Director: Andrew Leman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft has a devoted fan base—one that has not been satisfied so far by the film industry. The Call of Cthulhu, a low-budget film shot as a silent in the 21st century, is the one that should fulfill what always seemed to be the promise of Lovecraft.
Director Leman and his writer Sean Branney are Lovecraft and film enthusiasts. They saw the problems inherent in Lovecraft’s story—large casts, multiple locations, filming at sea—and decided on an unusual solution in this highly technological age. By shooting the film in black and white, without sound, they could create a fantastical world on a shoestring while preserving the hypnotic and evocative images Lovecraft fashioned through his words.
Our protagonist, Professor Angell, investigates the cult of Cthulhu after learning of the strange history of this demon in the pages of his dead uncle’s case records. His uncle innocently stumbled into the Cthulhu snake pit while trying to help a young man named Henry Wilcox, who was plagued by grotesque dreams. The film is told in flashbacks, as Angell recounts his uncle’s investigations into the origins of the cult. Eventually, Angell tracks down the lone survivor of a sailing expedition to a lost island inhabited by the demon Cthulhu. The full horror of this sailor’s encounter is revealed in his diary, which the film depicts in nightmarish detail.
This film crossbreeds modern acting and some modern film techniques with conventions and techniques of the silent era. It is jarring to anyone familiar with silent films, but once we are enveloped in the story, reservations vanish. The film creates a real sense of mood and dread through simple, sleight-of-hand means. A piece of fabric becomes a churning sea. A stop-action doll becomes the monstrous Cthulhu. The ingenuity of this dedicated team of Lovecraft enthusiasts makes us fear for our immortal souls despite ourselves. This film shows that you don’t have to throw millions of dollars worth of special effects at an audience to get them to buy into your tale of terror and willingly push themselves over the edge.
The film is aided enormously by the brilliant score by Troy Sterling Nies, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic, and Chad Fifer, which punctuates and illuminates every scene with the mood and drama needed to carry its imagery. I highly recommend this labor of love, available on DVD, that demonstrates that although we don’t need to film without sound, silent filmmaking is still a viable option to open-minded filmmakers with certain challenges. Check out the special features, including the “making of” short feature, a real delight.