At the Mountains of Madness: ambitious adaptation of the famous H P Lovecraft story of the Cthulhu mythos

Michele Botticelli, “At the Mountains of Madness” (2011)

With the release of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” in 2012 and Guillermo del Toro’s resumption of the movie project “At the Mountains of Madness”, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look at this Italian animated short film adaptation of the famous H P Lovecraft short story that spawned several generations of short stories, novels, other literary output, songs and entire albums of music based on the Cthulhu mythos. This film by Botticelli is a fairly reliable adaptation, give or take a few detals, of the original story and conveys a strong sense of awe, terror and anguish at the notion that humans were created by superior beings from another planet who might not necessarily regard their children with love, affection or respect but instead might treat us as slaves or toys, and that the universe itself is hostile, even malevolent towards life on Earth.

As in the original story, the story here is told from a first-person POV by a scientist called Dyer. He and another scientist, Frederick Lake, lead an expedition sponsored by Miskatonic University in the northeastern United States to Antarctica where they discover ruins of a civilisation so ancient, that its geological stratum history hints of its existence during the Pre-Cambrian Age before the evolution of insects and most other invertebrates. Professor Lake takes a group of people ahead but soon loses radio contact with Dyer’s group. Dyer and his men search for Lake’s group and stumble upon their camp; there, they find the bodies of Lake and the others, horribly mutilated, plus remains of other life-forms also dissected and not belonging to any known class of multi-cellular life on Earth. Dyer and pilot Danforth take their plane and investigate a range of mysterious mountains where they discover an enormous abandoned city of weird geometric architecture unlike anything built by humans. The two men land the plane and venture into the buildings where they see various hieroglyphic symbols and, having been trained at university to read these ancient writings (don’t ask me how the first human being to learn to read such works did it), read and interpret what is written.

It seems that in the age preceding Snowball Earth, a group of aliens called the Elder Things came to Earth and invented all known life-forms that gave rise to current familiar Earth creatures and vegetation. The Elder Things created a servant class of slug-like beings called shoggoths which then built the city of geometric forms for their masters. Not long after, a race of octopus-like creatures led by a giant boss mollusc called Cthulhu arrived on Earth and both these newcomers and the Elder Things start slugging it out seriously with bouts of green blood and organs hitting the screen. In desperation, the Elder Things invoke their powerful and dangerous gods to help them out and although the deities oblige their worshippers, their intervention comes with a heavy cost for the Elder Things: the gods decide they quite like Earth and make it their home. While the race of Cthulhu is banished beneath the oceans, the shoggoths acquire intelligence and rebel against their masters. Although the Elder Things crush the rebellion, their civilisation is degraded and becomes increasingly primitive and unable to cope with climate change in the form of Snowball Earth. The civilisation retreats to the mystery mountain range in Antarctica where the Elder Things eventually die out.

After learning the history of these alien creatures, Dyer and Danforth venture farther into the city (as you do in spite of the great danger awaiting you) and discover the remains of the last Elder Thing survivors. The two men narrowly escape being crushed by a shoggoth and their expedition flees back to the US. While Danforth suffers a mental breakdown and is committed to Arkham Asylum, Dyer lives in fear that very soon the stars in the sky will align and generate mysterious gravitational and electromagnetic forces that will revive the race of Cthulhu and bring it to the surface of the oceans. Presumably all hell will break loose as the humans don’t have any gods to call on for help, those deities having been silenced forever by Western Christian missionaries.

The animation style is very distinctive: although the backgrounds are beautifully imagined and realised, often in 3D, the characters, dogs, aeroplanes and other moving objects are rendered as two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, usually moving in the fashion of shadow puppets and their eyes and mouths moving only when absolutely necessary. The aliens are rendered quite faithfully to the original Lovecraftian concept of them, the shoggoths in particular as creepy and terrifying in their amorphous multi-eyed protoplasmic forms as in the literature. Scenes of flying planes across the mountains and into the cities are breath-takingly astounding; the Elder Things’ capital looks weird enough but the city of the Cthulhuan race is positively malevolent, all jagged edges and dark, rough-textured towers radiating fear and terror. The scenes of fighting are the highlight of the film: they are frightful and gory, and the scenes in which the Elder Things’ gods arrive and rip apart the Cthulhuan beings are horrific beyond words.

Where the film departs from the original story is in the denouement of the story: Dyer lives an isolated life, knowing his incredible story will never be believed yet fearful that the Cthulhuans will soon resurrect and restore their rule on Earth. Humans have even fewer defences than the Elder Things did and, thanks to Western civilisation and colonialism having wiped out most other cultures and their traditions, have lost their hot-line to their gods. How will humanity survive?

The film has great suspense, especially in its opening scenes of blizzard and painterly dioramas of the Antarctic wilderness. The music soundtrack can be very eerie and atmospheric in a slight sinister way, and suits the narrative well. Some of the special effects are extremely well done and startling for a film of this modest scale. Botticelli’s ambition to craft an animated version of the H P Lovecraft that respects the original and do it justice can be clearly seen. ¬†Even though the animation often looks primitive, it demonstrates the stark truth, if that’s the right word, that we humans aren’t the only sentient, self-aware critters on this here planet and that we share it with beings far more intelligent and dangerous than we, and who would not hesitate to crush us out of existence.

The film is not very polished and some essential details of the Cthulhu mythos were left out but it’s a very enjoyable short and, until del Toro’s film is completed, it’s the best (if not the only) adaptation of the Cthulhu mythos I’ve seen. The story is taut and filled with tension though, as in Scott’s “Prometheus”, the scientists do some incredibly stupid things just so the plot can advance at a steady trot.


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