When you’re talking about the most influential writers in the horror genre, one of the first names to come up is most certainly H.P. Lovecraft. Alongside Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker he is without a doubt one of the most influential, and remains a popular author for fans of the genre. Despite the fact that very few of his own actual short stories have been translated to the screen (and the fact that he was a racist), his exploration into cosmic horror, fear and the human mind have influenced many writers and filmmakers in the years to come. I can’t say I’m the biggest expert on Lovecraft, the only short story of his that I’ve read is The Call of Cthulhu (it was truly a mindfuck of a read), but I am still interested in film adaptations of his work (still bummed by the fact that Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness didn’t happen), and this one has got Nicolas Cage in it, so what could go wrong?
Ok, some things can go slightly wrong. The dialogue and the acting might not be the greatest in the world. Co-writer and director Richard Stanley has apparently been working on the script for a few years now alongside his co-writer Scarlett Amariss, and the dialogue doesn’t sound quite right to me. Most of it’s fine and serviceable, but something about the writing felt a bit dated or artificial to me, especially Madeleine Arthur’s lines as the young rebellious daughter Lavinia, who’s also into witchcraft (as your adolescent teenagers in 2020 do). There are also some questionable lines given to other cast members of the film, mainly to Cage, Joely Richardson and perhaps Elliot Knight (who also provides the semi-cheesy voice-over narration). Q’orianka Kilcher also shows up briefly as a mayor and her performance is virtually moustache twirling and feels very out-of-place and something more fitting for a horror film from the 1990s. I feel like a bad critic when I don’t directly cite any lines of dialogue but my memory unfortunately fails me on this one, but I hope I’m succeeding at getting my point across.
The film also drags a little bit and takes a while to get going. Again, I haven’t read the short story so I don’t know if this perhaps is keeping in line with Lovecraft’s work, but I think if the film had picked up a slightly quicker pace I think it would’ve helped. The film is obviously trying to set up the world, the characters and the atmosphere but there’s still quite a lot of screen time before we get to something genuinely scary and/or tense. And the film fails to set up the atmosphere properly in my opinion. Yes there are some shots of a forest covered in deep fog that are obviously supposed to be moody but they don’t do it for me. There isn’t enough in the visuals or the score or set decoration to establish right from the beginning a sense of what the rest of the film is going to be like.
With all of that said, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the film and they mostly outweigh the bad stuff. Despite the occasionally questionable dialogue, most of the cast do good work in their respective roles, especially Cage. Yes, he does go a little over-the-top sometimes but no matter the quality of the film he’s in, Cage is always watchable and fun on screen, and you usually never forget you’re watching Nicolas Cage as opposed to watching the character. But nevertheless, he does a good job at portraying a normal human being, a rarity I know.
But what truly makes the film worthwhile is the last 40 minutes of the film. By that point, it turns into full-on horror and becomes genuinely scary and horrifying in the way only a work inspired by Lovecraft could be. There are some, how should I put it, images from the film that look very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and despite the visual similarities, the film manages to make them scary and unsettling. I don’t want to give away too much, but when it involves family members who are obviously in great pain I usually find that pretty scary. From that moment on, the film turns into batshit insanity and I truly enjoyed it.
So overall, I’d say that whilst it’s heavily flawed, Richard Stanley’s attempt at adapting Lovecraft’s work is mostly successful (he’s talked about adapting The Dunwich Horror as well, which could be interesting) and although the film could’ve used better pacing, the final act makes up for it and becomes filled with scary yet beautiful and arresting visuals.