Many folks have a tough time fully grasping what the hell Lovecraftian horror even means alongside its relationship to other popular terms typically associated with it, like cosmic, the new weird, and eldritch. If you are one of those people, don’t fret! I am here to help. On the surface, Lovecraftian horror is most simply any piece of media inspired by the mythos of the writer H.P Lovecraft’s work. And there’s a lot of them.
His work is primarily defined by its concern with the unknowability of the universe. Everything we do and think we understand as humans are trivial in relation to the incomprehensibility of our existence within a space we could never dream to understand completely. We could try, try, and try again but never come remotely close to scratching the surface. Not only does his work play upon the dread of unattainable knowledge, but it also challenges if achieving it is even worth it. In other words, as humans, we are insignificant and at the complete mercy of the universe. Yikes.
What Does “Lovecraftian Horror” Mean?
In a lot of ways, the term has grown to take on a life of its own on the outskirts of Lovecraft’s legacy. While many artists have found the questions at the core of Lovecraft’s work compelling over the years, his writing is filled with racism, xenophobia, and bigotry galore. In attempts to reclaim these narratives, many have begun to prefer terms like “cosmic horror” and “the new weird” to distance themselves and their work from the harmful ideas rooted in Lovecraft’s stories. These terms are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences between the three. To avoid falling into a large diatribe about the history of each term’s origin, here are the very basic things you need to know.
As described above, Lovecraftian horror is either written by him or engages with his mythos in some way. Some of the most well-known features of Lovecraft include a person stumbling into weird or uncanny spaces or center around their discovery of cults devoted to higher beings or entities. The entities are a part of a whole pantheon of beings called “The Great Old Ones,” the most well-known to wider audiences would probably be Cthulhu, who became an internet meme of sorts a few years ago. These beings are often referred to as “eldritch horrors” that exist separate from how humans understand time and space. In other words, a nihilist’s dream and an optimist’s nightmare.
Most often used interchangeably with Lovecraftian is cosmic horror. If we can understand Lovecraft’s eldritch horror most simply as centering around beings older than old, cosmic horror works to emphasize the sheer vastness of the universe. Essentially, it’s bigger than big. The weird tale tends to condense all of these ideas into stories that usually center around some unknowable thing or force outside our understanding that invades or begins to leak into our world. All of these are under the Lovecraftian umbrella and basically want us to understand that we are ants in another ant’s anthill, in another ant’s anthill, and so forth to infinity.
Without further ado, read on if you are prepared to stare into the abyss.
Beginner Lovecraftian Movies: For Those Who Only Want to Dip a Toe into the Unknown
Now that you’ve gone through a crash course in Lovecraft 101, you are ready to open your mind’s eye! Beware: The further you go, the more likely you will begin to question those shadows in your periphery or if those seemingly delusional Doomsdayers might just have a point. Do they know something we all don’t? What is really under the ocean? Is the town you stopped in just a little bit quirky or did you accidentally just stumble into a separate dimensional plane? You might never know, and I don’t think you want to. However, the characters in these films find out the hard way, so you don’t have to! If you’d like a safe peek, step right up to Drew Goddard’s 2011 film The Cabin in the Woods.
Now, here me out, this film is often thought of as more of a satire of horror films, but there’s a lot more going on here than just parodying popular horror tropes. A group of friends decides to go on a trip, and things slowly get weird after they pass the gas station right before they enter the woods. It plays around with what viewers expect from watching horror movies, and the consequences of that formula play out on the group of friends as they struggle to figure out what’s going on. From the moment they enter the cabin, they slowly lose their own personalities and morph into the usual horror character archetypes: The Virgin (Kristen Connolly), The Athlete (Chris Hemsworth), The Whore (Anna Hutchinson), The Fool (Fran Kranz), and The Scholar (Jesse Williams).
Though describing the film as Lovecraftian is technically a spoiler, I will try to remedy this by refraining from explaining exactly how. You’ll have to see or rewatch it for yourself. Nevertheless, it’s a great first foray into the genre because it appeals to multiple brands of horror. Slasher fans and Lovecraft fiends alike will find Easter eggs that appeal to their respective interests while watching a relatively lighthearted film. In many ways, its status as an homage to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (another excellent beginner film) cements its status as a Lovecraftian flick considering both films include the Necronomicon featured in Lovecraft’s work.
Another honorable mention goes to William Eubanks’ 2020 film Underwater starring Kristen Stewart. Miles beneath the ocean’s surface, the crew of a drilling station finds themselves in dire straits after the facilities begin filling up with water. In an effort to survive, they resolve to attempt to reach the main branch. They encounter things you wouldn’t believe as their journey continues, with a welcome cameo near the end. These films toe the line between classic horror and Lovecraftian just enough for first-timers to determine if they like what they see and want more.
Now that we’ve gotten our whistles wet with the bare minimum, things are about to get much more interesting. At the tippy top of our intermediate foray into Lovecraftian nightmares is 2020’s The Empty Man. It starts with a group of friends on a trip to Bhutan who are hiking on a mountain when one stumbles upon a giant statue. Years later, in the United States, our main character (James Badge Dale) comes across a cult that aims to summon a mysterious entity while looking for his neighbor’s missing daughter. We soon learn everything we’ve seen thus far is mysteriously connected. The Empty Man is an excellent choice for viewers drawn to the mysteries of Lovecraft’s pantheon of eldritch horrors. Who or what is the Empty Man?
Not only does it have one of the best cold openings of the last five years, but the film masterfully manages to conjure up a genuine sense of hopelessness against the dreaded realization that the influence of this force keeps spreading, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Worse, there is even less anyone can do to understand it fully. This film strikes an excellent balance between being chock-full of general existential questions most of us are already familiar with while seamlessly blending them with recognizable lore from Lovecraft’s canon to create a convincing atmosphere. Mega fans of Lovecraftian horror are especially in for a treat as the film includes many references to things they’re sure to delight in.
For those intrigued by heavier themes more explicitly rooted in the cosmic side of things, Alex Garland’s Annihilation offers a fantastic view into a place called Area X, where strange phenomena happen and befuddles scientists who can’t figure out what it is or how to stop it from spreading. Not only has this film appeared on the recent list of Shudder’s 101 Scariest Movie Moments of All Time, which always adds bonus points in my book, but it also presents a pretty satisfyingly realistic representation of how government entities might try to handle an inexplicable cosmic anomaly. Hint: It’s not pretty.
Two honorable mentions go to films that manage to give us both eldritch and cosmic terrors. For one that leans more towards cosmic absurdity, Rebekah McKendry‘s 2022 release Glorious is a damn good time. A man comes across a mysterious entity who only speaks to him through a glory hole in a rest-stop bathroom; what more could you possibly want? For those who might crave more cosmic horror but with a dash of optimism, check out 2017’s The Endless. It’s got a suspicious cult, mysterious gods, strange natural occurrences, a bit of humor, and an extremely healthy dose of brotherly love. The perfect palette cleanser.
Lovecraftian Movies for an Expert
Drum roll, please. You’ve made it this far! Now let’s talk about the crème de la crème of Lovecraftian horror. And, shocker, we’ve got more cult films. What can I say? Lovecraft and cults go hand in hand. This time, however, there is no skimping out on the blood and gore. First, I’m talking about The Void. On one fateful night, a cult (decked out in pretty cool-looking cloaks) traps a group of people in a hospital. There’s no unseeing it once you’ve figured out why. Without spoilers, I can best describe it as if 1997’s Event Horizon and 1986’s From Beyond birthed an even more messed-up child. Not only are the practical effects in this film literally out of this world, but the extent of its violence is so ruthless that it really hammers home how insignificant human lives are. Even the lives of those most precious to us.
If your brain hasn’t melted enough by now, consider challenging yourself to a Panos Cosmatos double feature with Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy. You’ll get even more cults. Both films are not only gorgeous pieces of art, but the sound design and ways in which they’re shot really manage to plant worms in your brain. If you dare to attempt a double feature, don’t blame me if you inadvertently open yourself up to confronting all the cosmic mysteries your brain can handle at once. Let’s hope it doesn’t explode in the end.
As we come near the end of our journey through the cosmos, if you’ve managed to survive for this long anyway, the last film on this list is something of a much-watch as it is the only one on here that is an actual adaptation of Lovecraft’s work. Richard Stanley’s 2019 film The Color Out of Space epitomizes a deranged fever dream wrapped in technicolor depravity and the type of campiness that only Nicolas Cage can conjure. Stanley could be considered a Lovecraft connoisseur or super-fan, considering he is responsible for a large number of watch-worthy Lovecraftian films like Re-Animator and Dagon. The premise of The Color Out of Space is relatively simple: a meteorite lands on a family’s farm and brings with it a color no one has ever seen before. Soon enough, a whole medley of messed up consequences that range from hallucinations to dead crops and, finally, what can only be described as unwanted fusion begin to plague their family. This one is like Annihilation but on steroids.
Now that I’ve equipped you with this knowledge, go ahead and stare straight into the abyss. It’s been waiting for you.