If you lived in New York City, you might be familiar with Channel 7, WABC-TV. And if you lived there in the 60s or 70s, you might remember the 4:30 Movie, when they would, well, show movies. At 4:30. Hence the name. What made them special for me was that they would often do themed weeks, such as Monster Week (Godzilla and Gamera films ahoy!), Ray Harryhausen Week, Edgar Allen Poe Week… and Supernatural Week. It was during this last that, as a boy, I sort of watched a 1970 TV-movie called THE DUNWICH HORROR.
I say ‘sort of’ because I barely remember anything about it, except the glimpses of a glowing, tentacled thing trying to enter into our world via some neon cloud. Nothing about Dean Stockwell with a 70s porn moustache. Nothing about former teen idol Sandra Dee on a ceremonial altar showing plenty of thigh. Just that damned tentacle thing.
I certainly didn’t understand that what I was seeing was my first glimpse of one of the Old Ones of the works of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and that this was an adaptation of one of his most famous short stories. It wouldn’t be until the next decade that I would see another of his works, a little gem called RE-ANIMATOR from Stuart Gordon (who would go on to do for Lovecraft what Roger Corman did for Poe in the 60s).
Lovecraft had issues with regards to racist attitudes, even by the standards of the day, and he never saw fame in his lifetime, but his influence on horror cannot be overestimated. People who have never read any of his short stories or novellas will have heard of the Necronomicon, his fictional book of magicks that acts as the perfect horror Maguffin (the poor tome gets name-checked more often than Justin Bieber and jokes about suckiness).
And the theme that ran through his stories – that we live in a cold, indifferent universe populated with multidimensional cosmic aliens with as much regard for us as we have for, well, Justin Bieber – resonates strongly today, perhaps more so as our knowledge of the universe increases. There have been many novels, comic books and Role Playing Games which adapt or borrow heavily from his mythologies.
But successful film adaptations of Lovecraft have been fewer. The aforementioned RE-ANIMATOR certainly springs to mind, and a few others that Stuart Gordon directed and/or produced. But few if any of these touched on the Cthulhu Mythos. Too cosmic, too wide in scope, perhaps, for film? Something better left to the imagination than the eye?
But the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have tried, and in doing so started with a premise with a heavy dose of promise: an adaptation of Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu, done in the style of a silent film, as if freshly made afetr the man wrote it. The last film I saw that was made in a similar fashion was HOUSE OF THE WOLF MAN (2009), which I reviewed here, and which did a similar job with the old Universal horror line, to some degree of success. Could CALL OF CTHULHU do the same justice for Lovecraft?
The short answer is Yes, and a surprising Yes, given that the story is basically a series of narrations, flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks: The nameless opening character (Matt Foyer), locked up in a sanitarium, relates to an associate (John Bolen) how he needs to destroy all the research the Man had gathered over the years, research started by his great-uncle, which included interviews with an artist named Henry Wilcox (Chad Fifer), whose strange, feverish dreams involved wandering through an empty city of weird, expressionistic angles, unidentifiable hieroglyphics, and an image of a frightening, tentacle-faced creature.
The accumulated research leads to accounts of monstrous cults in the swamps of Louisiana, nightmares shared by psychically-sensitive people around the world, doomed sea voyages, and an inscription on a statue: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” The globe-trotting quest for answers does indeed lead to the lost ancient city of R’lyeh (In case you’re interested, in his stories, Lovecraft gives actual coordinates for it, which turn out to be the Pacific pole of inaccessibility, a point in the ocean farthest from any land mass). But maybe it’s best to not go and disturb Cthulu. I know how cranky I get when the puppy wakes me up too early…
CALL OF CTHULHU is certainly a success in what it sets out to do. The makers, having studied many appropriate Expressionist horror films of the day such as NOSFERATU, THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI and others, and nearly everything about it captures the look of those movies: the orchestral score, the exaggerated acting styles, the costumes, the intertitles, the deliberately old-fashioned special effects (about the only thing they couldn’t really capture perfectly was the ‘feel’ of degraded old film stock, but that would be well-nigh impossible to achieve). Such a dizzy, doom-laden horror film could conceivably have been made at the time, even more so than a few years later when sound and the restrictive Motion Picture Production Codes came into effect.
Shot for under $50,000, CALL OF CTHULHU is certainly worth a view, especially for Lovecraft fans and people sick of Found Footage films. It’s a short 47 minutes long (it’s a nearly totally faithful adaptation of what was a short story), the makers not needing to expand it with sappy romances or comic relief. The DVD also includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and some deleted scenes, but you can also catch it on various VOD subscription services. And the trailer follows below:
Director: Andrew Leman
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. And Edna.