Friday, December 09, 2005

Movie Review: The Call of Cthulhu

I am not good at writing reviews of movies, or books either, for that matter. But, here goes.

Readers of H.P. Lovecraft will need no introduction to the story The Call of Cthulhu. It is perhaps his best-known story. The opening sentence is one of his most often-quoted statements: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." If by chance you are a reader of this blog but not a reader of Lovecraft, I'll try a short explanation. H.P. Lovecraft constructed an entire mythology of god-like beings who are so extremely powerful, ineffably alien and utterly malevolent that most humans simply go insane upon encountering the truth of their existence. Most of these beings have no more concern for humanity than a person might have for a mosquito--it bites you, you squash it. In the prehistoric past, a few of these beings made the earth their home. Cthulhu is one such being, who due possibly to some kind of intervention from relatively "good" powerful beings, or possibly just because the stars aren't in the right place yet, has been entrapped in the sunken city of R'lyeh somewhere in the south Pacific Ocean. Cthulhu is somewhat telepathic, and can transmit dreams to those who are sensitive enough or insane enough, or to anyone who has a proclivity for that sort of thing. Recipients of these dreams have created a worldwide cult that worships Cthulhu and various others of his ilk. The story of The Call of Cthulhu as written by Lovecraft is about how one man slowly pieces together various seemingly disconnected bits of information until the horrific truth is revealed.

This movie version is a near-perfect depiction of that process--of one man slowly correlating various diaries, newspaper articles, and word-of-mouth information until he comes to believe that what he thought was only the ramblings of a deranged mind are indeed real. Unlike many movie adaptations, this one is very faithful to the original story.But there are other things that make this movie different.

The makers of this movie made an ingenious decision to film it as though it had been made during Lovecraft's lifetime in the 1920's, which is also when the story takes place. It was made as a black-and-white silent film, with additional authenticity created by fake scratches and flaws in the film. Perhaps most importantly, what would be abundantly clear and quite cheesy in full color becomes mysterious and indeterminate in black and white. This lack of clear detail is vital to Lovecraftian stories. It is this indeterminacy that forces the reader (or in this case, the watcher) to fill in the blanks with his own imagination. Many modern "horror" movies, in my opinion, suffer badly from too explicit detail. Once everything has been revealed, what is there left to fear? Lovecraft's stories are famous for never revealing everything, and always leaving something else to fear.

Lovecraft's stories are also known for being heavy on narrative and very light on dialogue. It seems this gives most film makers too much leeway in creating their own dialogue, and they usually screw up the story. By telling this in a silent film version, dialogue became a moot point and the story flows very naturally with only the intertitles.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) their very low budget, the makers of this film were still able to convey the utter alienness of the city of R'lyeh. At one point, a few of the crew members of the Alert are standing on different blocks of stone which are all lying at different angles, yet the crew members are all standing perfectly upright. This was an excellent touch, in my opinion, in conveying the atmosphere of the alien, incomprehensible architecture that makes up R'lyeh.

The Call of Cthulhu runs about 45 minutes for the movie itself, plus it comes with extras, including a "making of" segment, a few stop-action bloopers (the Cthulhu monster itself was filmed with a stop-action miniature), and some other things that went on during the filming. The silent film intertitles can be selected from 24 different languages. The music is a beautifully haunting original symphonic score that is worth listening to all on its own (I'm playing it on my computer right now). Follow the link above if you want to order it.

Further reference: The H.P. Lovecraft Archive

UPDATE--A Disclaimer: If any readers of this blog do follow the link to purchase the movie, I will recieve no monetary gain whatsoever. However, I have been assured that I will be allowed to watch Cthulhu eat all of you before he eats me. And that is really all that I ask.