I don’t envy anyone who sets out to make an H.P. Lovecraft film. When people think of unfilmable — or at best, extremely difficult to film — authors, such luminaries as James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon usually top the list. However, I contend that Lovecraft is up there as well, and three reasons immediately spring to mind.
First, film is a visual medium, one where the cardinal rule is “show, don’t tell”. And yet, the joy of reading Lovecraft, indeed, the cornerstone to enjoying Lovecraft, I think, is Lovecraft’s telling of it, i.e., wading through his wierd language. Not his dialog, since most of his stories are essentially inner monologue and narration, but rather, his long, rolling sentences, undulating paragraphs, lofty cosmicist philosophizing, and ten-dollar synonyms for “weird” and “creepy”.
It certainly borders on macabre purple prose at times, but Lovecraft goes on and on with such conviction that you either dismiss it outright and move on to something else, or you just give in and enjoy it for the arcane, archaic pleasure that it is. A classic example:
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 light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden eons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it. That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things — in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor. I hope that no one else will accomplish this piecing out; certainly, if I live, I shall never knowingly supply a link in so hideous a chain. I think that the professor, too, intended to keep silent regarding the part he knew, and that he would have destroyed his notes had not sudden death seized him.
Second, his stories are often first person accounts or take the form of long, dictated papers and diaries, full of narration in which his protagonists describe, in great detail, the cosmic and eldritch horrors that they have encountered. It’s a structure that if transferred “as is” to the silver screen brings with it all manner of first-person gimmickiness — you thought Wong Kar-Wai’s narration was heavy-handed. However, it works wonderfully on the printed page, conferring upon Lovecraft’s stories a sense of both authenticity and immediacy.
And finally, and perhaps the greatest challenge, is that Lovecraft’s mythmaking is so grandiose, so bizarre, and so otherworldly, particularly in his most celebrated stories (e.g., At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu), that filmmakers either need to go big or go home. Alien cities buried in Antarctica, strange islands whose geometries defy the very laws of mathematics, alien creatures of whom the briefest glimpse can drive the sturdiest soul stark raving mad — Lovecraft sets the bar high. It seems unlikely that even supremely imaginative directors, even one so gifted as Guillermo del Toro (who has been planning a version of At the Mountains of Madness for years), would be able to reach it. How do you create cosmic horrors capable of leaving their beholders insane, and do so convincingly without slipping into gory, violence-laden histrionics, or worse yet, goofiness?
All of this brings us to 2005’s The Call of Cthulhu. How does this little film, directed by Andrew Leman for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society on what was almost certainly a shoestring budget, stand up to the aforementioned hurdles? To put it mildly, this little forty-seven minute gem of a film handily sweeps aside nearly all such hurdles to Lovecraft adaptations in one fell swoop, and for one simple reason: the filmmakers essentially made The Call of Cthulhu as the kind of film that Lovecraft might have seen in his day… a black and white silent film.
It’s a simple aesthetic choice, but a brilliant one. The structure of a silent movie, with its intermingling of visual and textual elements, is perfect for the structure of Lovecraft’s storytelling. What’s more, the archaic look of the movie, which gives it the air of a long-lost cinematic artifact, meshes well with the fact that Lovecraft’s stories were both obsessed with archaic relics and artifacts — Lovecraft looked more lovingly on previous civilizations than the one in which he lived — and that Lovecraft’s mode of storytelling itself has an archaic feel to it.
Story-wise, the film is a pretty faithful retelling of Lovecraft’s most famous tale, which recounts a young man’s investigation into the diaries and journals of his professor uncle that dealt with the strange global cult of the titular deity. The film hops back and forth in time and spans the globe as the man narrates his attempts to put the pieces together, only to realize that his uncle was on to something horrifying. But try as he might, our protagonist can’t resist the lure of this forbidden knowledge even as it slowly drives him mad (natch).
The filmmakers’ choice to go black and white was also a masterstroke from a technical perspective. Filming in black and white allowed the filmmakers to worry less about the realism of the sets — which comes in very handy in the film’s climax, during which a group of hapless sailors explore the city of R’lyeh on an uncharted island (described by Lovecraft as possessing “vast angles and stone surfaces — surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs”). Here, the filmmakers draw heavily from the aesthetics of 1920s German Expressionist cinema (e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and the result is a set that looks more real and convincing — and alien — than anything created with CGI. (Incidentally, the film is completely 100% CGI.)
Unfortunately, the filmmakers stumble a bit when big bad Cthulhu is finally revealed and ventures forth from his crypt to wreak unholy havoc. I’ll be honest: the Great Old One looks more like a muppet than a cosmic horror as he lumbers forth into the sea, and it sort of kills the moment — which proves part of what I was saying earlier. But it’s only a slight misstep in a film that succeeds brilliantly and absolutely on so many other levels — as an adaptation, a spiritual homage, and on its own as a horror film.
More information, including trailers, can be found on the film’s homepage.
On a related note, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is currently turning The Whisperer in Darkness into a full-length feature, this time a talkie inspired by the classic 1930s Universal Pictures horror films. It looks to be another inspired decision, and another fine entry into the Lovecraft library.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on March 29, 2010.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.