Sunday, October 5, 2008

Night 5: The Call of Cthulhu

Sometimes, concept is enough. In music and painting, literature and film, there are many examples of creators who achieve immortality based almost entirely on their ability to make us think about (or in this case, fear) the world in a new way, regardless of the technical merits of their work.

H.P. Lovecraft 's gift to the world was to punch a big gaping maw through the inky blackness of space and invite the inconceivable into our consciousness. The insanity of infinite space and time. Existential dread on a cosmic scale. Hoary beings of horrid aspect. An entire mythology of Elder Gods and their evil servants. His stories are full of people gone or going mad under the weight of horrors they cannot describe, unearthly secrets beyond words. In his attempt to express the inexpressible, he adopted a florid, hyperbolic style that seizes the mind at 16 but can seem embarrassingly overblown when read as an adult. Nonetheless, his influence on the literature of horror and science fiction cannot be overestimated, second only to Poe's and even that is arguable.

All of which is to say that a good filmic adaptation of his work is long overdue. Previous attempts, though numerous and occasionally well-intentioned, have been uneven at best, from the campy but unforgettable Re-Animator (1985) to the shamefully unfaithful Necronomicon (1993). The (possibly inescapable) problem with filming a Lovecraft story is that you cannot depict the inconceivable without popping the balloon, so to speak. No screen, however large, can match the mind and no image, once fixed, can accurately express the fear of the Unknown, the Alien, the Other.

Fully aware of this, and with a miniscule budget, the members of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society decided to make a silent, black and white film of Lovecraft's most famous story, predominantly using cinematic techniques contemporary with its writing. It was a bold gamble, commendably unique and with great potential. Though The Call of Cthulhu easily claims the title of most faithful Lovecraft adaptation ever filmed, it still fell far short of my expectations. However apt for the format, the over-emoting required of the overly made-up silent actors immediately established a clownish tone, the "Cyclopean" city and other critical sets betrayed their no-budget genesis, and the musical score failed to strike even a single note of cosmic dread. With a running time of just 47 minutes, The Call of Cthulhu still managed to put my wife to sleep.

That's all I really have to say about this film. Notwithstanding the criticisms cited above, I still heartily applaud the efforts of the HPLHS, particularly their decision to conclude their project with what is perhaps my favorite Lovecraft excerpt:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. 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.

Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
Scare Factor:

My psychological status:
disappointed but refreshed

Other films based on Lovecraft works
(listed in order of quality, imho)

Dagon (2001)
From Beyond (1986)
Re-Animator (1985)
The Haunted Palace (1963)
Lurking Fear (1994)
The Resurrected (1992)
The Unnamable & The Unnamble II (1988/1993)
Necronomicon (1993)
The Dunwich Horror (1970)
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
Bride of Re-Animator (1990)
The Crimson Cult (1968)
The Curse (1987)


Brian Baughan said...

Mike, nice to see you reaching back into the age of pre-gore (blood&guts, not Al).

Be sure to pick one your wife can stay awake for.

Will Carrie make the list, I wonder? I'm sure there's plenty of old post-viewing stories to re-live there . . .

M. Gray said...

I promised at the outset to select films made in the last ten years, ostensibly to prove good horror films are still being made. Cthulhu is actually a 2005 film (guess I forgot that detail in the review).

Maybe next October I'll broaden the field...

Brian Baughan said...

Of course, you did say the movie was made recently. I just wasn't reading carefully . . .

I wonder if Bender's "Cold Hearts" makes the 10-year cut.