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Why cosmic horror is so cosmically difficult to get right on film

Translating H.P. Lovecraft to film is notoriously difficult, not only because the writer was a committed racist whose horror work is inextricably linked to his fear of anything outside his strict definitions of “white civilization,” but because, well, it’s also hard to turn the vague enormity of cosmic horror into cool-looking blockbuster movie monsters.

A video essay from Screened looks deeper into this issue by discussing a few of the more successful cinematic attempts to stage Lovecraftian horror on film, as well as why so few have managed to follow suit.

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The essay concentrates on a few main points. First, it says, cosmic horror is “visually complex,” meaning its descriptions of strange creatures and events are too nebulous to be easily portrayed on screen. It’s also an “abstract” genre that requires the characters affected by its terror to have their literary inner monologues translated through wordless acting. Lastly, Screened says cosmic horror requires a careful balance between believable visual effects and a foreboding mood that’s extremely difficult to pull off.

It cites movies that have managed to achieve parts—or all—of this, showing clips from The Thing’s ever-changing manifestations of the Antarctic monster; Annihilation’s climactic reckoning with an anthropomorphized version of an impossibly strange being; and Bird Box’s “vague and ominous” drawings of a creature that otherwise remains impossible to pin down.

While all of these examples are good and the video’s theories are sound, it omits one simple step that overrides everything else: Hire Nicolas Cage. Because that’s exactly what Richard Stanley has done for his upcoming The Colour Out Of Space adaptation. If anyone can make the faces required to convey the madness that lurks just below all humanity’s conscious thinking, it’s Cage. Everything else that works aside from this is just icing on the lunatic cake.

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About the author

Reid McCarter

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Reid's a writer and editor who has appeared at GQ, Playboy, and Paste. He also co-created and writes for videogame sites Bullet Points Monthly and Digital Love Child.