Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wagh'nagl fhtagn

In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming

The Call of Cthulhu is a short story by H.P. Lovecraft written in 1926. It was the first of his novels to introduce the race of beings known as the Great Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu, and the sunken city of R'lyeh. It is the definitive Cthulhu story for obvious reasons. It is also the name of a roleplaying game set in the world of Cthulhu, unusual because of its setting, and the fact that the characters are not superhuman (unlike in most RPGs), and as in most H.P. Lovecraft stories, slowly go insane as they learn the truth.


The main character in the story is a young man who discovers a series of notes left to him by his uncle, along with an "unnatural" sculpture. His investigation of these notes leads to the discovery of mysteriously similar cults that worship the same being as portrayed in the sculpture, who they call Cthulhu, said to be an ancient being from before the dawn of humanity that now sleeps in the sunken city of R'lyeh, waiting for the time to rise again, in both Alaska, and New Orleans. At the same time he discovered that artists all over the world, including the man who made this sculpture had been having dreams involving a "monstrous, cyclopean city" and the words Cthulhu and R'lyeh, which culminated on the night of the second of April. He later finds the diary of a sailor, the last survivor of the yacht Alert, which met and killed a ship of Cthulhu cultists in the middle of the ocean, before landing on a island that turned out to be the top of R'lyeh, and releasing Cthulhu, resulting in the death or insanity of the rest of the ship. The sailor escaped, and Cthulhu was trapped again as the city sank.

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society spent two years turning the enigmatic author's most referenced, least filmable short story into an original motion picture. Released in 2005, it has played SF and horror conventions, but few theaters. Hollywood has made some decent films influenced by Lovecraft, but their adaptations have been terrible, and not in the sense that Lovecraft would have appreciated. This adaptation won't receive Oscar nominations, but it far surpasses past studio efforts. "The Call of Cthulhu" stays faithful to its source material. It solves many of the problems posed by the story's content and this film's budget in a novel fashion; it has been shot as though it were filmed in the 1920s, when "The Call of Cthulhu" was placed.

For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft's original, it involves a man, appointed to be his great-uncle’s executor, who finds himself drawn into an ancient, eldritch mystery. The reader experiences the story through the narrator's research, as he works his way through his great-uncle's papers and material uncovered by his own research. The final horror lies not in any one incident, but in the implications underlying the story.

The filmmakers have coined the term "Mythoscope" to describe their approach. Wherever possible, they use authentic, low-tech effects that would have been employed in the silent era. However, they make some concessions to modern equipment. For example, compositing of images has been accomplished digitally, often to very good effect. I suspected the expressionistic swamp was a model, but I did not know how much of it was a model, nor did I realize how few actors played the throng of crazed Cthulhu cultists.

Overall, the silent-era approach serves them well. Black and white hides a wealth of technical problems, and suggests Lovecraft's archaic writing style and fondness for shadowy places. The absence of live sound eliminates many problems that would have plagued the film's location shooting. In a silent film, no one has to say, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" out loud. The film also can move quickly through conversations which would have proved ponderous if spoken in full, and emphasize the story's eerie imagery.

Certain images capture moments of Lovecraft’s story memorably. The journey into the swamp, with its creative use of light, shadows, and models, is a high point.

Of course, often the film's models are obvious. Cthulhu itself has been brought to the screen as a stop-motion creation, which is likely how this effect would have been achieved in 1926. However, Cthulhu represents a different kind of horror from Willis O’Brien’s 1925 Lost World dinosaurs, and I think its appearance might have been better achieved with some other technique. The creature proves fun to watch, but not especially scary. Nevertheless, given the budget of this film and the fact that the filmmakers wanted a 1920s feel, it’s amazing that the effects so often work so well.

The film features impressive design which captures perfectly the look of older movies. It also boasts a stunning soundtrack, true to the era and appropriate for this film.

They've employed a number of performers, many of them decidedly not Hollywood fashion models; this casting usually serves the film well. The actors use a combination of naturalistic and silent-movie style acting, but the roles have been handled well.

"The Call of Cthulhu" has its flaws, some of them inherent in the medium. Lovecraft's refracted narration, the fact that the story appears as one man’s attempt to pull together various sources which tell the story, nudges us into thinking of it as some kind of true account, even though we know otherwise. A motion picture cannot replicate this effect, unless it presents itself as a documentary. The more fantastic elements must be imagined from the printed description, and no filmmaker can match a horror tailored to the individual reader’s psyche. This filmmakers try to capture the psychologically disturbing nature of the original story, but they face a difficult challenge.

Overall, however, they’ve produced an impressive short film which should appeal to fans of Lovecraft.

The DVD contains many bonus features, including a brilliant documentary which recounts the making of the movie. Shooting on a surprisingly low budget, the cast and crew struggled through a story with scenes set in various countries, at sea, and in otherworldly R'lyeh. Shots of a rock-climber blundering into their arctic scene, or of actors improvising ridiculous dialogue during serious moments provide laughs. We also see occasions when imagination and clever ideas work as effectively as as big budgets and CGI. I strongly recommend "The Call of Cthulhu" and its special features to anyone who wishes to make amateur, low-budget, or no-budget movies.

Directed by Andrew Leman
Written by Sean Branney from the story by H.P Lovecraft.

Soundtrack: Troy Sterling Nies, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic and Chad Fifer

Matt Foyer...The Man
John Bolen...The Listener
Ralph Lucas...Professor Angell
Chad Fifer...Henry Wilcox
Barry Lynch...Prof. Webb
John Klemantaski...Prof. Bell
Jason Owens...Prof. Quintana
D. . Grigsby Poland...Prof. Tutchton
David Mersault...Police Inspector Legrasse
Dan Novy...Eskimaux Shaman
Patrick O’Day...Johansen
Nancy...Erin Emmalee
Daryl Ball...Officer Cassidy
Clarence Henry Hunt...Castro Ramon Allen Jr...Louis
Noah Wagner...Captain Collins
Leslie Baldwin...Mrs. Johansen

Additional information may be found here.

“The Call of Cthulhu” is probably H.P. Lovecraft's most enduring and influential story. It’s been reprinted and borrowed from and adapted in thousands of ways since its publication in Weird Tales in 1928. Lovecraft, a movie fan, would probably approve of the faithfully retro black-and-white film of his tale released by H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society in 2005; he might be horrified by the adorable Cthulhu plush toys and pun-laden Cthulhu tee shirts sold at science fiction conventions around the globe. The tropes from this classic horror story have become so ubiquitous throughout weird fiction and horror that it’s the kind of story that most any speculative fiction reader thinks he or she has surely already read … but in many cases (including my own) has not.

I initially read this story to capture some of the "flavor" of Lovecraft’s style and world building. I figured I would find it a bit old-fashioned, and while parts did creak … it also gave me nightmares! Not many stories do that to me these days.

Clearly, there’s something here that resonated and continues to resonate with readers. So I took a harder look at the story to find out what I found it so unsettling and why. I think that the disturbing core of this story is the kind of cosmic horror that Lovecraft evokes from the very first two lines:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity ….

At first glance, these lines simply look like a variant of the old adage “Ignorance is bliss.” But there’s more at work here. Lovecraft isn’t writing about bliss; he’s writing about mercy. And the structural ignorance of our minds is portrayed as the greatest mercy humanity can experience … greater even than the mercy of a quick death in the face of prolonged suffering. At the time the story was written, Lovecraft’s world was less than a decade past the horrors of World War I and a half dozen smaller wars raged around our planet … which he describes as "placid". So Lovecraft is setting some pretty high horror stakes right from the start: as violent and brutal as humanity can be, it’s nothing compared to the horrors lurking amongst the stars.

Lovecraft ratchets up the horror in his description of the Great Old Ones: “But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. … They could only lie awake in the dark and think whilst uncounted millions of years rolled by.”

I found this part utterly horrifying. Many of us, I think, have a terror of being buried alive. Of being conscious in the darkness, helpless, unable to move, unable to escape. And if it dragged on? Boredom and anxiety would quickly escalate to helpless insanity, as prisoners committed to solitary confinement can attest. Being alone with nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company is not a merciful fate.

And the Great Old Ones did this to themselves on purpose. That kind of eternal torment is part of their selfish design. And if they’d do that to themselves? The mind reels at the thought of what they’d do to any other living thing in the cosmos. And it’s staggering to imagine the thoughts such beings would ponder after such a long time locked in dark madness. That’s a masterful bit of horror that Lovecraft evokes in this tale.

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