In 1963, director Roger Corman became the first director to put H.P. Lovecraft on the silver screen. These days, being the first guy to direct a Lovecraft adaptation would be considered an honor, the sort of distinction that'd be celebrated and respected by horror fans all over the world. If it were made today, the first Lovecraft adaptation would be eagerly anticipated and speculated over. There'd be a sizable online fanbase looking forward to it, a segment of the population that'd make a helluva lot of noise if the studio handling the film were to start making moves that failed to show a reasonable amount of reverence for Lovecraft's legacy.
But fifty years ago, H.P. Lovecraft wasn't the legend he is today. Back then, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was virtually unknown to anyone who wasn't deeply invested in horror-lit or back issues of Weird Tales magazine. Those people were out there, of course, and some of them - guys like Clive Barker, Stephen King and Alan Moore - were well on their way to having their young minds warped by Lovecraft's macabre stories. Eventually, those young horror fans would become hugely successful writers, and when that happened they'd cite H.P. Lovecraft as a major influence. That, in turn, would end up steering an entirely new generation of horror fans towards Lovecraft’s body of work. That body of work may not have led Lovecraft to fame or fortune prior to his death in 1937, but eventually the full scope of his influence would come into focus, his contributions to the horror genre undeniable.
Then he'd be a legend.
In 1963, he was - as far as American International Pictures was concerned, anyway - just some dead writer no one had ever heard of. As a result, the first Lovecraft adaptation was a top-to-bottom clusterfuck, disrespectful of both the author's memory and his work.
Here’s what happened: midway through 1963, Roger Corman approached American International Pictures with a Charles Beaumont screenplay based on Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (a piece of writing now considered to be among the author's very best work). This, he told them, was the film he wanted to make next. Corman had spent the previous three years churning out a series of highly profitable Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for the studio (House of Usher in 1960, The Pit and The Pendulum in 1961, both The Premature Burial and Tales of Terror in 1962 and The Raven in 1963), and he naturally assumed another horror flick would be right up their alley. He was right, and Corman got his funding. Shooting went ahead with Lon Cheney Jr. and Vincent Price starring, and the first Lovecraft adaptation was well on its way to hitting screens.
Meanwhile, execs at AIP weren't convinced they'd made the right move. The trouble, as they saw it, was that Charles Dexter Ward wasn't based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, and four years' worth of box office receipts presented a fairly compelling argument for audiences being particularly responsive to Corman’s take on Poe's material. Straying from that formula (in favor of a horror writer no one had ever heard of, no less) might very well bring an end to their box office hot streak. When filming was completed, the studio presented Corman with a solution to their problem: they would rename the film The Haunted Palace. Where'd they get that title come from? Well, The Haunted Palace happens to be the title of an Edgar Allen Poe poem Vincent Price's character quotes toward the end of the film.
So what if literally everything else about Corman's film - the setting, the characters, the plot - had been based on Lovecraft's story? With the new title in place and five other Poe adaptations under their belt, audiences would probably assume The Haunted Palace was just the latest Corman/Poe adaptation. In fact, they decided, why not just go all-in and market the damn thing as Edgar Allen Poe's The Haunted Palace? Nobody knew who H.P. Lovecraft was, anyway, so who was going to object?
Well, Roger Corman, for one. He'd taken on the project specifically because he wanted a break from the world of Edgar Allen Poe. But despite the director’s protestations, American International went ahead with their plan: Corman's film got its new title, the Edgar Allen Poe marketing ploy went into effect, and - just as the studio predicted - no one called them on their bullshit. Here's the trailer:
The Haunted Palace was a success, and Roger Corman went on to direct two more horror films for AIP, both of which (The Masque of The Red Death in 1964 and The Tomb of Ligeia in 1965) were based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe. As for future Lovecraft adaptations, well, they didn't fare much better...though for entirely different (though no less depressing) reasons.
Depending on how technical you want to get about things (namely: the definition of terms like "adapted" and "feature film"), Lovecraft’s work has been adapted into feature films somewhere between 20 and 30 times over the past half-century. The vast majority of these films fall somewhere between harmless and forgettable and Uwe Boll's Alone in The Dark* (which, it's worth noting, starred Tara Reid as a brilliant archaeologist and Christian Slater as a guy who, according to Wikipedia's entry on the character, "has increased strength and speed which allow him [sic] to perform acrobatic moves that a normal human could not do"). Very, very few of these films could be considered any good. Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator was definitely a highpoint, as was John Carpenter's Lovecraft homage, In The Mouth of Madness, but for the most part Lovecraft adaptations have been half-assed, unrecognizable and/or amateurishly made.
To this day, the closest we've ever come to a respectable, balls-out H.P. Lovecraft adaptation was probably Guillermo del Toro's attempt to put At The Mountains of Madness on film. After writing a crackerjack screenplay based on the novella in 2006 (Lovecraft fans who get their hands on a copy will be very pleased), del Toro brought the project to Warner Bros. in 2010. Despite having enlisted a murderer's row of talent to help make the film (including James Cameron in an executive producer role and an agreement from Tom Cruise to headline the film) and a willingness to shoot At The Mountains of Madness in the then-very-popular 3D format, Warner Bros. simply wouldn't commit to a mega-budget horror film with an R-rating. A subsequent attempt to get the film off the ground at Universal ended the same way.
And so it goes.
Will del Toro ever get a chance to make his version of At The Mountains of Madness? I'd like to think so: del Toro's take on the material is about as reverent an adaptation as anyone could ask for, existentially horrifying, appropriately cosmic and packed with all the slithering, oozy creatures Lovecraft fans have always wanted to see onscreen. Furthermore, a reverent, reasonably-budgeted, masterfully-crafted Lovecraft adaptation is long overdue. Though The Haunted Palace may've gotten Lovecraft off on the wrong foot with Hollywood, an adaptation from someone like Guillermo del Toro could definitely put the two back on track. Here's hoping it happens before Cthulhu awakes from his slumber and devours us all.