Monday, 19 October 2015

October Nightmares #19: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

To say that early twentieth-century weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft has influenced the course of horror cinema is like saying Charles Manson was a little bit persuasive. His central tenants of anti-anthropocentrism, insanity, and unknowable entities are now the life blood of horror movies -  especially those made in the Eighties - seeking to play off against our primal fears. Moreover, there have also been many loose adaptations of his work (usually starring Jeffrey Combs), with films such as Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak. Rarely, however, have there been direct adaptations of his stories featuring the 'Great Old Ones': Lovecraft's race of ancient beings of impossible magnitude that possess forms opposed to all natural laws.

It is abundantly clear what problems arise when adapting the author's mythos stories. You cannot possibly depict the impossible - which is why Lovecraft protagonists invariably spend most of their time decrying the unutterable abomination they see before them - like members of the Westboro Baptist Church witnessing a gay wedding. Even if filmmakers were to take the usual route of portraying the Lovecraftian monstrosities as titanic creatures with a few unnecessary limbs and weird bodies, that's still going to be harder on the budget than a cocaine party for the Society of Abnormally Large Noses.
The other major stumbling block to adapting Lovecraft is that the bulk of any given story consists of the protagonist giving gruelling lectures on quasi-science and history, and meticulously recounting the events that led to their confrontation with the horror. In other words, it'd be like making a film about one of your granddad's tedious fucking war stories - one that ends with him returning home and bonking your grandmother senseless.

Fortunately, The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society - a prominent group of Lovecraft fans, filmmakers, and live action role-players - understands that to do the author's brand of cosmic horror justice, a certain amount of psychological subtlety is needed alongside the tentacles and primordial slime. Lovecraft sought to show humanity's insignificance on a cosmological scale and did so by overstating his protagonists' inability to comprehend what they were actually seeing. Resultantly, our impressions of these monsters are mostly informed by vague, feverish utterances. Cosmic horror dictates that we will never know, nor could we know, what exists under the veil of our reality. It is this guiding principle that enabled the group to put to film what had long been considered an unfilmable short story, The Call of Cthulhu (1926).

As a short story The Call of the Cthulhu is, structurally, a mess. It's a meta-narrative: several stories, within a story. And very heavy going on the exposition. This adaptation does two things in an attempt to make the story better fit a cinematic format. Firstly, The Call of Cthulhu (2005) is a silent film trying to pass itself off as how an adaptation during the story's original release would have looked. Think of it as lamb dressing as mutton. Emulating the silent movie also means a complete lack of spoken dialogue; so all verbal narration is told through the use of insert cards. Compared to the source, The Call of Cthulhu (Class of '05) is as light on text as a Britain First recruitment pamphlet if all the logical fallacies were removed. Making it far more digestible. Stacked against other silent films, however, it's practically T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land. 

The second vital change is a much-needed restructuring of the plot. In the original short story, we inhabit the perspective of one Francis Wayland Thurston as he goes over notes left behind by his great-uncle. These notes discuss a strange cult who worship an even stranger deity. The story goes through several different events - in a non-chronological order - exploring the encounters of several characters. It's a needlessly confusing narrative, and one that hampers its building dread. The story in this version is bookended by scenes of the unknown narrator visiting the institutionalised Thurston. Clearly unhinged, Thurston asks his friend to burn some important documents and then recounts his tale to him - starting with his uncle's investigation and then his own. By altering the tale so that the mystery is why Thurston ended up in the asylum, writer Sean Branney is able to pace the story much more efficiently.

For a forty-six minute featurette, TCoC manages to pack in several large-scale setpieces. Most notable are the raid on the voodoo cult's swampy love-in by Inspector Legrasse and his men, and the exploration of the corpse-city of R'lyeh in the film's climax. The former is a campy sequence with overly choreographed fight sequences straight out of the original Batman TV series, a deliberately light-hearted affair evocative of Thirties' B movies. I understand why Branney and director Andrew Leman went for this approach, Lovecraft is full of cartoonish depictions of savage paganism that'd be difficult to do seriously. Silent movies also require the narrative to be carried by exaggerated acting, which doesn't translate so well when it comes to depicting gritty fighting. It's as sincere as of a remake Rocky about shadow boxing.
The R'lyeh sequence stands out for its demonstration of the masterful filmmaking techniques at work. Similar to German Expressionist films, TCoC utilises non-euclidean geometry and Chiaroscuro lighting, to this nightmarishly alien environment. Lovecraft and GE - with their focus on the psychological - always were destined to meet. The dread in R'lyeh is palpable as the sailors explore this strange relic, becoming isolated from each other as the angular terrain shifts and changes like a living entity.

The Call of Cthulhu works as a silent movie because the trappings of the medium help to lend a prevailing 'oddness' which complement its theme of madness. Even the titular Cthulhu - a rather obvious stop-motion creation - benefits from the suggestive interplay of light and shadow; we aren't ever permitted to examine carefully the being, retaining at least part of its mystery. The scene in which Cthulhu dramatically rises from the ocean and in the path of the fleeing ship, evokes memories of the original King Kong and Godzilla movies. Whereas a straight-faced modern adaptation would probably end up bombastic and dramatic, like Cloverfield, this Guy Maddin-esque tribute to a bygone era is mawkish, erratic, and a little bit odd. From the sharp chord filled score to the actors gesticulating like a traffic conductor with fleas, The Call of Cthulhu is as authentic as you can get without travelling back to the 1920's. An era where you could use phrases like chopper squad, meat wagon, and stool-pigeon without it sounding like code for "I pack more fudge than 19th century Mackinac Island."