10 great Lovecraftian horror films

Enter the mouth of madness with these films inspired by the cosmic horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft.

Color Out of Space (2019)

Richard Stanley’s new film, Color Out of Space, is the latest, and one of the best, cinematic adaptations of the work of H.P. Lovecraft – the cult author whose brand of misanthropic, cosmic horror is concerned less with who done it than in broaching the fear of the unknowable. In Lovecraft’s writings, his characters are confronted with the terrifying, vast, unfathomable truth of the universe; with horrors that have no defined evil plan.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, Lovecraft pioneered cosmicism, the idea that people are powerless and ill-equipped to handle what lies beyond what’s understandable to them, beyond human comprehension of morality, or good and evil. Humanity is so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, and so unable to grasp that notion, that even a brief exposure to it is enough to drive us insane.

All of which affords a lot of creative opportunities for filmmakers, who have been inspired by Lovecraft’s tales for years, from straight adaptations like From Beyond (1986) and The Unnameable (1988) to meta-tales that incorporate the author as a character, himself tortured by the same existential horror, like Necronomicon (1993) and In Search of Lovecraft (2008). And then there are the films and series that are inspired by the themes that permeate Lovecraft’s work but aren’t strictly straight adaptations.

These films and shows grapple with the futility of humanity in the face of the vastness of the universe and all the creatures that might inhabit it. The heroes of these stories tend to be isolated, finding it difficult to connect to humanity from the start, and then completely impossible after they are exposed to cosmic horrors both unknowable and unstoppable.

These horrors are sometimes disembodied and conceptual, or often in shapes that defy the natural laws (tentacles are plenty). But they always signify existential doom and surefire madness…  

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

In no way a strict adaptation, Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi horror has many traces of Lovecraft, especially in the design work by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who is responsible for the look of the Creature, the Space Jockey and the Derelict, among others. Giger was brought on to the project after Scott discovered his work through his art book, Necronomicon, itself a reference to the famed fictional tome that appeared in many of Lovecraft’s tales as a plot device.

The crew of the Nostromo is confronted by an alien creature, awakened from its stasis to unleash unflinching, unstoppable horror. One of the most iconic horror films of all time, Alien is a true original that inspired a franchise that has since expanded and over-explained the universe. Scott’s first entry remains terrifying because the creature isn’t evil; it’s beyond rationale. 

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter

The Thing (1982) production still

Although a remake of the Cold War-era 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, John Carpenter’s 1982 version is also inspired by Lovecraft’s 1936 novella At the Mountains of Madness, in which a group of scientists go on an expedition to Antarctica and discover a secret so terrifying that their very understanding of the world is put into question.

In Carpenter’s film, what they encounter when investigating the wreck of a Norwegian exploration base is an otherworldly creature that can assimilate and take the form of any other living organism. The effects, done by pioneer special effects artist Rob Bottin, play a huge part in getting the audience to experience the same abject horror of seeing creatures that defy natural laws, that shouldn’t exist in a physical space. The creature, although seen, is not a single thing; it mutates and adapts. It, and its intentions, are unknowable. 

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Director: John Carpenter

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Lovecraftian themes permeate John Carpenter’s work, especially his ‘Apocalypse trilogy’, which includes The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). But what could be more appropriate than the idea of a horror novelist whose final novel has the power to drive anyone who reads it mad, and maybe even unleash something more monstrous?

Sam Neill plays a private investigator sent to find the missing novelist Sutter Crane and deliver his latest manuscript to his publishers – a novel titled (you guessed it) In the Mouth of Madness (the title itself is a nod to Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness). Much like the Necronomicon, this fictional novel is said to contain horrors so great, so unfathomable, that anyone who reads it will be driven to madness, murder or suicide. Despite a lukewarm reception on release, the film has since gained a cult following. 

Event Horizon (1997)

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Event Horizon (1997)

A lesser Sam Neill-going-nuts film, but a fascinating wreck nonetheless. Fresh from his commercial success of Mortal Kombat (1995), P.W. Anderson was offered numerous projects but chose to direct an R-rated horror film, a “haunted house in space” movie.

A rescue crew is dispatched to find out what happened to the Event Horizon, a starship that disappeared years prior. What they encounter is the remnants of a massacre, and the crew is haunted by horrific visions that seem to be conjured by the ship itself, driving them mad. As in many of Lovecraft’s stories, Event Horizon hints at what horrors might exist beyond the known universe. The film’s violent imagery, including a literal bloody orgy, was so extreme that the film had to substantially cut down to make it less gruesome. 

Uzumaki (2000)

Director: Higuchinsky

Uzumaki (2000)

Coming out two years after the better-known Ringu (1998), this very strange J-horror entry deserves to be better known. An unexplained affliction starts spreading across the cursed town of Kurozu-cho, where one by one its citizens become obsessed with spirals. From the patterns on snail shells to whirlpools in miso soup, people are driven insane trying to find (or get rid of) any vortex.

Although it’s based on a manga series, the plot of Akihiro Higuchi’s film (working under the alias of Higuchinsky) is scarce. Instead, Uzumaki relies mainly on its imagery, with which it creates an atmosphere of unfettered, uncontainable madness that’s very Lovecraftian.

The Mist (2007)

Director: Frank Darabont

The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King story has the best of both great horror writers: the suspense-building of King and the unseen horrors of Lovecraft. After a thunderstorm, a mysterious mist descends on the Maine town of Bridgton. This impenetrable fug seems to hide unseen tentacled creatures that can grab anyone at any time, and many of the locals become trapped inside a supermarket, trying to bide their time until help arrives.

Drawing from 1950s creature features, Darabont’s film isn’t so concerned with the creatures themselves, which are mostly kept out of sight, as he is with what happens to people when confronted with fear and the unknown. And it’s revealed to be more monstrous than any creature. The Mist is a must-see that nails the hopelessness that permeates Lovecraft’s cosmicism.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Director: Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

The Drew Goddard-directed, Joss Whedon-penned The Cabin in the Woods is a meta-horror comedy with many layers. Starting off as a bog-standard slasher that sees five attractive college students go away on holiday to a decrepit cabin where they are attacked by zombies, it soon adds an extra layer of weirdness when we discover that there are scientists that are manipulating the situation and unleashing different horrors on to the teens.

Both a send-off of genre tropes and an effective horror itself, The Cabin in the Woods weaves in an homage to Lovecraft’s fictional Cthulhu Mythos – the idea of ancient beings whose incredible power underpins all of human activity, which is present in almost all of Lovecraft’s work. 

True Detective – season one (2014)

Creator: Nic Pizzolatto

True Detective (2014)

The first season of the anthology series created by Nic Pizzolatto created waves of conversation, discussion and theorising online when it aired in 2014. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in top form as two Louisiana State Police homicide detectives who must investigate, over a 17-year period, a series of brutal, possibly occult-related crimes.

Whether there are supernatural elements involved is debatable, but the entire season is drenched in Lovecraftian philosophy, with the two heroes dealing with an evil beyond their comprehension, which challenges their notions of morality. These horrors are so unsavoury that they are left unseen (and we only grasp their magnitude through the psychological effect they have on the detectives). The series also weaves in multiple tropes and references from weird fiction. 

The Endless (2017)

Directors: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

The Endless (2017)

Two brothers (played by the film’s own directors, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson), who had escaped from a UFO death cult years ago, receive a cryptic video message that compels them to return to the cult. They are welcomed with open arms by the members of Camp Arcadia, who seem not to have aged a day despite a decade passing. Other strange occurrences hint at the possibility of some element of truth to their claims of a higher force controlling them.

As with Moorhead and Benson’s previous film, Spring (2014), The Endless boasts inventive direction that transcends its low budget. It’s a film that invites repeat viewings to unlock its Lovecraftian brand of existential dread.  

Annihilation (2018)

Director: Alex Garland

Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror is the most introspective film on this list, with Natalie Portman’s scientist Lena reconciling what happens when we are confronted with that which is beyond all science. In this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, the source of horror is the Shimmer, a mysterious landscape that emerges from a meteor and has been gradually growing in the southern borders of the US.

After her husband goes missing in a previous expedition to the Shimmer, Lena is sent to lead a new mission to try to unravel what happened to them. Inside the Shimmer, the rules of nature do not apply, and some more sinister, inhuman force may be lurking. Garland’s second film as director, following Ex Machina (2014), Annihilation is as beautiful to look at as it is disturbing.

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