Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Director: Andrew Leman                                   Writer: Sean Branney
Film Score: Troy Sterling Nies                          Cinematography: David Robertson
Starring: Matt Foyer, John Bolen, Ralph Lucas and Chad Fifer

Back in the 1980s, when I first began studying film, I had a strong sense of the uniqueness of the silent form of cinema. So different was it, I felt, from sound film that it seemed to be an entirely different category of art, and thus it was not just an outmoded form of film but a separate one that could easily stand beside any sound film. Why, I wondered at the time, was no one making silent films anymore, and immediately following that was the thought that someone should. Now, the Mel Brooks comedy Silent Movie was never intended to be a serious excursion into the genre and so it wasn’t until the French film The Artist won the Academy Award for best picture in 2011 that my vision was realized in a critical way. But the Howard Philips Lovecraft Historical Society actually proved the concept six years earlier in one of the most remarkable films I have ever experienced. The Call of Cthulhu is, quite simply, not just one of the great horror films ever made, but a magnificent film period. My hope that they would stick to the silent form was dashed when their next release, The Whisperer in Darkness, was made as a sound film. Ultimately the disappointing nature of the later film proves just how valid the silent form is, and I can only hope that they will return to producing more stunning silent films in the nature of their first.

The original story by H.P. Lovecraft “The Call of Cthulhu” seems an unlikely one to be made into a film. With his love of British literature of the nineteenth century, Lovecraft’s epistolary story is built around the idea of a series of discoveries of primary sources and flashbacks within flashbacks that lead to an accidental encounter with a god from another dimension, the hydra-headed Cthulhu. The film begins with Matt Foyer putting the last piece of a puzzle in place on Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Clearly, he is in an institution, with a pipe-smoking psychiatrist across the table from him, John Bolen. Foyer wants all of his research burned, but relents to tell the story to Bolen. It began as the executor of the estate of his great-uncle, Ralph Lucas. Among his papers he found a large file on the Cthulhu cult as well as newspaper clippings and written accounts of many seemingly unrelated unexplained phenomenon. They begin with the nightmarish dreams of an artist, Chad Fifer, then a carved idol of the demi-god himself acquired by a New Orleans police inspector, David Mersault. When a chance encounter with a scrap of newspaper tells the story of a derelict fishing boat found by a Norwegian freighter, it leads Foyer to Norway and the diary of the only survivor aboard the ship and his near fatal encounter with Cthulhu himself.

While the form may be old, the techniques are definitely not. There is a burnished glow to the black and white lighting that gives the feel of silver nitrate in a way most reproductions of classic silent films fail to convey. Director Andrew Leman also uses iris effects and miniatures, stop-motion and matte paintings, Dutch angles green screens in very effective ways. The lighting itself is a tremendous achievement and is one of the major components of the film. The other is the incredible film score, the work of three composers, which gives the crowning touch to achieving the goal of successfully adapting Lovecraft to the screen. Matt Foyer, the protagonist, is wonderfully morose in the film, with sunken eyes and a haunted expression. The rest of the cast, mostly amateur actors, does remarkably well under the direction of Leman. In fact, one of the great performances in the film is by Clarence Henry Hunt as a cult member in Louisiana. The tilted camera and the lighting give the effect of countless horror films from the thirties and forties. Also, the stop-motion animation for the monster is an absolutely brilliant homage to the golden era of film. And even though Leman made the bulk of his choices for economic reasons, it doesn’t matter. He still manages to pull off the best Lovecraft film ever made, and demonstrated the viability of silent film as a valid art form in the process. As a result The Call of Cthulhu is, and will remain, one of my favorite films of all time.

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