August 31, 2008

The Call of Cthulhu: Truest Lovecraft Film Adaptation Ever

The first grown-up book I can ever remember reading was a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, and others. I was eight years old when I started reading the works of Lovecraft, Derleth, Campbell and Lumley. The paperback, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1, made quite an impression on me. I have long since read everything that Lovecraft ever penned, including his unfinished works, his dreadful poetry, and his collected letters. I've even visited Lovecraft's grave, a trip I plan to take once again this coming December.

I've also seen nearly every screen adaptation of Lovecraft's work. There are probably a thousand of them by now, so I can't say I've seen every low-budget attempt, but I have likely seen the majority of them. Some, like a wholly and justly unknown Italian attempt at The Nameless City, are best forgotten (and thankfully that abysmal film seems to have soon been forgotten after the HPL Film Festival in Portland at which I watched it some years ago). Others have been great fun, ranking among my favorite horror films, but are loosely based on the stories and don't really capture the mood of the literature very well at all. From Beyond: It's fun, but is it Lovecraft?Stuart Gordon's films, such as Re-Animator and From Beyond fall into this category. As much as I love those cheezy flicks, they're injected with a sense of humor that removes them from the possibility of being truly Lovecraftian. They're a bit like making a film version of Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue starring a man in a rubber gorilla suit who takes a pie in the face from time to time. In 1970, Daniel Haller tried to make a relatively Lovecraftian film version of The Dunwich Horror starring Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, but it just didn't work.

I very recently saw the first faithful and good adaptation of a Lovecraft story. It's a low-budget silent black-and-white film made by a novice director: The Call of Cthulhu. Director Andrew Leman and writer Sean Branney get Lovecraft in a way that nobody has before. Their film, clocking in at just 47 minutes run time, is an excellent work in itself, but fans of Lovecraft will particularly appreciate how true they've remained to the story and how well they've captured the mood and movement that characterizes Lovecraft's work.

You read that right, by the way. This is indeed a silent black-and-white movie made in 2005. It revels in its anachronism, too, even adding effects to make the film look dated and damaged. While this is artifice, it lends an ironic authenticity to the film and makes it work visually in a way that nobody else has been daring or genius enough to attempt. The resulting patina is dubbed "Mythoscope" by the film makers.

The Call of Cthulhu was made on a shoestring budget, which was quite daunting (according to the crew of the film, interviews with whom are presented in the DVD's special features). Much of the action is set either at sea or on the island of R'lyeh, the latter of which had to be built from scratch in a backyard in California out of wooden scaffolding and cardboard. It works. Rather than going for realism, what Leman and company have done is to resurrect something that I haven't seen outside of old Impressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. In fact, at risk of being flamed by afficiandos of that school of early cinema, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that The Call of Cthulhu actually stacks up well against those movies. I don't say this lightly; it's that good.

Even the stop-motion animation in The Call of Cthulhu, crude by today's CGI standards, works perfectly within the context of the movie itself. Stop-motion Cthulhu's movements are a bit jerky and somehow not quite right, which is exactly how they should be. It's also believable against the backdrop of a silent movie; if Cthulhu had been a slick computer graphic it would have destroyed the believability of the overall film.

The actors, a cast of complete unknowns, does a wonderful job here. Their performances might have been overacting in a "modern" film, but the overstated facial expressions and broad movement are exactly the stuff of the silent era.

Taken together, The Call of Cthulhu portrays faithfully but stylistically Lovecraft's vision of the bloated, tentacled horror who waits dreaming in the sunken city of R'lyeh. If that last sentence means anything to you, you must see this film.

What are you waiting for? Go watch a trailer!

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