Dir. Frank H. Woodward
Written by Frank H. Woodward
Starring Neil Gaiman, Ramsay Campbell, John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Stuart Gordon, Peter Staub
OK, you got me. This is not so much a horror film as it is a biographic film about H. P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century writer who was into tentacles back when “tentacle porn” was a genre like “torture porn” instead of a keyword you should never ever google at work. Lovecraft’s uniquely twisted mind was behind a huge amount of the horror iconography of the last century, and seems poised to remain one of the most influential horror figures of all time. His work is so ubiquitous in the field that you’d almost be hard-pressed to find any major horror writer, director, production designer, or special effects wiz who isn’t aware of him and influenced by his work. I would venture to guess, even, that he’s the most adapted horror author ever (maybe only Poe and King come close). True, those adaptations are sometimes loose to the point of irrelevance, but it almost doesn’t matter because Lovecraft’s impact on the very expression of our fears is so pervasive that it works it way into other forms, regardless of the specific story.
This excellent documentary by Frank Woodward doesn’t quite dare outright ask the most obvious question about Lovecraft, which is, “why?” Woodward and his talking heads offer a few telling incidents that might have shaped the young Providence, RI native’s warped imagination, but mostly they’re simply content to tell his story. While it might be a little disappointing to anyone hoping for a psychological freak show, the film still proves engaging and relevant in it’s simple narrative telling of the man’s life.
Part of its charm is the obvious, genuine depth of love and knowledge all the assembled parties have for and about Lovecraft. At first it seems like Woodward has called the usual celebrity documentary whores; John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman... I can only assume Slash was busy that day. Neil Gaiman was in THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS, for God’s sake, the guy just can’t say no to a documentary film crew. But it turns out these folks are not just casual fans looking for publicity, they’re legitimate experts with seriously thoughtful takes on Lovecraft’s life and work that go well beyond their own artistic output. Even with all those welcomed faces, though, my happiest moments came from many-time Lovecraft-adapter Stuart Gordon, who seems to possess an encyclopedic knowledge not only of Lovecraft’s work, but of the minute details of his life. I never doubted that Gordon was a true fan, but watching the dumpy, bespectacled Gordon effortlessly throw out obscure dates and facts about Lovecraft’s life like an academic biographer... well, that can’t help but make you smile. The professional Lovecraft academics contribute plenty of interesting content as well, of course, but something about Gordon’s impressive working knowledge of his idol simply makes me boundlessly happy. All that, AND there's a serious discussion regarding the correct pronunciation of C'thulu!
|Yep, this is where OLDBOY got the idea.|
But as much fun as it is to listen to the likes of Gordon or John Carpenter speculate about Lovecraft’s state of mind during his brief and unhappy stay in New York City, the man of the hour is Lovecraft himself, and his short, dismal life. Lovecraft, born in 1890, was a man out of time, an awkward, conflicted, inflexible and by all accounts personally and socially nonfunctional fellow torn between grandiose vanity and self-loathing. His father died in a madhouse, and his mother was part of a strict religious sect that didn’t allow her to touch her son (guess what: she eventually ended up in the nuthouse herself!). The family’s fortunes declined and Lovecraft was barely able to sustain himself with his writing (he was never the most prolific writer anyway), living out most of his life in a quiet insular haze of crushing depression, anonymity, and virulent racism.
To its credit, the film is pretty honest in its exploration of Lovecraft’s less admirable traits. Unlike many biographies, it doesn’t just let him off the hook by saying he was a product of his time. Several people correctly point out that it’s not like he was writing in 1870 -- his last works were published almost in the 1940s. Racism was still quite open and prevalent, but there were plenty of more enlightened people at the time, even amongst Lovecraft’s own peers, and as such brushing off his own stubborn fixation on race isn’t really fair. But pleasantly, it doesn’t just dissolve into an orgy of righteous condemnation, either -- the documentary takes a nuanced look at why Lovecraft clung so tightly to this despicable stance. No one is offering Lovecraft an easy absolution, but neither is there much point in wearing ourselves out condemning a horror writer who has been dead for nearly a hundred years. Instead, we get a little insight into why Lovecraft ended up this way -- most tellingly, maybe, from the writer Caitlin R. Kieran, who couches Lovecraft's disgust in terms of his hatred of himself. Regarding his despised ‘melting pot’ of cultures in New York City, she simply says: “‘ think, on some level, he knew... “[New York] was something that worked. He didn’t work.”
|To Worship Cthulu in 10 easy steps!|
You’ll find plenty to pity or even outright dislike about Lovecraft personally in the hour and a half of FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN, but fortunately it’s also balanced out by the one thing which keeps us talking about him almost a century later: his work. A detailed exploration of all his major works makes up at least an equal --and maybe a greater-- amount of screen time than the biographical data, rightly contrasting his vivid inner world with the outside world he had so much trouble dealing with. The two merge pretty seamlessly, and, brilliantly, Lovecraft’s words (well read by Robert Atkin Downes even though obviously it should be Doug Bradley) are brought to life through dozens of paintings, animations, sculptures, and other media. This sort of fantasy imagery leaves such a mark that the film is almost like a better suited version of the experiment being attempted in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED with its rich mix of different artists and media (although they couldn’t get the rights to Metallica’s immortal “Call of Ktulu”, I guess. Understandable, but they would have been better off just leaving it out than reminding us what isn’t there by playing a cheap knock-off which evokes it). Even though we’re treated to only snippets of the stories, Lovecraft’s words -married to the deeply weird images- manage to evoke his signature dread even in the absence of context. Or, maybe, merely placed in a different context -- the context of the scared and frustrated life of their author.
Ultimately, that’s the thing the doc gets most right, and makes it a much more piercing, intriguing examination than these talking-head biographies tend to be. There will always be things about Lovecraft that are mysterious, maybe unknowable. But maybe it was his inability to successfully understand and interact with the world that made it so mysterious and alien to him, and subsequently to us through his writings. Even as the world was becoming more scientific, even as we had more answers than any humans in history, Lovecraft taught us how to fear the unknown again. He reminded us that for everything that we can explain, we learn how little we knew in the first place. We learn maybe there are things out there so vastly beyond the scope of a human that we can’t even comprehend that we ought to fear them. I guess that’s sort of how he saw this world himself. I’m glad I don’t have to live his life, but I think horror fans throughout the world are glad we got the little glimpses into his own personal nightmare that his work provides. An invigorating place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there...*
*In tribute to Lovecraft’s easily-parodied writing style, I felt compelled to end on an ellipse.