Cthulhu Ftaghn

Does being a bit of a cinema queen count this as a legit post? Hope so. It’s a movie review I did on my site. No GLBT content, but hopefully arty enough that it’ll appeal to “our” fringe. If it helps any, there are persistent rumors that Lovecraft was gay. ;)

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the subject of movies, mostly because I haven’t really seen anything worth posting on lately and I don’t want to turn into a monotonous whiner about how movies were so much better in The Olden Days.

But you know, some of them really were.

I’m not talking about oldschool Star Wars*; it goes further back than that. There was a time when budget and practical restrictions made some things simply impossible, which forced directors to be coy in certain situations, and forced them to focus on things like story and character.

I can think of one very cogent example: King Kong. The 1930s version, black-and-white, scratchy soundtrack and stop-motion animation and all, remains the best out of the three movies that bear the title. The 1970s version was simply dreadful disco-era cinema camp cheese; and Peter Jackson, though he did a brilliant job on Lord of the Rings, seriously needed to lose his hardon for dinosaurs and giant bugs in his most recent foray.

There is one, and only one, scene in Jackson’s 2005 cover that is superior to the 1933 original: When Jackson’s ape died, you could see it in the way his eyes lost focus and glazed. I had never seen such subtlety in CGI before, and it impressed me.

Today, however, I am not going to talk about giant monkeys, nor spank their performances.** Today instead I’m going to talk about a movie that I didn’t even know existed before Tuesday: The Call of Chtulhu, produced by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society.

For those whose minds have not been tainted by the eldritch mark of insanity, the background is deceptively facile. Lovecraft wrote what we call gothic horror in the 1920s and 30s (one wonders what he thought of King Kong), producing stories of intermittent quality dealing with more or less mundane subjects in the genre but giving them a very specific piquancy that he explored, in much greater depth, in his later works. August Derleth coined the term Cthulhu Mythos to describe it, but loosely it’s a canon of writing that Lovecraft initiated and which has been borrowed from and built on heavily by his successors.

The Mythos covers a subject that, at the time Lovecraft developed it, was absolutely unique: The idea that the universe, vast and ancient as it is, contains life which is so old and so advanced it is unrecognizable to us (mere puppies still squirming around on our Earth-mother’s teats) as anything but godlike ? or, as Lovecraft might express it, daemoniac. We’re talking vast and impossibly ancient civilizations here, civilizations which walk among the stars with the sure, even stride of a master tour guide in untracked wilderness, beings so far above us that when they tread casually across our world they do not even notice our shrieks of unhinged terror as they leave deep, bloody footprints.

This concept was used, to great success, by Joe Straczynski in his five-year SF TV epic Babylon 5. The Shadows were a race akin to that of Cthulhu, or possibly Azathoth; and there were other ancient races as well who could be petitioned, at great peril, to lose their aloof stance long enough to offer assistance in facing a bitter, ghastly enemy intent on reducing the cosmos to a chaotic grey soup of entropy.

So the Mythos is now some eighty years’ developed, and yet, in that time no one has ever successfully made a movie of any Lovecraft story. Herbert West ? Reanimator was simply cheese; The Curse (based on The Colour Out of Space, HPL’s personal favorite story) was barely more tolerable; and In the Mouth of Madness was a John Carpenter film.***

Enter the HPLHS.

A chance comment in a thread on Pharyngula pointed me to their page on Call of Cthulhu, an extremely low-budget production created by a theater company. What captivated me was the absolutely unique approach to the storyline. Rather than try to set the story in the modern era, they chose to keep it historically planted in the 1920s, and chose also to shoot it as a black-and-white silent feature.

I was a little dubious, but watched the trailer anyway. Maybe it’s because I’m into “arty” films already, and predisposed to enjoying something that’s different enough to stand out; certainly it’s because I’m a Lovecraft fan and have been for more than twenty years; but after seeing the trailer I decided to scoop up the DVD.

Boy, am I ever glad I did.

The decision to make the film in the 1920s silent style was, I think, a stroke of brilliance. As much as feasible the crew kept to techniques that would have been used by period directors, including miniatures, in-camera and simple-matte trick photography, and stop-motion animation for Cthulhu Himself. This forced them to rely on the pace of the story, lifting words directly from Lovecraft’s work, and to rely on the ability of their actors to provide good facial performances.

A stage theater troupe was the ideal choice for this ? they’re used to working on a budget tight enough to hold air in a vacuum, making even relatively simplistic sets work sufficiently for any scene; and they’re very good at the rubber-face expressions necessary for visible emotion onstage ? often the kind of mugging that was done in silent movies, since of course all vocal inflection was lost. All that’s left is the soundtrack, which, by the way, is quite good. There are several places where the composer almost gave voice to Cthulhu’s roars, and the cues are all nicely purposed to enhancing the imagery.

Given these self- and otherwise-imposed limitations, you’d think CofC would probably not be a high-visibility, action-oozing epic; and you’d be right. It doesn’t want to be, it doesn’t pretend to be, but ? here’s the clincher ? it doesn’t need to be. This movie (which, by the way, is less than an hour in length) is simply the minimalist interpretation to screen that its producers required of it, and for that reason alone I believe it is the most faithful ? and effective ? adaptation of an HPL story to screen to date. I’m quite sure that Lovecraft would have approved.

Bear in mind that this movie (as with others I’ve recommended) is not for everyone. You do have to be a bit of a cinema nerd to appreciate it, and it helps a hell of a lot to actually know and like Lovecraft’s oeuvre. If you respect the Mythos, though, and you don’t mind the idea of transporting yourself mentally to a time when movies had no soundtrack save a musical score and essentially no special effects at all, Call of Cthulhu is definitely something you’ll want to experience.

It took eighty years for Cthulhu to rise from the shadows on the cinema wall, and the irony is that when He finally did appear in all His glory, it was under the aegis of techniques that most have considered dead for more than two decades. But, as Lovecraft himself reminds us,

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
and, with strange aeons, even death may die.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sunken city to try to find.

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* Which sucks so much less than the latter three efforts that I’ve formally decided that the entire Anakin story arc as produced by Lucas simply doesn’t exist. There never was a Jar-Jar and a prepubescent Darth Vader absolutely never built C-3PO.

** Did you see how subtle I was there?

*** Which, for most cinema aficionados, is damnation enough.