Lovecraftian horror evokes the fear of what we don't understand. Cosmic horror is built on ideas from beyond space and science that push us beyond our limits. Sometimes, though, it comes closer to home, and what we once thought we knew of our natural world is revealed as lies. Sometimes the horror comes from the mistrust of others around us, and here H.P Lovecraft's biggest flaw is revealed. There's a virulent strain of racism in many of Lovecraft's stories that can't be ignored.
The best love letters to the genre Lovecraft helped to create often turn these flaws upside down. The fear of the Other remains, but masters like Guillermo Del Toro and John Carpenter move it away from racist tropes and cultural stereotypes. It's common today to use cosmic horror to comment on capitalist structures or examine ourselves. The gravest horror is inside all of us, suggests these stories. The universe itself is aware, and it hates us for existing. These excellent movies explore what it's like to try to survive under that unbearable strain.
Even H.P Lovecraft could lean into the campiness of horror as a viable method of making a buck. His "Herbert West - Reanimator" novella series was written to order, and it shows. Each entry gets wilder than the last, ending on cliffhangers so weak that legendary Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is the first to admit Dr. West's tales kind of suck. It's that awfulness, however, that allows the 1985 cult horror "Re-Animator" to go off the rails and launch an orbital strike of transgressive gore and taboo situations.
In Stuart Gordon's bizarre film, Dr. West (Jeffrey Combs) is still a student obsessed with the mysteries of life, mucking around with the dead at Miskatonic University. West's landlord (Bruce Abbott) is a fellow student. West's first onscreen experiment brings his landlord's cat back to life. That's the last semi-normal moment in this flick. There are some Troma-level grotesqueries in this carnival geek festival of a movie, and an ugly moment of attempted sexual assault near the end. Overall, West's chilly behavior, moments of cornball comedy, and the screaming horror as everyone comes back wrong create one of the best and weirdest Lovecraft movies to date.
The Color Out Of Space
Richard Stanley understood two things when he set out to adapt "The Colour Out of Space," Lovecraft's story of space rocks bringing madness to the bucolic New England countryside: One, that everything would hinge on how the Color was portrayed, and two, everyone in the cast had to be ready to get weird as hell. Stanley utilizes a neon-purple palette that evokes an unearthly beauty, a gleam that seems to pulsate through our screens during the back half of the movie. And then he hired Nicholas Cage to portray the patriarch of the doomed Gardner family. Yeah, that'll do it.
It's a bonus that "The Color Out of Space" takes a swipe at Lovecraft's racism with the addition of a hydrologist as the "one sane man." Ward Phillips (whose name is a nod to Howard Phillips Lovecraft) is a young Black man who guides us along as he explores what's going wrong on the Gardner property and how it could impact the regional water reservoir. The horror is a slow burn, but once things get out of hand, wow! Some scenes are gonna stick with you. I still think about those alpacas.
It's a well-known story that Ridley Scott's fairly triumphant return to the universe he created with 1979's "Alien" in 2012's "Prometheus" derailed Guillermo Del Toro's plans to film "At The Mountains of Madness." It also still makes me mad. We want to see the giant mutated penguins, dammit! That aside, "Prometheus" is at its strongest when it's exploring the connections between humanity and its disturbingly detached humanoid ancestors.
The beats of "Prometheus are roughly similar to Lovecraft's story. An expedition to a far-off territory goes awry fast, and our scientific understanding is barely up to the task. The new riff on H.R. Giger's fleshy, biomechanical aesthetic leaves us unsure where things are occurring within the Cyclopean hugeness of the Engineer ship. And then Elizabeth Shaw's (Noomi Rapace) baby happens — new life just minutes before Weyland (Guy Pearce) is reminded of the implacability of death. Tonally, Scott matches the unknowable horror of "Alien." Your mileage may vary on the rest of the plot. I still love it.
In The Mouth Of Madness
Reclusive novelist Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) isn't the villain of John Carpenter's "In the Mouth of Madness." He's an eccentric who lets himself become enslaved to the creatures that his words bring to life. He's reduced to a character in his own world. The real villains are lurking in the empty spaces between the words on the page, ungodly horrors on the verge of invading reality (or whatever "reality" is in this metafictional horror flick).
Sam Neill is our protagonist, an insurance investigator who makes sure scams don't succeed. An unlikely series of events puts him on the tail of the vanished Sutter Cane on behalf of the author's publisher. But that's what Cane's story demands. Sam's search for Cane takes him to Hobbs End, the supposedly fictional setting of Canes stories. It's like Stephen King's Derry or Lovecraft's Arkham. Like those towns, Hobbs End takes a turn for the terrible when night falls.
Cosmic horror fans argue about whether or not "Annihilation" is a good adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's first novel in the "Southern Reach" trilogy. Taken on its own, Alex Garland's sumptuous science fiction movie is a steady slide into terror. Yes, the film backs away from the weirdness of the book's Crawler and the mystery of what later happens to the biologist. But the film's nightmare bear and the showdown underneath the lighthouse are worth the price of admission.
Oscar Isaac has a small but important role as the biologist Lena's (Natalie Portman) husband, as a soldier sent into the shimmering veil encroaching on our world. The result of his expedition and the underlying theme of self-destruction drive Lena to take part in an expedition to understand what happened. The answers are vague, opening a world of unsettling speculation. The unnatural thrum in the film's final minutes could disturb H.P. Lovecraft himself.
"Underwater" is not blockbuster quality, but there's something to this underrated slice of deep-sea horror that keeps me coming back. Kristen Stewart is part of an unusually good cast. We get to know the characters through their behaviors and not an overwrought backstory. Glimpsed between moments of their fast-paced attempts to survive disaster are tantalizing hints of something darker than greed fueling these failing deep-sea drilling stations.
The movie leaves it open as to why Tian industries opted to paint its suit bays with bleak but beautiful murals depicting possible lifeforms under the sea. There's an untold story about an abandoned drilling station and why Vincent Cassel's captain is lying about both that facility and his daughter's fate. My theory is that Tian knew exactly what it was doing when it delved into the lair of Cthulhu, Lovecraft's monstrous sleeper. Hopefully, director William Eubank will someday return to the secretive goals of Tian Industries.
Lovecraftian creatures aren't bound by our understanding of space and time, and it's this aspect that's explored in 2017's indie horror, "The Endless." Cautious and unsure of their memories, two brothers (played by the film's creators, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) return to the cult that raised them. The cult seems mostly harmless, one of those communes with a heavy focus on weird team-building exercises and smiling through the pain. But things start feeling not quite right well before the cult's patriarch leads them in drawing down the moon, which is not a metaphor. By the end, time is not on their side. Time only serves the unseen thing watching over its worshippers.
The hardest thing about surviving a cult is finding a new way to live. The hardest thing about surviving this cult is figuring out what you want for yourself before it's too late to leave. The cult's "god" is real. The cult believes it has a true purpose. It's a horrific purpose, however, that requires dying repeatedly in time loops of varying lengths for some thing's awful amusement.
Leave it to Guillermo Del Toro to make Lovecraftian horror into something heartwarming. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) himself is a nice kid with a nice dad, and he grows up into a hero who likes cats and pancakes. Although Hellboy's red cloven-hoofed appearance is in line with Christian ideas about devils, it's his trove of enemies that go all over the horror map, and the original film pushes straight into eldritch territory with campy glee.
The lumbering beast Sammael is the first Lovecraftian critter to appear in "Hellboy," a sickly green monster with tentacles streaming from its face. But behind the less upsetting villains, from Rasputin to the demi-immortal Nazi Kroenen, is the Ogdru Jahad. Leashed to hell until Anung un Rama — Hellboy's slumbering potential — rises to release them, these seven horrors of Chaos are barely glimpsed. What we do see is awful enough, making the behemoth that claims Rasputin's form a relief by comparison.
There's no one key to the mystique of Lovecraft's style of horror. However, it helps to look at those that inspired him, from Robert W. Chambers to Ambrose Bierce. It's those supernatural connections that make "Jacob's Ladder" into something frightening and unnatural. This bleak 1990 nightmare is a riff on Bierce's classic story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
"Jacob's Ladder" explores our fears of mortality and judgment. Tim Robbins is a former soldier whose grip on reality grows more tenuous every day. The haunts terrorizing him are lodged deep in his mind, flicking at the corners of his peripheral vision. When glimpsed, they're unsettling. The jittery special effects of visions in spasming agony are somehow more upsetting than any splash of gore. At the heart of this movie is a rich discussion about peace and forgiveness, but it's still a tough, traumatizing ride.
If you strip away Lovecraft's purple prose, you'll find a sleeker nightmare underneath. Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse" operates under a similar principle. Nearly the entire film takes place on the remote lighthouse island. With fleeting exceptions, the plot is in the hands of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Even the camera's eye is stripped to basics. The film is shot in black and white with a tight aspect ratio that makes the audience feel like they're crammed into the lighthouse's interior with its two flailing caretakers.
There are no answers but plenty of questions strewn throughout "The Lighthouse." What is Winslow's (Pattinson) actual identity? Is Thomas Wake (Dafoe) mad, or is he a manic sea god? Are the seabirds the ghosts of the dead, or is Winslow just tormenting himself? Why does Wake fart so much? Is it the lobster he keeps cooking? And most importantly, what in the hell is going on with the lighthouse's lantern? Your guess is as good as anyone's but Eggers', and he's never going to say. It's more fun that way.
Prince Of Darkness
From the viewpoint of critical success, "Prince of Darkness" is the weakest part of John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy. As a mash-up of science and religion, with Jesus as a space alien trying to warn us of something worse than Satan lurking in the places between subatomic particles, it's a really weird film. For half the movie, the villain is a vat of green goo. It spins menacingly while Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) has a crisis of faith.
When "Prince of Darkness" was released in 1987, theoretical physics was far from a mainstream topic. It would be another year before Stephen Hawking made the topic a little more accessible with "A Brief History of Time," but John Carpenter dives into the mysteries of the atom with gusto. A diverse crew of college kids spends the weekend with an exhausted priest to figure out what's up with the green goop, and the answers are, in the best cosmic horror tradition, beyond our comprehension. The time-shifted nightmares are this film's best sequences.
Stephen King explains the genesis of "The Mist" in his notes in his short story collection "Skeleton Crew." It's a cautionary tale about what happens when an author with a temporary case of writer's block gets bored in a grocery store. Look around you next time you're in the slow lane waiting to buy a rotisserie chicken. Someone is definitely picturing how all of you are going to die.
Frank Darabont's adaptation of "The Mist" is that fantasy but with some bite. After the credits roll, our families are fine and there are no squamous, multi-limbed abominations lurking outside our doors. "The Mist" is a stripped-down nightmare. Ordinary people have no hope against the terrible things that have lurched through this dimensional fog. King's novella tries to claw for some, grasping onto human temerity. Darabont takes the Lovecraft option, leaving the characters with no hope at all ... but not in the way we expected. "The Mist" is bleak, upsetting, and spectacular.
"Warhammer 40K" fans lay a solid claim to the splatter horror science fiction gem "Event Horizon," but they can't get there without acknowledging their own Lovecraftian roots. In both worlds, trying to cheat your way past the speed of light isn't going to end well. Folding space takes you through the fringes of hell Itself, and those that attempt the journey with open eyes aren't coming back unchanged.
"Event Horizon" amps up its grimdark elements so severely that the original cut of its most iconic sequence remains lost — probably for good. Considering what we know of the longer version of the bloody orgy the Event Horizon keeps in its record banks, it's a blessing. The film is horrific enough as it is, exploring the idea of science gone terribly wrong. "Event Horizon" features another excellent cult horror performance from Sam Neill, whose role as the widowed Dr. Weir and his descent into insanity is a clear homage to Dr. Kelvin's similar loss in the 1972 sci-fi film "Solaris."
Quintessentially cosmic, Ridley Scott's "Alien" is more than an obscenely cool riff on haunted houses in space. It takes on the flaws endemic to human nature, and the xenomorph isn't the only alien on board. The script flips Lovecraft's fear of the Other around to create another kind of faceless entity to frighten us — a corporation that cares so little for the humans under its watch that they're treated as merely disposable tools. To that end, there is a catspaw on board the Nostromo, an android that seems human and humane until its real loyalties are revealed.
"Aliens" may put a face to some of Weyland-Yutani's creatures, but it doesn't lessen their impact in the original film. If anything, it makes it worse. How can anyone look at their own kind struggling to survive and see only profit margins? It makes Ash (Ian Holm) seem almost sympathetic in hindsight. After all, humans made him. The darkest parts of "Alien" are the parts inside of us.
The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi's classic cheapie horror film "The Evil Dead" is excellent fun without its deliberate Lovecraft connections. The film's enduring appeal is owed in no small part to the way it codified the way we picture the Necronomicon. Lovecraft's infamous book of spells, written in-universe by an individual calling himself Abdul Alhazred, is a thick tome wrapped in leather. But Raimi's special effects master, Tom Sullivan, upped the ante, turning the grimoire into a semi-sentient entity in its own right, complete with an agonized face emerging from its cover bound in human skin.
It's a campy upgrade for what could have been an unassuming old book of awful magic, but it works out great in "The Evil Dead." The maliciousness of the tome feels palpable as Bruce Campbell struggles with what it can do in the doomed old cabin. The entire film is a masterclass in how to scare effectively with the least resources. The Necronomicon, referred to as "Naturom Demonto" ("The Book of the Dead") in the first film, is a central bit of world-building and helps the thin but perfect story succeed.
The neo-noir aesthetic of Alex Proyas' "Dark City" is used to perfect effect. Nothing about the city feels quite real, and we feel like the movie heightens our senses as we study its smoky lounges and bloody crime scenes. It's a mixture of hyper detail and vague intimation as Rufus Sewell's Johnn Murdoch discovers the city's terrible secret: A race of sociopathic aliens, who can be best described as necrotic parasites, have thousands of humans trapped in an experimental web. Our days are locked in whimsical cycles for the Strangers to study.
The reality behind what the characters of "Dark City" can perceive is beyond anything their time-twisted minds can usually comprehend. Murdoch does begin to pierce through the illusions, and by the end of the film, his new capabilities make him seem less human, too. In this film, there are lessons about what our sanity can take and how easy it is to change us.
"Re-Animator" director Stuart Gordon spent much of his career trying his damnedest to bring Lovecraft's stories to life, but his enthusiasm almost always pushed the result into camp. "Dagon," released in 2001, is probably his strongest attempt. It's definitely his most passionate. The camp is still there, but it's overwhelmed by the dedication Gordon and his prop team put in towards recreating Lovecraft's vision for the film's unnatural religion. The only major oddity? Despite the title, "Dagon" isn't retelling the short story of that name.
"Dagon" is a faithful modern-era adaptation of "The Shadow over Innsmouth," with a little more emphasis on the confusion between whether the city's amphibious residents are worshipping Cthulhu or Dagon. Either way, there are tentacles aplenty, and Lovecraft's original racist undertones (the original story is a veiled diatribe against race-mixing) are stripped out. As a bonus, if you're imaginative enough, you can pretend that this film's monstrous mermaids are related to the ones tormenting the distant shores of "The Lighthouse."
Clive Barker's horrors come from different roots than Lovecraft's eldritch nightmares, but the results still focus sharply on the idea of the taboo. "Hellraiser" is sexually charged, turning its humanoid abominations and their quest for the ultimate sensual experience into a satire of religion. It's important to note that the story and film were born of an era when society largely treated our LGTBTQ+ friends and family as the Other, with all the bigotry that entails. It's also important that we realize that we understand the Cenobites as little as we do ourselves.
There are also ghosts in "Hellraiser," and something awful that surges out from between the walls of reality when the film's iconic puzzle box is opened. Altogether, "Hellraiser" is a film about the secrets we hide from each other, about who we are, about what we want, and about what we're willing to do to satisfy our darkest desires. Richly emotional, "Hellraiser" is the erotic counterpart to the ascetic world Lovecraft's personal fears hide inside.
Although I'm about to laud it for trying its hardest to depict the unfilmable, 2000's "Uzumaki" may be as frustrating an experience for hardline Junji Ito fans as "Annihilation" was for fans of author Jeff VanderMeer. Instead of the final spiral, a metaphorical time loop, being the town's eternal fate, the film goes for a gory multi-body pileup that is infused with emotional greed. It's not a bad take, and the special effects and set designs are pretty good.
Ito's horrors, though gory, can be as difficult to depict as Lovecraft's indescribable entities. Partially, the issue is internal. People contort themselves horribly, with hollow-eyed stares and mumbled madness mantras. But there's a palpable aura of strangeness that comes from Ito's drawings that's hard to replicate. "Uzumaki" tries, and the results mostly succeed. There is something to our protagonist's fragile terror and the excellent individual set pieces that make this one linger.
The Cabin In The Woods
Despite his obsessions that were often centered on our fragile ideas of reality, metafiction wasn't H.P. Lovecraft's forte. His discussions were straightforward and focused on the horrors beyond, not what they might reflect about himself or the reader. Yet, he might've gotten a kick out of "The Cabin in the Woods," a movie so proudly meta and opinionated that, if you've somehow gotten this far in life without seeing it, you should stop reading right now and go watch it.
"The Cabin in the Woods" has hundreds of monsters on display for the audience to enjoy, and that's the brick joke waiting at the end of the story. The tropes and trappings of horror are a ritual to please unknowable ancient gods — blood sacrifices that keep this doomed world spinning. The final shot of a giant human hand underlines who the ancient ones have been all along: horror movie fans looking for the best deaths to groan delightedly at, and if we're not happy, Blumhouse and company don't get another annual horror franchise.
If Herbert West gave up on dead bodies and became fascinated with brains instead, he might end up looking a bit like Dr. Edward Jessup (William Hurt) in "Altered States." Jessup is a man gripped by the potential of our conscious and subconscious minds. Traveling the world, he looks for new ways to alter his brain. He's sort of a high-class version of some dude at Burning Man looking for the world's wildest peyote. Jessup eventually finds the best high on Earth in Central America, a mix of shrooms and flower roots that causes symbolic visions in its users.
Because the difference between being the local weed guy and a scientist is writing down your findings, Jessup takes his new drug home and blends his experiments with sensory deprivation. The entire film is an acid trip to begin with, but when Jessup regresses himself through the entirety of the human evolutionary cycle, we've hit weird and gone past it into "that's crazy, dude'" territory. "Altered States" is a classic experimental film and a landmark body horror experience.
John Carpenter's horror classic "The Thing" is based on the novella "Who Goes There" by John W. Campbell. A classic sci-fi horror author, Campbell had some of the same issues as Lovecraft, namely a narrow view of science and authority. To be frank, he favored racist authoritarianism. It's that far-right paranoia that fuels the original novella, a taut story about scientists racing to survive an otherworldly being that can imitate and destroy them. It's a marvelous story, but it's implacably colored by Campbell's politics.
Carpenter has never shown interest in uplifting racism, favoring diverse casts and a seeker's view on the world of horror. "The Thing" throws all scientific elitism out the window along with any intimations of classism, too. The men of the Antarctic station come from every walk of life, and they need all their wits to survive even a few hours with something beyond their understanding. The result is one of the best horror films ever, a grimacing, gory delight that turns our fear of each other into something that seems perfectly rational.
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