By Ray Young
The Call of Cthulhu
A new film based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft
Directed by Andrew Leman. Produced by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman.
From the Story by H. P. Lovecraft. Adapted by Sean Branney.
Original Music by Troy Sterling Nies, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic and Chad Fifer.
Photographed and Edited by David Robertson.
47 minutes, black and white, released in 2005.
Available on DVD from The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society
It’s been ages since I last read anything by H.P. Lovecraft, but the sense of impending doom permeating his work was an art unto itself, and one not easily forgotten. Less famous than Poe, Lovecraft instantly underlines the abject romanticism of that earlier inspiration. Passion, longing and unrequited, obsessive love possess Poe; but Lovecraft’s world watches its halcyon past evaporate in crematory ashes, and cringes from some organic, demonic apocalypse threatening mental and moral collapse. His characters are generally void of complication, sacrificial lambs to some hideous monstrosity lurking in the Earth’s cellar.
When he was alive and for decades after his death, the cinema shied away from such obscure gothic surrealism. And Lovecraft, ever distrustful of change and modernity, loathed the medium, regarding it as another trapdoor to oblivion. When Poe stories were being made into horror movies in the 1960’s, screenwriter Charles Beaumont worked from Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” for Roger Corman’s Poe-titled The Haunted Palace
(1963). The first taste of Lovecraft on screen, it was followed by three very weak pictures: Daniel Haller’s Die Monster Die
(1965; from “The Colour Out of Space”) and The Dunwich Horror
(1970; from the story of the same name), and Vernon Sewell’s The Crimson Cult
(1968; from “The Dreams in the Witch House”). Only when the cinema fell to hollow cynicism and unrestrained sensationalism did the author become hot: Stuart Gordon’s frenetic Re-Animator
(1985; from “Herbert West, Re-Animator”) introduced Lovecraft to a generation poised in nihilism, naïve and trusting of jack-in-the-box shock tactics. More than thirty movies have been made since, mostly monotonous, gruesome ventures suggesting the interest in Lovecraft is more technical than human.
A million miles from the mainstream, an organization of devotees called the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have produced their own movie from one of his stories; and this rich-looking curio, made over a period of two years on a budget of less than $50,000 (and without a formal distributor) should shame all those who’ve misappropriated the dubious term, “indie.” The Call of Cthulhu
is based on a Lovecraft tale written in 1926—eleven years before his death. (At forty-seven, he passed away broke, malnourished and suffering from intestinal cancer.) His opening paragraph exemplifies the methodical twining of words around the soul consumed by fear:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Very few filmmakers have captured this brand of gloom and evil with any success. (There was Fritz Lang’s Destiny
; Manoel de Oliveira’s O Convento
 also comes to mind, though its measured absence of physical horror undoubtedly put genre fans to sleep; and the invisible monster lurking in the belly of Robert Towne’s and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown
 becomes enlarged only upon repeat viewings.)
As with many authors, the cinema is inadequate and ill-equipped for Lovecraft: his passages beckon the eye to pore over sentences and savor those subtly shifting hues of darkness, moods and tones that extend beyond the aperture’s reach.
Directed by Andrew Leman from a screenplay by Sean Branney, The Call of Cthulhu
is determined to be faithful. It runs under an hour, thankfully avoiding the fleshing out of scenes and characters to meet those unwritten rules of feature length. There is a lot to be said for such consideration—as well as reminding us that movies needn’t fall back on superfluous baggage simply to fill for time. The story traces characters who’ve stumbled upon souvenirs left behind by ‘Cthulhu,’ the cult of an entity whose name, according to the author, is “an absolutely non-human word” beyond pronunciation. (“The best approximation one can make,” he wrote, “is to grunt, bark, or cough the imperfectly-formed syllables Cluh-Luh with the tip of the tongue firmly affixed to the roof of the mouth.”) In flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks), we travel the serpentine route to a demon from the netherworld, the trail of madness and death in its wake, and the narrator relating his end of the story from an insane asylum.
As the effort lacks commercial polish, Leman braves a unique gimmick by utilizing standards of the time the story was written, filming in black and white, silent (complete with decorative title cards and subtle aging devices superimposed on the image), enhanced by a rousing musical score. For scenes with the monster—described in the story as “a pulpy, tentacled head surmounted [on] a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings…an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature”—stop-motion animation was revitalized in lieu of CGI. To a trained eye, the effort may be tarnished by camera angles, pans, lighting (the garishness of high-definition video) and editing techniques that evolved long after the advent of the talkies. But there are several instances when Branney’s screenplay is in absolute control of the suspense within the source material, building to a heated climax.
All things considered, The Call of Cthulhu
certainly has its heart in the right place. And by the end, with its hints of Caligari
and the Mabuse
films, one can only wonder: what would Fritz Lang have done with H.P. Lovecraft?
Searching for Cthulhu; an atmospheric scene from the new film
Visit the Cthulhu Lives! website.
Copyright © 2005 by Ray Young