THE CALL OF CTHULHU
One of the more unique films
made from the writings of
H.P. Lovecraft, a silent movie based on one of the
maestro’s most famous stories. THE CALL OF CTHULHU is a reverent and sincere
effort with much to admire, but I’m ultimately not too enthusiastic about
it--for all the skill and imagination with which it was put together, it’s
something of a missed opportunity.
“The Call of Cthulhu” was the first story in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu
Mythos cycle, which remains the author’s most famous work. It introduced the
dread Cthulhu, a tentacled monstrosity who once lorded over the planet but
eventually lost power when his center of operations, the city of R’yleh, sank
beneath the ocean. But Cthulhu still lives on in dreams, and through followers
who chant “Ph-nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’yleh wgah’nagl ftagn” (“In his
house at R’yleh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming”). The tale ends in a rousing
bit of action, with a group of clueless sailors stumbling upon the submerged
city of R’yleh and getting pursued by the Big C.
The story has long been thought to be unfilmable, but that didn’t stop the
folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who had previously put on
several Lovecraft-inspired stage comedies, from attempting it. The resulting
47-minute film was done as a black-and-white silent movie (which makes sense
considering the story was initially published back in 1926, when silent cinema
was still in vogue). It took nearly two years to complete, was an official
selection at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and is now available on DVD from
A madman interned in an insane asylum recounts for a psychiatrist the
horrific events that led to his current state. It all began, he claims, with
the death of his uncle. The latter, a University Professor, was an authority on
ancient inscriptions. Going through his deceased relative’s possessions, the
protagonist discovers a weird clay sculpture of an unearthly monstrosity.
Accompanying the sculpture is a manuscript detailing a cult devoted to something
called Cthulhu and the author’s descriptions of strange dreams he experienced
involving a scary city.
The protagonist does further research into his uncle’s obsessions and
unearths an account by a New Orleans police inspector who witnessed a haunting
spectacle one night in a swamp. It seems there were dozens of loin-cloth
wearing folks chanting before a large monolith. The chanters were taken into
custody, and one of them, an apparent madman, fills the inspector in on what
they were up to: they were worshipping Cthulhu, who used to rule the Earth and
plans on doing so again. For now, though, Cthulhu resides in the sunken city of
R’yleh, waiting and dreaming.
This account is apparently what begun the protagonist’s uncle’s interest in
the Cthulhu cult, and the protagonist becomes intrigued himself when he
discovers an old newspaper clipping about a mysterious ship whose inhabitants
were found in possession of a familiar-looking idol. He springs into action,
tracking down the widow of the ship’s now-dead Captain, who lives in Norway and
speaks very little English. The woman has little to say, but does produce a
document her husband wrote about his doomed voyage (in English so she wouldn’t
be able to understand it).
The protagonist wants to throw the manuscript out but can’t contain his
curiosity. He reads of how the Captain and his crew came upon the legendary
city of R’yleh, somehow raised to the surface of the sea. There they
inadvertently unleashed Cthulhu, who promptly chased them into the water. They
managed to shake off the monstrosity, but only by ramming it with their ship.
So in the end we’re left with the protagonist in the insane asylum.
Cthulhu, he claims, is down but not out, still waiting in his house at R’yleh
and still dreaming.
This isn’t a bad film by any means. It’s lively and clever in the way it
transposes the nuances of Lovecraft’s convoluted text to the screen in admirably
concise fashion, and with a dapper wit that never cheapens or makes fun of the
material--an impressive feat considering the tale is goofy in many respects.
The silent movie artifice is crucial in this respect, as it allows the story’s
details to shine through without an excess of conversation or narration, and the
deliberately archaic veneer furthermore excuses (well, almost) the low
budget special effects!
My problems with the film are all technical in nature. First and foremost
is the fact that it just never feels like a real silent picture. Unlike the
films of Guy Maddin, which painstakingly replicate the practices of twenties-era
moviemaking, the filmmakers here opted to shoot on video and then digitally
added splices and scratches, which never look convincing. Even worse are the
wildly distracting digital effects, which are so incongruous they nearly sink
the whole enterprise. While on the subject of digital FX, let me add that
they’re also incredibly primitive, looking like nothing so much as something
created on somebody’s PC, which in all likelihood they were.
THE CALL OF CTHULHU
HPLHS Motion Pictures
Director: Andrew Lieman
Producers: Sean Branney, Andrew Lieman
Screenplay: Sean Branney
(Based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft)
Cinematography: David Robertson
Editing: David Robertson
Cast: Matt Foyer, David Mersualt, Jason Owens, John Bolen, Ramon Allen, Jr.,
Leslie Baldwin, Ralph Lucas, Aidan Branney, Chia Evers, Dan Novy, Jason
Peterson, Vivica Prentice, Noah Wagner, Ed Ruffin