The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society spent two years turning the enigmatic author's most referenced, least filmable short story into an original motion picture. Released in 2005, it has played SF and horror conventions, but few theaters. Hollywood has made some decent films influenced by Lovecraft, but their adaptations have been terrible, and not in the sense that Lovecraft would have appreciated. This adaptation won't receive Oscar nominations, but it far surpasses past studio efforts. "The Call of Cthulhu" stays faithful to its source material. It solves many of the problems posed by the story's content and this film's budget in a novel fashion; it has been shot as though it were filmed in the 1920s, when "The Call of Cthulhu" was placed.
For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft's original, it involves a man, appointed to be his great-uncle’s executor, who finds himself drawn into an ancient, eldritch mystery. The reader experiences the story through the narrator's research, as he works his way through his great-uncle's papers and material uncovered by his own research. The final horror lies not in any one incident, but in the implications underlying the story.
The filmmakers have coined the term "Mythoscope" to describe their approach. Wherever possible, they use authentic, low-tech effects that would have been employed in the silent era. However, they make some concessions to modern equipment. For example, compositing of images has been accomplished digitally, often to very good effect. I suspected the expressionistic swamp was a model, but I did not know how much of it was a model, nor did I realize how few actors played the throng of crazed Cthulhu cultists.
Overall, the silent-era approach serves them well. Black and white hides a wealth of technical problems, and suggests Lovecraft's archaic writing style and fondness for shadowy places. The absence of live sound eliminates many problems that would have plagued the film's location shooting. In a silent film, no one has to say, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" out loud. The film also can move quickly through conversations which would have proved ponderous if spoken in full, and emphasize the story's eerie imagery.
Certain images capture moments of Lovecraft’s story memorably. The journey into the swamp, with its creative use of light, shadows, and models, is a high point.
Of course, often the film's models are obvious. Cthulhu itself has been brought to the screen as a stop-motion creation, which is likely how this effect would have been achieved in 1926. However, Cthulhu represents a different kind of horror from Willis O’Brien’s 1925 Lost World dinosaurs, and I think its appearance might have been better achieved with some other technique. The creature proves fun to watch, but not especially scary. Nevertheless, given the budget of this film and the fact that the filmmakers wanted a 1920s feel, it’s amazing that the effects so often work so well.
The film features impressive design which captures perfectly the look of older movies. It also boasts a stunning soundtrack, true to the era and appropriate for this film.
They've employed a number of performers, many of them decidedly not Hollywood fashion models; this casting usually serves the film well. The actors use a combination of naturalistic and silent-movie style acting, but the roles have been handled well.
"The Call of Cthulhu" has its flaws, some of them inherent in the medium. Lovecraft's refracted narration, the fact that the story appears as one man’s attempt to pull together various sources which tell the story, nudges us into thinking of it as some kind of true account, even though we know otherwise. A motion picture cannot replicate this effect, unless it presents itself as a documentary. The more fantastic elements must be imagined from the printed description, and no filmmaker can match a horror tailored to the individual reader’s psyche. This filmmakers try to capture the psychologically disturbing nature of the original story, but they face a difficult challenge.
Overall, however, they’ve produced an impressive short film which should appeal to fans of Lovecraft.
The DVD contains many bonus features, including a brilliant documentary which recounts the making of the movie. Shooting on a surprisingly low budget, the cast and crew struggled through a story with scenes set in various countries, at sea, and in otherworldly R'lyeh. Shots of a rock-climber blundering into their arctic scene, or of actors improvising ridiculous dialogue during serious moments provide laughs. We also see occasions when imagination and clever ideas work as effectively as as big budgets and CGI. I strongly recommend "The Call of Cthulhu" and its special features to anyone who wishes to make amateur, low-budget, or no-budget movies.
Directed by Andrew Leman
Written by Sean Branney from the story by H.P Lovecraft.
Soundtrack: Troy Sterling Nies, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic and Chad Fifer
Matt Foyer...The Man
John Bolen...The Listener
Ralph Lucas...Professor Angell
Chad Fifer...Henry Wilcox
Barry Lynch...Prof. Webb
John Klemantaski...Prof. Bell
Jason Owens...Prof. Quintana
D. . Grigsby Poland...Prof. Tutchton
David Mersault...Police Inspector Legrasse
Dan Novy...Eskimaux Shaman
Daryl Ball...Officer Cassidy
Clarence Henry Hunt...Castro
Ramon Allen Jr...Louis
Noah Wagner...Captain Collins
Leslie Baldwin...Mrs. Johansen
Additional information may be found here.