Say it with tentacles: A critical review of some H. P. Lovecraft inspired shorts

I have mixed feelings about the gentrification of H. P. Lovecraft. On the one hand, it’s nice to see one of the most influential horror writers, and certainly one of the absolute horror masters, of the 20th century getting some name recognition. Almost everyone knows Lovecraftian themes; they just happen to know them secondhand, possibly through the works of Stephen King, Nick Pizzolatto or Joss Whedon. On the other, there’s a kind of reductionism at work here. See, I’m not some Johnny-come-Yith-ly when it comes to Lovecraft. My Lovecraftian cred is cemented by the first Lovecraftian tome I ever purchased: “The Transition of H. P. Lovecraft.” Why does this back me up? Just look at that cover: Bosch or Giger-esque humanoids struggling in torment. Nowhere do you see Cthulhu–who has become more of a household name than Lovecraft himself–and that would not fly these days. If you’re going to sell a Lovecraft book, it’s gotta have Cthulhu on the cover.

See, there are people who think that you can evoke the eldritch one by tossing in some tentacles or cracking open a copy of the “Necronomicon.” Nuts, says I. There is far more to Lovecraft than Cthulhu. And to prove it, here are a couple of fan works that manage to plumb the nautical depths of Lovecraft and come up with something to add to the ongoing saga of HPL.

“The Testament of Tom Jacoby” (2001)

I want to start off with this effort by Edward Martin III et al because of what it doesn’t do, not what it does. It doesn’t move, for one; it’s a collection of stills, sepia stained to invoke the period, so all the attention is paid to the image, which I value very much. Also, “Testament” drains the supernatural from Lovecraft’s work without losing the abnormal, a reminder that, despite their fantastic element, the mythos were primarily psychological. Finally, the film is inspired by “The Beast in the Cave,” an earlier, lesser known work, so that automatically earns points from me.

“The Call” (2014)

PH Debies’ “The Call” does two interesting things with its two minutes of footage. First, its “Shadow Over Innsmouth”-by-way-of-”True Detective” narrative is subtly indicative of the debt modern writers owe Lovecraft; second, it suggests the theme of “bad blood,” something that is prominent in much of Lovecraft’s work but tends to be forgotten in adaptations. Often, the monster within is worse than the monster without. It’s also just a pleasant piece of atmosphere.

“The Hound” (1997)

And if it’s atmosphere you’re after, look no further than Anthony Penta’s “The Hound.” While it’s fair to compare this short to the works of Val Lewton’s suggest-don’t-tell technique–a strategy Lovecraft shared, making him a literary Lewton (or Lewton a cinematic Lovecraft)–I think it’s as appropriate to compare it to the German expressionism of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or “Secrets of a Soul.” There is a stylized stagey-ness to the proceedings–and I mean that as a compliment. The film is also shot silent, and silents were, out of necessity, the most aggressively visual that filmmaking–a basically visual medium–has ever been. By shooting his subject in silence and shadow during the drawn out final sequence, Penta perfectly presents the nihlistic philosophy of both the story and its author.

“Antiques Roadshow: Arkham Mass.” (2005)

I’ve saved the best for last, or at least the funniest. “Antiques Roadshow” is almost a game of “spot the Lovecraft reference,” but, like any good satire, it’s slyly critical of the work it’s satirizing. For example, why is it that the Miskatonic University library lends out the “Necronomicon” to every researcher, sea captain and voodoo priest who happens to stop by? You’d think that at some point someone would have put a block on a lot of library accounts. However, the cultist’s response to the host’s question–“Is there something in the water?”–is perhaps the best summation of Lovecraft’s mythos.

“Cutethulhu” (2003)

All right, so one more, and it’s also amusing. “Cutethulhu” doesn’t really add anything to the Lovecraft mythos, but it does answer this question: What might HPL think if he saw what’s happened to his darling dark deity today?

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