After that he killed the time at a cheap cinema show, seeing the inane performance over and over again without paying any attention to it.H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”
Lovecraftian cinema is a diverse body of work, from short films to feature-length presentations to episodes of television or streaming shows; live-action to animation; zero-budget schlock and student films to big-budget Hollywood productions; from works that strive to adapt Lovecraft’s stories to the screen with various degrees of fidelity to more original presentations that take inspiration from or make reference to things Lovecraftian but seek to tell their own stories and focus on their own characters. In brief, Lovecraftian cinema is simply an extension of the Mythos into another media, with all of its own quirks and conventions.
H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House (2021), directed by Bobby Easley, is loosely inspired by “The Dreams in the Witch House,” but with several twists. Mathematics graduate student Alice Gilman (Portia Chelleynn) is fleeing an abusive relationship and boards in an old house (the historic Hannah House in Indianapolis), which has a dark history involving the witch Keziah Mason (Andrea Collins), and whose odd angles and witchcraft tie in to Gilman’s own theories about other dimensions—and as the bodies pile up, Gilman learns that Mason and her coven are still very much active…
When compared to other productions of this type and covering this sort of material, H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House is firmly in the middle of the pack of independent film festival fare such as The Last Case of August T. Harrison (2016), H. P. Lovecraft’s Two Left Arms (2017), H. P. Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones (2020), and Sacrifice (2020). All of these films pay more than lip-service homage to Lovecraft and the Mythos, are produced on modest budgets, and are serious efforts at a dramatic storyline and low-key horror rather than campy horror-comedies (e.g. The Last Lovecraft: The Relic of Cthulhu (2011), Killer Rack (2015)), arthouse reimaginings (e.g. Herbert West Reanimator (2018)), or reboots of previous franchises (e.g. Castle Freak (2020), The Resonator: Miskatonic U (2021)).
Individual performances, writing, cinematography, special effects (practical and CGI), score, and sound design vary—every film has its high points and low points, and if none of these seem destined right now for classic or break-out-hit status alongside films like Reanimator (1985), neither are they completely without merit or enjoyment. For most of these films, the problems they run into isn’t low budget or bad actors but poor writing: these are the cinematic equivalent of Cthulhu Mythos pastiche stories, and it shows in every familiar plot point and trope. The creators probably mean well by incorporating the Simon Necronomicon and its symbols, or by referencing Lovecraft and how his Mythos is really real…but these are both very old hat, and less clever than they might think.
Still, if nothing else, it’s fun to see how different creators approach the same material, like new wine in old bottles, and how far a given director or actor or special effects unit will go in pursuit of giving the audience something they haven’t seen before. For H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House, there are a few pleasant surprises: Alice Gilman might be the first bisexual character in Lovecraftian cinema, and her brief love scene was probably the first live-action, non-pornographic lesbian love scene in a Mythos film. The dream sequences in particular are rather effective, and the lead actress Portia Chelleynn turns in a very competent performance.
Using you as a vessel for the birth of the antichrist.H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House
If there is a criticism to be leveled against H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House, it’s the emphasis on Satanic witchcraft and the recycling of plot elements of Rosemary’s Baby into its Lovecraftian framework…and that requires a bit of explanation for why it might look like it would work, and why it really doesn’t.
The Salem Witch Trials were the belated American expression of a centuries-long persecution by civil and religious authorities of an imagined Satanic conspiracy. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray recast this as an imagined pagan religious conspiracy, and this was the form of the “witch-cult” which H. P. Lovecraft understood, believed, and worked into his stories. The diaspora of the Salem witch-cult is referenced in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “The Festival,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Dreams in the Witch House” and other stories. Following Murray, Lovecraft eschewed Satanism in his witchcraft—rather than something as prosaic as Christianity, Lovecraft was developing his own artificial mythology that was outside the narrow confines of God and Satan.
Likewise, Satanism had nothing much to do with Lovecraft, at least while he was alive and for some decades thereafter. In 1966, Anton LeVay founded the Church of Satan, a non-theistic religious philosophy that took the theatrical trappings and some of the rituals which literature—including accounts of the witch trials—associated with Satanism in the early modern period. The founding was propitious; Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1967, and the award-winning film was released in 1968. LaVey published The Satanic Bible in 1969, William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist came out in 1971, and in 1973 was also adapted to the screen. Bands like Black Sabbath (1968) and Coven (1967) adopted elements of Satanism and occultism in their acts, laying some of the groundwork for what would become black metal.
It was the start of a Satanic pop culture renaissance, one that borrowed from and built on earlier ideas of Satanism, but took it in a new direction, some more theatrical and some more serious; sometimes both. Despite his dearth of Satanic connections, Lovecraft had his part too. Lovecraftian references appear in The Satanic Rituals (1972), notably “The Ceremony of Nine Angles” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; The Dunwich Horror (1970) deliberately echoed many of the beats of Rosemary’s Baby, with Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) serving in the role of Rosemary, complete with weird dreams, cultic conspiracy, and infernal impregnation. From there, parallel paths developed: Satanists and occultists borrowing Lovecraft into their rituals, philosophy, and theology, and pop culture confusing the Lovecraftian Mythos with Satanism as they sought to borrow on the dark appeal of both for black metal music, horror films, comics, and other media.
In the case of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Witch House, it’s easy to see where the writers were coming from and what they were going for: Keziah Mason was intended to be the genuine Salem Witch in Lovecraft’s story, and accused witches were believed to be associated with Satanism. It isn’t much of a stretch to give Keziah Mason a Satanic coven, or a typically Satanic goal…it’s just not a very Lovecraftian take on the subject. Quite the opposite of Lovecraft’s very non-Satanic take on witchcraft, really. It’s not even how most contemporary non-theistic Satanists and occultists would integrate Lovecraft’s Mythos into their beliefs and practices.
Which isn’t quite a damning indictment of the film as a whole, but it emphasizes the issue with Lovecraftian film pastiche: the people writing these movies and putting them together mean well, but are largely aping the most obvious aspects of Lovecraft’s Mythos stories without understanding the underlying ideas and mood that make those work. In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” the ultimate revelation was that the horrors were real…that there was a cruel reality that lay behind the Salem witch accusations, that the accused were not just innocent victims of religious mania; something a bit closer to The Lords of Salem (2012).
On its own merits, as a part of the Lovecraftian cinematic oeuvre, H. P. Lovecraft’s The Witch House isn’t a terrible film—but it is exemplary of an approach that misses the mark of what can make a really great Lovecraftian film, focusing on obvious surface elements and easy references, like Miskatonic University hoodies instead of making a film that captures the feel of a Lovecraft story.
H. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House was released in 2021 and is available on DVD and streaming.