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Movie Review - The Call of Cthulhu

Filming H.P. Lovecraft stories has always proven to be an interesting proposition. Hollywood has always shied a way from the material, most recently notable via Guillermo del Toro’s continued attempt to bring At The Mountains of Madness to the big screen. This leaves the only avenue to tell these tales via smaller distribution companies or independent filmmakers, but this route ends up resulting in majorly slashed budgets. Some directors, like the late, great Stuart Gordon, can make this work, such as in his classics Re-Animator and From Beyond or as we’ve reviewed here, Richard Stanley’s take on The Color Out of Space, while others stumble and fall.

So what then do we make of HLPLHS Motion Pictures’ 2005 film, The Call of Cthulhu?

Well, let’s weigh in on that after the synopsis:

Based on the classic story by H.P. Lovecraft, a man is catapulted into madness as he tries to piece together his great-uncle’s research surrounding the month of March in 1925. Told in three stories, one from a young artist riddled by frightening nightmares, one from a New Orleans inspector investigating a cult and the last from the log of a crewman aboard a lost vessel, they all lead to one conclusion: a darkness is rising that is so far beyond man’s comprehension, to try and understand it only leads to madness!

What we have here is the first outing of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society Motion Pictures. Not quite a full feature, the film weighs in at only 47 minutes long. While falling well short of what we’d consider to be feature length nowadays, silent films had a wide range of running times, so perhaps this is keeping with that tradition.

It does need to be emphasized that this is a silent film and if I’m being honest, it’s a rather genius direction to take this. The approach keeps filmmakers grounded with regards to what effects they can do on their limited budget, thus in some ways what might have felt cheap had they gone the standard movie route instead feels like it captures the spirit of the films released at the very beginning of cinema. Another benefit from this approach are the other trappings of silent film, most notably the overacting. In many independent features, especially the very small ones, the cast can be made up of people with little to no acting experience and sadly can lead to performances that are lacking: either shooting for the fences with such overacting that it’d make William Shatner blush or just the opposite, simply standing there woodenly reciting lines as though reading them monotonously from cue cards. Given that the hallmark of the silent film era was exactly the overacting, conveying through body what they could not in sound, the film and its cast do an excellent job playing into what would ordinarily be perceived as a weakness.

Other features of the silent film era are represented well here too. There are moments that call back to the German Expressionism displayed in such classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari and Nosferatu. Cthulhu himself is represented via stop-motion animation ala the original King Kong and while on the surface the effect could be written off as cheesy, by the point in the film where he arrives you’ve already succumbed to the atmosphere of the film to the point that it fits in perfectly.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of all the effects. While the miniature work on display here is great, unfortunately the green/blue-screen work used to insert the actors into some of these fantastical settings does end up looking cheap…like public television educational films you used to be forced to watch in school cheap. Though isolated, these moments do sadly break the spell that this film is otherwise successful in casting over the viewer.

Largely considered to be unfilmable, 2005’s The Call of Cthulhu easily proves this premise wrong…and not simply in the notion that now the story has been committed to film. While I’ve yet to read the original Lovecraft story, the film judged on its own merits proves not only to be quite capable, but an enthralling throwback to an era of cinema long since forgotten to most modern-day movie watchers. By taking this silent film approach, the filmmakers here turned what are the usual weaknesses associated with independent filmmaking into great strengths. While I get that silent movies are an acquired taste for those of us in the modern day, if you have any interest in the Cthulhu mythos and the palette for these long since abandoned filmmaking techniques, you’d do well to track this one down. While not perfect, it certainly proves to be a top-notch indie effort, meriting our Happy Cat rating!

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