a modern silent: ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, 2005. A review

The Call of Cthulhu

click title to watch 

(the movie above is the full version. A commercial free version of the film is also available to Netflix customers)

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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

~ H.P. Lovecraft“The Call of Cthulhu”

I first saw this 2005 film about 4 years ago in a film appreciation class and truth be told, it’s one of the films that fostered my love for silent film and inspired me to create my own using the same green screen technology that the creators employed in some scenes in The Call of Cthulhu . Admittedly it was also one of the first silent films I’d ever seen, albeit it was made 78 years after talkies overthrew Hollywood. I blossomed a little late.

I recently revisited the film after steeping in 1920’s culture and silent-films in the recent years. I also have been working in the film & visual effects field for the last 4+ years so be default I watched it with a fresh pair of eyes & new, double-thick lenses.

The movie is based on a short story of the same name by 1920’s era horror/science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft,
who is largely responsible for the now-commonplace combination of science & horror in literature. The Call of Cthulhu short story is highly complex with multiple characters, numerous story lines, settings on different continents, and these story lines are not all happening simultaneously either. With that in mind, the masterminds behind the film, Sean Branney & Andrew Leman, showed much bravado to take this on as their first film.

This film was not only an inspiration for me to get into silent film but it was also an inspiration to start reading H.P. Lovecraft as well. Now, in retrospect,  having read so much of his works, I can think of dozens of his short stories that would’ve been much easier to get their feet wet with but they went for the jugular by adapting The Call of Cthulhu for the screen. Cthulhu is probably the most famous/infamous character in the Lovecraft mythos and fittingly this film stands on top of many lesser adaptations with obviously bigger budgets.

They told this intricate storyline amazingly and given what they had to work with (and I mean that as a compliment to Mr. Lovecraft, not a detraction) they managed to make it concise, true to source, comprehendible and lo and behold, enjoyable. The story is told in 3 parts and each section is cleverly and clearly vignetted though not necessarily billboarded. Silent films in general do take a great deal of attention (as I’d mentioned elsewhere) and this film doubles the effort it takes in following it. Look away for a minute and you’ve gone from Rhode Island to Oslo or from writhing cultists to a German-expressionist dream sequence with little warning. This film hits the ground running and doesn’t wait for stragglers.

H.P. Lovecraft

Technically and visually they got a lot of things right. Underneath the finished product I can see that someone did a lot of homework. The aspect ratio is 1:33 which is was what most silent films were shot at. Painstaking attention was payed to every detail and when we finally get to see the infamous Cthulhu, he get’s a proper Lost-Worldesque claymation treatment. What a great solution to the problem of having to create a gigantic monster from 1927…especially when every film-maker in 2005 would’ve turned to CGI without batting an eyelash (or a tentacle). The finished product was classic motion-blur-less stuttery claymation but, honey, that’s its charm. It was fun and refreshing and I’ll choose that any day over a slick & rendered so-hyper-real-it-doesn’t-look-real Hollywood treatment.

The acting is well done and so true to the period. It takes the genre and the period seriously without mocking it like many modern renditions do. The acting is subtle when it needs to be, over the top when in needs to be. The standout players are no contest: the protagonist, played by Matt Foyer

Matt Foyer as ‘The Man’

and Inspector Legrasse played by David Mersault. Legrasse in particular is visually riveting and he, more than anyone else in the film, looks as if he were plucked right off the Paramount film lot in 1927 and placed in this film. If I had my druthers I’d have loved to see him with more screen time. Hopefully Leman and Branney will use him in future films as it’d be a shame if this is all we see of him. One of my favorite shots is an easily missable moment where, when Inspector Legrasse sees a group of half-naked cultists squirming about he simply gazes at them and cooly shapes his moustache with his fingertip, at a loss for words and a response. A brilliant nuance.

The aforementioned Matt Foyer is brilliant and I love reading his face in that rich black and white. The camera reads his subtleties very well. The creators of this film have recently finished another adaptation of an HP Lovecraft short story and cast Matt as the lead in that one as well. I’m looking forward to seeing his performance in that film and getting to hear him speak as this next film, The Whisperer in the Darkness, is one of those new-fangled ‘talkies’ I read about in papers. It appears to be set in the 30’s perhaps. In fact, in October of 09′ I was an extra in a scene they were shooting in the auditorium at Pasadena City College and was able to see Matt and all the over fine actors up close. I even made it into the trailer of the film:

Subtle. right?

But I digress.

This film did a bang up job with makeup and wardrobe but where I think a detail that this movie could have shined a little more was with the hair. I know, I know, I know…I’m straining out gnats, I know. Forgive me. But it’s a pet peeve of mine that so many period films do (regardless of the budget). I’m guilty of this in my own films as well. Many of the actors had modern haircuts combed and plastered into older hairstyles. I swear I can tell the difference between hair tonic & brylcreem from regular hair gel a mile and a half  away. Maybe 2.  Granted the general public wouldn’t notice (or care!) but for some reason I always scan the hair of all the actors to see who looks authentic and which ones are time-travellers incognito. I suppose it’s the curse of the period film as you’ve got nit-pickers, such as myself, combing through your film, looking for anachronisms.

Over and above, this film’s a brilliant achievement … especially given the complexity of the content, the scope of the film, and the size of the budget, which IMDB estimates was around $50,000. In 1927 money that’s $642K and even that would be an extremely modest budget for making a film to~day.

Though the film is available to watch for free on Hulu and Netflix, the DVD has great behind-the-scenes and making-of footage that’s absolutely fascinating, especially if you’re a film maker looking to make films in an older looking style.  I highly recommend purchasing it. Plus it directly supports Mr. Branney’s and Mr. Leman’s efforts of bringing us vintage films in the modern era.

Watch the film and let me know what you think!

About Daniel Jacob

I was born at a very young age. I grew, I grew, and I drew. View all posts by Daniel Jacob

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