Sunday, November 22, 2009

"The Call of Cthulhu"

Because I'm reading a big chunk of H. P. Lovecraft at the moment, I've been breaking the monotony by watching some of the adaptations of his work.

There are two good reasons for why most Lovecraft movies miss the mark. Since his stories are effective mostly because of their tone and their gradual accumulation of facts, it must be difficult to make a straightforward movie out of them, so the script writers tend to fall back on spectacle and totally new sex-and-slimy-monster subplots, all of which make the resulting film decidedly NON-Lovecraftian.

Secondly, as a result of this reliance on spectacle, these invariably low-budget movies tend to fail because they can't live up to their special effects requirements.

When the special effects DO succeed, you get movies like "Re-Animator" which have only a tenuous plot connection (and absolutely no thematic connection) to the stories they're adapted from. And when the effects DON'T succeed, you get total flops like The Curse or Dagon, which are basically eighty minutes of boring Hollywood-style subplot and ten minutes of cheap schlock at the end.

I haven't seen many movies which manage to REALLY capture the "Lovecraft mood," but oddly enough the ones I HAVE seen are the ones I've most recently viewed. I mentioned the wonderful-but-flawed "Cthulhu" back in May...

...but today I saw the HP Lovecraft Historical Society's version of "The Call of Cthulhu," and thanks to devotion, smarts, and a whole lot of luck, it's the most faithful adaptation yet.

I'd assumed that anything produced by such a society would be a half-baked, crappy mess of fan-splooge, featuring a bunch of doughy part-time Little Theatre types doing their level best to upstage each other. What I saw, however, was a totally effective no-budget film that succeeded in almost every way.

By shooting it as a '20s-era silent picture they avoided many of the problems that cheapo home productions face: no need to worry about dialog or sound recording, an easier time integrating effects, and probably fewer problems with set design and lighting. But what REALLY worked was that it managed to capture that elusive Lovecraftian mood in a way that a "talkie" never could.

How the HECK did they pull this off? A model boat pulled across sparkle-covered fabric becomes the perfect image to complement the story, in a way that REAL location footage NEVER would. Lovecraft didn't write about realistic images, he wrote about impossible angles and indescribable landscapes; a REAL cliff-face representing the lost city of R'lyeh would have appeared pedestrian and narrow-minded, but a cardboard-and-scaffold set built in one of the crew member's backyard is FAR more "right."

The acting, too, is brilliant. Nobody is being funny, and everybody manages to walk the fine line between "silent movie overacting" and "just plain camp." Here again the movie benefited from its silent-film conceit: no bad accents, no awkward dialog, no Little Theatre emoting-stereotypes.

All these things -- fantasy-sets, terrific lighting, dedicated acting -- combine with an AMAZING music score to make the best 45 minutes of film I've seen in a long time. Really, it's that good. I don't just mean "a good independent film" or "a good silent movie," I mean a legitimate mini-masterpiece.

And you know what? I think H. P. Lovecraft would have loved it.

PS: During the newspaper clipping montage, guess which city shows up amongst all the bylines? You're right: Kitchener, Ontario. How did that slip in there?

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