There are horror authors whose fiction never sees the light of a film screen. This is likely for the best—their works are so complex and visually bizarre that an adaptation would destroy them. Thomas Ligotti is a prime example of this barrier. Most of his stories are so perfectly phrased and nebulous that seeing them, rather than reading them, would break their terrifying spell. That does not mean that their themes or aesthetics can’t be translated into film through different, less rigid structures. Perhaps unintentionally, Alex Proyas embodies many of Ligotti’s qualities in his cinematic masterpiece, Dark City.
Thomas Ligotti’s fiction is identifiable by its grotesque, gloomy worlds where characters encounter cosmic entities straight from the nightmares of Nietzsche. He evokes visions of greenish darkness and expressionistic cities populated by alien forces and human minds pushed beyond the limits of reality. Many of his stories feature metaphysical creations, too, with reality being warped by someone else’s will. It’s Lovecraftian but not necessarily alien—the beings exist within Earth and within the mind.
Alex Proyas’ world is certainly alien, but similar to the monsters set down in Ligotti, the extraterrestrial villains’ fear is one that they learn from humans. Certain spoilers follow; the film’s twists are very Ligotti-esque in nature. A man named Murdoch wakes with no recollection of his past or identity, and soon comes upon alien overlords called Strangers who have enslaved Earth and keep it locked in eternal night. The world created by these Strangers looks like something born from a noir à la Bava, a city of sick colors and deep shadows. It’s a feast of bizarre metaphysics, hallucinatory construction and destruction—the buildings rise, crumble, and break into each other at will.
This aesthetic appears in most Ligotti stories, where urban environments become haunted by jagged doorways, strange light, and even stranger darkness. The comparisons become even more apt when Murdoch discovers the city’s secret: a floating dream constructed in space, an eternal trap. It’s a plot twist that takes the shape of a cosmic nightmare. Kiefer Sutherland’s deranged doctor resembles some of Ligotti’s narrators, too—an obsessive academic consumed by his desire for broader knowledge. He explains his pitiful alliance with the aliens in a broken, discouraged monologue that might as well have dripped from Ligotti’s most shadowy prose; the ramblings of a mind that is utterly lost.
The similarities aren’t simply visual. Proyas develops nihilistic dread that echoes Ligotti’s as Murdoch realizes that the Strangers have been altering people’s memories—changing their identities on a nightly basis until they have no control over their minds. They do this because they’re afraid: they want to discover the key to immortality, and they believe it is somewhere in the brains of human beings. Even the terrifying aliens of this world have something to be afraid of. They don’t want to be extinguished, and so they entrap the mind, seeking answers within its enigmas. In the end, Murdoch defeats them using their own power, but what’s left? He has no honest memories, no place to go except the void of space. Like any of Ligotti’s narrators, ruined after the secrets of the universe exsanguinate their sanity, Murdoch is left in limbo. It’s terrifying, melancholic, but glib—there is nothing to be done.
It’s rare to see nihilism portrayed to this extreme in speculative cinema. The genre’s expensive nature requires the stories to be accessible and satisfying. Dark City is none of these things. But the beautifully unsettling visuals and mentally rending ideas are incredibly powerful. The film echoes the brilliance of Ligotti more so than his own influences such as Lovecraft. Dark City has a noir coolness that Ligotti also evokes, an almost acceptance of the dark things that creep. There’s no way out, so you might as well learn to live with them. Murdoch makes the best of his new home, surrounded by cosmically confused people and a false environment. The desolate beauty of these ideas echoes Ligotti’s nebulous horror so well that one almost wishes they could have that happy ending. Luckily, it’s all a celluloid dream. We can hope.