Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

By Brian M. Sammons

fear_unknownLovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. Director: Frank H. Woodward. Cast: John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub.

Welcome back, my fellow Cthulhu-heads, I figured we would try something new today. Don’t worry; we won’t be needing the peanut butter, staff of Koth, and the copy of the 1931 Farmer’s Almanac just yet. We’ll save those for another time. No, today, we’re going to take a break from the fiction and focus on the real. In this case I’m talking about a brand-new documentary on the man who started it all for us, one Howard Philips Lovecraft.

This doc runs the chronological gambit from Lovecraft’s infancy to his untimely death. Actually, it starts before that with Howard’s parents and various tragedies that befell both of them and how that shaped HPL as both a person and a writer. It is packed with surprisingly-candid photos (I never even thought Lovecraft could smile), art inspired by various aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the usual Biography Channel highlights, such as relationships between Howard and his friends, family, and short-term wife, Sonia Greene. His writing career naturally gets a lot of attention paid to it and shows off the highs and lows, his successes, and even his failures, equally. All of this is very well-done and quite informative, but what make this documentary truly stand out are three things. The first is the in-depth discussions of several of Lovecraft’s most well-known, best, and influential stories. Then there’s the complete portrait of the man that is so seldom shown and finally, the interviews of modern masters of the macabre who share their thoughts on the gentleman from Providence.

We’ll start with the stories because after all, that’s really what it’s all about. “The Outsider”, “Rats in the Walls”, “Herbert West: Re-animator”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “At the Mountains of Madness”, and many other tales are discussed at length. A general overview of each is given: their publishing history, the pittance Lovecraft made for his works, and how they impacted the world of horror both in their own time and for many years to come. Now, if you’ve never read these stories, then some spoilers will be gleaned from their discussion, but hopefully, it will also give you the final kick in the pants you may have needed to pick up these classic tales and give them a read. Or, if you’re an old hand at Lovecraft, but somewhat of a lapsed reader of his stories, it might spur you into rereading some of these classic tales like it did for me.

I also appreciated the honest depiction of HPL as a real man and that means warts and all. Some fans of Lovecraft often gloss over his more-unpleasant bits and I get the sense of protectiveness one feels for their heroes, but just seeing the creative genius of Lovecraft while turning a blind eye to his flaws is only seeing half the man, not to mention doing him a disservice. Yes, Lovecraft wrote some amazing stories, but he had some really bad ideas. You can appreciate the one without condoning the other. However, if the word “racist” appearing in the same sentence as “Lovecraft was a…” greatly upsets you, then you maybe need to (A) come to terms with the truth and/or (B) perhaps not watch this film.

There, with that ugly, but I think necessary, bit of honesty out of the way, we can move on to the big-name guest stars all singing the praises of Ech’Pe’El. Film directors such as John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, and Stuart Gordon join authors like Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin Kiernan, Robert M. Price, Lovecraft authority S. T. Joshi, and others to share their thoughts on the author and his stories that have left such an indelible impression on their own lives and works. Seeing how Lovecraft influenced these master storytellers really shows how long the shadow from this odd New Englander has stretched. As a bonus, some of these people have some really funny tales to tell, and humor is always welcome in a medium that tends to be dry and stuffy, like documentaries.

And as if all the above weren’t enough, if you get this film on DVD, which is the most likely way you’ll see it, the disc comes with over an hour of even more interviews on a variety of other topics, again some quite funny, like: was Lovecraft a secret Buddhist, is the Cthulhu Mythos real, and why Hollywood can’t seem to pull its collective head out of its ass and finally do a good, studio-backed Lovecraft adaptation. There are also the little info nuggets sprinkled throughout that even I didn’t know about, and I’m pretty cocky when it comes to showing off my HPL street cred. Case in point, did you know John Carpenter once tried to get NBC to do a miniseries based on “The Colour out of Space”? Naturally, the idiotic suits running the show said, ‘No,’ but you’ve just got to wonder, how awesome would that have been?

Now, friends, the stars are starting to become not right, and my crypt door is slowly closing, so before my island sinks back beneath the waves until next we meet, let me leave you with these final words. This is a top-rate, exceptionally informative, and entertaining documentary that even people who never heard of H. P. Lovecraft would enjoy watching. That’s truly saying something. However, if you are a fan of Big Daddy Lovecraft, then you simply must see this film; there is no excuse not to. No matter how much you already know about HPL, I’m sure there will be lots of new stuff about the man and his stories in here for you to learn. That, and it’s just always fun reminiscing about things you love.

Final verdict: come on, it’s a documentary about H. P. Lovecraft. It simply can’t get more Lovecraftian than that. Do yourself a huge favour and get this DVD, already.

Purchase Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown through