Saturday, June 04, 2011

Film: Whisperer

The Whisperer in Darkness, Directed by Sean Branney, Written by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman from an original story by H.P. Lovecraft.

So last night I went to a SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) midnight showing of "The Whisperer in Darkness" up at the Egyptian on Cap Hill. I didn't know that I would make it because it was MIDNIGHT after all and I would have to drive all the way up from Kent and, oh yeah, it was at MIDNIGHT. But I ordered the tickets online (effective, smart, and easy on the SIFF website) and so I headed north, a bloody fingernail of a moon hanging low over the Olympic Range to the East.

Of course, I live on the ragged edge of suburbia, near the growth boundary, where farms are still in the process of being churned into subdivisions, so I forgot there were actually places where people HAD a night life, who could be found out on the streets at midnight. We tend to roll up the sidewalks at nightfall around here (if not before), so a strong population of students and clubbers was a reminder that I live in a civilized city (on the other hand, parking was a pain, but I was effectively a tourist, so I rolled with it).

Oh, the movie? Right. "The Whisperer in Darkness" is based on the Lovecraft short story of the same name (more on that in a moment), and this film version was produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), who did "The Call of Cthulhu" movie a few years back. "The Call of Cthulhu" was an adaptation of the classic Lovecraft short story, and was filmed as a silent movie, as befitted the technology of the time. This time, they filmed "Whisperer" as a black and white movie of the thirties.

The plot of the original story is as follows (spoilers): Folklorist and researcher Albert Wilmarth exchanges letters with George Akeley, a Vermont farmer. Akeley tells him of strange goings-on around his farm involving flying spirits from another world. Wilmarth initially disbelieves, but Akeley brings him over to his side, growing more frantic as time goes by. Then suddenly, Akeley sends a note to that everything is cool, and would Wilmarth personally bring back all the evidence he sent Wilmarth to his farm? Wilmarth, having not seen enough horror movies, does so, and finds an ailing Akeley who tells him about how wonderful these alien Mi-go are and downloads a bunch of Lovecraftian mythos into Wilmarth's brain. This does not clue him in to the fact that things are wrong, but upon discovering that it is NOT Akeley he's been talking to, Wilmarth runs off into the night. The end.

Now, I have been thinking about "The Whisperer in Darkness" for many years, since I have been working intermittently on a play version (I take it out about once every two months, advance it by a scene, then put it back in the vault). So I know the story has, to be kind, weaknesses. Wilmarth and Akeley never really meet. Wilmarth's behavior is a little rocky, in that he is all too trusting of Akeley and that, after getting a big SAN-loss worth of Cthulhu Mythos, it is something (relatively) minor that sets him fleeing into the dark hills of Vermont. And it is another of those Lovecraftian tales where nothing really HAPPENS to the protagonist.

But until I saw the film, I realized that there was another problem, and addressing it was if it were going to be a thirties Hollywood production hits the nail on the head:

STUDIO BOSS: What's the story on the rewrites for that Lovecraft project?
WRITER: There's a problem, JB!
STUDIO BOSS: What's the problem?
WRITER: There's no third act!
STUDIO BOSS: What do you mean there's no third act?
WRITER: In act one you present the problem. In act two, the protagonist works against the problem, and in act three, the protagonist resolves, or fails to resolve, the problem.
STUDIO BOSS: So what happens in the short story?
WRITER: The protagonist runs away.
STUDIO BOSS:  Runs away? That doesn't put butts into the theater seats! Give it a third act, pronto!

And so they do, and do so admirably. The cast swells as well, and grows to include historical figure Charles Fort and a lot of Miskatonic colleagues and a female character lacking from the book. Matt Foyer plays Wilmarth with a continual sense of dread and loathing, and it is his movie, George Akley (Joe Sofranko) kicked down to a supporting role (or rather, roles, as George and Albert do get a chance to talk). And it has a third act that gives more action to the protagonist, more grounding to the entire operation, and a sense of resolution.

However, it does jump the rails just a bit as far as a "thirties-movie", in that it feels like a William Castle movie of the fifties or early sixties than one of the thirties. And while the "Shadow of the Knife" is used to great advantage in the early parts of the film, it show the monsters eventually, and the final sequence is a memorable closeup that is crafty computer animation as opposed to the stop-motion of 1933's "King Kong".

Yet in the end, it is a responsible adaptation, taking the heart and soul of Lovecraft's original and transplanting it, still beating and leaking vital fluids, over into a different media. The movie made its debut at SIFF (at MIDNIGHT) but is being shown again Sunday Night at the Neptune (7 PM). Definitely worth checking out.

More later,