Andrew Leman | 47 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English
I must admit to not being at all familiar with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. I know the name, of course, and the titles of some of his stories, not to mention being aware of the array of well-known fans. Aside from that, I’ve only encountered his work through its influence — there’s some stuff in the Hellboy films, for instance, or the Lovecraft/Wodehouse mash-up in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. This is my first experience of the undiluted thing, however.
This is an adaptation of a short story first published in 1928, which led its makers to the inspired idea of filming it as if it had been made at the time — in short, as a silent film. This lends an instant… not charm, exactly, but sort of ingenuity. There are a couple of cheats that wouldn’t have been available to 1920s filmmakers, but all are modern low-budget equivalents of something they would have achieved a different way.
And low budget it certainly is. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a fan film or a micro-budget indie. If may lack a final level of polish to qualify for the latter — it was shot on video and it shows (though less so in black & white than in colour, interestingly) — but, if the former, it’s a very slick example; much more professionally executed than Browncoats: Redemption, say.
The marriage of low-budget and silent film style is one made in heaven, particularly when you add in the dedication of the makers. They built impressive props, ingenious sets, and employed model work in various inventive ways, all to execute a story that includes a cultist swamp orgy, a mysterious island, a sea battle, and a skyscraper-sized monster. Some online reviews have criticised the effects, but those people are quite frankly idiots. This isn’t meant to be slick CGI — it’s re-creating lo-fi early film techniques, and (aside from one or two rough-round-the-edges spots of greenscreen) it all looks fabulous.
I would go on, but one of my chief pleasures in the film was the surprises of the effects work, so I don’t want to spoil it for you. The making-of on the DVD is certainly worth a watch (it’s also better made than some I’ve seen on professional films), and I’ll add that a particular favourite of mine is the methods they used to create the highly atmospheric bayou sequence. The model set is incredible!
It’s easy to get distracted by the production when its makers have worked such wonders with next-to-no budget, but there’s also solid storytelling going on here. I have no idea how closely it hews to Lovecraft’s original, but there’s a layered stories-within-stories approach (I think it gets four deep at one point) that is difficult to pull off with clarity, but never falters here. Christopher Nolan would be proud. It also effectively builds a sense of uncanny mystery; not outright scares, but a kind of disquieting unease. It’s my impression that was absolutely Lovecraft’s aim too, so another job well done.
It’s fair to say The Call of Cthulhu isn’t a film for everyone, but then often the best ones aren’t. As well as Lovecraft enthusiasts, fans of silent film and creepy (as opposed to jumpy or gory) horror should definitely give it a go. It’s only 50 minutes of your life, and you might have the same reaction as me: I’m now eager to read Lovecraft’s actual work, and have just received the Blu-ray of the filmmakers’ follow-up, a ’30s-Universal-horror-styled take on another Lovecraft tale. Inspiring such a desire for more is surely always a sign of a good film.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.