Thursday, May 20, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Cthul-who?

Two weeks into our one week journey into the world of H.P. Lovecraft cinema adaptations and something seems off. The bad flicks seem to be outnumbering the good 2-to-1. Well, all that suffering is immediately wiped out thanks to…

THE CALL OF CTHULHU (2005) – Ever find yourself cornered by some random stranger on the street who is demanding to know what the best Lovecraft film adaptation is? Well, fear no more because now you have an answer in this brilliant 47-minute short.

First published in Weird Tales in 1928, Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was an anthology piece that featured three stories about encounters with the most well known (and unpronounceable) of the Great Old Ones. The film tackles each one as a man (Matt Foyer) tells of the investigation of the Cthulhu Cult by his deceased uncle, Prof. George Gammell Angell (Ralph Lucas). “The Horror in Clay” centers on a young man who comes to Prof. Angell with horrifying dreams. As Angell tracks his subject’s breakdown, the boy delivers a sculpture of his nightmare tormentor that reminds Angell of something he saw in the past. “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse” recalls an event 20 years previous when Angell was at an archeological symposium. A New Orleans detective shows up to get an appraisal of an odd religious idol he encountered during a raid of a strange backwoods religious cult. “The Madness from the Sea” has the narrator continuing his Uncle’s work and encountering the odd story of a lone survivor of a boat crew that disappeared. The man’s investigation sends him all over the world until he arrives at the home of the lone survivor, who has since passed away. But the journal provided by his widow offers the man a frightening look into the sailor's encounter with Cthulhu.

This 47-minute black-and-white silent short was made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Now with a name like that, you damn well better deliver and they do as this is one of the most literal Lovecraft adaptations of one of his stories. This is a true labor of love, both for Lovecraft and filmmaking. The stories are perfectly adapted and whatever changes are made (the fate of the narrator, for example) fit in perfectly with the tone of Lovecraft’s story.

The film’s success in adaptation is mirrored by the creativity on display. Made for less than it would take to get Peter Jackson to roll out of bed in the morning ($50,000), the filmmakers get the most out of their meager budget. They opt to shoot the story as if it were a silent short from the year it was published. While I am the first to rag on filmmakers saying their style mimics something else (“This is totally a throwback to the 70s grindhouse style” being the repeat offender), this succeeds because they work hard to make it look legit from the acting style (all done by amateurs) to the inter-titles (which the DVD offers in 24 different languages!). In fact, several times I found myself actually thinking I was watching a movie from the 1920s.

Director Andrew Leman uses a variety of techniques to convey the bizarre other world of Cthulhu. I mentioned Peter Jackson earlier and, after watching the “Making of” segment on the DVD, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his BAD TASTE days when he was creative enough to make machine guns out of cardboard and popsicle sticks. The ingenuity on display here is amazing, really sticking it to any filmmaker who cries, “We can’t do it for your budget!” While there is the occasional wonky green screen bit, I’d say they pull off their objectives 99% of the time. The dream sequences are really well done with some expressionistic Caligari-style design. The final segment features the most effects and your jaw will drop when you find out the expansive island was built in someone’s backyard and that glitter covered sheets were used to create waves.

If I had any gripe about the film, it would be that they decided to make it a short. I understand why they did, but this could have easily been a full length feature. Regardless, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has remedied this as their sophomore production is a feature length adaptation of “The Whisperer in Darkness.” They unveiled the trailer this past April and our appetite here at Video Junkie has been whetted (or is that wetted?). Check it out:

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