H.P. Lovecraft
The Call of Cthulhu
Medium: film
Year: 2005
Director: Andrew Leman
Writer: H.P. Lovecraft, Sean Branney
Keywords: horror, silent
Country: USA
Actor: Matt Foyer, John Bolen, Ralph Lucas, Chad Fifer, John Klemantaski, D. Grigsby Poland, David Mersault, Barry Lynch, Dan Novy, Steven O'Connor, Carlos Linares, Noah Wagner, Chris Lackey, Mike Dalager, David Pavao
Format: 47 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478988/
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 22 November 2011
It's a fan film, basically. It's the work of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which is involved with live-action Call of Cthulhu roleplaying and makes Cthulhu Mythos props, movies and CDs. They're based in California and their motto is Ludo Fore Putavimus ("We thought it would be fun").
However it's also a stunningly good fan film, good enough to play movie festivals and sell DVDs around the world.
Their idea is to make a silent movie adaptation of Call of Cthulhu. Surprisingly this would seem to be the first time anyone's adapted Lovecraft's signature story. There were various attempts in the 1920s and 1930s, none of which came to anything, while even today I can't find any other examples. There are two films called Cthulhu, one from 2000 and one from 2007, but underneath the title those are both actually The Shadow Over Innsmouth. (That's a much popular one. See also Lemora and Dagon.)
Anyway, this particular film is trying on almost no money to be faithful to what a hypothetical 1926 adaptation would have been like. Thus there's no CGI. Cthulhu himself is adorably stop-motion. The lightning is obviously fake and so on. This is a great gimmick for the movie and I liked it so much that I wished they'd had the time and resources to take it further. What they've achieved is admirable, but you're never in danger of being fooled into thinking it's actually from the 1920s. They're shooting on digital video. The picture's too precise and the frame rate's too smooth. It's sometimes obvious that you're looking at the 21st century, just from the image quality. They use blur effects and other editing trickery, but the results are at best patchily effective.
I also didn't think it quite filled its boots as a silent movie. It's at its best visually when they're paying homage to German Expressionism, with drunken camera angles, scary lighting and Nosferatu-like atmosphere. That was great. They riff off it to make some really effective visuals. However every so often I'd see a camera angle or an edit that didn't feel right, or a scene that perhaps could have relied less on intertitles and done more to interpret the scene visually.
However that said, it's Call of Cthulhu. It's supposedly unfilmable, yet they've filmed it. It's hard enough doing a 1920s silent movie today, even without the Lovecraft factor and all his talky scenes of psychologists, journals, narrators and internal monologues.
Let's leave aside the production, though. How is it as a movie? Is it fun?
Answer: it's okay. It's short, which helps. Lovecraft's writing is all about brooding atmosphere and a slow build-up of soberly told details, so that's what they've got here too and I applaud the fact that they're being so faithful. The style helps the mood. Most of it's fun enough, but I liked R'lyeh a lot and Cthulhu himself is a joy. They've got the right sense of alien angles and "what the hell is that?" statuary. Their R'lyeh is also arguably the best possible setting for German Expressionism, being practically an abstract design with humans wandering around in it. You'd struggle to do justice to it in colour, but the distance that black-and-white provides is perfect. If only for what they've achieved there, this is an important film in the Lovecraft canon.
You might think that the "Cthulhu at sea" finale is a bit too much like an action movie and was perhaps invented by the filmmakers, but it wasn't. That's straight from Lovecraft's story. They have made changes, though, such as the narrator himself going insane.
The cast includes actual actors, by the way. None of them are famous, but a lot of them have accumulated a few screen credits over the years and one or two have respectable careers in the business. They pitch it about right, I think. There's just enough exaggeration to make it clear what style they're recreating, but they never soar over the top into full-bore silent era histrionics. Personally I wouldn't have minded seeing them push it a little further, but that could have been a mistake. Time's moved on. We know now what movie acting looks like. Too much authenticity might have made the film unwatchable for normal people. It's also worth mentioning that everyone looks right, bringing an appropriate intensity and the right kind of face. There's no comic relief. Everyone adds to the brooding 1920s atmosphere.
To be honest, it's as much a parlour trick as it is a movie. The illusion of what they're pretending to be is far from flawless, but there are scenes where they really hit something and the German Expressionism is singing. I liked the interrogation of the cultist, for instance. The man himself is memorable, with that face and those horrible fingernails, but just as juicy are the shadows and the camera angles. If nothing else, it's interesting to see a film that forces you to pay such close attention to its cinematography. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's next movie is The Whisperer in Darkness, incidentally, which premiered at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival and could be interesting. (I'd love to see The Colour out of Space, but that's me.)
This film doesn't reach brilliance. It's got one foot in fan films and you'll enjoy it more if you're aware of that while watching. However it's so special that it's a wonder and I'm delighted that someone thought of doing it. More, please.