It opens like those old black and white RKO pictures, only here the HPLHS logo is proudly displayed over the revolving globe. Those initials, for the uninitiated, stand for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a group of devotees to the live-action role-playing game, Cthulhu Lives. Now if a movie based on a game based on a fetish with the gothic-horror author of the same name already scared you away, then good, because this one is only for the hardcore. But what you should know is that these guys have so much passion for this writer they have their own film festival, thus making Lovecraft-films a subgenre of its own. Based on the writer's infamous 1926 short story, The Call of Cthulhu, this film adaptation realizes what many Lovecraft fans had deemed "unfilmable" by independent filmmakers lacking big Hollywood money. Lovecraft genre veterans, Andrew Leman and Sean Branney, create an enchanting homage to the 1920's silents; worthy of Murnau, Vigo, Cocteau, Krauss, and Lang. The film is ripe with Stimmung or atmosphere in every frame, and Andrew's use of authentic 1920's crafted documents, are an added treat.
The story, revolving around an unseen ancient cosmic horror, is the heart of the Cthulhu Mythos, which along with his Necronomicon may be one of Lovecraft's most ripped off concepts. The Man (Matt Foyer) agrees to take on the estate of his dying great-uncle, Professor George Gammell Angell (Ralph Lucas), and after opening up one of his boxes, discovers that the old man was doing extensive research on some bizarre occurrences. Curiosity causes The Man to rummage through all of his uncle's files, where he comes across newspaper articles, written testimonies, and an account of dream analysis; all of which we see via flashback, either through his eyes, Professor Angell's, or his dreaming case study, Henry Wilcox's (Chad Fifer), and even others. The Man's dedication to getting to the bottom of the "Cthulhlu Cult" case is bordering on obsession, and before we know it we're knee deep in the boggy swamps of Louisiana, face to face with the ultimate monster, and perhaps, The Man's ultimate madness.
Recognizing budget limitations, the filmmakers don't give us Hulk-y version of Sigmund and the Sea Monster, however the blocks our characters have to jump on an off does make us feel as if we're in the Land of the Lost at times. But for the most part, the use of models, matting, stop-motion and most of all, "Mythoscope" - a term they coined describing the use of modern equipment to recreate the magical glow of the old silents - is nothing less than inspiring. Talk about putting the money on the screen, from the opening titles, to the Dali-inspired "dream-sequence," these guys have but two commitments; tell the story in a way that would satisfy even the fanatic's fanatic, and make it look like it would have been the hot new film adaptation for the Roaring Twenties. David Robertson's photography is an earnest tribute to the German cinematographers, with his use shadows and light and always a collision of angels. There is a feeling of Shadow of the Vampire here, or it's almost like the ghosts of screen legends past haunted their Glendale set. The actors have to do a Malkovich for us, in that they have to realistically act in the subtle-to-grandiose style of those silent stars, without becoming an SNL-like caricature, and it works throughout. The pace of the acting pace works perfectly with the title cards, at times it's as if Friedrich Feher is on the set!
Video: Shot in video to look like old film, Leman and Branney's "Mythos cope" gimmick works most of the time. Some of the film-look grain boarders on the cheesy, and a few times the whites get so blown out it looks like video art rather than vintage film. But on the whole, you get rich sepias, and mystical silvers. Remember there was a time before the widescreen, so this retro-silent is presented in a 4x3 aspect ratio.
Sound: High Fidelity or "Mythophonic Sound" versions of the original symphonic score can be chosen, both do justice to selections by Ben Holbrook, Troy Sterling Nies, Nicholas Pavkovic. The "Mythophinic Sound" is the audio companion to their "Mythoscope" effect, which sounds like they tweaked some new toys to give their audio that retro sound. The music and sound effects are balanced nicely enough to where you don't miss the dialogue.
Extras: Packed with extras, there's enough here to keep you up the investigation. The Trailer
The original trailer is short and sweet, and effectively drags you into their lost world. A good companion to the feature because it's also silent movie style. Hearing "The Call"
This featurette chronicles the "making of" Cthulhu isn't quite as impressive as going behind the scenes on the set of Alien, but should be required viewing for students of film. These guys don't have Ridley Scott or George Lucas money, but that didn't stop them from using technology to go back in time. For one, there's plenty of blue and green screen action. We get a peek into how they shot raw footage of many "Cultists," which they composited together to make one orgiastic nightmare. The coolest tidbit may be how they went to the old building in Rhode Island where Lovecraft actually wrote the story. Using the exterior as Wilcox's house, they composited shots of the current house with historical photos of the street, and after adding the retro model cars they achieve their classic look. All of the little things they did only helped in hiking up the production value.
With a mixture of candids and posed shots, this section gives you an abundance of shots chronicling all stages of production. The shots of the set and the miniatures are especially cool.
Cthulhu is demystified a bit in this additional stop-motion video, but it's still a whole lotta' fun to see them bring him to life. We get to watch their experiments with working out Cthulhu's movement, as well as raw footage of the creature in front of a blue or green screen. We get the color footage of Fifer and Lucas acting their lines, and making side-jokes. Then there's dropped footage of the Swamp Family telling the police of their encounters with the beast. The extra footage is cute, but in the end is too much information, because it only reveals the limitations of inexperienced actors, which otherwise would have been camouflaged through smoke and mirrors.
The film has a printable souvenir, a replica prop of the "Sydney Bulletin" newspaper.
The Call of Cthulhu is Coup d'état for Lovecraft fans and indie filmmakers alike. While directors from John Carpenter to Sam Raimi have pulled from his books for years, Branney and Leman prove that dedication and some old-school tricks can help preserve the text rather than ruining it big productions often do. Kenneth Anger's films may have been a display of his devotion to Aleister Crowley, and the HPLHS successfully carved out their own cottage industry of fan worship.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?