Country and Year: USA (2005)
Review By: David Austin
[Click here for my interview with screenwriter and producer Sean Branney]
The Call of Cthulhu is the rare quixotic project that makes good. The film’s creators, Andrew Leman, Sean Branney and the self-styled H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, set themselves a goal simple in conception but fiendishly difficult in execution: to create a film truly faithful to both the spirit and text of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Working with a budget so low as to be hardly deserving of the name, the filmmakers took the film in an unexpected direction, creating a modern B&W silent adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s most famous tales. The final project succeeds admirably, not despite but rather because of its limitations.
Lovecraft has been notoriously poorly served by the medium of film. Lovecraft wrote hundreds of short stories, poems, essays and novellas in the 1920s and ‘30s, most famously in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Through his stories he created an entire mythos and parallel world – the shaded eldritch New England of Arkham and Miskatonic University; the ancient horror of Cthulhu and the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep; the secretive Mi-Go and the shape-changing Shoggoths. He is a giant in his field, and an entire sub-genre of work can be traced to his work.
While Lovecraft created a rich vein of material, on closer examination many of his stories are quite unsuitable to cinema (which is no reflection on their literary merits). Action is rare and sex is positively non-existent. The typical Lovecraft protagonist is a dry academic who pieces together the truth about unknown fears through second-hand tales, hoary tomes, and scraps of physical evidence. Many of his horrors are intentionally beyond description, relying on the imagination of the reader, and violence or explicit visuals is generally reserved for the shock endings to which Lovecraft was prone (one of the few exceptions is the outré Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, a proper adaptation of which would probably require a ridiculous budget or the animation skills of a Hayao Miyazaki, though an animation based on still images does exist).
As a result, most “Lovecraftian” films proclaim themselves to be in his “spirit,” rather than attempting faithful adaptations. Unfortunately, most fail even at that, and are saddled with low budgets and mediocre creative talent to boot. The most well-known, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond, while terrific movies in their own right, not only play at will with structure, story and character, but have a spirit entirely of their own, relying on sly humor, over-the-top gory special effects, and upfront sexuality that are foreign to the source material. Even the most faithful, like Brian Yuzna’s Dagon, an amusing adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, are guilty of this.
Director Andrew Leman and scriptwriter Sean Branney cleverly solve the twin-headed problem of budget and fidelity to the source in an unexpected, but in retrospect brilliant, manner. They filmed The Call of Cthulhu as a silent, black-and-white short film, using film techniques that would by and large have been recognizable to H.P. Lovecraft even as he was writing.
This unorthodox format automatically solves a lot of the problems that might otherwise have been insuperable. Sticking to the short film format relieved the filmmakers of the need to stretch the material beyond its natural length. The black and white print hides the cheapness of the production while evoking the musty era of the story. Dialogue which might sound impossibly stilted coming from a modern actor’s mouth looks terrific on the old-style title cards (and not incidentally, prevents the inevitable debates over proper pronunciation that have divided Lovecraft fans for years). It also leads to satisfying moments like the clear mouthing of the notorious phrase “Cthulhu Fhtagn.”
The result is great fun, as well as the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation to date by a wide margin. The film sets up framing narratives within framing narratives, as does the original story which it follows closely. Our primary narrator in the “present day” (Matt Foyer) tells the interlocking stories of how he and his academic great-uncle (Ralph Lucas) learned of and investigated the so-called Cthulhu cult. Among the evidence they gather are the visionary dreams of a Rhode Island artist (Chad Fifer), newspaper accounts of a global phenomenon of disturbed minds, the tale of a New Orleans police inspector who had a violent confrontation with a gathering of cult members, an archaeologist’s research among a degenerate “Esquimaux” tribe, and finally, the horrifying account of a Norwegian sailor who encountered the great Cthulhu itself.
To the extent that the nestled narrative structure is disjointed, that is a fault of the anti-filmic limitations of the source material, which the film follows closely. So too the weak central character and lack of sex appeal, though the short story is unusual in having a number of opportunities for visual set pieces – including the artist’s dreams, the visit to Cthulhu’s lair, waterlogged R’lyeh, and the raid in the Lousiana swamps. Not to mention Cthulhu itself, one of Lovecraft’s most infamous creations, a beast part man, part cephalopod and part dragon, with tentacles in place of its face.
Whatever Call of Cthulhu loses in plot dynamism it simultaneously gains in authenticity. Branney, Leman, and their cohorts spared no effort to recreate the world of Cthulhu, including shooting the still-extant Rhode Island home mentioned by Lovecraft (necessitating much work with mattes and models in order to recreate early 20th Century Providence). With very few exceptions, the film follows Lovecraft to the letter, down to the actual dialogue reprinted on title cards.
More importantly, the filmmakers have used their limited resources to create some extremely effective atmosphere. Call of Cthulhu is very much in the visual tradition of early German Expressionist works like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, making great use of miniatures, lighting and forced perspective. The film also taps into a rich vein of surrealism, similar to the Dali-created dream sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, to create the “unnatural geometry” of blocky R’lyeh. Green screen effects are frequent, but the choice of black-and-white keeps the picture quality consistent. Additional effects like stop-motion animation (which I am always in favor of, to be fair) and the use of fabric in a theatrical manner to create the illusion of ocean might have looked cheap in bold color, but here add to the satisfying sense of unreality.
Recommended? H.P. Lovecraft fans will not want to miss this admirable adaptation, and the uninitiated will find it a great introduction to Lovecraft’s work. It’s really a tremendous job, and congratulations are due all around.
If you like this, you might like: Re-Animator, Dagon, From Beyond, The Heart of the World, Dark Waters
DVD Production Company: Cthulhu Lives (www.cthulhulives.org)
The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has released Call of Cthulhu on their own DVD, which is available through their website, www.cthulhulives.org. The picture is of nice quality, and in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. The DVD includes a number of special effects, including a trailer and a series of stills from the set. Seeing the props in color and context only further proves how clever the decision to film in black-and-white was, the swamp scene, for example, would never have passed muster in color. There is also some deleted footage of the stop-motion Cthulhu, which is fun because it allows the clear look at the monster which the film wisely denies to the audience. Also included is footage of the actors vocal improvisations during the silent shooting.
The most significant extra is a lengthy, 28 minute featurette on the making of the film featuring Branney, Leman, David Robertson (the cinematographer/editor), and a number of other crew members and actors, including Matt Foyer and Noah Wagner (who complains about extensive shoots in his house). The featurette takes the audience through the budgetary and prop issues, shows how most problems were solved with glitter and cardboard, and the creation of turn of the century Providence. Some of the crew are clearly huge Lovecraft fans, another admits to still never having read the source material. It’s a great extra which shows the work and play that went into the filming.
© David Austin
The Call of Cthulhu may be purchased here.
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: USA and DVD Reviews and DVD Reviews: USA and Contributors: David and Rating: Good ★★★ and People: H.P. Lovecraft