‘That is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie…’
The Call of Cthulhu
In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
I should really have had a review of this masterpiece from the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society posted months ago. Months and months ago. In fact this 47-minute, priceless diamond of a film should have been commented on before the outstanding The Whisperer in Darkness (reviewed in this blog last January), which came six years later but is also from the H.P.L.H.S.
What was stopping me? Well, I had nothing to say except that it is brilliant, wonderful and glorious. All those superlatives would soon make any review come to resemble an adjective-ridden Lovecraft story itself. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only have ten films with me—and if that island in the sun had a small cinema screen, projector and electricity, along with the divine Jessica Lange to keep me company, naturally—then this would be one of the films that would come with me. Most of that top ten would be subject to change; but the inclusion of the likes of Barry Lyndon, The Wild Bunch, Sirens and our subject at hand, The Call of Cthulhu (2005) would be non-negotiable. I don’t care if it’s only three-quarters of an hour long and I certainly don’t care that it is a black-and-white silent film; it is better than half the dross at three times that length that has poured out of Hollywood in the last twenty years. And every time I went to comment on it I found myself having to watch it again, meaning that I’ve seen it about half-a-dozen times at this stage. Ah, what can I say: what a pleasurable way to suffer for one’s art! Just writing this makes me feel like stopping and putting it back on—right now!
The silent film has given us some classics of the science fiction and horror genres: Nosferatu, Faust, The Lost World, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis immediately spring to mind; and look at the legendary directors who were responsible for those five alone: F. W. Murnau for the first couple; Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack; Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. It’s enough to have the mouth of the true connoisseur watering; and the decision by the wonderful H.P.L.H.S. (may Dagon ever keep his gills moist for them) to film this adaptation of Lovecraft’s seminal tale as a 20s silent film is nothing less than inspired. There is a beauty in those kind of images, filled with what Scorsese describes as ‘rich, rich blacks’. (OK, he was talking about film noir but the same thing applies, you pedants!) They make me want to open wide my arms, throw my head back and scream all praise to Yog-Sothoth…
“…and with Strange Aeons Even Death May Die”. *
But back to the film.
It is directed by Andrew Leman and adapted by Sean Branney from HPL’s 1926 short story of a slumbering trans-cosmic horror that lurks beneath the waves and waits for the stars to be in the correct position to awaken it; and all the while a hideous and blasphemous cult of worshippers prepare themselves for that day.[I’ve never really got the Cult of Cthulhu crowd. Why are they in such a hurry for the big green squid-face to return? I mean, that’s adios amigo where they’re concerned. Great Cthulhu doesn’t differentiate between us and them, as far as I can make out.]
It stars Matt Foyer as the film’s focal point. He is noted in the cast as ‘The Man’, in a wonderfully reductive way of describing a human that would have made HPL proud. In fact if he could have figured out a way of having no people in his stories at all he would have been a happy little camper. It also has Ralph Lucas as Professor Angell, Chad Fifer as Henry Wilcox and David Mersault as Inspector Legrasse—and how strange and thrilling it is for the aficionado to see those characters on the screen that they have read of so often. I mean, there’s Patrick O’Day as Johansen, that brave, doomed sea captain who was primarily responsible for bringing knowledge of the Cthulhu Cult out of the darkness in which it had lurked for so long. And look, there’s Professor Webb, looking uncannily like Jeff Bridges in True Grit!
Of course, it’s actually futile to throw out names here. Both Cthulhu and Whisperer are team efforts and sheer labours-of-love from pure true-blood Lovecraft fans. The detail that the H.P.L.H.S. puts into these films—the latter is done in the style of a 40s/50s science-fiction film—brought tears to these cynical old eyes of mine; and I almost passed away peacefully when the Fleur-de-Lys House in Providence appeared on the screen. How often had I looked at stills of it over the years and imagined walking through those doors to converse with Wilcox? In fact, as soon as the film was over that first time, down from the congested Lovecraft shelves came More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft; opened were the hallowed pages to that photo of the building; and then play—pause—study, began; and rewind and play, pause and study went on for five glorious minutes! I swear that if I see this film one more time they’ll be locking me away in the rubber room—and happy I’ll be, because I’ll have all these memories to keep me warm!
How did they handle the actual landing on the risen hell-city of R’lyeh, that nightmare of cyclopean, seaweed-draped, non-Euclidean shapes of horror? Why, with customary, H.P.L.H.S genius—they showed it in the expressionistic manner of Dr. Caligari. And it only works perfectly, all jagged edges and yet somehow dreamlike and emphasising how utterly tiny, pointless and insignificant the human being is when confronted with the indifference of the Universe.
This is, quite simply, the best and most faithful adaptation of a Lovecraft tale that you are likely to see for a long time, perhaps ever. Sure, there are minor changes but nothing to get your tentacles in a knot about. It’s not that I am for sticking solely to the text of the Great Man’s work. Yes, in an ideal world; but this isn’t one. Anyone who puzzles over why aberrations like Justin Bieber are permitted to exist or why Breaking Bad is so inexplicably popular knows this for sure. (Someone told me that if you play B B backwards it’s the heartwarming story of a nasty meth pusher who changes his ways, becomes a chemistry teacher, gets cured of cancer and goes on to live happily ever afterwards. It might be worth a try.)
For a modern Lovecraft film I don’t see how being completely faithful to the text could be practical. I’m still in mourning for the fact that Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness has gone down the tubes. I know that it’s unlikely that he could have stuck to HPL’s vision, as with the budget that he was trying to gouge out of Hollywood they would probably have expected it to make at least a few quid, the bastards; but I’m pretty sure that del Toro would have done something interesting with it.
For now, the work being produced by the H.P.L.H.S is as good as you will get. If I ever win the lottery I’m just handing these guys a chunk of change and telling them to make what they want with it. They are the real deal, the fan’s fans. If you are in any way remotely interested in adaptations of Lovecraft to the screen then beg, steal or borrow copies of The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness. You’ll thank Nyarlathotep that you did.
*And shame on the heavy metal band Iron Maiden for getting a word of the Sacred Text wrong in the cover art for Live After Death. Ah well, happens to the best of us after a particularly large infusion of drink and drugs. So they tell me, anyway.