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DVD Review: The Call of Cthulhu

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Rain, rain everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Rain, rain everywhere, and all the roads did shrink. At least that is the way it felt as Zombos and I hustled along the Cross Bronx Expressway in a mad attempt to reach Chiller Theatre Expo before the dealer's rooms closed at 7pm. It was raining heavily, and we were making slow progress over to New Jersey. Even the New Jersey drivers were driving with caution in the deluge. (Note to self: check list of signs of the coming apocalypse. I believe 'New Jersey drivers driving cautiously' falls between 'when hell freezes over', and 'belief that global warming is as real as Big Foot'.)

The Elder Gods were with us, however, and we made it with a little over an hour to spare. Going at such a late hour is rather beneficial, as the dealer's rooms are actually strollable. Zombos dashed off to find Zacherley, as usual, and I carried along his long laundry list of things to pick up for his closet, as usual.

One film in particular that he wanted to see is The Call of Cthulhu. This film, produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, is an interesting bit of amateur filmmaking. Much praise has been given for this silent film version of Lovecraft's short story, which is set in the 1920s. I definitely wanted to see it also. I quickly found a copy at the Creepy Classics dealer's table. The trailer is online.

It is an intriguing challenge — creating a black and white silent film for today's audience is a dicey proposition; just look at all the iPodded simstim-heads out there, wearing white-wired headsets as a fashion statement. Then there is the one shoestring budget for an amateur production; how do you create special effects for a hypertechno-affectualized audience (probably still wearing their iPods)? It is a hard sell, and I am sure the audience draw for this is limited. But for those who can remove their iPods for a spell, enjoy some 'how the hell are we going to do that on this budget?' styled special effects, sit down with a skull o'popcorn and allow themselves to drift into a well-directed (by Andrew Leman) excursion into classic horror, the reward is there.

The opening credits are a fun homage to the Universal Studios 1929 'globe circled by biplane' logo, combined with a retro-look font that evokes the opening credits of earlier horror films. The onscreen inter-titles, used to convey dialog and narrate story points, are done with exacting period detail. Toward the end of the film, though, one or two inter-titles were flashed on screen too quickly to be read properly. (Okay, at least by me, anyway.)

While I can quibble with some things, like merchant marine sailors wearing clean, pressed clothes and spotlessly white and uncrumpled caps, and everybody, except for the Cthulhu swamp worshippers that is, looking so darn clean-cut and unrumpled, the film overall is a wonderful work of art. It captures the building sense of terror in the story, and Lovecraft's fatalistic mood, as no other, more lavish, production has. This is a credit to the actors, whose performances are greatly enhanced by the lack of dialog sound, and superbly aided by the moody score.

As I watched this film, I was reminded of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Here, the use of close-ups and tightly framed shots, along with an occasional dutch shot (horizon not parallel to the frame), overshadow the low-budget sets. The island where the ill-fated crew meets the big C, with its expressionistic, starkly angular landscaping, like the streets where Dr. Caligari and Cesare prowled, is imaginative and creepy.

The "Tale of Inspector Legrasse" segment of the film, which corresponds to the same section in the short story, is nicely handled on that one shoestring budget. David Mersault is a great choice to play Legrasse. His look and manner are spot-on, and the mist-shrouded swamp encounter with the "indescribable horde of human abnormality" worshippers of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones is an exciting mix of scoring, model, and greenscreen work, and full-scale set design. The only fault I can find with the scene is that it lacks more kinetic energy in the fight scenes, both within the separate scenes themselves, and in how the scenes are intercut. What should be a bloody knockdown and drag-out affair comes off a little lukewarm. The lack of combatants — there's that small budget again — also minimizes the intensity of the confrontation.

The climactic confrontation between Cthulhu and the ill-fated sailors, "The Madness from the Sea" segment of the film corresponding to the same section in the short story, is another fine example of doing much with little. Again, model and greenscreen work, and imaginative, full-scale sets combine to realize the otherworldliness of Cthulhu and his "hideous monolith-crowned citadel" jutting up from the sea. The use of stop-motion to portray Cthulhu, for the most part, does not work well here, and should have been eschewed for a more shadowy, mostly hidden from view perspective of the thing that

…cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.

The documentary on the DVD describes the tenacity, angst, and artistic juryrigging that made this film a reality. It also provides an informative introduction to the Lovecraftianites that would not let a miniscule budget stand in their way.

The Call of Cthulhu is an entertaining and faithful cinematic version of the classic story, and required viewing by any self-proclaimed Lovecraft aficianado.

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  • I managed to catch a bit of this at the Boston Underground Film Festival this year. It really is a terrific piece – I’m glad to see it getting some publicity!

  • Nice to see a review of this. I was working on one as well, but haven’t had time to get to it. A really intriguing film with a lot of interesting visual cleverness.


  • There’a a ‘Tallica song with the same name.