Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie (Horror): The Call of Cthulhu

One of the most interesting things happening in film these days is the proliferation of independent films being made -- and I don't mean "independent" as in "made by a minor studio", but as in "made by a bunch of friends for the fun of it". You can find films ranging from Flash animated shorts (such as the Homestar Runner or Weebl toons) to full-length features with special effects, such as the recent shot-for-shot Indiana Jones remake or a number of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 fan movies.

One that caught my attention recently was the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's recently released DVD of The Call of Cthulhu.

Lovecraft hasn't ever been really faithfully translated into feature films. Several movies have been made from his stories, the most famous of which is probably Stuart Gordon's Re-animator. Lovecraft is rather hard to film because a lot of the effect of his writing depends not so much on descriptions as their lack -- creatures are often explicitly described as indescribable. How do you film something whose appearance drives people insane?

The HPLHS made their film knowing that they would not be able to create incredible, mind-searing special effects, so they did the smartest thing they could: they moved the goalposts. Instead of making a 2005 version of The Call of Cthulhu, they decided to film it as a 1926-style silent movie, using 1926-style techniques. That way, they could work within their limitations and have it all look right.

The first example in the film is the dream-scenes of the lost city of R'lyeh, which Cthulhu sleeps. Lovecraft describes the city as "cylopedian", full of buildings created with "non-Euclidean" geometry. In the HPLHS film, the city is created using cardboard and colour separation, with wonderfully lopsided structures towering over the matted-in characters. The whole thing is very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The 1926 silent film format also allows them to follow Lovecraft's story more faithfully than a more modern approach would allow. Lovecraft's stories are heavy on narration and very light on dialogue, not to mention paced very slowly. The structure is a little convoluted as well: at one point we are listening to a character retelling his great-uncle's account of a police inspecter describing a backwoodsman telling him about seeing the Cthulhu cult in the bayou.

By the time we get to the protagonist's account of a sailor's account of reaching R'lyeh, we're right in the 1926 movie mindset, and the fact that the ocean is a bedsheet, R'lyeh is cardboard, and Cthulhu himself is a stop-motion figurine don't matter anymore. Sure, the Great Old One's animation isn't up to Ray Harryhausen standards, but that doesn't matter. The puppet's very well designed, with a cross between an octopus, a bat, an insect, and a skull.

The other advantage to the 1926 format is that, to be honest, HPL stories are not scary to modern audiences. To Lovecraft, the mere existence of such a creature as Cthulhu -- immensely powerful, but completely indifferent to us humans, representing an uncaring universe in which we have no importance at all -- was frightening enough. Nowadays, we're used to the idea of being insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, and modern horror doesn't even go for the cosmic dread angle at all anymore, preferring the much more personal horror you get from slasher films. When watching horror films like Nosferatu and Caligari these days, you aren't watching to get scared, you're watching to see what used to be scary, and The Call of Cthulhu deliberately makes use of that feeling.

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