Dir. Andrew Leman
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." H.P. Lovecraft
First published in Weird Tales in 1922, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu concerns Francis Wayland Thurston, a young man who is attempting to piece together the circumstances of his great-uncle's death. While looking through the dead man’s possessions he finds a weird manuscript pertaining to an ancient and alien slumbering deity and the despicable acts of its human followers. He soon becomes obsessed with the Cult of Cthulhu and unveiling its mysteries. The fragmented narrative comprises of newspaper stories, diary entries and eye-witness accounts, including those of Inspector Legrasse, who has encountered sinister cult activity and human sacrifice in the swamps outside New Orleans, and Gustaf Johansen, a sailor who died shortly after discovering an uncharted island and encountering something utterly abominable and unspeakable which claimed the lives of his crew.
While only a short story, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has an epic scope, detailing all manner of bizarre global occurrences – the discovery of strange artefacts and bas-reliefs, mass mental illness and suicide, outbreaks of collective mania, mob riots in New York, ritualistic sacrifices in Greenland and Louisiana, the revelation of esoteric cults awaiting “glorious fulfilment” in California, and myriad mysterious deaths; all pointing to the impending awakening of Cthulhu. The tale culminates in the discovery of a mysterious island – as described in Johansen’s diary – and the awakening of the gargantuan Cthulhu, who had been ‘dead but dreaming’ before it lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway. Further descriptions reveal a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. The sailors who didn’t die immediately after encountering its massive, writhing form, soon went insane.
Oftentimes the difficulty in adapting Lovecraft’s horrific visions from page to screen stems from their inherently psychological nature; much of the narrative is taken up by descriptions of the psychological impact mind-shattering discoveries of ultimate knowledge, weird cults and monstrous alien deities has on dry, scholarly narrators. His protagonists ensconce themselves in diabolical experiments and investigations, delving into wormy tomes, corresponding with equally scholarly and anti-social experts, and gradually unearthing dark truths about the utterly incomprehensible nature of our universe and the horrors that lurk at its periphery. His grand themes of cosmological horror have proved difficult to capture in film form, and certainly, The Call of Cthulhu has often been cited as being one of his most ‘unfilmable’ works. This adaptation, by none other than the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (a clue you're in good hands), proves that imagination, determination and passion can accomplish more than a big budget ever could.
Leman constructs his film, complete with disjointed structure made up of narratives within narratives, using an amalgamation of vintage and contemporary filming techniques. The result is a visually striking and richly atmospheric mood-piece that not only successfully evokes a bygone age of horror cinema, but Lovecraft’s own nightmarish visions. Unspooling in the style of a 1930s silent film, complete with title cards, studio-bound locations, stop motion monsters, exaggerated performances, and oceans made of billowing fabric, The Call of Cthulhu echoes classic German Expressionist titles such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Unusual production design and arresting lighting provide some beautifully surreal moments, such as the exploration of the drowned city of R’lyeh and the dreams of deranged artist Henry Anthony Wilcox – who, much like Pickman, the painter in Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, paints and sculpts indescribable horrors from otherworldly things he has encountered not only in prophetic dreams, but first hand… That the film was produced on a meagre budget is also testament to the ingenuity and creative prowess of its makers. Sean Branney’s lean script never deviates from the source material and the brief running time (just under an hour) confirms a lack of padding. This is a pure, undiluted adaptation, not only in terms of story and structure, but tone and pace. That it is also a beautiful homage to silent-era horror is an irresistible bonus.