Ludo fore putavimus: “we thought it would be fun.” This is the subscript of the studio credit for The Call of Cthulhu (2005, d. Andrew Leman), and the motto of the HPLHS, the Howard Phillips Lovecraft Historical Society. The film, a close adaptation of the short story of the same name, was produced by the Society’s Sean Branney and Andrew Leman. Thanks to two excellent choices they made seeking to turn a budgetary necessity into a virtue, The Call of Cthulhu is not only the most successful Lovecraft adaptation I’ve ever seen, but just a wonderful movie.
The first of the choices is the conceit that the film was made during the time the central events of the narrative take place, say, the mid-1920s. Lovecraft’s atmospheric writing is notoriously difficult to adapt to the medium of film, so the second wise choice the producers made was to foreground the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s story at the expense of other elements.
To do this they create a black-and-white silent film complete with title cards, primitive effects, period acting conventions, and a contemporary musical soundtrack. The film has been “stone-washed” through the unobtrusive application of digital grain and film-scratch effects, the soundtrack is slightly muffled, and the images slightly unfocused to further the impression of projection by early technology (they call it “Mythoscope”). The art, the actors’ makeup (figure 2), and the sets on R’lyeh (figure 3) are all drawn from the palette of expressionism.
The 1920s conceit makes it all organic and natural, and visibly an attempt to place it within Lovecraft’s world. It does not get in the way of the story at all, and in fact, the conceit that we’re dependant upon 1920s technology pushes the most unfilmable parts of the story into the unfocused background and allow the atmosphere to predominate. What could be worse than if we tried to make an adaptation of the story set in the modern world with recognizable modern actors and seamless CGI effects? Lovecraft’s writing is such that to the extent we try to pin down the precise outlines of Lovecraftian horror with a present-day realism, to the extent that we try to depict Cthulhu, or the multidimensional aspect of R’lyeh (figure 3), or the human sacrifices in Louisiana with the digital exactness of CGI, we would stray from Lovecraft.
I’ll try to explain that. As a joke, critics sometimes say that actor X does a good job playing himself in all his roles. This points to a broader deficiency in most of today’s actors: they’re hopelessly mired in the speech and gestural idioms of the early-twenty-first century, and this banalizes them and kills that otherworldly Lovecraft atmosphere. It’s hard to be afraid of Cthulhu in a world with air conditioning and ATMs on every corner. The stylized acting and period look of Call of Cthulhu, and the absence of modern spoken accents in the silent film all take us away from the familiar and the banal and allow what Lovecraft wrote as uncanny to have its effect.
Lovecraft will not be reduced to simple formulas, but one thing we can say about him is that he liked the idea that humans in their liveaday world might by chance (or misfortune) pick up clues and assemble them to reveal a mighty unpleasant fact: that our safe little world with motor cars and trundle beds and greeting cards is in fact a puny plaything of beings and forces inconceivably great, whose slightest motions could crush humans and the Earth the way we might carelessly (or deliberately) step on an ant. The final thought of the film quotes the first line of the story: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents.” The luckless chap who chances to see too many pieces of the puzzle and achieves a dim view of the larger universe has only one refuge when the comforting veil of ignorance has been torn away: mental collapse.
All of the foregoing is symbolically represented as we fade in to the film, as the protagonist works on a jigsaw puzzle in what looks like a hospital. He cannot bring himself to put the last piece in place. Looking up, he recalls he has a visitor sitting opposite, and bids him, evidently a confidante, to burn the record of his terrifying discovery.
This is not the place to summarize Lovecraft’s story, which is, after all, well enough known. What is worth recalling is how it is articulated, since the film misses none of its beats: it consists of several short narratives, each of which marks a step in the protagonist’s journey of luckless discovery. The film’s relentless economy in presenting the ideas in the story means that it is not padded out like so many recent genre films: The Call of Cthulhu is a hair over 45 minutes long.
A flashback reveals that the protagonist was the executor of the estate of his grand uncle, George Gammell Angell, “Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.” Angell’s written records bring the protagonist through the first two steps of discovery: the story of some perhaps paranormal dreams by a young artist in 1925, and an indirect narrative of the suppression of an evil cult in the bayous of Louisiana in 1908. A chance discovery of a newspaper scrap wrapping a geological specimen takes the protagonist, now telling his own story, to New Zealand in pursuit of information about the adventures of a ship that had touched down on a remote island, and finally, the protagonist’s trip to Denmark and the discovery of the logbook of the ill-fated ship Alert with full details of its landing upon the island and the narrow escape. With all of this information in hand, the protagonist is able to put enough pieces of the puzzle into place that his mind has been shattered. The final scene of the movie returns us to the asylum, now revealed to be such as the protagonist is wheeled off into a room conspicuously holding a man in a straitjacket. This ring composition differs from the short story, where the protagonist awaits murder at the hands of members of the Cthulhu cult.
The division of the story into smaller narratives allows the producers to attack the problem episodically, expending only a few minutes to stitch together the episodes when internal connections do not suffice. The number of sets is minimal, and existing building interiors and exteriors have been used as much as possible. Where sets had to be constructed, a maximum use is made of simple backgrounds, such as a sheet suspended and blown to represent the sail of the ship Emma. Shadows are routinely used to imply the existence of things too expensive to make and film. Roiling seas appear to be represented by reflective plastic tarpaulins set into wave motion by offscreen stagehands. None of this gets in the way of fully understanding and enjoying the film: the point is the discovery and fitting together of the puzzle pieces, which is well served by primitive effects.
Lovecraft was xenophobic and undeniably used appalling racial terms as a shorthand to denote “degenerate” characters, which is cringy and offputting, and pretty much the definition of racism. To my eye, he stands out to the worse in these respects against the background of his peers such as Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith and even Robert E. Howard. It’s OK to admire and enjoy Lovecraftian horror as a product of human genius, but as we do so we have to turn ourselves to strenuously face his ugly side, and make sure we get the word out to new fans that his ugliness is not admirable, literarily or otherwise.
Wholly admirable is the way the producers constructed the sets for the island R’lyeh (and as seen in dreams) and directed the action. Lovecraft is always on about how foreign the geometry and architecture of his eldritch realms are compared to our rational three-dimensional ones. The expressionist stage sets (figure 3), depicting cliffs and buildings in crazy Escher-like angles, gets at this very effectively, especially since it’s all reduced by the camera to two dimensions, the images are a bit out of focus, and the sets are all grey tones. Characters are continually shown being off balance on what appear to be level surfaces, a climber calls down and back to actors who are actually higher on the set than he is, a character walking forward appears to go backward, and in one memorable shot a sailor falls into a crevice which the camera thinks cannot be there. This is hard-core faithfulness to a vision.
The Call of Cthulhu has received praise from critics, and rightly so. The conceit of filming a 1925 black-and-white film will not transport very far, but despite that, this film might be taken as an example of how a film can be artistically valuable while remaining faithful to the original. The film, and its sequel of sorts, The Whisperer in the Darkness, as well as their soundtracks are available from the HPLHS store.
I’ve illustrated the critical argument in this film review with three stills from the movie taken from the web. I have no rights to these images, each of which illustrates specific points I make in the review, and so I rely on a fair-use justification for including them.