Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Guest Post: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

By Duanne Walton

"I shall never permit anything bearing my signature to be banalized and vulgarized into the flat infantile twaddle which passes for 'horror tales' amongst radio and cinema audiences!"

~ H.P. Lovecraft, in a 1933 letter to poet Richard Morse.

Had Lovecraft been persuaded to permit a movie adaptation of his signature tale, "The Call of Cthulhu," it would've resembled Andrew Leman's 2005 version, distributed by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Since the 1960s, studios have attempted bringing Lovecraft's "unfilmable" stories to the screen with mixed results. Most versions are more "inspired by," updating to the present day and tacking on extraneous elements like love interests.

The Call of Cthulhu took a unique approach: made in the style of a black & white silent movie, just as it would've looked when the story was first published in 1928. The result is not only a most faithful adaptation, but a homage to the fantasy films of the early 20th century: a successful pastiche of Georges Melies (A Trip to the Moon), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and Willis O'Brien (The Lost World). It can be seen as a forgotten relic of the past, rediscovered and revealed to the modern world. Or an artifact from an alternate world that found its way to ours. 

Notions worthy of Lovecraft himself.

As a man (Matt Foyer) adds the final pieces to a jigsaw puzzle of Van Gough's "The Starry Night," he tells his listener (John Bolen) of the box he found while settling the affairs of his Great-Uncle, Professor Angell (Ralph Lucas). It contained files pertaining to a "Cthulhu Cult" and accounts of incidents that coincided with an earthquake on March 1st, 1925. Three accounts particularly stand out, each involving sculptures depicting a winged, tentacled monstrosity.

"The Horror in the Clay:" An artist's (Chad Fifer) work is fueled by nightmares of an ancient city where he is stalked by a massive, shadowy creature. 

"Narrative of Inspector Legrasee:" A New Orleans detective (David Mersault) raids a swamp cult responsible for local disappearances. The cultists worship Cthulhu, part of a race of beings that existed long before man. They claim that when the stars align, Cthulhu and the Old Ones will awaken from their aeons-old slumber and reclaim the Earth. 

"The Madness from the Sea:" A sailor (Patrick O'Day), his captain (Noah Wagner), and his shipmates discover an abandoned vessel at sea. Following the coordinates from the last log entry, they arrive at an island where they explore R'yleh, the cyclopean city of the artist's nightmares - and come face to face with mighty Cthulhu itself.

In the end, The Man begs that the files be burned, as his location and the identity of his listener are revealed.

Modern audiences will find plenty to dislike about this movie: no color, no dialogue, no gore, no T and A, no CGI acid trip, and no big name stars.

But those are the things that make it work. 

Once upon a time, filmmakers didn't have computers to create worlds and creatures with. They had to improvise and make them from scratch. They had to get creative in order to create. And in doing so, they paved the way for others to build on and refine their ideas and methods, and bring moviemaking to where it is today. 

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has definitely had experience in evoking the past. It began in 1984 by Sean Branney (writer and co-producer with Leman of this movie) as a live action role-playing group running games based on Lovecraft's works. They made their own sets and props to enhance their adventures with the mood and feel of the 1920s. Today they've successfully branched out with their props made available to the public, along with artifact replicas, music CDs, and audio dramas done in the style of an old time radio program, "Dark Adventure Radio Theater."

Their motto says it all: Ludo Fore Putavimus, Latin for "We thought it would be fun." 

They were definitely up to the challenge of making a period version of "Cthulhu." But not a 100% accurate version, as it was filmed and edited with modern equipment. They dubbed the process of mixing vintage and modern techniques "Mythoscope," and it mostly works. Scenes with the swamp cult and the sailors exploring the ruins were clearly done with green screen, and they stick out among the stop motion animation and model sets shot in forced perspective. And digital filming gives the production a less "aged" look. But not enough to spoil the overall effect. It has a surreal, dream-like quality appropriate to the subject matter. Cthulhu's dreams in his house at R'lyeh have permeated the movie itself.

Keeping the story clear of fluff like romantic plot lines, sex scenes, and graphic violence helps it stay the course. The bookends involving "The Starry Night" jigsaw puzzle are fitting considering the actual painting and Van Gough's background, and the movie's revelation of The Man's fate. As the final pieces are added, the files peel back layers of the mystery until the cosmic horror at the center is revealed. When The Man smashes the puzzle in the end, the message is clear: some mysteries are best left unsolved. 

No big name stars appear in this to distract viewers. All actors perform in the melodramatic style appropriate to the silent movie period and do it well. The only real star of the movie is mighty Cthulhu itself, here portrayed by an articulated tabletop model. Shot at low angles, backlit, and kept in the shadows, it gives the right performance of menacing awe.

The best horror movies are products of their times, and The Call of Cthulhu is just that - released 77 years after its time. It's an anomaly, a thing that ought not be. But the stars aligned and brought forth this masterful tribute to the early years of movie fantasies, and to H.P. Lovecraft's work - whether he would've appreciated it or not

1 comment:

  1. As a Lovecraft fan I have to give this movie a high five. It is really fun, captures the mood and feel of the story, as well as the silent era. Really worth checking out if you admire silent films and Lovecraft. Good review!