retro entertainment

Tonight, the boy and I watched the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s movie of The Call of Cthulhu. For those not aware, it’s filmed in black and white, 1920s silent-film style, which lends it a certain campy panache.

Two things fascinated me while watching it. The first was the care and attention to detail the film-makers lavished on their work. It’s not on the scale of the Lord of the Rings movies, but then again, few things are. But knowing some of the challenges of amateur cinema, I was all the more impressed by their success at creating a 1920s setting (let alone the Louisiana swamp scene or, you know, R’lyeh). They did a good job at, not just costuming people, but getting props and sets and the like to look sufficiently period that I didn’t get jarred out of the story by anachronistic elements.

And it startled me, how well I felt the silent-film style worked for this. One of the special features (a hilarious making-of piece) detailed the corners it allowed them to cut; costume pieces didn’t have to match in color, for example, and the visual schtick means that when they represent with the ocean with some glitter-covered sheets being waved up and down, it looks appropriate. Beyond that, though, I think it might be the perfect way to film Lovecraft — as odd as that may sound. Not only is it the style of the period in which he was writing, but in a sideways manner, the very cheesiness of it keeps the horror elements from feeling as cheesy as they might have. Example: we never have to hear people swallowing their tongues trying to pronounce the unpronounceable. Example: when a character looks upon Cthulhu and dies of fright, his mind shattered, we don’t actually hear his scream (which could not possibly be as grotesque as it should be). Much like Lovecraft dodged descriptions of certain things by instead describing people’s reactions to them (thus leaving the things themselves up to our imaginations, which can make them scarier than words ever could), the silent style leaves more unsaid. No, Cthulhu isn’t as mind-shatteringly horrifying as he ought to be, and if you stop and look at him he’s a slightly jerky stop-motion figure, but I almost think it would work less effectively if he were some slick CGI creation. It’s easier for you to look at that figure as a signifier for the concept, and to fill in the requisite gaps.

It’s a short film (47 minutes), and certainly not perfect, but we enjoyed it quite a bit, and the making-of feature was fabulous. And you can watch it with the intertitles translated into twenty-four languages, including Euskara (better known as Basque)!

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