Science Fiction is widely recognized as looking beyond day-to-day life to consider threats to life, limb, and sanity engendered by our relentless curiosity, scientific and otherwise. From ‘creature features’ of my childhood, invariably the product of humanity’s meddling with ‘forces beyond our understanding’, came my affection for cosmic horror. Whether radiation-spawned beasties or the psychological horror of Forbidden Planet, the essence of cosmic horror is the recognition that a little caution and humility are in order when facing the universe.

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) starring a wry Fred Ward, delicious Julianne Moore, and godhead-seeking David Warner. Made-for-TV by HBO, this is a lightweight but rewarding mashup of noir and Lovecraftian nonsense. In an alternate-reality 1949 Los Angeles where magic abounds, private eye Phil Lovecraft searches for the missing Necronomicon to prevent the sacrifice of Hollywood’s Last Virgin and subsequent cosmic catastrophe.

(Paul Schrader wrote over two dozen screenplays including Taxi Driver and First Reformed; Martin Campbell directed my Bond fave GoldenEye and Casino Royale. Considering this directorial leadership, one can only wonder what they might have created in a theatrical release.)

Cast a Deadly Spell is currently streaming on HBO Max and Hulu

Dunwich Horror (1970) Directed by Daniel Haller, starring Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, and Ed Begley. This granddaddy of ‘based upon Lovecraft’ mashups has the not-just-human Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell) visiting Miskatonic U. to obtain the Necronomicon and borrow coed Nancy (Dee) for a sex ritual (of course) to invite the Old Ones back for some cosmic chaos. Dr. Armitage (Begley) must come to the rescue at the Whateley manse. Sam Jaffe appears as Old Whateley.

(For purist interpretations of Lovecraft in cinema, seek out the productions of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, available online. These indie videos closely follow the stories, including setting and era, and furthermore echo cinematic techniques of the author’s lifetime.)

Dunwich Horror is currently streaming on Pluto

Re-Animator (1985) starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton. Director Stuart Gordon’s loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West, Re-animator’ is leavened with enough sick humor to make the dire consequences of resurrecting the dead enjoyable. It’s a fan favorite.

(Is the evening still young and/or romance is in the air? Continue exploring the Re-Animator franchise with Bride of Re-Animator. Resurrect your dead girlfriend with a hooker’s body – what could go wrong?)

Re-Animator is currently streaming on Tubi

Dagon (2002) starring Ezra Godden, Raquel Merono, and the bewitching Macarena Gomez. Stuart Gordon transports the human-fish miscegeny and attendant cult horror of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ to a fishing village on the coast of Spain in an adaptation hearkening back to earlier cosmic horror outings like the 1970 Dunwich Horror – only sexier. A young couple (Godden, Merono) wash up in the cursed village of Imboca after a boating accident; the locals conclude that a human sacrifice to the fish god is long overdue.

(For more stylish Gordon/’based upon Lovecraft’ goodness seek out From Beyond. Jeffrey Coombs again breaches Not-Meant-To-Be barriers with his bondage-loving mentor (Ted Sorel). Boys! Grow your pineal gland in mere days!)

Dagon is currently streaming on Tubi, Vudu, and Plex)

Color Out Of Space (2019) starring Nicholas Cage, Madeleine Arthur, Joely Richardson, and Tommy Chong. Directed by Richard Stanley, this is perhaps the closest Hollywood has come to a straight-up translation of Lovecraft. A family makes the too-common mistake of moving to a secluded farmhouse to escape modern life. When a meteorite lands in their yard, cosmic terror ensues as an unearthly ‘color’ begins to mutate their environment, and them.

(Off topic, but Halloween-appropriate: for truly classic over-the-top Nic, check out his early headliner, Vampire’s Kiss. Trying to buy teeth in the novelty shop… In an interview with Screen Anarchy, Stanley suggested that Cage drew on his vampire insanity from Vampire’s Kiss to craft his character’s dissolution in Color.)

Color Out Of Space is currently streaming on AMC and Shudder

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) John Carpenter gives Sam Neill yet another turn portraying the Rational Man who totally loses it. In this meta-Lovecraft outing, Neill is an insurance investigator searching for the missing best-selling cosmic horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). Plenty of mind-bending horror and popcorn munching here. Charlton Heston cameos as the (invariably) amoral publisher.

(Part of Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse’ trilogy, including The Thing and Prince of Darkness, Mouth arrived with the byline Lived Any Good Books Lately? The self-referential humor leaves Mouth feeling less visceral than its siblings.)

In the Mouth of Madness is currently streaming on Vudu and Amazon Prime

Event Horizon (1997) starring Sam Neill. Directed by Paul Anderson, this is the most intense of this week’s cosmic horror selections albeit the least strictly ‘Lovecraftian’. The message though is classic Lovecraft: humans shouldn’t paddle too far from the shore of their little dust mote lest the rip tide of cosmic insanity drag them under. The experimental faster-than-light vessel Event Horizon believed lost on its test voyage, reappears, apparently adrift. Its inventor (Neill) joins a mission to recover the ship. Within the framing story of deciphering the puzzle of the ship’s return lurks an anthology of private horrors, as under the influence of the ship crew members face terrifying visions from their past and struggle to hide the cracks in their sanity from each other. The results are grisly and surprising right up to the final scene.

(Extra credit: compare and contrast with Solaris; both the Russian and Hollywood renditions are rewarding.)

Event Horizon  is currently streaming on Vudu and Prime Video

Don’t forget your handy GLAHW 31 Days of Halloween printable .pdf guide, both in color and printer-friendly. Just right-click and save as.

J. L. Royce is an author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest, exploring the wilderness without and within. His work appears in Allegory, Fifth Di, Fireside, GhostlightLove Letters to Poe, Lovecraftiana, Mysterion, parABnormalSci Phi, Strange Aeon, Utopia, Wyldblood, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at: Twitter: @authorJLRoyce