Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie: A Silent Call

Call of Cthulhu: adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft story by Sean Branney, Produced by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman, Starring Matt Foyer, Noah Wagner and Ralph Lucas.

It is a small surprise that I don't talk about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos more than I do in these entries. I'm a fan of Lovecraft's eldritch horror, as are many other game designers (and I would go so far as to say that the RPG version of the mythos is most game designer's second-favorite game, right after the one they are currently working on). Lovecraft is the creator of one of the most enduring shared universes, where numerous creatives have put in their two-cents worth during his lifetime and in the decades following his death.

However, Lovecraft is notoriously hard to film, and most cinemagraphic treatments I have seen over the years appropriate his trappings but then tries to harness them to the requirements of modern cinema, producing mutilated abominations that work best when you try to forget the Lovecraftian elements and take them as the slasher/chiller/scary monster picture that they were intended to be by their producers.

This is because that Lovecraft's horror is subtle, evoking from the page and curling around like a miasma in the mind. His universe is one of inhuman, uncaring gods and a sense of ultimate futility, incurring the sense of dread and fright in the reader that does not translate well to the screen. Lovecraft's cornerstone of his mythos, Call of Cthulhu is more problematic than most. In this tale the protagonist does little more than investigate the papers of his later uncle, uncovering through widely-separated instances a cult devoted to a sleeping octopoid deity who will return to destroy the world "when the stars of right". In learning of it, he realizes both he and humanity are doomed, and sadly accepts his fate. This is not an action movie plot, and difficult to pull off.

Branney and Leman do it through a wonderful conceit. They make a movie that would be shown in 1925, the year the story is set. This means that it is in black and white, and is a silent film, with dialog boxes. As opposed to being hokey, this is perfect for the story, and brings out the flavor of Lovecraft's time. Instead of bending or breaking Lovecraft's story to fit the movie, they pretty much film the story, modifying it slightly in its plot to give it a self-contained resolution, but otherwise remaining amazingly true to its source.

The use of silent black and white film allows them to use both modern movie techniques (green-screening) and old traditional movie tricks (forced perspective, stop-motion animation) to create a movie from the 1920s. The acting is a synthesis of both modern tropes and traditional film language - the actors avoid the overblown gestures of what you is normally thought of a "silent movie acting", and create a subtle, engaging narative. The movie is silent, but is supported by a musical score, which does a fantastic job carrying the weight of the haunting, brooding story. In places the movie reminds me of King Kong and in others The Cabinet of Dr. Caligara.

The film is an independent production, which means you might see it at a local show (Fellow Alliterate Steve Sullivan got permission for it to be shown in its Wisconsin debut), or more likely, on the tube as a DVD (where I saw with fellow Lovecraft fans). Its definately worth seeking out. Here's the web site for more information.

Cthulhu Fta'ghn!

More later