Sadly, there are very few Lovecraft-based films that succeed in communicating the Master’s ideas, themes, and feeling-toned prose. There have been loads of bad movies made and claiming to be made on Lovecraftian motifs, inside and outside the US, and most are ludicrous failures. All too many newcomers to Lovecraft, as well as all too many over-eager fans, rush to produce “a Lovecraft film,” only to end up violating Lovecraft on every level.
One such well-known filmic monstrosity, The Dunwich Horror, (starring Guy Stockwell, Sandra Dee, and Ed Bagley) takes its title from Lovecraft’s novella, and then proceeds to savage the narrative. Even allowing for its (badly executed) updating to modern times, the movie introduces elements completely foreign to HPL’s writing, such as a “cute, young” female protagonist (not found in the original story); the main character Wilber Whately – in HPL’s tale a human-alien hybrid – is portrayed as a “Mod” dabbler in the occult; a stereotypical presentation of the supernatural mostly severed from HPL’s own unique magical-demonic-alien realms; location filming done on the California coast as opposed to the novella’s setting of rural Massachussetts (in which no oceans, Pacific or Atlantic, figure at all)… and many other troublesome departures from the tale as HPL told it.
This situation is paralleled in any number of films claiming to be based on Lovecraft’s stories: too many veerings-away, for no apparent reason except indulgence of a producer’s ego and manufacturing mass/youth market “appeal.” This even exists in films not crediting HPL for their major themes, but which “borrow” a Lovecraftian story line, an alien, a monster, a ritual or whatnot, only to misrepresent even those dessicated remains of the original.
How to fix this deplorable situation? Not being a film maker or screenwriter, I’m not sure, but here are some intuitions based on the principle of making excellence and faithfulness to source material essential:
1) Do the film as HPL wrote the story. Do the stories as period pieces. Film in color or b&w, but preserve Lovecraft’s settings.
2) Update, but don’t mutilate, the story. Do not introduce obnoxious, cliched, shallow young characters (very few of HPL’s characters are ever very young) from stock/schlock horror movies. Very little cursing (there is none in Lovecraft), no cheap jokes and goofing around (none in Lovecraft), no sex (there is none in Lovecraft, except as related or implied at a distance), no non-Lovecraftian occult themes, demons, aliens, etc… no non-Lovecraftian rationales or explanations. You are showcasing Lovecraft, not Richard Matheson, William Peter Blatty, Ridley Scott, Fritz Leiber, E. A. Poe, Rod Serling, Peter Straub, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrik, Erik Von Daaniken, or any other contributor to the genre, regardless of his or her relative value.
3) Provide an original, serious musical score. No pop/rock, no bands, no soloists, and no synthesizers if they can be avoided. No “experimental” atonal electronic stuff, either. Incidental music, even if pop/rock, should be presented naturalistically (e.g., a radio or TV playing in the background). Do not sell the film, or its soundtrack, on the “merits” of pop music and commercial bands and musicians. If you can’t afford a film composer, hire a competant music editor, preferably someone with experience in locating and applying public domain and classical music for films, commercials, and documentaries.
4) Have the $$ to provide realistic, convincing sfx. If you don’t have the money, scrap the project. You don’t need to make a film that has inadequate or laughable sfx. Lovecraft deserves state of the art production values – music, sound, photography, editing… and sfx. Don’t sink your film from the get-go because you don’t have funding for convincing sfx. If another, wealthier producer really ought to be doing “your” film, be humble and accept it, or offer your script to or collaborate with more able artists. After all, this is Lovecraft you are representing.
5) Do not time-stretch a short story that should occupy only 45 minutes of screen time into the standard nearly-two-hour epic. Do give the story its proper time allowance. If it’s too short, then shoot (say) another one or two short stories – make it a trilogy or an anthology.
6) Do not evaluate for HPL. Present his ideas without commentary, modification, expansion, or deletion. He is the Master, you are his presenter. Don’t forget that pecking order.
7) For Azathoth’s sake: Pay attention to Lovecraft’s narrative, and to his story-telling. Pace the film as the story itself is paced. Naturally you will have difficulties with a tale like The Shadow Out of Time. Juggle as necessary, but be conservative. Tread lightly.
8) For the love of Cthulhu: Scrap the project if the story as written doesn’t seize and inspire you. Film Steve King instead – or someone else whose material spurs you to make movies. Leave Lovecraft for Lovecraft lovers.
9) Keep whatever horrifies and fascinates you about the story firmly in your mind’s eye at all times. If it is Lovecraft’s story that scares you, that inspires your awe, then communicate the story’s “horror and awe” feeling-tone as faithfully as you can. Remember, you are telling Lovecraft’s story, not King’s or Straub’s or Craven’s – or your own.
10) Be respectful, if not reverential. You are using HPL’s material. Recognize that in putting his ouevre on the silver screen, you owe that work – and HPL – a lot. Don’t be cocky. Serve the material. Don’t allow it to serve you. Approach it with humility. Don’t be out to improve on it. If you want to improve on Lovecraft, you’re not a true afficionado and you should be doing other projects.
I could probably say more, but these ten points present the gist of it: If you’re going to do Lovecraft, do Lovecraft… or leave him alone. Do not produce another in a long line of disgraces.