|The Call of Cthulhu, 2005. Directed by Andrew Leman. Matt Foyer, Patrick O'Day, Ralph Lucas, David Mersault, Noah Wagner, Chad Fifer, John Bolen.
Synopsis: Upon receiving custody of the notes of his deceased uncle, a linguist pieces together a world-spanning pattern of madness and strange religious fervor surrounding some vast entity sleeping in a drowned city somewhere in the uncharted ocean. His investigations lead him to an artist beset by disturbing dreams in the haunted city of Providence, a cult ceremony in the swamps of Louisiana, a tramp steamer from Norway, and, finally, the fatal account of sailors who accidentally land on the shores of R'lyeh, where sleeps the great drowned god, Cthulhu...
Oceanic Dread : I sometimes wonder what H. P. Lovecraft would have made of calamari. His stories are so choked with half-fish, half-human hybrids, with gelid, cephalopod nightmares, that I think he probably would have run screaming into the streets if someone had served him up a plate. Lovecraft has been ill-served by the movies, and no wonder: not only are the concepts behind his assorted grotesques pretty ridiculous if literalized as more than "concepts," but his stories are almost entirely bereft of dialogue (and good thing, too, because what there is is pretty ripe). Pity the poor screenwriter tasked with bringing him to the screen. It's no accident that some of the best Lovecraft films have ranged far and wide from the printed page.
Fan Film : The most surprising thing about this particular production, which tackles one of Lovecraft's central stories, is that a bunch of fans succeed where professionals have failed time and again. Mind you, these are fans who have a background in film and theater, but still. They succeed mainly because they've stumbled on a conceit that moots many of the problems previous adapters have broken themselves upon. They've chosen to film the story as it might have been filmed during Lovecraft's lifetime, in black and white and silent. The silent part is what gets this film over the hump. Without having to worry about dialogue, the filmmakers take Lovecraft fairly literally. Great chunks of the title cards (and more than a few of the in-film documents) quote directly from the short story itself, while the theatrical nature of both silent film and the way the filmmakers have used their scant resources to ape silent film put the film at such a remove from the contemporary horror film that its very artifice glosses over the impossibility of portraying Lovecraft's concepts of cosmic horror. It reminded me a little bit of Guy Maddin, particularly his Dracula. Like Maddin, it reclaims the surrealist stake in horror.
One other benefit of this movie's status as the vanity project of a fan club is that it is unhampered by the need to conform to commercial filmmaking forms. It doesn't pad the material. At 47 minutes long, it is just exactly long enough to encompass the story without egregious additions.
Perhaps most telling: the creative approach to making this film demonstrates that the means to make vital and engaging fantasy films has become democratized enough to be within the means of anyone with the will to do it. I can't imagine a horror movie more different than The Blair Witch Project than this film is, but this film is certainly an inheritor of Blair Witch's success. In very meaningful ways, this film is more ambitious (though perhaps a trifle less infected with deep existentialist dread), and it suggests that cinema is being reinvented from the ground up beyond the corrupt economy of big studio filmmaking.
And somehow, it works. Bravo, H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. You've done the old man proud.