Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Movie Review: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

H P Lovecraft could reasonably claim to be the founding father of the 20th century horror story. His writings have influenced artists like Stephen King, Umberto Eco, Neil Gaiman and rock band Metallica. The Call of Cthulhu, first published in 1928 and arguably his most famous story, has been lovingly adapted for the screen by the H P Lovecraft Historical Society. The movie, clocking in at a frugal 47 minutes, was made by fans for fans. Long considered to be "unfilmable" by Hollywood (the same thing was said about Watchmen), this microbudget adaptation contains some fantastic performances and one of the boldest filmmaking descisions I've seen in a 21st century production. 2005s The Call of Cthulhu is a silent picture.

A young paleontologist becomes the executor to his great uncles will, and begins to read the dead man's files about a series of mysteries that happened in mach of 1925. First, an artist has disturbing dreams about a sunken city of alien architecture, and then he goes mad and gets committed. Then the story skips back 20 years, to a chance encounter with a police man who raided a strange cult in the bayous of Louisiana, seizing from them an idol of a winged god with an octopus for a head. By chance, the protagonist reads on a scrap of newspaper about a ship foundering in the south Pacific, one crew member having gone mad and another dead, the rest missing. Taking matters into his own hands and presumably blowing his life savings, the protagonist travels to Norway to speak with the widow of the mad sailor and finds the final piece of the puzzle, a diary about a chance landing on the shores of R'Lyeh (think Atlantis from the Dark Side), and the realease of the titular Great Old One from His tomb of aeons.

The movie shines with good cinematography and great make up that sells the idea that this was made shortly after the story was written, then some how got lost for more than 80 years. It never strays far from the source material, making it the most faithful adaptation of any work of Lovecraft's. It never actually scares, but then the Cthulhu mythos stories were never about thrills, instead aiming for an intellectual horror stemming from a high concept question: if vastly powerful alien beings once walked the Earth, how would the puny minds of humans deal with it? the answer is a pessimistic "we'd go crazy and our brains would asplode."

The central gimmick of a silent picture helps The Call of Cthulhu immensly. Whatever Lovecraft's strengths as a writer may have been, dialouge wasn't one of them. Mealy mouthed snippits of ancient lore like:
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die. . .
... could only work if you read it straight off a title card. Hearing an actor saying these words would, at best, make the movie unbearable. At worst it'd be like watching some one else play Dungeons and Dragons.

The no name cast of actors work well in the silent format, emoting well and helping further to sell the idea of a lost classic from a Hollywood silver age that never was.

The special effects are competent most of the way through with creative, if anachronistic, use of matte chroma key to re-create a 1920s era Rhode Island. The swamp scene with the cultist is one of the best set pieces, with the sound, talent and exquisite scale model sets working together to evoke something remeniscent of the oiginal King Kong. But it is rather let down when the true star of the picture finally hauls his green rubbery butt out of his cthonian tomb. While I don't begrudge the filmmaker's descion to bring Cthulhu to the screen using stop motion, I do wish the model maker hadn't made Him so tubby about the waist. They have heard of "less is more," but in this instance I think they should of gone for "even less is more better". The matte chroma key also suffers from some bad lighting during production, so that when the image is composited the actors have a weird buzzing aura and an obviously fake prescence that detracts severely from what would other wise have been a truely stirring R'Lyeh sequence.

To sum up, if you like anything about the Cthulhu mythos (indeed, if you've even heard of it), then you should give The Call of Cthulhu a go. It's only a little bit longer than most of the dross on TV and on the whole is entertaining. Obviously if you are a rabid fan of Lovecraft already then this movie is essential for you o own; indeed, you probably already own it and honestly I don't understand why you're bothering to read this review.

I award The Call of Cthulhu 10 shuddering tentacles.

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