Monday, October 6, 2008

The Call Of Cthulhu

Few authors are as revered to horror fans as H. P. Lovecraft. Although his stories were not overly popular during his lifetime, his influence has carried down through the years, and his accomplishment in liberating the genre from the traditional tropes of horror literature weighs heavy on all writers working today. He is certainly the most name-checked among authors today (Stephen King is his only real competition). His stories are required reading.

But he has not fared so well when it comes to translating his stories to the screen. Imdb lists 75 adaptations of his work, and with few exceptions, they are dreck. Although there are gems like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator sprinkled in, the average quality is closer to abominations like H.P. Lovecraft’s The Tomb.

Part of the blame lies with the stories themselves, I think. The typical protagonist of a Lovecraft opus was a passive narrator, who observes what is going on (often with great confusion) and rarely interacts with events. We want our movie heroes to be more aggressive, and to watch Mel Gibson grab his sword and go forth to battle the evil Jews, or whatever he’s against. If Lovecraft’s POV characters see something too scary, they often faint. So for this reason, and because most movies tend to be terrible, anyway, Lovecraft adaptations have been something to be feared more than Cthulhu himself.

A group of Lovecraft enthusiasts have decided to take matters in their own hands. The HP Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) raised a small amount of money, and decided to film Lovecraft’s seminal work, The Call of Cthulhu. The biggest problem was in the budget constraints. The story calls for several elaborate dream-sequences, and a gigantic special effects piece where great Cthulhu rises from R’lyeh and attacks a ship. Clearly they couldn’t afford this.

The budget shortfall was dealt with in an ingenious fashion. The movie was filmed as it would have been when the story was published in 1928 – which meant a silent film (except for score) in black & white, with crude practical effects. I hope the idea of a Black & White silent flick hasn’t turned you off to The Call of Cthulhu, because this is the best Lovecraft adaptation I have ever seen.

The movie, which clocks in at just under 47 minutes, is faithful to the original story, and its convoluted narrative structure, a flashback within a flashback with a flashback. The stark, impressionistic lighting and artificial aging of the film adds eeriness to the production. The dream sequences owe a lot to the silent classic The Cabinet of Caligari, and the stop motion animation of the Cthulhu scene, rather than detracting from the story, adds a sense of otherworldliness. The actors do a good job, and the direction is bold. They have overcome the limitations of their budget through creativity.

I urge everyone to order The Call of Cthulhu from the HPLHS by clicking here. The package is well worth the dough, and the HPLHS is planning to have their second production, The Whisperer In Darkness, ready next year. I can’t wait.


C. Michael Cook said...

Every word is true -- "Call of Cthulhu" was well-made and great, unusual fun. Nice review.

KentAllard said...

It is kind of depressing to see someone make a movie so interesting with almost no budget to work with, and then watch absolute dreck made with multi-million dollar budgets. But enough about Uwe Boll...