Posted on February 24, 2009 by Billzilla
Once in a while a movie comes along so epic, so terrifying, that its review requires two authors. Call of Cthulhu (2005) is just such a movie. Produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, this modern silent film treatment of the classic Lovecraft tale is remarkably effective: creepy but not gory, atmospheric but well-paced. The film is in black and white “Mythoscope,” meaning it’s artificially aged so as to seem vintage, and the soundtrack may be played in “Mythophone”, so that the music seems aged to match the film. Bill and Tracy offer their views below; Bill is a longtime Lovecraft aficionado, while Tracy prefers monsters of the Universal or Japanese vintage.
The Call of Cthulhu: The Celebrated Story by H.P. Lovecraft
BILL: What I find most interesting about this film on a personal level is that you (Tracy), while not a horror fan in any way, enjoyed it such that you’re willing to watch it multiple times. This treatment holds up very well despite its rejection of modern film “requirements” — no recorded dialog or sound effects, for example.
TRACY: Well, for one thing, this film, at 47 minutes, tells the story in a concise and compact fashion. It’s a scary story that has nothing to do with a lot of modern horror standards; it’s about things that are psychologically scary, that destroy your mind. The story is about the effect on the world when Cthulhu’s island rises from the sea, and the production, though low-budget, gets this across without unneeded complications. While I might have enjoyed the spectacle of Cthulhu being played by a guy in a rubber suit, I wasn’t disappointed by their choice of stop-motion animation for his overwhelming entrance.
BILL: The choice of filming in black and white also added to the suspense in the film, with judicious use of shadows to indicate something lurking around the next corner. This is the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story that truly impressed me, outside of a couple of episodes produced for the Night Gallery television series. They didn’t feel the need to jazz up the story with some director’s idea of what Lovecraft should be; rather they took what Lovecraft was and translated it to film.
TRACY: The film is mostly set in the 1920s (with flashbacks to the early 1900s). I liked the shots including vintage cars to help set the scene, and thought the costume and prop design showed some attention to getting the period right. How do you think the period setting of the film does or doesn’t bring across the Lovecraftian feel?
BILL: I think it brings the feel of Lovecraft’s writing to life very effectively. The 1920s were a much simpler time, not only technologically, but morally and philosophically. What Lovecraft is saying in his writing is “look, Earth and human beings are not necessarily the center of the universe;” he points out that the universe is a big place and there may be extraordinary entities in it that don’t give a damn about us one way or another. In the time period in which it’s set, we don’t have computers or rocket launchers or any high tech devices that would make dealing with threatening creatures of this magnitude simpler. If you set this in a modern era, you could send a flight of F-16s to level the island R’lyeh stands on. That might not destroy Cthulhu, but it might hasten the sinking of the island, thus removing much of the threat.
TRACY: I do think there is probably a subset of horror/Cthulhu fans who will simply never like this little gem of a movie because of the silent film treatment. They won’t like the acting, which is in a few scenes rather cheesy; they won’t like the slightly exaggerated silent film makeup; and they certainly won’t like the fact that they have to read the intertitles. I think part of what attracts me to this film is the risk the filmmakers took by making this stylistic choice.
BILL: I don’t necessarily agree. In many instances, younger Lovecraft fans may not have come in contact with silent films before, so this experience would be more of a novelty. I think the majority of Lovecraft aficionados will simply be pleased by the faithful adaptation and the strong period feel of the piece. The pacing is solid and holds the viewer’s interest well (unlike Lovecraft’s own pacing, which sometimes stumbles around a bit). The props were spectacular (as a Call of Cthulhu GM I am insanely jealous of the cool stuff they used); the R’lyeh set does a good job of conveying both the Cyclopian scale and the otherworldly geometry of the structures. Anyone who considers himself a fan of Lovecraft’s work or horror in general should do himself a favor and watch this at least once.
TRACY: I would also recommend this film to anyone interested in the silent film era, just as a beautiful homage to that style of filmmaking. The score is particularly lovely (though I do suggest turning on the Mythophone setting). The “making of” feature in the extras is also fascinating for the film historian.
Call of Cthulhu is available through the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society website at www.cthulhulives.org.