the Shadows” as well as “VI. The Tomb-Legions”. Bride of Re-Animator adds more elements from the short story, making it more of a faithful Lovecraft adaptation. But again, Yuzna adds elements of overt gore and body horror with its practical effects. We also get another comedic but sincere performance from Jeffrey Combs (reprising his role as Herbert West).
The unnecessary addition of the main love story our other protagonist Dan finds himself in makes this tale of corpse reanimation feel incohesive. But Lovecraft fans should definitely check it out now on Tubi.
4. From Beyond (1986)
From Beyond is another Lovecraft adaptation directed by Stuart Gordon. This film reunites Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton with another future horror legend, Ken Foree, to fight a grotesque shape-shifting monster from another dimension.
The film is VERY loosely based on the story of the same name and includes the original characters Dr. Edward Pretorius and Dr. Crawford Tillinghast. The beginning depicts what happens in the short story, but takes a science-fiction, body horror angle with Dr. Pretorius becoming something unimaginable from a world beyond our own.
While From Beyond definitely takes a creative angle in its retelling of the story, it is imaginative and entertaining. Once again, you get lots of special effects and gooey gore. You’ll likely need to rent this one, but it’s well worth the watch.
5. Castle Freak (1995)
Castle Freak is often mentioned as one of the greatest Lovecraft adaptations. It is loosely based on the short story “The Outsider” and is directed by Stuart Gordon and released by Full Moon Pictures. It also brings Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton together once again.
The film is about the Rileys, an American family, who travel to Italy to take possession of a castle that John Riley has inherited from an estranged Aunt (who is also a Duchess). It is a tale of a monster hiding within the castle walls who breaks free and becomes obsessed with the naive, blind daughter Rebecca Riley. Castle Freak reminds me of an old gothic tale yet does not hold back with the sexual imagery and brutal violence.
The film moves away from the theme of unknowable cosmic horror and closer to the stories of madness and despair found in Lovecraft’s lesser-known short stories. There are often no happy endings, and Castle Freak captures that well. You can stream it now on Tubi or Shudder, among other platforms.
6. The Unnamable (1988)
YES! Someone other than Stuart Gordon!
The Unnamable was directed by Jean-Paul Ouellette and released by Unearthed Films. It is based on the Lovecraft story of the same name and features Randoplch Carter who is a well-known character throughout Lovecraft’s work. The film is about a group of university students questioning if true fear really exists. They decide to spend the night in the haunted ‘Winthrop’ house and encounter Alyda, the demon daughter of Joshua Winthrop.
The Unnamable features many elements related to Lovecraft and Chthulu mythology such as Miskatonic University, the Necronomicon, and the mention of Old Gods. This film, like Castle Freak, is dark in its cinematography and brutal in its violence and gore.
The Unnamable plays out like a gothic horror but with a hint of Arkham madness and magic that is part of the Lovecraftian universe. Watch it now on Tubi or Prime Video.
7. Dreams in the Witch House (2005)
Another Lovecraft adaptation directed by Stuart Gordon, Dreams in the Witch House appeared in season one of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. It is filmed in a contemporary setting and minor details of the plot are adjusted to complement these changes.
It is a dark tale of a grad student, Walter, from Miskatonic University befriending his neighbor and her baby son in the decrepit rental house. From the onset, you know nothing good will come from this house and sure enough, we are treated to dreams of a rat with a human face who is familiar to the witch who lives in another dimension. She casts a spell on Walter attempting to have him bring the baby to be sacrificed.
What’s enjoyable about this small feature is seeing Lovecraft’s take on witchcraft and his attempts to connect it to the Cthulhu mythos. It is a dark story and definitely carries Gordon’s signature elements with a naked woman, sexual imagery, and lots of blood and violence.
What’s more, the ending is that bleak style of horror that is prevalent in Lovecraft. You can rent this one very inexpensively on YouTube.
8. The Dunwich Horror (1970)
When I first saw The Dunwich Horror, I didn’t really like it. However, since then I have come to appreciate what director Danial Haller tried to achieve in this film.
Instead of following the narrative of the Doctor, we are introduced to a young female student at Miskatonic University, who becomes targeted by Wilbur Whately to use her for an occult ritual from the Necronomicon to bring about one of the Old Ones, Yog-Sothoth.
The Dunwich Horror was produced by Roger Corman and stars Sandra Dee in her first adult role. She had hopes that this film would be a departure from the wholesome image she had as a child actor, and this film achieves this with a ritual sex scene that would be expected from a 70s film.
The Dunwich Horror gives us the mood/atmosphere around the occult and the sinister intentions of Wilbur, and I also appreciate the psychedelic imagery used to depict the horrors haunting the town of Dunwich.
Another adaptation was made in 2009. But stick with the original, which you can watch on Pluto TV with ads or Kanopy with a library card.
9. Necronomicon (1993)
H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon: To Hell and Back or Book of the Dead is a French-American anthology that stars Jeffrey Combs as H.P. Lovecraft who is studying the Necronomicon at a monastery for his research. This allows the film to be broken down into three segments with “The Library” tying all these pieces together.
Each segment is based on three works of Lovecraft’s; “The Drowned”, “Cool Air” and “The Whispers in the Darkness”. Brian Yuzna was involved in directing the main storyline and the final short of the film, whereas Christophe Gans and Shusuke Kaneko directed the other two.
The first segment based on “The Drowned” is atmospheric and dives right into the Eldritch mythos and horror, but the other two segments are boring and lack focus, despite the great special effects. I am also not a fan of the attempt to make Lovecraft more like an Indiana Jones-type figure at the end of the film.
Despite this, I included Necronomicon on this list because it highlights some of Lovecraft’s lesser-known works. Unfortunately, you’ll have to work to hunt this one down as it’s not currently streaming anywhere.
10. Lurking Fear (1994)
Lurking Fear deserves more love than it receives. For the Lovecraft purist, however, you are likely going to dislike this film, as it is loosely based on the short story of the same name.
The film follows an ex-con John Martense returning to his childhood home to find money hidden from his father’s last heist. Of course, nothing is what it seems at Leffert’s Corner as he stumbles into a band of citizens fighting a group of humanoid creatures who have been using the village as their feeding ground for decades. The storyline, unfortunately, gets a little bonkers by the end of the film, but perhaps with a bigger budget, cleaning up the script, and making major dialogue changes, it could have been a standout film.
The film was produced by Charles Band and distributed by Full Moon Pictures. And if you know Full Moon Pictures, then you know what to expect — a good time! You get a great cast with Ashley Laurence (Hellraiser), Vincent Schiavelli (Lord of Illusions) and of course, Jeffrey Combs, sporting a magnificent beard.
While the film goes a little off the rails by the end, the big reveal is dark, just as it was in the short story. Watch it for free on Tubi.