Call of Cthulhu, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/09/06 23:33:10

"How can you not love something called 'Mythoscope?'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Few independent productions have ever been as ambitious as “The Call of Cthulhu.” Produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the film intends to pass itself off as an authentic 1920s silent movie, using an assortment of visual tricks and computer filtering that they’ve playfully dubbed “MythoScope.” While it’s not as convincing as a few other recent attempts to recreate the look of an older era of filmmaking, it’s still an impressive and commendable achievement, a nifty curiosity for fans of horror, classics, and/or pure indie filmmaking.

Lovecraft’s most famous short story has been deemed “unfilmable” by just about everyone who has read it, a fact which places a lot of burden upon the filmmakers. Producers Andrew Leman (who also directed) and Sean Branney (who also wrote the screenplay) have some obvious difficulty in proving them wrong - mainly, the film is far too reliant on the text intertitles (both narration and dialogue) to get us through the story, which itself is so disjointed that it works far better on a scene-by-scene basis than it does as a whole. Meanwhile, their limited budget leaves many scenes reliant on computer compositing looking overly processed and not at all authentic - too many scenes go by that look like it was shot on digital video (which, of course, it was) and not the eighty-year-old film it pretends to be.

And yet… I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing. The burps in storytelling and the shortcomings of some of the effects are instantly forgivable because the movie grabs you with fascinating curiosity and holds you tight. By the time the titular creature finally appears through the magic of clunky stop-motion animation, you’re cheering the filmmakers’ efforts. They did it. It’s all wonderfully absurd, but they did it.

Along the way, they even manage to toss in some truly noteworthy moments. Watch, for example, the incredible dream sequence that almost flawlessly copies the look of German Expressionist classics such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Marvel as editor David Robertson (who doubled as the movie’s photographer) delivers a newspaper headline montage that feels impossibly genuine. Chill to the shot of the madman being wheeled backward into the darkness of the psychiatric hospital, a single image that is sure to stick in my memory for quite some time.

The most commendable aspect of “Cthulhu” is its outstanding musical score, composed and performed by Chad Fifer, Ben Holbrook, Troy Sterling Nies, and Nicholas Pavkovic. The sounds these four create help elevate the film into something exceptional, their work here on par with the very best modern re-composers of silent films. (If “re-composers” is not a word, by the way, it is now. How else to describe those hired to provide new soundtracks to old movies?) The fact that they created a score that matches the era perfectly is admirable; the fact that they did it on a highly limited budget is so very impressive. (As a nifty touch, the DVD offers up two versions of the score: a lush surround presentation and a scratchy mono edition that playfully matches the movie’s visual style.)

What’s truly great about “Cthulhu” is that it not only sets out to impress the hardcore Lovecraft fanatic (a group of which I am not a member; I had never read one of the author’s stories until after seeing this movie), but fans of classic and/or experimental independent film as well. While it stumbles in places, both in terms of storytelling and presentation of its “gimmick” (for lack of a better term), it’s such a unique project, and the love for the project by all involved is so contagious, that it becomes one of those special hidden secrets that you can’t wait to introduce to your friends.

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