H.P. Lovecraft's ARKHAM SANITARIUM Script Review And Concept Art

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[Our thanks to Dejan Ognjanovic for the following.]

Lovecraft's fiction is notoriously difficult to translate to cinema, for several reasons. The main one has to do with his reliance on mood, atmosphere, subtlety, hints and vague suggestions of unspeakable horrors. This doesn't mean that his stories are entirely lacking in action or memorable set-pieces, but their scarcity and brevity have usually caused filmmakers to resort to padding the brief tales with all kinds of conventional (romantic, detective, slasher, monster) elements, usually dilluting and betraying the original. Lovecraft's cosmic horror was, more often than not, turned into (unintentionally) comic horror. This author has written only two novels: one of those, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was filmed twice, as Roger Corman's lame flick The Haunted Palace in 1963 and as a much better, but still lacking The Resurrected in 1992 by Dan O'Bannon. The other, SF-horror epic At the Mountains of Madness, was almost greenlighted to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro, but Universal eventually backed-out.

It seems that anthology format is better suited for Lovecraft's shorter fiction: three short sharp shocks in a row are better than a single one padded for feature legth. This, at least, must be the rationale behind the script written by Andrew G. Morgan based on "The Haunter of the Dark", "The Shunned House" and "The Thing on the Doorstep". His anthology H. P. Lovecraft's Arkham Sanitarium is produced by Survivor Films, an independent film production company based in London, as their first feature-film. The filming of this low budget venture begins in May 2011 (on Friday the 13th!), with the movie planned for release in October 2011. What follows are my impressions of the screenplay.

Briefly and simply put, this is a very, very good script. It is pretty faithful to the stories and the changes are made mostly for dramatic and cinematic purposes. Love and understanding of Lovecraft's stories are evident (no "teens in peril" here), the structure is tight and no time is wasted on unnecessary or extraneous elements. There is no tongue-in-cheek nor wink-wink nudge-nudge nonsense here: just straight horror, in tone and approach similar to the superior anthology Necronomicon (1994). If they come anywhere near it, we should be happy. If they manage to surpass it, we'll have a new modern classic on our hands.

It is not specific about the period, but it's certainly not contemporary: a character is seen driving a 1950s Sedan, which means this is moved up in time from Lovecraft's 1920s and 1930s, but not enough for our cell-phone, video-cameras and internet age. The wraparound segment deals with a lady reporter who comes to an asylum called Arkham Sanitarium and has a meeting with a dr West (Howard, not Herbert). The following three stories depict the gruesome events which brought three of its inmates to the brink of insanity - and beyond.

All three segments take place in Arkham, fictional New England town based on Lovecraft's Providence. "The Haunter of the Dark" is about a spooky deserted church (or is it?) and a creature which dwells in the darkness. The story is faithfully adapted, except the ending is more elaborate. Whereas Lovecraft liked to confine his most epxlicit horror for the final paragraph, or even sentence - leaving most of it to the imagination - the script shows us not only the story's concluding image of "the three-lobed burning eye" but also the face and jaws of the haunter of the dark, and what they do to an unfortunate character.

"The Shunned House" is one of Lovecraft's best earlier tales, a uniquely creepy tale about a house haunted not by a ghost but by something much, much worse - a malevolent, parasitic entity which sucks out life out of the unsuspecting inhabitants. After numerous deaths the house becomes deserted, when a student and his uncle decide to spend the night in its basement and see if there is anything supernatural behind the strange fungi and yellowish miasma on its floor... This segment is excellent until the end, when the screenplay discards the uncanny and original non-human entity and replaces it with a disappointingly conventional all-too-human element. It's a pity, because it is precisely Lovecraft's ingeniously devised concept that distinguished this particular story from hundreds of similar "haunted house" stories. This change, to my mind, is the only big and serious lapse in the entire script, especially since it brings the conclusion closer to a Tales from the Crypt episode than to genuinely Lovecraftian terror.

"The Thing on the Doorstep" is another story previously not filmed, although there were rumors that Stuart Gordon wanted to do it as a feature. It is the only instance of a Lovecraft tale with a prominent female character, although there's a twist to that, too. To put it vaguely, it deals with a marriage gone horribly wrong due to the influence of the bride's father. Who, by the way, happens to be dead. But, as HPL put it, "that is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death may die." So, as can be seen from these examples, church is hell, family house is hell, marriage is hell, and, obviously, insane asylum is hell. Which all leads to a nice and cheerful ending, Lovecraft style.

It is difficult to predict how this script will turn out: this is the first film from Andrew G. Morgan, the writer and director, his cast is made of mostly unknown actors, and the budget is relatively low for the ambitious concepts which will be done blending CGI and practical make-up EFX. A lot will depend on the DP's (and production designer's) ability to capture the atmosphere that the script provides opportunities for in spades. Also, they're gonna need really good EFX artists for some rather complex visual and make-up effects (and thankfully, the script is not stingy when it comes to Lovecraft's trade-mark body-horror). Anyway, the script, if filmed as written, promises to be a basis for one of the better HPL adaptations out there. Good luck, folks!

Review by Dejan Ognjanovic.

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