Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008)
Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Featuring Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Stuart Gordon
Directed by Frank Woodward
It’s pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it, how greatly the work of a strange and lonely man from Providence, RI has influenced so much of our genre. Especially in the last decade or so, the reach of H.P. Lovecraft’s sway on horror has expanded to nearly every facet imaginable, and yet there’s still a multitude of fans that know very little about the man himself.
Enter Frank Woodward and his Wyrd Productions, who set out to make the definitive documentary about the life of the Son of Providence, with thoughts and examinations of his cannon offered up by some of the most respected names in horror and fantasy. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown is that documentary, and it does its job admirably.
Lovecraft was a very lonely child, sheltered by his over protective, under affectionate mother. He spent much of his youth alone, unable to really make friends due to a lack of real social skills. He never really went to school, it not being mandatory back in his day, so he had a lot of time to foster his imagination.
What Woodward and crew do right, first and foremost, is not just gloss over this important time in Lovecraft’s development in order to get to “the good stuff”, as it were. They also make sure those on-camera discussing this time of the author’s life have intelligent, insightful contributions to make to the discussion; they’re not just putting Neil Gaiman on screen, for example, to give him more face time, but rather because what’s he has to say is relevant and moves the doc along.
Too often I’ve seen documentaries that seem lacking in coherent structure, jarringly leaping from one point of the subject’s life to another, but Fear of the Unknown moves along smoothly and naturally. This is helped immensely by the narration of Robin Atkin Downes, who does both standard narration and the voice of Lovecraft when portions of his prolific correspondences with peers are quoted. Downes is really the perfect choice for a documentary like this, his voice just moody enough to set the tone of Lovecraft’s life precisely.
As Lovecraft grew up he eventually found and married, moved from Providence to New York, and found steady work submitting his tales of the weird and unnatural to magazines like Weird Tales. Now, though the documentary spends plenty of time on his pre-Cthulhu years, it really hits a whole new level when Lovecraft writes his first tale featuring the Old Ones, in terms of both narration and contribution by the interviewees. Everyone’s got their own thoughts on the Cthulhu mythos and its meanings, of course, and none of them are shy about giving their thoughts.
Though there’s really not a weak one among them, I have to say the insights and conjectures put forth by Guillermo Del Toro are certainly some of the most interesting, but then the man has an amazing mind and incredible imagination so I’m not surprised. I hate to single out really any one particular interview subject because as I say they’re all good, but he’s the one who stood out the most for me.
Even the somewhat taboo subject of Lovecraft’s racism is handled well, something I wasn’t sure how they’d address if they did at all. But it’s tackled head-on by most of the interviewees, who all make it clear that they find it hard to fault someone’s views who grew up in a time so far removed from out own with a life that most of us can’t understand. It doesn’t make his viewpoints right or any less frustrating to hear, but it does make them a bit easier to digest.
On the whole Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown is a solid documentary that’s sure to appeal to everyone from casual Lovecraft readers to the most hardcore of his fans; there’s something here for everyone.
4 out 5
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