Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) is now recognized as one of the most innovative and influential writers in the horror/fantasy/science-fiction genre. He also is well known for his highly eccentric personality and somewhat sad life. Both his parents died in a mental institution, and Lovecraft himself was a deeply troubled individual who was unable to enjoy intimate relationships, could not hold a job, and suffered from constant raging emotions of fear and anger toward racial and ethnic groups different than his own.
Despite these liabilities, Lovecraft was undeniably brilliant, not only because of his intelligence (largely home-schooled, he was reading at the age of 3), but because of his ability for original creative thought, the real mark of genius. Lovecraft’s literary inventions include “the Cthulhu Mythos,” a fictional history of the cosmos in which pre-human gods and creatures survive and threaten to overrun the modern human world, and The Necronomicon, an imaginary magical grimoire so compelling that substantial numbers of people believe it actually exists.
Despite Lovecraft’s impact on American genre fiction, and the vast quantities of written documentation he left (he was a prodigious correspondent) there has not been a lot of biographical material produced about him. Lovecraft: a Biography (1975), was written by L. Sprague de Camp who actually corresponded with Lovecraft; it is now out of print. In 1996, S.T. Joshi published his 700-page opus, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. In 2008, Wyrd Studios produced the 90-minute documentary, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (the subtitle derives from the Lovecraft quote that opens the film). Written and directed by Frank H. Woodward, and produced by Woodward, William Janczewski, and James B. Myers, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown won Best Documentary at the 2008 Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival — and deservedly so. The documentary was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Cinevolve Studios on October 27, 2009.
Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown chronologically relates Lovecraft’s life from early childhood when his father was institutionalized, to his own death from intestinal cancer in 1937, when he was only 46 years old. The film also discusses the evolving aspects of Lovecraft’s writing, his core themes, the appeal and impact of his stories, and finally, Lovecraft’s lasting influence and popularity. That’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes, and the film suffers from the disadvantage of every documentary: it can’t possibly achieve the depth and detail of even a short book. Nevertheless, it covers its topics with admirable economy and focus.
The film is produced with a high degree of craft and attention to detail. The filmmakers were faced with an amplified dilemma: it’s hard enough to present non-fiction about a writer in a visual medium. It’s even more difficult when the writer belongs to the modern era, but there is a severe dearth of available photographs, film, and other graphic material to use. Woodward interviews ten professionals — Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Peter Straub, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Ramsey Campbell, Stuart Gordon, S.T. Joshi, Robert M. Price, and Andrew Migliore — whose knowledge of Lovecraft and his work is impressive. A large proportion of the total film consists of interview clips edited by topic. But a visual documentary will lose audience interest rapidly if it relies too much on “talking heads” or static images. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown solves this dilemma neatly, combining interview sequences, still photographs, and B-roll footage with a large assortment of artwork inspired by Lovecraft’s writing. Art by Adam Byrne, Paul Carrick, John Cherevka, John Coulthart, Paul Komoda, Christian Matzke, Lee Moyer, Tom Sullivan, and Cyril van der Hagen vividly interpret Lovecraft’s often somewhat obscure and allusive descriptions.
The audio layer takes an additional interesting slant. An uncredited actor reads quotes from Lovecraft’s letters, but his voice work is filtered and mixed with noise to simulate an old gramophone recording, as though we were actually hearing a record made in Lovecraft’s time. It’s the audio equivalent of sepia-toning and distressing a photograph to make it look old, and creates a very effective mood. Lovecraft, who saw himself as a refugee from the eighteenth century, would surely have been amused by this time-tricking technique.
Anyone with an interest in Lovecraft’s work, or the history of the horror/fantasy/science-fiction genre in general will be fascinated by Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown. I watched it over and over, just because it’s too content-rich to absorb on one viewing. It’s worth twice the price.
Format: Color, DVD, NTSC, Widescreen, Region 1. Extras: extended interview footage, gallery of featured artists, trailer, trailers for other Cinevolve releases. 90 minutes, not rated .