By. C. Michael Forsyth
Lately I’ve been re-reading H.P. Lovecraft’s stories for the first time in since high school and joyfully rediscovering his unique vision.
During his lifetime, Lovecraft’s work was ignored by critics and relegated to pulp fiction magazines like Weird Tales that paid him a pittance. Now, of course, he’s regarded as a giant of the horror genre. Some readers still find his florid style over the top. But what might be dismissed as overwrought prose is more correctly read as poetry. His phrases like “a blasphemous monstrosity,” are like Milton’s description of Hell as “darkness visible.” They make no literal sense but are powerfully evocative.Such language fits the theme that permeates his work: An otherworldly horror that defies reason. Almost all of Lovecraft’s stories are rooted in the same cosmology, grasping at it from different angles: Before the dawn of history, Earth was ruled by the Old Ones, monstrous god-like beings that have been banished from our world, but ever wait on its edge, seeking to gain entry.
When I stumbled across a 2005 film adaptation of Lovecraft’s masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu on Netflix, I eagerly added it to my queue, wondering how could one possibly translate that story to the screen.
The tale is about a sinister worldwide cult devoted to an Old One named Cthulhu. The main character Francis Thurston recounts his discovery of notes left behind by his great-uncle, a college professor who investigated the cult, piecing together a puzzle whose pieces are spread across oceans and decades, including the bizarre dreams of a young artist, wild rituals in the swamps outside New Orleans, Eskimo idol-worshippers and an ill-fated sea voyage.
The structure of the story is mind-bendingly complex: A frame story within a frame story within a frame story; told through a series of vignettes visited in flashback, which, as each layer is added, builds collectively to a monumental horror.
Director Andrew Leman, a founding member of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, recognized that a traditional approach was doomed to failure, and so took a bold gamble: His 47-minute short feature is silent and black and white, scored and acted exactly as if it had been produced in 1926 when the story was written.The director perfectly replicates the look of German expressionistic films of that time, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, giving the movie a creepy and otherworldly feel. The dream sequences in particular are clearly a loving tribute to those films.It’s ambitious and in the sense that the filmmaker achieved exactly what he intended, a remarkable tour de force. But because the movie is a slavishly literal translation of the written work — including that clunky non-lineal story structure — it doesn’t completely succeed as a film. It’s certainly not scary at all. I’m not sure that viewers who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft or silent movies would appreciate the film. Indeed, they might interpret the minimalist sets and stylized acting (particularly the fight scenes) as signs of ineptitude and, quite unfairly, put it in the same category as Plan Nine From Outer Space.
Is there any way you could adapt the story into a traditional Hollywood film without completely bastardizing it? One would have to get rid of the frame story and make the great-uncle the main character. The vignettes might perhaps be simultaneous storylines that converge. And Johansen, the seaman who ultimately takes on Cthulhu face to face, would have to be a central, heroic character rather than a minor one.
The big rate-limiting factor is that when Cthulhu finally rears his ugly head, it’s hard for him to look like anything but a B-movie monster. For it to work, you’d have to create a special effect like none we’ve ever seen before, something that makes us feel that we are looking into the face of a truly unearthly and incomprehensible horror.
While we’re waiting for someone to figure out exactly how to do that, do check out this highly creative and unorthodox film.
BTW, I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun at Mr. Lovecraft’s expense in this bizarre story.
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