Saturday, February 14, 2009

Random Movie Report: The Call of Cthulhu

The movies have not been kind to H.P. Lovecraft; though he’s considered one of the most important horror writers of the last century (at least in English), there has yet to be a significant film adaptation of his work. The closest we’ve gotten so far is the psychedelic 60s version of THE DUNWICH HORROR and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR. The rest is direct to video trash, mostly, taking advantage of the dubious copyright status of Lovecraft’s work and paying little attention to what he was actually writing about. THE CALL OF CTHULHU is an interesting attempt to do right by the author, and a neat conceptual experiment overall; it’s a silent film, shot in the style of something from the late twenties, when the short story of the same name was published. Running at a mere 47 minutes, this not-quite-a-feature is surprisingly effective and atmospheric, though the retro filter does soften some of the impact.

Matt Foyer is the protagonist, a nameless man telling a nameless listener (John Bolen) about the discoveries he pieced together based on papers left by his deceased uncle (Ralph Lucas.) His story is divided into three acts. First we see his uncle’s contact with an artist suffering feverish dreams of an ancient city inhabited by an indescribably horrific being. These dreams, which inspire mad carvings, take place over the month of March 1925, when by coincidence a great earthquake is detected at sea. The second piece of the puzzle revolves around the uncle’s chance meeting with a police inspector who, decades ago, disrupted a mad human sacrifice ritual in the Louisiana bayou, perpetrated by cultists of the Great Old Ones, deities from the stars, and in particular the octopus-headed Cthulhu, who is said to wait slumbering in the lost city of R’lyeh. When the stars are right, he will rise, and humanity will be doomed. The third act tells of a ship lost at sea after a storm, and its crew attacked by cultists and stumbling upon a mysterious and uncharted island.

My major concern going into this movie was that the silent movie approach was a pretty big gimmick, and it seemed like it had a chance of overwhelming the proceedings and not doing justice to the material as a result. Usually, horror works because it makes us believe in the horrible things it’s showing us, but the silent film inherently has an air of the unreal and artificial (for those of us who can hear, anyway.) Of course, silent films don’t get made much anymore and it’s hard to revive a lost art. On top of it all, this is a fan project, made by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, so there’s a high risk of kitsch and in-jokiness (there are a couple in the unskippable copyright warnings, but I'll let that slide.)

Fortunately, the filmmakers insist on playing it straight and trying to make the film as good as it can be, given a low budget. It helps that they’re going for an Expressionist look similar to what was popular at the time; the sets are obviously sets and just a little plywoody, but it doesn’t matter because what they stand for is so clear. The only places where this approach falls down are in some overly stiff and pantomimed action sequences, and what we see of Cthulhu himself; the film takes care not to give us clear prolonged shots of the beast, which is a good approach seeing how much effort Lovecraft went to in describing the indescribable, but the stop-motion model we do see is a little spindly and roughly textured, not quite conveying the bulk or power of the beast.

This is a pretty faithful adaptation, and the short length means they don’t feel compelled to pad out the story. There’s a good amount of dialogue and narrative text, but somehow the captions don’t feel like an intrusion as they often did in over-written silent films. The performers do a good job of emulating the heightened emotional style of silent acting without going over the top. All in all it’s a very well-balanced picture, and so succeeds at what must have been its primary goal of being really goddamn creepy. Perhaps a truly great Lovecraft adaptation is still yet to come, but this is defiinitely a film worth seeing.

Based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Sean Branney
Directed by Andrew Leman

Grade: A-

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