The Curmudgeon


Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Call of Cthulhu

Andrew Leman 2005

Now that the development of modern special effects means his tentacled monstrosities can be represented in the most literal and lifelike fashion, there are only two real problems involved in filming the major works of H P Lovecraft. One of these problems is the film industry; the other is the major works of H P Lovecraft. However convincing the tentacles might be, no Hollywood producer and few genuine film-makers would be willing to tackle the main theme of Lovecraft's stories and the true source of their horror, namely the temporary and insignificant nature of humanity in a vast, indifferent and incomprehensible cosmos. Certainly, no script that faithfully reflected his stories' structural complexity and lack of soap-opera characters or Sunday-supplement moralities would ever be green-lighted for any adequately budgeted or properly distributed production.

The H P Lovecraft Historical Society (whose motto is Latin for "we thought it would be fun") has sidestepped these difficulties in appropriately antiquarian fashion by filming Lovecraft's 1926 novella The Call of Cthulhu in silent black-and-white, with intertitles and a "Rich Symphonic Score" - much as it might have been done if the film-makers of Lovecraft's time had possessed the imagination and intestinal fortitude which are so conspicuously lacking in the CGI-hacks and remake-hawkers of our own.

The film faithfully preserves the story's complex narrative structure, with its multiple narrators and shifts back and forth in time; but the makers have not confused fidelity with reverence, and have exercised considerable powers of imagination in turning the novella into a thoroughly watchable and chilling piece of cinema. The opening image - a nearly completed jigsaw of Van Gogh's Starry Night - is a fine example of their eye for resonant detail. The use of intertitles means that the portentous resonances of Lovecraft's written prose can be preserved without the need of a voice-over to translate for the intellectually Hollywood; and the story's beginning and ending are cleverly transposed so that the narrator's injunction to keep the horror secret comes first, while the novella's famous opening paragraphs ("The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents...") comprise the film's powerful epilogue.

Naturally, the special effects have an archaic look, particularly at the climax when Cthulhu rises from the sea; and there are some deliberately old-fashioned visuals such as the time-honoured map with busily progressing dotted lines to show the narrator's voyages around the world. Nevertheless, the episode of the police raid on the cultists' ceremony includes several images of violence and grue that would have been even less tolerable in 1926 than the grimly modern premise of a hostile and amoral universe. The alien geometry of Cthulhu's island is conveyed quite effectively, although inevitably it is here that the film's technical limitations are most evident. At least one brief but startling effect, when a man disappears into the angle between two stones, shows that simplicity can still be a virtue.

Lovecraft himself believed that a weird tale should supplement, rather than contradict, the known facts of science and history, and that it should therefore be constructed with the care and verisimilitude that one would devote to a good hoax. By that criterion, The Call of Cthulhu is unquestionably a Lovecraftian film; indeed, despite the adaptation of various minor tales by Stuart Gordon and his ilk, it may be the only genuinely Lovecraftian film yet made. Its status as a labour of love shines forth from every frame.


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