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The Call of Cthulhu

Reviewed by Alex Strickland

At last, the stars are right…

I think most fans of H.P. Lovecraft would agree that there has long been a dearth of quality cinema based on his work. The Internet Movie Database lists over 50 films and television shows based on or inspired by his writings, but as most of these are of questionable quality, I don't think it's unfair to claim that there's slim pickings when it comes to Lovecraftian cinema. (Though, unfortunately, Slim Pickens himself was never actually approached to be in any of these adaptations. Oh, were it so!)

Director Stuart Gordon has arguably had the most success at bringing Lovecraft's fiction to the silver screen, with the likes of Re-Animator, Dagon, and a version of The Dreams in the Witch House for Showtime's Masters of Horror program. Unfortunately, Re-Animator, while featuring the amazing Jeffrey Combs and being an enjoyable enough film in its own right, is pure 80's B-movie kitsch. Likewise, I'm rather critical of his take on Dagon, as it is based not on "Dagon" as its title would suggest, but on my very favorite of Lovecraft's tales, "The Shadow over Innsmouth."

Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that Lovecraft's stories do not immediately lend themselves to the silver screen. While necrophagous terrors, blasphemous abominations, and eldritch horrors spanning immemorial aeons are damned exciting stuff, the uniquely psychological aspect of Lovecraft's fiction seems to often be overlooked by filmmakers. Honestly, how many monsters movies have you seen where the protagonist, rather than defeating the creature heroically, loses his sanity at the terrifying, unfathomable truth of what he has uncovered and commits suicide? Exactly.

Luckily, out of the effluvia of all the other disappointing Lovecraft projects, independent filmmakers Andrew Leman and Sean Branney of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society have come along with their own ingenious way of adapting the famously "unadaptable." Leman and Branney have wisely eschewed the temptation to update Lovecraft's story to the present day, with modern characters and modern sensibilities, and have instead gone the route of a period piece. Not just any period piece, though…no, this is a period piece with a vengeance.

Done in the style of a 1920's silent film, this is the way "The Call of Cthulhu" might have been seen were it made at the time it was written. Made on a low budget using the "Mythoscope" process (what the filmmakers describe as the "mix of modern and vintage techniques" used to create the movie), the conceit is executed very well indeed, and the format allows the film to get away with much more than if it were a "new" film.

Despite budgetary constraints, or perhaps because of them, the film is an impressive achievement. The mood of the original short story is captured quite well, and the acting is generally top-notch all around, with Matt Foyer as the main character, Ralph Lucas as Professor Angell, David Mersault as Inspector Legrasse, and Noah Wagner as Captain Collins being the stand-outs.

As this is a silent film, the music carries much of the movie. The four composers who contributed to the soundtrack all did a wonderful job, and listening to their work in low-fidelity "Mythophonic" sound really adds to the period feeling of the whole affair. (I have not yet listened to the high-fidelity version also available on the DVD, as I thought it might be slightly incongruous with the aged look of the film.)

The set design, too, is impressive, with R'lyeh reminding me of some of the expressionistic designs in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Most of the effects are done well (including a nice shot of 1920's era Providence, Rhode Island), although there are some matting problems evident in a few scenes.

Unfortunately, the appearance of Cthulhu Itself is rather disappointing, and I think if Leman had chosen to show less of It, the idea of this Great Old One would have been enough to sustain the tension in the final scenes fleeing R'lyeh on the Alert. As it is, though, the sequence is still quite effective, despite being marred slightly by the cheesy stop-motion.

However, in the end, of the Lovecraft adaptations I've seen, The Call of Cthulhu is the most effective at capturing the style and the feeling of the man's work. The movie does a superb job of intimating the psychological aspect of the story, and the truly daunting horror of it all. Also, part of the appeal in Lovecraft's fiction, to me at least, is the early 20th century setting, and to see a film finally hold to that aspect of it was a treat.

As an aspiring filmmaker myself, I was heartened by the quality of the finished product that the HPLHS put out, which includes not only the film but the actual DVD and supplemental material as well. Though short and little more than a "talking head" type of documentary, the "Hearing The Call" featurette contains quite a few interesting tidbits about the project, and all of those involved come across as genuinely likable people.

I took a gamble on The Call of Cthulhu, and I was well rewarded. If you're into H.P. Lovecraft, you'd do well to check it out. Assuming, that is, that you're reading this before the Great Cthulhu has awakened once more from Its aeons long slumber and the Earth has died screaming.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

 

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Director
Andrew Leman

Screenplay
Sean Brannery

Full Credits at
IMDb or
cthulhulives.org

Buy the DVD from
amazon.com or
The HLPHS