It’s been a while since I’ve writ­ten in this cat­e­gory, mostly because I haven’t really seen any­thing worth post­ing on lately and I don’t want the damned thing to turn into a monot­o­nous whine about how movies were so much bet­ter in The Olden Days.

But you know, some of them really were.

I’m not talk­ing about old­school Star Wars*; it goes fur­ther back than that. There was a time when bud­get and prac­ti­cal restric­tions made some things sim­ply impos­si­ble, which forced direc­tors to be coy in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, and forced them to focus on things like story and character.

I can think of one very cogent exam­ple: King Kong. The 1930s ver­sion, black-​​and-​​white, scratchy sound­track and stop-​​motion ani­ma­tion and all, remains the best out of the three movies that bear the title. The 1970s ver­sion was sim­ply dread­ful disco-​​era cin­ema camp cheese; and Peter Jackson, though he did a bril­liant job on Lord of the Rings, seri­ously needed to lose his hardon for dinosaurs and giant bugs in his most recent foray.

There is one, and only one, scene in Jackson’s 2005 cover that is supe­rior to the 1933 orig­i­nal: When Jackson’s ape died, you could see it in the way his eyes lost focus and glazed. I had never seen such sub­tlety in CGI before, and it impressed me.

Today, how­ever, I am not going to talk about giant mon­keys, nor spank their per­for­mances.** Today instead I’m going to talk about a movie that I didn’t even know existed before Tuesday: The Call of Chtulhu, pro­duced by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society.

For those whose minds have not been tainted by the eldritch mark of insan­ity, the back­ground is decep­tively facile. Lovecraft wrote what we call gothic hor­ror in the 1920s and 30s (one won­ders what he thought of King Kong), pro­duc­ing sto­ries of inter­mit­tent qual­ity deal­ing with more or less mun­dane sub­jects in the genre but giv­ing them a very spe­cific piquancy that he explored, in much greater depth, in his later works. August Derleth coined the term Cthulhu Mythos to describe it, but loosely it’s a canon of writ­ing that Lovecraft ini­ti­ated and which has been bor­rowed from and built on heav­ily by his successors.

The Mythos cov­ers a sub­ject that, at the time Lovecraft devel­oped it, was absolutely unique: The idea that the uni­verse, vast and ancient as it is, con­tains life which is so old and so advanced it is unrec­og­niz­able to us (mere pup­pies still squirm­ing around on our Earth-mother’s teats) as any­thing but god­like — or, as Lovecraft might express it, dae­mo­niac. We’re talk­ing vast and impos­si­bly ancient civ­i­liza­tions here, civ­i­liza­tions which walk among the stars with the sure, even stride of a mas­ter tour guide in untracked wilder­ness, beings so far above us that when they tread casu­ally across our world they do not even notice our shrieks of unhinged ter­ror as they leave deep, bloody footprints.

This con­cept was used, to great suc­cess, by Joe Straczynski in his five-​​year SF TV epic Babylon 5. The Shadows were a race akin to that of Cthulhu, or pos­si­bly Azathoth; and there were other ancient races as well who could be peti­tioned, at great peril, to lose their aloof stance long enough to offer assis­tance in fac­ing a bit­ter, ghastly enemy intent on reduc­ing the cos­mos to a chaotic grey soup of entropy.

So the Mythos is now some eighty years’ devel­oped, and yet, in that time no one has ever suc­cess­fully made a movie of any Lovecraft story. Herbert West — Reanimator was sim­ply cheese; The Curse (based on The Colour Out of Space, HPL’s per­sonal favorite story) was barely more tol­er­a­ble; and In the Mouth of Madness was a John Carpenter film.***

Enter the HPLHS.

A chance com­ment in a thread on Pharyngula pointed me to their page on Call of Cthulhu, an extremely low-​​budget pro­duc­tion cre­ated by a the­ater com­pany. What cap­ti­vated me was the absolutely unique approach to the sto­ry­line. Rather than try to set the story in the mod­ern era, they chose to keep it his­tor­i­cally planted in the 1920s, and chose also to shoot it as a black-​​and-​​white silent feature.

I was a lit­tle dubi­ous, but watched the trailer any­way. Maybe it’s because I’m into “arty” films already, and pre­dis­posed to enjoy­ing some­thing that’s dif­fer­ent enough to stand out; cer­tainly it’s because I’m a Lovecraft fan and have been for more than twenty years; but after see­ing the trailer I decided to scoop up the DVD.

Boy, am I ever glad I did.

The deci­sion to make the film in the 1920s silent style was, I think, a stroke of bril­liance. As much as fea­si­ble the crew kept to tech­niques that would have been used by period direc­tors, includ­ing minia­tures, in-​​camera and simple-​​matte trick pho­tog­ra­phy, and stop-​​motion ani­ma­tion for Cthulhu Himself. This forced them to rely on the pace of the story, lift­ing words directly from Lovecraft’s work, and to rely on the abil­ity of their actors to pro­vide good facial performances.

A stage the­ater troupe was the ideal choice for this — they’re used to work­ing on a bud­get tight enough to hold air in a vac­uum, mak­ing even rel­a­tively sim­plis­tic sets work suf­fi­ciently for any scene; and they’re very good at the rubber-​​face expres­sions nec­es­sary for vis­i­ble emo­tion onstage — often the kind of mug­ging that was done in silent movies, since of course all vocal inflec­tion was lost. All that’s left is the sound­track, which, by the way, is quite good. There are sev­eral places where the com­poser almost gave voice to Cthulhu’s roars, and the cues are all nicely pur­posed to enhanc­ing the imagery.

Given these self– and otherwise-​​imposed lim­i­ta­tions, you’d think CofC would prob­a­bly not be a high-​​visibility, action-​​oozing epic; and you’d be right. It doesn’t want to be, it doesn’t pre­tend to be, but — here’s the clincher — it doesn’t need to be. This movie (which, by the way, is less than an hour in length) is sim­ply the min­i­mal­ist inter­pre­ta­tion to screen that its pro­duc­ers required of it, and for that rea­son alone I believe it is the most faith­ful — and effec­tive — adap­ta­tion of an HPL story to screen to date. I’m quite sure that Lovecraft would have approved.

Bear in mind that this movie (as with oth­ers I’ve rec­om­mended here) is not for every­one. You do have to be a bit of a cin­ema nerd to appre­ci­ate it, and it helps a hell of a lot to actu­ally know and like Lovecraft’s oeu­vre. If you respect the Mythos, though, and you don’t mind the idea of trans­port­ing your­self men­tally to a time when movies had no sound­track save a musi­cal score and essen­tially no spe­cial effects at all, Call of Cthulhu is def­i­nitely some­thing you’ll want to experience.

It took eighty years for Cthulhu to rise from the shad­ows on the cin­ema wall, and the irony is that when He finally did appear in all His glory, it was under the aegis of tech­niques that most have con­sid­ered dead for more than two decades. But, as Lovecraft him­self reminds us,

That is not dead which can eter­nal lie,
and, with strange aeons, even death may die.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sunken city to try to find.


* Which sucks so much less than the lat­ter three efforts that I’ve for­mally decided that the entire Anakin story arc as pro­duced by Lucas sim­ply doesn’t exist. There never was a Jar-​​Jar and a pre­pu­bes­cent Darth Vader absolutely never built C-​​3PO.

** Did you see how sub­tle I was there?

*** Which, for most cin­ema afi­ciona­dos, is damna­tion enough.


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