The golden age of horror: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Chris: Conceived, written, and created by a group of H. P. Lovecraft enthusiasts, this film aims to bring the pulp horror author’s best known short story to the screen for the first time in a faithful adaptation. It’s a tremendously creative and ambitious idea, given the additional twist of creating the movie in the style of a 1920s silent film, which (except for the digital video used for shooting) will use only technologies available to filmmakers of that era.

After the jump, great gimmick or worthwhile movie?

Chris: Discussing The Call Of Cthulhu is an interesting exercise, since the movie’s reliance on silent film devices color the way we talk about dialogue and even acting. Without sound cues, the actors in a silent feature can’t react as naturally as we’re used to. It must have been an interesting and fun exercise for the cast here, trying to perform without the assists they’re used to. It’s also a huge challenge to those behind the cameras. A supernatural film with as ambitious a sprawl as Lovecraft’s story carries with it the temptation to use modern special effects tech, something the film’s creators (The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, or HPLHS) eschewed.

Grandy: I can’t recall my exact state of mind from back when this project appeared on our radar. I think it was mostly just wanting it to succeed very badly, and understanding that Lovecraft is not easy to do right. You can’t just slap the names on things, copy a few of the details, and then say “I have wrought a Lovecraftian horror film”. It’s so fascinating to remember back when this appeared. We were years away from Kickstarter being a game-changer for projects like this. I expect that had this been a Kickstarter it would have been a noteworthy one. So I think the existence of this movie is just a little more remarkable because it came out before crowd funding was a thing.

Chris: I’m a bit hazy on exactly how their model worked, but when I got wind of this project there was some sort of way to buy in just at release that got you the DVD, a neat making-of feature, and other goodies. That’s how I ended up with some cool prop design specs and all the magnificent typographic fonts used in the newspaper clippings and telegrams in the movie. Even with the cool extras, the big worry I had going in was that this would be some sort of amateur backyard production, that it would be just folks in costumes fooling around. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that The Call Of Cthulhu was nothing of the sort.

Grandy: I guess doing this as a silent movie was risky, but I can’t imagine it any other way now. I assume that acting in a silent movie requires actors to exaggerate a bit, to help sell performances. That’s in play here but it is effective at times. Lovecraft is not a great writer. When he’s on he is fascinating (and I loved the call out to the opening paragraph of the actual story late in the proceedings, which is one of his better pieces of writing), and even compelling. But he’s not a great writer, and he tends to have a lot of running exposition that takes place inside the heads of his characters. I feel like the silent movie helped keep the production lean. You can focus on the important pieces of dialog from the short story and not have to worry about anything else. And it feels thematically appropriate; the story was penned in 1928 which is around when silent movies were on the way out. They’re something Lovecraft grew up with.

Chris: We’re likely to light up the switchboards here by saying Lovecraft isn’t a great writer…but from a technical standpoint I agree. I love some of his horror ideas, but the prose that accompanies them can be simply dreadful. You make a great point, though about how well his works are suited for silent movie treatment. Lovecraft’s descriptions of the nightmare-like island of R’lyeh include specifics about impossible angles, something perhaps inspired by the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the films of Fritz Lang. Here we are in 2005 making a silent movie using a Lang-inspired dreamscape for one of the more difficult scenes to film. Even serious silent-era horror films like Vampyr or Nosferatu with their artful leanings still have a bit of a pulp-ish feel at the margins. The entire silent film conceit keeps this movie connected to the short story nicely.

Grandy: There is really only one small change from the source material: the framing narrative is altered slightly, with a person known as The Man telling his tale to The Listener (they are so listed in the credits). The book is just a first person narrative spoken to nobody (or alternately, to the reader). It’s a good change though; it suits the new medium and The Listener helps sell everything. He doubts The Man’s tale – as any person would – and I get the sense from him that he probably wouldn’t be burning all of the papers, How many people will that act damn? This is a smart change, I think.


Chris: I like this change too, and it does two things for the movie. First and most obviously, it gives a reason for the narrative to be explained out to us in the audience in a voice that matches the original first-person narration in the story and inserts the narrator into key scenes. That’s important, because the second useful thing that it does is to give the balance of screen time to a guy named Matt Foyer, who I think does a pretty tremendous job of acting, even given the broader requirements of a silent movie.

Grandy: Agreed on Foyer. It falls on his performance as The Man to carry the movie and carry it he does. Part of the difficulty in bringing Lovecraft to the big screen is “how do you even do (some weird thing from a given story)”. I think the dream sequences do a decent enough job in conveying the weirdness. But Call of Cthulhu really takes off with Legrasse’s tale. I thought everything worked really well in this segment – the chanting, the cultists, the dawning horror the small group of police are experiencing. The music during the “revel”, as well as the music for the exploration of R’lyeh, is excellent.

Chris: I think a large part of why especially that swamp scene works for me is the excellent work from director Andrew Leman. His background as a graphic designer serves this sequence quite well, as his sets wonderfully establish the bayou swamp setting with fog and mud and a forbidding darkness that feels like it’s pressing in on the investigators. Leman gets great mileage out of miniatures, models, and composite shooting through most of the film, too. By the time we’re with the crew who commandeer the abandoned trawler, I’d totally invested in the story and forgotten about the unique parameters of the film’s creation.

That’s when we understandably hit the weak spot here, on the forbidden island of R’lyeh. The need for numerous composite and matte shots is understandable, but the Cthulhu puppet just really failed to do it for me. I was so impressed with how Leman worked around the other challenges of filming this that I think I got my hopes a bit too high for the monster reveal. Perhaps as presented, it fits with the 1920s feel of the film, but I found myself wishing they’d used more fog and shadow in those scenes.

Grandy: Yes, more shadows and fog, like when Cthulhu is first emerging from the crypt, would have been a better choice. Still, I really enjoyed the final sequence: The Man’s fraying sanity, the last desperate attempt to do something by the last sailor, R’lyeh’s palpable aura of dread. The principals did an excellent job of translating Call of Cthulhu to the big screen and capturing the spirit of what makes Lovecraft’s best stories tick.

Chris: Ultimately, The Call Of Cthulhu probably won’t work as a movie to offer big scares or chills. That’s fine, though. This is a magnificent achievement in semi-professional filmmaking, a glorious and charming DIY project with artistic decisions and photography capable of putting plenty of Hollywood productions to shame. That this is a labor of love is commendable. That it manages to also bring the most canonically faithful version of a Lovecraft story to the screen is some kind of impressive achievement.

(Although The Call of Cthulhu has been available in digital and streaming formats in the past, currently it is only available on DVD direct from the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)