There are two things I love: Silent films and stop-motion animation. Regrettably, they don’t make either anymore. So when I heard that a new silent film featuring stop-motion animation was being made, based off one of my favorite H. P. Lovecraft stories to boot, well, my reaction was suitably pleased. Despite the movie being made in 2005, I didn’t get the chance to check it out until 2008. I have to say, it’s cheesy, it’s low-budget, it’s really short… but it’s still a lot of fun.
The Call of the Cthulhu (2005)
If you aren’t familiar with the story “The Call of Cthulhu” then you really ought to go pick up an H. P. Lovecraft collection. But to make a short story shorter, the nephew of an elderly professor inherits his uncle’s collection of research, including a bizarre series of papers he’d been collecting on “Cthulhu”. The man gradually devolves into obsession and terror as he reads each file, all of which begin to spell out the horrible consequences of Cthulhu’s resurrection and the madness it entails.
H. P. Lovecraft stories have never translated to the screen particularly well. Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna are really the only directors who’ve ever had any moderate success in their endeavors, and they had multi-million dollar budgets to help them on their way. The independent filmmakers at HPLHS weren’t granted such a privilege, which is likely what resulted in the silent film approach. I can’t say this is the “ultimate” adaptation of the story, as it is extremely goofy at times and doesn’t exactly capture the atmosphere of the original story, but I still enjoyed the experience.
Being only forty-five minutes in length, you’d think the adaptation would feel very hurried and condensed, but you’d be wrong. To my surprise, they managed to fit more or less every scene from the story, which kind of made me realize how thin the source material is. The movie is told via a “wrap-around” segment and three subsequent parts, each titled after the chapters from the story.
The wrap-around story features the man who stumbled upon the Cthulhu tale retelling it to a police officer from the confinement of a sanitarium. Nothing too spectacular, here, but it is a fairly effective (if a bit unimaginative) framing device.
The first segment, “The Horror in Clay”, involves the narrator’s uncle and his research into the dreams of a disturbed young man. He has bizarre dreams of sunken Cyclopean cities and tentacled elder gods. This first part is a bit dry, but the pace of the film builds very quickly with each successive sequence, so it’s just getting the ball rolling. I didn’t find there was much to comment on, save for an excellent use of location, as a scene was shot at the exact house in Providence, Rhode Island that Lovecraft described in the original story. Various traditional and digital techniques were then used to make the home appear to exist in the 1920s. Not something a lot of people would take much notice of, but a great “extra mile” on the part of Director Andrew Leman and his film crew.
The second installment, “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse”, follows the titular Inspector and his investigations into a mysterious and murderous Cthulhu Cult. This was one of the scenes from the book I recalled best, so I was a bit disappointed with how it turned out on film. As revealed in the “making of” featurette, the whole scene in the swamp was filmed on a sound stage with a combination of miniatures and green screen effects. The various cultists were filmed two at a time and then super-imposed upon one another to form a group shot. This looks incredibly clumsy and really kills the atmosphere of the scene. If the crew was willing to fly all the way from California to Rhode Island to film a house, one has to wonder why they didn’t just shoot at an actual swamp or forest location with all the cultists at once. While I enjoy moments of cheesiness, this wasn’t what I had in mind.
The final segment, “The Madness from the Sea”, features a retelling of the fate of a stray ship called the Alert and its encounter with R’lyeh, Cthulhu’s city which had risen from the depths. Again, people are superimposed over miniatures, but I found this instance more forgiving than the former, as they’re supposed to be walking through a mind-bogglingly massive Cyclopean city. Cthulhu himself at last shows up for the climax and is brought to life with stunningly silly stop-motion animation; and I loved every minute of it. Sure, it looks ridiculous, but I’d much rather have a cheap stop-motion Cthulhu than a cheap CGI Cthulhu. Besides, this is a silent film; it intentionally looks dated.
As a silent film, The Call of Cthulhu both does and doesn’t work. You won’t be mistaking this for a vintage film from the ‘20s. Numerous modern camera techniques are used, such as a number of unnecessary cuts, which give it a decidedly modern stamp. They try to dress it up with some digital grain and the occasional “black circle” shots here and there, but it seems half-hearted. I felt they could have done more to try and disguise it as a vintage silent flick rather than adding some dirt in post as an afterthought. On the bright side, the symphonic score is very well done and fits the film perfectly. I applaud a number of their filming techniques, given their budget, and I think that they created a very entertaining short film considering their constraints.