The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
Most of the things that scare people are ubiquitous banalities: literally, death and taxes. If you’re like me – an All-American boy raised on the films of (Canadian) David Cronenberg and (Dutchman) Paul Verhoven – you quickly start gravitating toward the more cosmic horrors. This leads you, inevitably, to Lovecraft…and just as inevitably to disappointment in the state of Lovecraft-based films.
There are good reasons for that. Like a lot of early 20th century authors, Lovecraft did his best work in descriptive prose. “Purple” prose, we critics call it, when we’re feeling generous. When we’re not, we call it “over-writing,” and generally label it a self-indulgent excess. But in his self-indulgence, there’s no denying that man could turn a phrase. Usually, when we say that about someone, it’s because one line of their stands out as particularly good, but every paragraph – hell, every compound-complex sentence – is full of more gems than any Dwarf city in Middle-Earth. I mean, for God’s sake, listen: “..I shall never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and in space, and of those unhallowed blasphemies from elder stars which dream beneath the sea, known and favoured by a nightmare cult read and eager to loose them on the world whenever another earthquake shall heave their monstrous stone city again to the sun and air.” That would be, as described on the facing page, “…the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes the seeped down from the stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.”
How in the hell do you turn that into a film? The short answer is: you don’t. Most of the time you make a movie that vaguely references those “unhallowed blasphemies” while centering around around smaller, cheaper, more easily filmed antagonists. Like that “nightmare cult.” Everybody loves a good nightmare cult, except when they seep into real life and suddenly become a nightmare from which you can never, ever wake (topical joke).
Then, in 2005, the HP Lovecraft Historical Society gave us this: an adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu – one of Lovecraft’s most well-known and best-loved short stories. The Historical Society is a collection of nerds that originally united in the mid-80s for the Live Action Role-playing game that shares our subject’s title. They eventually grew into a historical society worth the name, with curators and archivists and everything. They produce their own music, their own radio plays, their own swag…and this, their first feature.
As the Society’s website says, they like to imagine a world where Lovecraft was famous in his own time, above and outside the small clique of other writers he befriended, and copiously corresponded with in life. Call of Cthulhu was originally written in 1926, so what if Hollywood of the late 1920s came knocking on his door, instead of L. Frank Baum’s or Margaret Mitchell’s? To answer that, the Society produced this: a silent, black-n-white film full of forced-perspective, miniatures, stop-motion, and big, broad acting. It is, by far and away, the most faithful adaption of a Lovecraft story ever committed to film – not just because it resisted the urge to bloat this story with unnecessary filler, but also because it maintains a tone and at atmosphere that I can honestly call “Lovecraftian.”
A lot of that is down to the excellent use of music, which does the heavy emotional lifting, as it has since the days when every decent theater had a dude with a keyboard in the back, and all the good ones had full orchestras. I hear a lot of ragtime piano in there, but the jaunty melodies that term usually describes come up only once, during a scene transition to what’s supposed to be happier times. For the most part, the piano’s turned to sinister purposes, as are the horns, drums, and creepy ambient noise more common to the kind of music we call “experimental.” That’s an entirely modern touch, as are this thing’s editing and shot composition. And while that’s technically a criticism, I don’t want to fault the film for things it has no control over, like the march of time. Most of the tech you’d need to make a period-appropriate 1920s film is gathering dust in museums, like some bizarre statuary. All involved did the best they could under the circumstances, and I salute every last one of them. Besides, modern editing keeps the pace taunt and makes sure this clocks in an an austere forty-five minutes.
No adaption is perfect, though, and this one still makes a few strategic story changes. Instead of hunkering over a desk, writing out all the horrible things he now knows, our unnamed narrator tells his story to a psychiatrist. He’s the first in a nesting doll of unreliable narrators whose tales become branching flashbacks, each more horrifying than the last. I’d like to believe this is by design, because they flow so well – from creepy nightmares, to body horror, to human sacrificing cults, to giant monsters from ancient cities that can only be described in language usually reserved for an Escher paintings.
Our narrator discovered a cache of documents after his great-uncle’s death. His great-uncle was a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, the city Lovecraft seemed to love the most. Once upon a time, Great-Uncle Professor met a young sculptor named Henry Wilcox, who brought a bass relief of a monster covered in ancient script, and told Uncle Professor he’d carved it after having a prophetic dream. A dream of a nightmarish, ancient city, built long ago, when the stars aligned and monster gods first “seeped” down onto our planet. Wilcox’s dreams only got worse as the month of March, 1925, went on, driving him to the hospital, were he almost died…and then, just as suddenly, recovered in early-April.
Uncle Professor’s collection of documents reveal similar madness-inducing dreams occurred simultaneously the world over, their beginning and end coinciding with two earthquakes in the South Pacific. As if some ancient, psychic monster woke up in 1925 and began broadcasting a world-wide signal. Most could not detect it, but it’s like the country music radio station: it’s out there, in the air, even if you’re not tuned into it.
From here, we flash back to the reason Uncle Professor countenanced an art student’s bad dreams in the first place: a meeting of the American Archeological Society in 1908, where police inspector Legrasse brought in a statue for identification, baffling (almost) everyone in attendance. We, of course, see it’s identical to Henry Wilcox’s bass relief, and here Inspector Legrasse takes over narrator duty, detailing how he found the statue during a 1907 raid on a suspected voodoo cult, in the swamps south of New Orleans.
Here’s where I pause to say why I’m actually glad 1920s Hollywood didn’t get ahold of Lovecraft’s work during his life: if they had, all the cultists would’ve looked like the Skull Islanders from original King Kong. Here, they look like neo-primitivist hippies on a camping trip, which isn’t much better…but it’s something. I love the fog-machine shrouded landscape that plays South Louisiana here, not despite the fact it’s a set, but because of that. It reminds me of the 1930s Universal monster movies of my youth, as does all the shoe-polish on the cultist’s teeth. Their real object of worship was, of course, “great Cthulhu” – an ancient god monster from the stars, whose kind once ruled the earth from his great city of R’lyeh. That city sunk beneath the waves ages ago (and the movie does well to underline the obvious parallel hare by have both our narrator dream of, and his great uncle read, infamous late-nineteenth-century crank William Scott-Elliot’s Story of Atlantis and The Lost Lemuria), but Cthulhu’s cult lived on and spread itself across the world. They continue their worship in secret and stand ever ready for their god’s return, like a giant tapeworm stretching through the guts of all humanity.
Our original narrator takes the reigns back to tell of how he attempted to set aside these horror stories…until he found a newspaper clipping about a ship that limped back into port in mid-April, 1925, with only two aboard – one living, and one dead – and yet another Cthulhu statue. The living man (a second mate in the story, promoted to first mate by the film) Gustaf Johansen, died under suspicious circumstances (which the film unfortunately omits) soon after returning to his home of Oslo, Norway. But not before he wrote out the events of his final voyage on the schooner Emma. The Emma set out from New Zealand, but got blown far off course by a storm. In the story, the Emma sunk after a confrontation with a yacht full of Cthulhu cultists who killed everyone ahead of Johansen in the chain of command, before the Emma’s crew could kill all of them back. Here, they come across an abandoned fishing trawler, take it over, and decide to locate the missing crew by retracing it’s course…to R’lyeh, where dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. Obviously, dreaming of the day when dumbass sailors would accidentally release him from his prison/grave/house, and his mere presence on this planet would drive everyone who was even a little bit psychic plumb ’round the bend.
Johansen’s account of R’lyeh is the centerpiece of the story, and our film obviously saved most of its meager budget for this last, big-ticket blow-out. Here, director Andrew Leman’s use of Dutch angles (which really should be called “Deutsch” angles) goes full Dr. Caligari on us, combining with excellent set design to make R’lyeh actually work in a three-dimensional space. While not the way I imagined it (what is?), it is a fittingly nightmarish hellscape, like the interior life of a depressed expressionist, or what I imagine Tim Burton sees whenever he closes his eyes. They even found a way to adapted that moment where a crew member falls down a hole that looks like it shouldn’t exist from a distance, and mad props for even attempting that, let alone pulling it off. Makes me wish I could move to the parallel dimension where Guillermo del Toro actually got the money to make his big budget, R-rated, At the Mountains of Madness movie…but since I can’t, I’ll take Pacific Rim.
Back to Cthulhu. Johansen and his doomed crew flee the god monster, which chases them into the waves. In desperation, Johansen rams the creature with his captured yacht and escapes, despite seeing Cthulhu reform itself in the ship’s wake, because after all “that is not dead which can eternal lie.” He told no one of Cthulhu, committing the memories to a manuscript…which our original narrator begs off of Johanson’s widow. The fear that Cthulhu’s cult might be targeting him for termination, and the burden of all the awful knowledge he’s amassed, drove our original narrator to the mad house, and the movie ends as it began: on him begging his psychiatrist to burn all the documents that make up his story. The final shot is a quote that might as well have been Lovecraft’s mission statement: “Some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light to the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In Lovecraft’s time, I could easily read this as a response to World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, or both. Between prohibition in America and the rise of international fascism everywhere else, the 1920s sure as hell look like a new dark age. But then again, the strength of that passage lies in how applicable it is to our times, as well as its author’s.
That’s partly why I’m not bothered by this movie’s addition of a frame story: it fits well with the rest of the piece. The fact that even reading about the Old Ones can drive you mad is half the fun, and almost half the horror. And what does our narrator’s psychiatrist do? He makes notes – creating yet another document for the pile. Another knowledge bomb, waiting to explode in someone’s head. Rather like what I’m doing right now.
In conclusion, fuck The Artist. This is the early-21st century silent film that should’ve won Oscars. Watch it with the light’s off and the sound up to eleven. And by the way, Happy Halloween.