Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Halloween Horror: The Call of Cthulhu
I've voiced before my admiration for H.P. Lovecraft and his writings. The guy is one of the most influential contributors to the horror genre, ranking right up there with Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. I could probably do a whole article just recommending Lovecraft stories that would be good for Halloween, but this is a film blog. Lovecraft has something of a reputation for supposedly being "unfilmable", though that hasn't stopped a large number of filmmakers from attempting to adapt his works with varying degrees of success.
One of the biggest successes is arguably the efforts of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. This is basically a group of Lovecraft fans with some extra money and a little bit too much time on their hands (just look at their Solstice Carols, a great way to get ready for Christmas). Among their many projects they have made a few independent low-budget movies based on Lovecraft's writing, and the first of those was based on one of Lovecraft's most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu.
If you haven't ready this short story, I would strongly recommend it. It's not very long and it is pretty straight forward, which makes it a good introduction to Lovecraft's work and the themes of mankind's insignificance which he often explored. Even better, the story (along with all of Lovecraft's other work) is public domain, which means you can find it online for free. Here is a link to the complete text if you would like to do so.
Basically, the story as written by Lovecraft isn't so much one whole piece as it is a series of thee mini-stories centered around this ancient being known as "Cthulhu" and joined together by the frame of an investigation conducted by the narrator. The first concerns a painter named Henry Wilcox who has strange dreams that inspire him to carve a disturbing bas-relief. The second deals with a police investigation conducted by Inspector John Raymond Legrasse, who encounters a strange and sinister cult in the swamps of Louisiana making sacrifices to "Great Cthulhu". The third and final segment describes an incident in which a group of lost sailors stumble upon the sunken city of R'lyeh and encounter the horror of Cthulhu himself.
In most respects, the movie follows the short story pretty closely, barring a few minor changes. Unlike most Lovecraft adaptations, however, this one takes a slightly different approach to its material. Through a mix of contemporary and old-fashioned techniques (jokingly called "mythoscope" by the producers), The Call of Cthulhu is made to look like an old-fashioned silent movie. The idea was for it to look like it was made in the 1920's when the original story was first published, and in that regard it succeeds remarkably.
It's amazing how much emotion this one film is able to get out of you, given the limitations. The cast (which consists entirely of unknown b-list actors) all manage to convey their thoughts and feelings using virtually nothing but facial expression and body language (and occasionally a title card displaying their lines). However, special mention really should go to the composers behind the movie.
Just like the silent movies of old, the music is a crucial part building atmosphere, given it is the only sound that can be utilized to any effect. Here it does just that, building up an appropriate sense of dread even long before the truly horrifying elements come into play. By the time we do get to the creepier scenes where some of the stuff that is actually scarier makes an appearance there is a sense of fear.
Despite the low budget, the effects are also really good. If you get the chance, I would strongly recommend checking out the behind the scenes feature on the DVD to see how they pulled it all off, since you will find a few interesting stories about the challenges the production team faced and special effects you might not have expected to be special effects. Most of it is done practically beyond a few superimposition techniques used at specific moments, and even the stop motion Cthulhu can be rather chilling (it helps he is frequently kept in shadow).
This one might be a bit harder to find, but if you get the chance, I would strongly recommend you check out The Call of Cthulhu. It is a simple but chilling story with some fascinating ideas and while the movie was obviously made for Lovecraft fans, you don't need to have read too much of his work to enjoy it (though I would recommend at least checking out the original short story).
Best of all, this movie isn't even that long. It's running time is actually less than an hour. If you like this one, the HPLHS also did another film based on The Whisperer in Darkness, which also happens to do be on my list for Halloween Horror, so hopefully you'll see that one some time before October 31.