Sea Fever to The Beach House, how Lovecraftian horrors are being updated to reflect urgency of climate change perils
Over the last couple of years, there has been an uptick in eco-horror films which have imagined worlds as Lovecraftian mirrors to our own.
“It cannot be described, this awesome chain of events that depopulated the whole Earth; the range is too tremendous for any to picture of encompass. Of the people of Earth’s unfortunate ages, billions of years before, only a few prophets and madman could have conceived that which was to come — could have grasped visions of the still, dead lands, and long-empty sea-beds. The rest would have doubted... doubted alike the shadow of change upon the planet and the shadow of doom upon the race. For man has always thought himself the immortal master of natural things...”
— Till A' the Seas, HP Lovecraft and RH Barlow
When most of us think of HP Lovecraft’s monsters, we think of a cloudy mass of tentacles, a grotesque blob with too many eyes to count, or a name with consonant clusters as terrifying as the monster itself. They are what fever dreams and fetish porn are made of. To behold them is to risk sanity. Another monster not exactly hiding in the closet but whose face Lovecraft proudly wore was that of white supremacy. When it was not lurking beneath in subtext, it laid itself bare in the vilest of words. The horror writer dehumanised Black people as “vice-filled beasts”, and peddled conspiracy theories about Jews taking over the world, long before the neo-Nazis on the internet’s dark abysses did likewise.
Reading Till A' the Seas today, a new kind of monster takes root in our minds. It’s insidious as well as invisible. It’s what we now know as global warming. The short story, which Lovecraft wrote with his protégé RH Barlow, finds humanity facing a crisis not unlike our own. Earth becomes warmer and warmer. Oceans and their habitats begin to shrink. What happens next is a non sequitur. Humans move to the poles, which should have melted. But the idea of a world of “ravaged lands” with “little greenery” during the “final stage of mankind’s prolonged presence upon the planet” is a prophetic one. Lovecraft and Barlow rendered the intangible phenomenon of climate change visible before there was a term for it. Considered in its current context, it could even be seen as a proto-cli-fi story.
The underlying anxiety that defines a lot of Lovecraft’s work is humanity confronting the unknowable. We can’t know, understand or influence the universe. Born from chaos is the cosmos, but we try to give it order and permanence anyway. Thus, a lot of his stories are ripe for updates that reflect our current eco-angst. In the last couple of years, there has been an uptick in horror films which have imagined worlds as Lovecraftian mirrors to our own. Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space captures our intense existential anxiety in a way that really gets under the skin. The nameless monster in The Beach House is an equally vengeful abstraction of nature under threat. Cthulhu fights back against human encroachment into its natural ecosystem in Underwater.
Lovecraftian or not, monsters have always been larger-than-life embodiments of our anxieties. The horrors they unleash on page or screen correspond to not only what scares us, but the size and scale of what scares us. Capable of destroying whole cities in its wake, Godzilla was 164 ft tall when Ishiro Honda imagined him as Japan’s nuclear angst made incarnate. In the new Godzilla vs Kong, the King of the Monsters had grown more than double his canonical height (394ft), representing the global threat of every irrevocable environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. The whole Monsterverse franchise revolved around man’s hubris in trying to bend nature to his will, and nature resisting. In fact, that's the fundamental tenet of every creature feature: man trying to provoke something he can't understand or predict, and facing the consequences of it.
Swapping monsters for a more amorphous alien entity, Richard Stanley weaves headline-making threats like invasive species, pollution and climate change into his film adaptation of Lovecraft's The Color Out of Space. Nicolas Cage moves his family to a remote farm, where a meteor lands on their front porch. Emitting a spectrum of colours, the meteor begins to terraform the landscape around it, the sky becomes awash in pink and purple, and the fruits and vegetables grow in fluorescent colours. Invading the frames to the point of hypnosis, the titular colour can almost be smelt in all its noxiousness. Though we're conscious of the visceral otherworldliness of this nature mutated, the colour makes it harder to tear our eyes away from the nastiness that befalls the characters. Stanley also adds elements of body horror that internalise the eco-angst: livestock merge into a single mass. So do the children. The horror of climate change is evoked in the aberrant fusion of two worlds: the one we call our own, and the natural world.
Although The Beach House is not based on any Lovecraft story, the horrors that unravel in Jeffrey A Brown's debut feature are undoubtedly Lovecraftian. A romantic getaway to a seaside idyll turns into a nightmare for a young couple (played by Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros). Nature's rebellion against man manifests as a fog filled with bioluminescent microbes that transform everything in its path. A radio broadcast affirms the microbes, which were trapped in rocks, were freed by rising sea temperatures. They spread through air and water, turning the locals into pod people, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The body horror, along with the Lovecraftian, confronts our primal fear of the devastation we wreak on nature being wreaked on our own flesh prisons. Just like Earth turns on its cancerous inhabitants, the body turns on its own.
Climate change gets a more recognisable face in Underwater. Kristen Stewart gets her Ellen Ripley on, and fends off attacks from a Cthulhu-like creature and a whole army of its humanoid spawn. But Cthulhu and co are merely acting out of self-preservation. Their habitat was punctured by a deep-sea drilling operation of the fossil fuel company which employs Stewart's Norah Price. “We did this,” admits her colleague Emily, a marine biologist played by Jessica Henwick. “We drilled the bottom of the ocean. We took too much. And now she's taking back. We're not supposed to be down here. No one is.”
“Ocean,” Lovecraft wrote in The White Ship, “is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of time.” And the ocean remembers. Neasa Hardiman's Sea Fever has a similar set-up as Underwater: a crew tries to grapple with the horrors accidentally unleashed below the ocean. Siobhan (Hermione Corfield), a marine biologist much like Emily, boards a fishing trawler. Only when the ship trenches too far, a glowing squid attaches itself to the hull. The creature oozes a slime with its tentacles, contaminating the water supply with parasites which infect the whole crew. Just like in Color out of Space and The Beach House, nature is both inviting and threatening. Just like in Underwater, the creature is a warning call against human encroachment.
These Lovecraftian films are an offshoot of the larger cli-fi movement, which speculates the many dystopian disasters that could be wrought if Big Oil, Big Coal and all the worst offenders continue down their current path.
As our eco-angst reaches fever pitch, there's a sinking feeling that lawmakers are unfazed by the impending ecological catastrophe. When denial and indifference are threats as great as climate change itself, it is hard not to share Lovecraft's cynicism. Norah in Underwater sure seems to have a case of it. “There's a comfort in cynicism,” she says. “There is a lot less to lose.” But when our own survival depends on Earth's, there is plenty to lose. For the threat that all the aforementioned horrors represent is already here. It's far bigger, meaner, and — worst of all — escalating invisibly around us. And what's scarier than what you can't see?
Color Out of Space and The Beach House are streaming on BookMyShow Stream and Amazon Prime Video. Underwater is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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