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The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu

Reviewing any film that attempts to bring H.P. Lovecraft's work to the big screen usually has this reviewer standing inside a protective pentagram and loading up on amulets to protect me from some serious bad movie mojo. For definitive proof, I offer up for sacrifice The Dunwich Horror. May an eldritch demon from out of time and space rend that celluloid nightmare forever and ever. Amen.

Even movies that are not explicit recreations of a Lovecraft story and merely aspire to have 'Lovecraftian' elements (monsters with tentacles, insanity-provoking encounters, etc.) usually fail spectacularly. Some filmmakers have successfully incorporated Lovecraftian elements (In the Mouth of Madness and the Hellboy franchise, in addition to ReAnimator and From Beyond) but they are surprisingly rare and require that the producers take some serious artistic license. In The Call of Cthulhu Lovecraft fans will finally find some relief -- a faithful telling of an HPL story that works.

Stephen King called H.P. Lovecraft the "twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." The only real problem with Lovecraft's work is that (like King's work) it doesn't translate to the big screen very well. Lovecraft was best known for his 'cosmic' horror -- in which an ordinary person, grounded in science, discovers that the universe is seething with hidden horrors waiting to break through into our world and tear it apart. It's heady stuff, and the scary creatures which inhabit Lovecraft's stories are so terrifying that just looking at them is usually enough to drive the viewer insane, should they manage to escape.

It's not easy to put Lovecraft's often undescribable monsters into a visual format, and the cinematic world is littered with some very clumsy attempts at bringing Lovecraft's hyperdimensional monsters to life. A few have managed to succeed, and The Call of Cthulhu (based upon Lovecraft story of the same name -- his most famous story) manages to not only work, but also remains true to the style and atmosphere of the original story.

The producers of The Call of Cthulhu have done the unthinkable -- they filmed the original HPL story, almost scene for scene, as a sepia-toned silent film. Tthe DVD case proudly declares it was filmed in 'MythoScope'. And yes, there are film cards interspersed throughout the film, dispensing dialogue. This will undoubtedly be jarring to some people, but it actually works well with the content of the original story.

Scored with a haunting, lilting orchestral melody, all the brooding anxious horror of the original story is retained. The sepia tones and symphonic scoring also hide the obviously low budget of the production.

As in the original story, it all begins with a young man attending to his dying uncle, who begs that he destroy certain files of his, without reading them. The young man's interest is piqued and he reads his uncle's notes -- details of his decades-long investigation into an unnamed cult. The nephew takes up his uncle's quest to uncover the cult's goals and membership.

What makes the original story an unlikely candidate for the big screen is Lovecraft's penchant for using diaries and logbooks for storytelling. The nephew slowly puts together the pieces of the puzzle by examining news clippings, diaries, etc. -- reading a book doesn't exactly scream excitement. But the reading of documents actually works here, in this esoteric format. One of the weaknesses of HPL's stories are the insane, alien names for the creatures. Watching an actor try to say some of these words ("Ia!! Cthulhu ftaghn!") just sounds ridiculous. But putting those alien characters on a dialogue board relieves the actors from having to sound like they're playing Dungeons & Dragons.

The nephew travels the globe, getting closer and closer to discovering the cult's ultimate goal, leading to a mysterious island that does not appear on any maps. This island, Surtsey, was apparently thrown up from the sea floor. In the original story this island is very creepy, having a 'hyperdimensional' quality to it. There are carved stone steps on the island, but their proportions suggest non-human inhabitants. The angles and lines of the ruined architecture seem to move inwards and outwards, like an optical illusion. The producers of The Call of Cthulhu use their low budget here to marvelous effect, creating a visual style very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- disquieting, alien, threatening.

It will strike some viewers as very art school-ish at times. To recreate the effect of a surging sea the producers used fabric studded with sequins, flapping it against the side of a boat model. But despite this, the obvious love that the producers have for the source material shines through. When the dread Cthulhu finally makes an appearance the special effects are stop-motion, which would normally look silly by today's CGI standards but actually works by making the creature effects more unsettling, similar to the zombies seen in the classic Evil Dead.

The producers also retained the main philosophical column that held up HPL's original story -- the concept that some knowledge is very terrible, and cannot be un-known and that there can be a sweet solace in ignorance. If you're a Lovecraft enthusiast this is a film you really should see. If you're unfamiliar with Lovecraft or are willing to give an unorthodox film a chance, then give it a try. There's no blood, but some violence (in the style of the silent film era, gunshots punctuated by cymbal smashes) and it won't really terrify anyone except children. It's a weird tale, well-told.

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