3/5/10

The Call of Cthulhu (2005): Enjoy the Silence

I’ve been known in my time to rail against people who won’t watch a film because it is old or ~gasp~ worse yet filmed in black and white, and I’ve talked trash about people who won’t check out foreign cinema just because they won’t read subtitles. What I’ve never mentioned is my own shortcoming as a film viewer, the silent film. While I’ve sat through quite a few of the more popular titles like Nosferatu, Metropolis, and The Phantom of the Opera, silent horror and drama fail to capture my attention (comedies on the other hand by the likes of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin are always enjoyable). I’ve given it the old college try quite a few times. I think I attempted to watch Lon Chaney Sr.’s 1920 film The Penalty four times before giving up. The problem comes down to this. Without dialog to listen to, my mind tends to start wandering. It’s not something I’m proud of, but silent film is my movie prejudice.

So when I first heard about 2005’s The Call of Cthulhu, a silent film made in conjunction with the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, I was pretty skeptical. After all, I didn’t enjoy classic silents so what were the chances that a modern film aping the style would appeal to me. So I put off viewing this film for years and years. While it languished on my Netflix queue, I took in many sub-par films “based on” the work of Lovecraft. Films like Dagon and Castle Freak exposed Stuart Gordon’s vision of Lovecraft while Island of the Fishmen and City of the Living Dead played fast and loose with the writers work. Never once did I feel like what was in the pages of H.P’s tales made it to the screen. I even recall experiencing a more faithful version of Lovecraft back in the early nineties when I used to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

So setting my better judgment aside, I decided to take a chance and watch Andrew Leman’s The Call of Cthulhu. To my surprise, I not only enjoyed it, but I was thrilled to see a great representation of Lovecraft in cinematic form. For those not familiar with the story (though it does stray some from Lovecraft original tale), let me tell you a bit about what the film is about. When a dying professor leaves his great-nephew (Matt Foyer) a collection of documents pertaining to the Cthulhu Cult, he begins to piece together the implications of his grandfather's inquiries. The nephew takes on the investigation himself and it draws him ever deeper into the mysteries of Cthulhu, and his sanity begins to crumble as he learns the horrible truth of the old gods.

First off, I want to commend Mr. Leman for the incredible style in which this film is presented. Not only does it look like an actual silent film (apart from a couple incongruous hairstyles), but it also draws heavily from German expressionist film to portray the unsettling nightmarish world of Cthulhu. I was also blown away by the sets they used for this picture. I’m sure that they were working on a shoestring, but Leman put every penny on the screen and a few more that he must have found somewhere. Before I get much further, I have to talk about my favorite thing in the picture. It may well tread on spoiler territory, but there’s no way I can’t mention it. I was thrilled, and I mean nearly jumping out of my seat with joy, at the sight of a stop motion representation of the Octopus faced Cthulhu itself. There are two things that I’ve always thought hat Lovecraft films have lacked, the disintegration of the character’s sanity and a representation of the creatures Lovecraft so chillingly described. Now, admittedly, no one is going to be frightened by the nearly cuddly Cthulhu that is seen in this picture, but it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to getting it right and I’ll take it.

There are many actors in the film, but only two left a large impression. The first was Matt Foyer who played the nephew. He had an almost Dwight Frye look about him, and that really worked in the favor of the film’s style. He did a good job acting like a silent film actor without painting his performance with broad strokes that would have made the film too comical. I also rather enjoyed David Mersault as Inspector Legrasse from New Orleans. From his period mustache to his subtle performance, Mersault impresses with only a small amount of screen time to do it in. In the end this was Foyer’s movie to carry, and the actor appears in almost every scene. I don’t think there was one performer that didn’t give the director what he wanted, but most of them have brief appearances (the film only runs 47 minutes) so I commend them as a cast even if I don’t have any more performers to single out.

While I don’t think that Leman’s film has changed my mind about silent film, it has encouraged me that the best Lovecraft inspired films are yet to come. Beyond being an interesting exercise, Leman proves himself a director with a special vision, and I look forward to seeing what his next film will be. Leman is slated to appear as an actor (as well as acting as writer and producer) in the 2010 Lovecraft based film The Whisper in the Darkness, but here’s hoping that he get’s behind the camera very soon again. In the story The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft wrote, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” That might be true, but in this case, I am glad that I wrapped my mind around this one and recommend it to all you folks out there.

Bugg Rating

6 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to check this one out for a while. Good to hear that you liked it, because then there's a good chance that I might as well. Time to bump this up the ol' Netflix queue where it's been in limbo for years.

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  2. I concur, this is an excellent movie with great performances and mesmerizing style and pace. The "making of" extras on the DVD are equally entertaining, and demonstrate the love and fun that went into the crafting of this classic. Recommended!

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  3. jervaise brooke hamsterMarch 5, 2010 at 6:29 PM

    "Dagon" and "Castle Freak" are far from being sub-par they are both superb films and have been ludicrously under-rated in the years since their original releases.

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  4. Call of Cthulhu is an inspired film all the way, from the old school maniac makeup on the cultists to some uncanny effects on the Rlyeh set. With all due respect to Stuart Gordon, it's my favorite Lovecraftian film.

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  5. I really enjoyed the film as well.

    Have you ever tried any of the HP LOVECRAFT Collection DVDs?

    Their adaption of THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP is terrific.

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  6. I got to see this in a theater in December two years ago when the company that made it did a special screening, followed by a Q&A. They also sang Lovecraftian-themed Christmas carols.

    Interestingly, the space where we saw it, a legit Burbank theater called Theater Banshee, was also where most of the scenes were filmed. When somebody asked the director, "Where did you film the swamp?" he answered, "You're sitting in it."

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