My wife put aside an article for me from a magazine published by the university's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Entitled “Mountains of Madness”, it described how H.P. Lovecraft used a news story about Laurence McKinley Gould, an Antarctic explorer, as the basis for his novelette, At the Mountains of Madness. Gould was temporarily lost during an expedition to the South Pole in 1929; he was later found and returned to camp safely. In 1987, a Lovecraft scholar named Jason C. Eckhardt was able to demonstrate that Lovecraft had used Bryd’s expedition as source material for his story, which is one of his best, in my view at least. At the Mountains of Madness reads more like a science fiction adventure story than much of his work in horror and the supernatural. It is also relatively free of the “purple prose” that he is prone to use. It was delightful to read at the end of the article that the book is currently “in development as a major motion picture directed by Guillermo del Toro”. I believe he also directed Pan’s Labyrinth, which was excellent. (The project was evidently abandoned in 2011, but the famous director perhaps wants to try again this year. Apparently Tom Cruise is interested in one of the parts.)
Lovecraft movies are few and far between, and often disappointing. A few that I recall as being fair to good are “Die Monster Die”, loosely based on The Colour Out of Space, “The Dunwich Horror”, “Herbert West, Reanimator” , and “From Beyond”. I also liked “At The Mountains of Madness”, but this had nothing to do with the novelette; it was more of a pastiche and an homage to Lovecraftian themes.
I recently went down to Best Buy to see if there were any Lovecraft inspired horror DVDs. I found two: The Shuttered Room (1967) and and Cool Air (2012).
I watched The Shuttered Room last night. As with many Lovecraftian movie titles, this film had little to do with the original short story, though the setting and character names have some similarity. The action takes place on “Dunwich Island” among several members of the Whately clan, who know of a terrible secret hidden in the family’s old decrepit mill. The family bears a curse, and it is the misfortune of the lead character, played by the beautiful Carol Lynley, to discover what it is.
What is interesting about the film is how it differs from a typical Lovecraft story. The most obvious difference is that the protagonist is a woman—most Lovecraft stories are nearly devoid of women. The people of the village, ignorant, drunken, violent, and leering, are also depicted at times sympathetically as victims of poverty and economic depression. One of the young women in the village dreams of going to an airport to see how an airplane lands. One of the young man imagines blowing up one of the power pylons that bypassed his island, so that rich people in the big city can wake up and experience a power outage. This movie was made in the 60s, when concerns about social justice were prevalent. (Lovecraft typically ascribed the behavior of the lower classes as to race or ethnicity and left it at that).
This was a low budget film, so I appreciate what its creators attempted with limited resources. The photography is interesting, as is the music, which is mostly jazz—but the characters frequently whistle or sing vaguely celtic tunes. There are several arresting visual metaphors. The shuttered room of the title has a red door with an eye hole surrounded by inward pointing nails. What can this mean but that seeing the truth is going to be painful and dangerous? The lead character reminisces about a large doll house in her room. As a child she had the unsettling notion that people were staring out of the house at her while she lay in her bed. Later she hides inside the dollhouse from an attacker. There is a lot of climbing in this movie—up stairs, up hills, onto docks--lots of physical struggle, running, and fighting. Images of barb wire and chains also add to the disturbing tone. Also, unlike the ending of a typical Lovecraft story, when Lynley's character comes face to face with the secret of The Shuttered Room, it isn't cosmic terror she experiences so much as compassion and grief--even a psychic connection in which she shares the other's pain and distress.