'Prometheus' vs. 'At the Mountains of Madness': How Ridley Scott's 'Alien' prequel killed Guillermo del Toro's dream project

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The Alien movies are far from the only fear flicks to be influenced by Lovecraft. The impact of his so-called “Cthulhu mythos”—an alternative universe of incomprehensibly powerful god-monsters, which Lovecraft developed over many stories—can be felt in such non-Lovecraft adaptations as John Carpenter’s movies The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, and even the Pirates of the Caribbean films, whose half-human, half-octopus villain Davy Jones owes a clear debt to Lovecraft’s obsession with tentacled terror. You can even throw in the Batman franchise as the name of Gotham City’s supervillain-incarcerating Arkham Asylum derives from a fictional Massachusetts town featured or namechecked in several Lovecraft tales, including Mountains.

Lovecraft’s enduring influence—one that extends to books, comics, TV shows, rock music, video games, and even Cthulhu plush toys—would have come as a huge surprise to the author himself, who garnered precious little acclaim or financial reward during his lifetime. Lovecraft, who was born in 1890, had a dim view of his writing talents and declined to even submit his longest literary effort, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, to the pulp magazines, such as Weird Tales, which were the principal publishers of his work during the author’s lifetime. Lovecraft’s low opinion of his stories was reinforced by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright who rejected a couple of the author’s stories, including, for reasons of length, At the Mountains of Madness. The tale was finally serialized by another magazine, Astounding Stories, in the spring of 1936. But at the time of Lovecraft’s death from cancer the following year the writer remained almost completely unknown to the public.

In 1939, two of Lovecraft’s writer acquaintances—August Derleth and Donald Wandrei—established the Arkham House publishing company specifically to gift their late friend’s work a wider audience and that year put on sale the a collection of the author’s stories, The Outsider and Others. An omnibus featuring around a hundred tales and called Beyond the Wall of Sleep followed in 1941. Neither were huge sellers—in fact, only 1,217 copies of Beyond the Wall of Sleep were printed due to wartime restrictions—but over time Lovecraft’s reputation began to grow, particularly amongst other writers.

Psycho author Robert Bloch was an early disciple of Lovecraft, with whom he had corresponded as a teenager, and was one of the first scribes of many scribes to utilize, and expand, the Cthulhu mythos. Other authors to have dared enter Lovecraft’s alternative universe include Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. In his 1981 non-fiction horror tome Danse Macabre, the Shining author encouraged readers to recall that it is Lovecraft’s “shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

Filmmaker Roger Corman, ever atune to hip, teen-friendly trends, directed 1963’s The Haunted Palace, an adaptation of the posthumously published The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and, in 1970, also produced the big screen version of another Lovecraft tale, The Dunwich Horror. But it was a pair of  Cthulhu-adoring UCLA film students named Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter who would properly introduce cinemagoers to the author’s horror tropes, starting with their 1974 sci-fi film Dark Star. Although an original creation, the film is suffused with a sense of cosmic awe that owes much to Lovecraft, even if the low budget movie’s beach ball alien looks like something one might find in a seaside gift emporium than on some distant planet.

O’Bannon and Carpenter fell out after Dark Star and never collaborated again, but both would return to the H.P. well for inspiration. While Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing is officially an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 tale “Who Goes There?” Campbell himself may have been influenced by Mountains, given he took over the editorship of Astounding Stories the year after the magazine published Lovecraft’s tale. Certainly the movie’s monster, in large part the work of effects wunderkind Rob Bottin, wouldn’t seem remotely out of place in the universe of Cthulhu. Carpenter paid more obvious homage to Lovecraft with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, a film whose tribute-paying extends well beyond its title.

As for Dan O’Bannon, he incorporated his own obsession with Lovecraft into the script for 1979’s Alien. While O’Bannon’s screenplay would be altered by many other hands on the way to the screen, the finished movie drips, at times literally, with Lovecraftian horror. That atmosphere was greatly enhanced by the monster designs of yet another Lovecraft fan, H.R. Giger, whose 1977 book of artwork, The Necronomicon, was named after a fictional tome much mentioned in the author’s short stories. O’Bannon, who died in 2009, once said that Alien was “certainly my most successful venture into Lovecraft turf.”

Direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work have been less successful. The list of truly revered, directly inspired Lovecraft movies pretty much begins and ends with Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator and it is notable that, in the original tale, Lovecraft reined in his habit of creating the kind of epic fantasy realms which can give a cost-conscious studio executive heart palpitations. Indeed, there is much about Lovecraft’s purple, out-there writing style that would seem to resist full-scale adaptation. As Dan O’Bannon once noted: “It’s very, very difficult to achieve that tone in film. What you need is the cinematic equivalent of Lovecraft’s prose, that’s the problem, that’s very hard to achieve. So, it’s still there to be done, if anyone wants to stick his neck out.”

Next: “It’s going to be an epically scaled horror film and we haven’t seen anything like that since Aliens.”

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