A man is left to settle the affairs of his deceased great uncle, who was an eccentric academic. In going through his records, he uncovers the terrifying legend of Cthulhu and the cult who worships the tentacled deity . . . and awaits its return to Earth.
THE CALL OF CTHULHU, an adaptation of perhaps H.P. Lovecraft’s most popular and enduring Weird Tale, is ingeniously imagined as a mid-late ’20s silent film. Guy Maddin is the undisputed master of recreating the look of the silent-era, but this one comes pretty close to matching his efforts. That’s no easy feat. Bravo. It’s also horribly entertaining.
For the most part, THE CALL OF CTHULHU looks freakishly accurate, but it’s still able to poke fun—not too much, though—at the era’s delightfully schmaltzy, melodramatic elements. It’s all there: the eye makeup on the actors, the gesticulating, the unrelenting, minor-chord-laden musical score. No detail is neglected in making this feel like it came straight from the ’20’s: everything from period-looking font for the speech and credits to crackles in the sound.
You can also tell director Andrew Leman and everyone involved spent a lot of time watching German Expressionist horror films like NOSFERATU and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Because the experimental visuals characteristic of such films are there in spades: jagged, dreamlike sets, intense close-ups, mad, slithery facial acting, shadows, fog, etc. And, like those films, we get an intensely psychological—and eerily bizarre—experience. Lovecraft and Expressionist films were both preoccupied with the notion of madness. It’s about time they finally met. It’s a perfect stylistic choice.
In true Lovecraft fashion, a man is faced with an eccentric relative’s records in the aftermath of his demise. In this case, it’s the nephew of a professor, and he sifts through journal entries, newspaper clippings, et al, providing clues into the world of the Cthulhu cult, of which he becomes fascinated, learning too much, costing him his sanity, and threatening life and limb. The terrifying truth of Cthulhu thus unravels.
Just like Lovecraft’s story, it takes place over three different time periods, divided into three different acts: the “present,” (1920’s), a few years prior to that, and the 1870’s. The film, at only a little over 45 minutes, flies by, and digests nicely the source material.
As far as Lovecraft adaptations go, CALL OF CTHULHU is one of the truest to the author. The Stuart Gordon ones are, for the most part, great, but they take on a style all unto themselves, usually set in present-day, and way more sexual. But this one’s narrative unfolds just like Lovecraft’s: in a series of summaries told from the perspective of an overreaching investigator/researcher/narrator. It’s fittingly cosmic, filled with a sense of unraveling, and is quasi-scientific, just like most of Lovecraft’s stories.
As mentioned before, everything is done in accordance with the period, including the special effects, which makes for some undeniably cool—and funny—sights. It celebrates their primitiveness and champions older-old school effects as worthy of having an aesthetic all to themselves. It seems like a bit of an ode to KING KONG or LOST WORLD when we finally see the monster burst out and attack a ship. We see some fantastic stop-go animation and it still feels like a doomful, spectacular climax.
The actors do a marvelous job imitating the acting styles of the silent era. There’s more emphasis on facial expressions, gestures, as no sound rendered a bigger, more theatrical acting style. The performances are executed with finesse.
It should go without saying that, for Lovecraft buffs, this film is a must-see. It’s also interesting and entertaining enough for anyone into movies, generally. It’s creepy, melodramatic, a little silly (on purpose), and, most of all, Lovecraftian. And you know what: “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be!”