Halloween Horror: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

The conceit of The Call of Cthulhu (2005), directed by Andrew Leman and produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, is to create a film adaptation of Lovecraft’s story using the tools and form of the era in which the story was first written, that is the late 1920s. The resulting black and white, silent film represents a clever way to get around budgetary limitations and address the dearth of decent Lovecraft adaptations. And while the film’s limitations and missteps keep it from being a definitive adaptation of Cthulhu’s most prominent moment in Lovecraft’s mythos, the inventiveness and charm of this short feature make it a relative success on the whole.

Lovecraft’s story was first published in Weird Tales in February of 1928, and it told the tale of Francis Wayland Thurston and his discovery of notes from his great-uncle that lead him on an investigation into the famed Cthulhu cult. The original tale was told primarily in an epistolary manner, providing events occurring to Thurston’s uncle Angell and Inspector Legrasse concerning a strange idol and sinister cults, and finally Thurston's own discovery of an actual encounter with the Ancient One, Cthulhu. The film maintains the structure of the original story, nesting information in flashbacks and utilising onscreen journals and newspaper articles, and only modifying the basic story very slightly.

Where the film is largely successful is in preserving that investigative nature of Lovecraft’s writing, where much of the horror is built out of the uncovering and revelation of esoteric knowledge of hitherto unknown realities. The limited budget and choice to keep much of the more fantastical imagery off screen works to the filmmakers' advantage for the most part. Lovecraft was never primarily about gore, especially in his cosmic stories concerning the Ancient Ones, rather it was about the dawning knowledge of man’s insignificant place in the universe. Consider this excerpt from the opening excerpt from Lovecraft’s short story, “The Call of Cthulhu”:

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Many have praised the filmmaker’s choice of silent film, but it does fall short in some ways of conveying the true tone of Lovecraft’s writing, however verbose and flowery some find it. The overall effect of the movie is as a curiosity and entertaining lark for fans of Lovecraft, rather than imparting the effect of his writing at its best moments.

Black and white can be effective in conveying a historical feel, and give the effect that one is uncovering a lost classic. But it is clear for the most part that makers of this film are more Lovecraft historians than film historians. The film achieves a fairly close simulation of filmmaking techniques circa 1928, but certain details betray the film's contemporary origin. For one thing, the cinematography lacks the clarity of space of the best silent Hollywood cinema. Also, the lighting is one area where the film falls short of professional standards; while the film pays homage to German Expressionism, especially in the scenes set on R’lyeh – the “non-Euclidian” geometry of the famed city echoes the insane perspectives of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — The Call of Cthulhu never achieves the actual horror of Murnau’s Nosferatu, nor is it as shadowing and creepy as it could be.

In one other telling anachronism is the film’s over-reliance on inter-titles. While it is understandable that they might be necessary to convey Lovecraft’s exposition heavy writing style, the effect is that the film has far more inter-titles than any actual film of 1928 of a similar length. Cinema of the 20s was by that point far more sophisticated in its visual storytelling, and it would have been interesting to see a film that tried to truly emulate it. The closest I can think of is Guy Maddin’s masterful Dracula: Pages from the Virgin’s Diary. As entertaining as this film is, it is no Guy Maddin film. However, a Guy Maddin Lovecraft adaptation would be a truly exciting proposition in my opinion.

 The incredibly Lovecraftian vibe of Ogdru Jahad in Hellboy

The incredibly Lovecraftian vibe of Ogdru Jahad in Hellboy

What the film does remind me of, however, is while there are only a few notable Lovecraftian adaptations — one of note is Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, which, while good, also has a dark comedic element and a good dose of gore — the stamp of Lovecraft is on many great films. Take for instance the scene in The Call of Cthulhu where the cult in the Louisiana swamps performs their human sacrifices. As it is recreated here it certainly brings to mind the Skull Island natives in King Kong, both the original and Peter Jackson’s remake. I would say there is a definite Lovecraftian vibe to the first hour or so of Jackson’s film (Carl Denham's overreaching into the unknown makes him a kind of Lovecraftian hero I suppose), and Jackson's Kong-worshippers would probably be more at home paying homage to Cthulhu, with cries of “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” than to the great Kong. (It’s also to the Cthulhu film's advantage that making a silent film means no actor has to utter those unpronounceable words).

I still hold out hope that a great Lovecraft film could be made that does justice to the cosmic horror of Cthulhu. Some contend that the stories are in many ways unadaptable, but I think that there are moments in recent cinema that suggest otherwise. The Ogdru Jahad in Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film is perhaps the most Cthulhian creation in contemporary cinema (as well as the Kaiju in this Del Toro's Pacific Rim). Also, as Aren and I noted when discussing Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, it has a major Lovecraftian vibe to it.

Perhaps, as this IGN article suggests, Cthulhu’s time is ripe, but The Call of Cthulhu suggests that the imprint of Lovecraft is already buried deep in cinema’s history and lurks under its contemporary manifestations. Like the fearsome Cthulhu himself, it only awaits being disturbed from its resting place beneath the history of horror and science fiction in popular culture.

 6 out of 10

The Call of Cthulhu (2005, USA)

Directed by Andrew Leman; screenplay by Sean Branney from the short story by H. P. Lovecraft; starring Matt Foyer, John Bolen, Ralph Lucas, Chad Fifer, Susan Zucker