February 5, 2019

Why is Cosmic Horror So Difficult to Put on Film?

If you can't imagine the unimaginable, you should at least be prepared to force your audience to.

For those of you who may not have heard, Spectrevision, the production company behind last year's brilliant/divisive psychedelic horror Mandy, will start principal photography next month on Color out of Space, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's story of the same name. Of course, the main reason I'm excited about said picture is because, like Mandy, it will also star a completely unhinged Nicolas Cage. Many more, however, are more excited about the prospects of a new Lovecraft film. 

Color Out of Space will be directed by Richard Stanley and is a story of "cosmic terror." It follows the Gardners, a family who moves to a remote farmstead in rural New England to escape the hustle of the 21st century. They are busy adapting to their new life when a meteorite crashes into their front yard. The mysterious meteorite seems to melt into the earth, infecting both the land and the properties of space-time with a strange, otherworldly color.  To their horror, the Gardner family discover that this alien force is gradually mutating every life form that it touches...including them.

“If you give it a shape and put it on screen, it's not unknowable anymore and therefore it loses its power.”

The team has a quite a task ahead of them. While, in the 60 years since his passing, H.P. Lovecraft has inspired ranks in the horror echelon from Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, J.J. Abrams, Sam Raimi, and others, many direct Lovecraft adaptations have been made before and have failed. Why is that?

In their latest video essay, Screened does a much better job of explaining what the genre of “Cosmic Horror” is all about than I think I ever could. Their central idea is that it’s “as if you inadvertently peeked at something behind yourself. Beyond the monsters, the violence, and the danger, this horror is about the limits of your own humanity.” 

In these stories, our protagonists often confront subjects that are beyond the realm of their understanding. That is where the horror lies. And that is why it's so hard for filmmakers to pin it down. How do you show something on screen that is horrifying beyond the realms of even your own imagination?

"Don't try and overexplain what's happening, rather let them stew in existential dread." 

If you aren’t able to do this for an audience, but make some sort of feeble attempt, your whole film will fail as a result. Even if you can put an image to these obscured nightmares, the filmmaker faces an almost paradoxical challenge, “If you give it a shape and put it on screen, it's not unknowable anymore and therefore it loses its power.” One way to solve this problem, is of course, not to show the creature at all. This is more than just “lazy” filmmaking, however. By not showing the creature we leave the audience to ponder the physical shape of the horror on its own. Nothing we present to them on screen can be scarier than what an audience comes up with for itself within the limitless potential of their own imagination.

If you do have the practical where with all to pull off putting your monsters on screen, however, then, by all means, go for it. There aren’t too many Carpenters, Cronenbergs, or Del Toros out there anymore. And while practical effects can be awesome, the main characteristic of successful monsters like The Thing in John Carpenter’s The Thing remains the same. There is an unknowable quality to them. We still don’t know what the imitation’s final form is because it is constantly in a state of transformation. 

“The reaction of being faced with the incomprehensible leads the character to look inwards to make sense of the complex puzzle of emotions they are left with,” Screened opines. As the character is going through these struggles, so too should your audience. Let them struggle with it. Don't try and overexplain what's happening, rather let them stew in existential dread.

The essayist believes the key to making a good cosmic horror is all about balance. "Some movies might get the visuals right but they lack cohesive or poignant story and are missing a sense of foreboding or dread. In other cases, the setting is perfect, the mood is just right but the effects are laughable and far from frightening."     

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