Monday, October 10, 2011

The impossible HP Lovecraft movie got made!

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Starring: John Klemantaski, Matt Foyer, Noah Wagner, Patrick O'Day, Dan Mersault, and John Bolen
Director: Andrew Lehman
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

While trying to get his uncle's estate in order, a scholar (Foyer) discovers a web of horror and madness that spans the globe.

"The Call of Cthulhu" is the most famous story by pulp fiction horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and it's one that conventional wisdom (and, frankly, common sense) said could not be adapted to the screen. And certainly not on a low budget. It's a story that literally covers five decades and spans the globe with four plot-lines--one featuring a demonic cult performing human sacrifices deep within a swamp and the police officer who interrupts them, of a doomed ship's crew who encounter an uncharted island and a gigantic monster during a savage storm, one of a mad that is driven mad by strange dreams, and finally the tale of the narrator himself and how he was driven insane by completing research started by his uncle and discovering how those other three events were connected in a terrible chain of cosmic cause and effect.

It's a story that's both grand in scope, with world-spanning travel and dimension-spanning devil-worship, and yet subtle and intimate in the sources from which it draws its horror, because the tale ultimately deals with a man driven insane when he realizes that humans are insignificant cogs in a machine that hums along as it creates through through actions that have no obvious connection yet are bound together through unseen and unimagined forces of fate and destiny. To top it off, even though humans are incapable of comprehending the vast cosmic destiny unfolding around us, if we get a glimpse of it, we are then driven to attempt to understand it or become part of it, lured to madness by the titular "Call of Chuthulu."

But the filmmakers and cast behind this movie managed to do the impossible. They not only created the most faithful screen adaptation of a Lovecraft story I've yet to come across, but they did while capturing the tone and flavor of Lovecraft's layered writing style.

And they did it for around $50,000... delivering a horror movie far better than ones made with 100 times the budget level.

Part of the success of this film actually grew out of its low budget. It caused the filmmakers to settle on the idea of making the film as if it had been made during the time Lovecraft's original story had been published. It let them build sets and props for less than it would have cost them to do in color--because there are things that can be more easily hidden in black-and-white than when shooting in color--and it let them take approaches to special effects that are perfectly acceptable in a movie with apparent 1920s production values but which would have been outrageously laughable if used in a film with a modern feel.

The shot a silent movie, with the actors doing their level best to capture the gestures and performance styles of performers from that that time and making the movie using a mix of vintage and modern techniques--working at the intersection of digital compositing, stop-motion photography, miniatures, and forced perspective camera angles.

The filmmakers were mostly successful in creating a movie that feels like it dates from the 1920s. I'm sure uber-geeks would be inclined to nit-pick it for featuring things like zooms and pans and otherwise having the camera moving during shots, but I didn't find those obvious bits of modernity distracting from the overall effect. Heck, they even avoided the pitfall that has ruined several other contemporary films made to look old... they didn't go overboard with the digital "aging" to the film. There's just enough here to create the illusion that I'm watching some almost-lost film transferred to DVD Alpha Video rather than something made in 2005, but they don't go overboard to the point where it becomes distracting and obnoxiously fake.

In fact, the only thing I that hurt my impression of this film is that they were not able to afford was film stock but instead shot on video.

The biggest weakness of the film is that it has that it has that slightly bland look that I've found to be the hallmark of so many shot-on-video films, with the highlights and the shadows not being as starkly contrasted as they need to be. And that harms this film is some places. It's not a fatal flaw, but it takes knocks it down from ALMOST PERFECT to just GREAT (and from a Ten-star rating to a Nine-star.)

That said, this is a great recapturing of a cinematic style that's been gone for almost a century now. It's also a film that makes one dream about what Robert Weiene, Guido Brignone, Fritz Lang, or even Alfred Hitchcock, might have with H.P. Lovecraft.

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