In the early days of cinema, the standard was the silent film. Early technology allowed for video to be captured easily in black and white, but sound was a whole other matter. In the great age of the silent films, the importance of the actor’s physical performance was paramount, as a lack of real dialogue was a constant. Often, the theater would play the film with music provided by in-house musicians, who would either improvise in the early days, or, as was more commonplace after the groundbreaking racist piece, The Birth of a Nation, would play from written scores. Their music provided the only sound to either add or detract from the actor’s expressions, and in a way, since each town had its own musician, and they played each time the movie was shown, audiences essentially never experienced exactly the same film twice. Due to this, silent film is a kind of go-between from stage productions to flat out cinema, and manages to have many of the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Most of the films of the silent era are sadly lost forever, including the nigh-on legendary nine hour original cut of Greed, but interestingly enough, though the in-house musician may be gone, a surprising film has resurrected the silent film methods to tell perhaps one of the greatest horror stories of all time…
In 2005, the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a rather determained group of LARPers, decided to do something that no one had yet been able to do: Turn Lovecraft’s most famous work into a film. But not just any film. It would be a film created as though it could have existed in the very era of Lovecraft’s first writings. And thus, over two years and working on a shoestring budget, the HPLHS created The Call of Cthulhu, quite possibly the best Lovecraftian movie since John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. Oh, and in case I was unclear in the previous sentence, Carpenter’s movie was not based on any Lovecraft story, just the concepts.
The film opens in early 1900’s style, with a blimp floating above the earth before cutting to the title card. Nostalgia is the very essence of this entire credit sequence, and it is quite good. We open to a man putting together a puzzle, though he stops before the final piece. He requests that the other man in the room burn the materials he has brought with him, and proceeds to tell us that he was the executor of his great-uncle’s estate before the man died. The makeup in this movie is quite impressive, evocative of the silent era, yet also very macabre, though it seems a bit strong for the very beginning of the film, but remember, silent films required strong physical elements, and the heavy makeup creates even stronger facial features. It does seem strange to a modern viewer though.
The uncle was a professor of Semitic Languages, and speaks with a student about a clay relief he has made. The student speaks of terrifying things from his dreams, which have coincided with a recent earthquake in the eastern United States. Oh, and in case you don’t actually know, the relief is mostly a picture of Cthulhu. The young man appears strangely calm as he speaks of the horrors of his dreams, with a bit of his fear shining through. We then enter a land of cardboard cutouts, as he claims to be unable to correctly relate the sound he heard during the dream. We don’t get a title card, but it’s fairly obvious that he next mouths the words “Cthulhu Fhtagn.” He flashes back and forth, and the professor becomes intrigued, asking for the student to write down the details of what he remembers. The dreams are of indescribable horrors, which the man draws pictures of when he can. This makes sense, because, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and you need a good few thousand to describe the cosmic horror that pervades Lovecraft’s works. Eventually the artist takes ill and loses his memories of the dreams. Many somewhat confusing newspaper headlines later, he sees the pattern of insanity the world over that had existed at the same time as the dreams.
At this current point, the story feels very minimalist, but it is rather faithful to the original work. The music is good at keeping pace with the story, though the whimsical music that accompanies the next transition feels incredibly out of place. Yes, it technically makes sense, but we’ve had a pretty suspenseful eleven minutes now, so this shift is kind of abrupt. It is short though, as we now move to the second part of the three part story. The uncle had written of a meeting he had with an Inspector from the New Orleans police. The professor brings out a strange statuette that only one of the archeologists in the party had seen before. Since this is a one-eyed man telling us this, it shouldn’t surprise you that he is giving the group some bad news. The Inspector now regales us with the tale of his encounter with cthulhu’s cult in the Louisiana swamp. Local people lead the police through the dark swamp. Honestly, this is about the only part of the movie so far that looks really cheesy, but considering the budget, they are doing a fantastic job with the rest. They come across a group pounding drums and chanting the famous phrase “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” or, “In his house at R’Lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” They are dancing in a tribal fashion, and skeletons hang nearby. The inspector arrests many of the cultists, and even ends up killing a few of them. The gunshot effect here is actually laughable, but again, completely understandable. Effects have never made a movie, and this movie proves that surprisingly well. The cultist Castro (I assume no relation) tells them that Cthulhu is an old one, existing long before man has lived, and will return when the stars are right. We return to the uncle as the archeologists silently look about after he asks them for any other help they can provide about the Cthulhu cult.
Thorough these informative bits, the narrator has come to believe that perhaps his uncle might not have been drawn into this investigation simply be rampant curiosity after meeting the artist. We cut to the narrator back in his bed, now dreaming the same dark dreams as the artist from before. A shadow casts over him, likely symbolic of the very Call of Cthulhu he is now hearing in his sleep. He sets aside the investigation until he finds an article by chance that gives him the final piece to his puzzle, as he calls it. It’s worth noting that many of the shots in this movie have an artsy tone to them, with, again, just about everything outside of the swamp scenes is very good. One of the biggest changes from the original story appears here, where the crew of the Emma finds the Alert abandoned, rather than full of Cthulhu cultists. This makes the story simpler, and avoids another possible cheesy fight that would have occurred if the ship were occupied. The crew of the Emma finds a strange idol of Cthulhu on the ship, along with a severed finger. Drawn by his curiosity, the captain goes to find what caused the crew of the Alert to abandon ship. Only the first mate comes back alive. The strange events are all coming together now, and the narrator now sets out to find the idol from the article. He eventually comes to the knowledge of an island in the middle of the sea. It is nice to see the narrator using a translation dictionary to talk to the woman in Oslo. An English diary entry, preventing the wife from reading it, tells of an island, providing coordinates. We see the events of the fateful encounter of the bathtub boat crew with the island of R’lyeh. The movie’s most interesting aspect, in my opinion, is how it brings us into the story in the same way as the narrator, a simple observer, curious to see what all these tidbits amount to when it’s all said and done. And thus, we reach our climax, a first-hand account of an encounter with the great Cthulhu itself. A wonderful touch is that they have the island feature structures that look similar to all the images we’ve seen so far of Cthulhu, with statues and a large relief reminiscent of the very beginning of the film. During the reveal process, we hear what almost sounds like Cthulhu’s boss theme on the Super Nintendo, as the stop-motion monster begins to emerge. The escape is actually very well done, with much of the music accentuating perfectly. In the end, Cthulhu is defeated (sort of) in Ursula style, getting rammed by the boat. During this sequence, we see the character’s talking, but we neither hear nor read any of what they are saying. It adds so much to the sequence by subtracting. In the end, we see that the narrator has more or less completely fallen apart, as he points out that although he will soon die, the cult and Cthulhu live on. And this short film ends with one of Lovecraft’s most famous quotes: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents.”
So, overall, this is an impressive movie, managing to avoid a truly cheesy experience while still working with a pathetic budget and no dialogue. It featured a stop-motion Cthulhu, which I must admit, would have been impressive around the time of King Kong. Despite never living in that era, a strange nostalgia manages to flow from this film, making the days of silent cinema seem interesting again. It’s a faithful retelling of the work, and the changes it made all work extremely well. Is it scary? Well, I can’t really be sure of that. It is suspenseful and intriguing, and you definitely see the fear in the characters as stuff goes to hell around them, or even as they simply read about stuff going to hell around others. This movie has earned a place in paradise, managing to blend the old and new effectively to tell a wonderful story.
I guess its true what they say:
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
and with strange eons, even death may die.