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The Call of Cthulhu
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE CALL OF CTHULHU (2005)

Starring: Matt Foyer, John Bolen, Ralph Lucas, Chad Fifer, Susan Zucker, John Klemantaski, David Mersault

Written By: Sean Branney, HP Lovecraft (story) Directed By: Andrew Leman

The Short Version

Devoted fans attempt the impossible by filming HP Lovecraft’s classic story.

Their choice to do so as a silent black and white picture is brilliant.

The Call of Cthulhu is low on budget, but big on heart.

Remember that when Cthulhu finally shows up.

The Call of Cthulhu is an amazing achievement well worth the time of any literary horror fan.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR CHEESE SPREAD.

Tasty cheese on a budget.

Pairs Well With...

NARRAGANSETT PORTER.

Craft brewed beer from HP Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nat’h Cthulhu R’leyh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”  (“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”)

-HP Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”



As happens with so many great artists of all varieties, the work of author HP Lovecraft was not fully appreciated outside of a small literary niche until after his death.  Today, he is looked upon as one of the most influential horror writers who ever lived.  The mythology he created for his stories – popularly referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos – has crept into all facets of modern day fantasy and horror, just as the societies of Tolkien have come to be the basis of modern magical fantasy.  From the works of Stephen King to the “World of Warcraft,” Lovecraft’s influence is everywhere.

However, despite his modern day reach and popularity, it is a generally accepted fact that one simply cannot do a proper job of bringing Lovecraft’s work to the screen.  Given the fact that the author himself tends to call the horrors about which he writes “indescribable” and the worlds from which they hail “unimaginable” by humans who are wont to go mad if they catch so much as a glimpse of them, it seems to be quite a sensible analysis.  Indeed, most attempts at proving otherwise have themselves proved to be dismal failures, and even those that aren’t quite failures still never catch the brass ring.

If any group of filmmakers has come close to at least capturing the spirit of Lovecraft, though, it is the group behind The Call of Cthulhu.

Our story begins in the late 1920s.  A man whose name we’ll never know (Matt Foyer) is imploring another to please take all of his papers and burn them, along with those of his now deceased great uncle.  For those papers chronicle nothing but unspeakable doom: doom which our man discovered when going through his great uncle’s papers, amongst which he found a folder marked “Cthulhu Cult”…

To tell you any more would be to ruin the story, which is, after all, a short one.  But it is definitely a story that you’ll want to see.

The Call of Cthulhu is the love child of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, a group of devoted fans who had been celebrating all things Lovecraft for over twenty years before attempting their ambitious film project.  Their love for the material is obvious; however, don’t mistake this for standard garage-grade fan fare or cheap horror that came from the parents’ basement.  These folks put a huge amount of planning and effort into The Call of Cthulhu, and that effort pays dividends that far exceed what their meager budget could pay for.

Their first and greatest stroke of genius was to present their movie in the style of the period during which HP Lovecraft wrote: the silent film era of the mid-1920s.  The beauty of this is twofold.  As a practical matter, black and white presentations and performances that don’t require actors to speak out loud cover a multitude of small budget sins.  Even more importantly, though, as an artistic choice, presenting The Call of Cthulhu in the style of a classic silent era film more brilliantly captures the essence of Lovecraft’s work and the period in and about which he was writing than any modern style presentation ever could.

The filmmakers really go all out with their devotion to period and overall attention to detail.  Most importantly in terms of keeping the viewer immersed in the film’s style, they not only present the movie in black and white, but they also artificially “dirty up” the picture with scratches and so on.  Too crisp a picture would have been a disaster and taken the audience right out of the story; this way, it’s possible to forget for long stretches that The Call of Cthulhu was actually made in 2005.  Occasionally, things will look too sharp, but these moments are rare and minor.  Similarly, the music retains a period feel throughout, and would indeed sound right at home in the middle of an old Universal horror flick until one realizes that it’s not as annoying as that due to a lack of heavy brass.  That’s right; this is actually better scored than most classic horror.  Your brain will tell you it’s digital, but the part of you that’s enjoying the movie won’t notice. 

The attention to period detail also extends to the actors, and I’m not just referring to simple matters of costume.  Actors of the silent period were still generally using stage oriented techniques, thus performing with exaggerated gestures and wearing heavier-than-necessary makeup, especially lipstick.  (Both of these originally being for the purpose of allowing the actors to be seen and understood from the rear of the theatre.)  These touches are also present here, and while not omnipresent to the point of distraction, they’re just enough to nudge the viewer that much more into the spirit of things.

Most impressive, however, are the visions of R’lyeh and the actuality of Cthulhu’s island, which depict what Lovecraft describes as incomprehensible structures built at literally impossible angles by using the most ingenious expedient available.  Once again, the filmmakers look to the period, and they find their solution in the form of German Expressionism, an abstract artistic style incredibly popular during the silent era in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and which often found its roots in the artists’ study of madness and the impossible, which are of course the very stuff of Lovecraft’s own work.  The resulting visions of R’lyeh are superb, filled with sharp angles and structures that seem utterly unreal even as they’re standing right there before you.  Most impressive, however, is a scene on the island where the architectural style is more along the lines of German Expressionists meet MC Escher, wherein a sailor running for his life falls over a ledge that looks as though it isn’t even there.  This is a very remarkable moment for an extremely low budget film, and kudos go out not just to the set designers, but also the person who was able to photograph that. 

The story itself is faithfully told, as would be expected from a production team made up of devoted fans.  They bring forward to the screen not simply the author’s words as translated into action, but also, they search for and deliver the author’s intent to the furthest extent that can reasonably be considered possible; indeed, they do so better than most if not all who have tried before them.

Of course, the most impossible aspect of realizing Lovecraft’s story lies with the realization of Cthulhu himself, and, well, heart only buys so much when the budget runs out.  However, this is no damnation of the filmmakers; indeed, thanks to their choice to film The Call of Cthulhu in period style, it can honestly be said that their Cthulhu is better than anything that could have been realized at the time, and as such, looks spectacular in its context.  Truth be told, it looks better than I’d expect out of most modern filmmakers, for the simple reason that they’d come up with some slick hentai-looking monstrosity that these folks wisely avoid.

Bottom line, the folks at the HP Lovecraft Historical Society have done an outstanding job at tackling the impossible task of filming The Call of Cthulhu.  If you have any interest in the work of Lovecraft or in literary horror at all, you owe it to yourself to see what they’ve come up with.  And if you haven’t read Lovecraft before, then you owe it to yourself to buy a book first, read it, and then see The Call of Cthulhu.  It is definitely time well spent.

Cthulhu fhtagn!

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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