Monday, 31 October 2011

The Silent Call

Whilst on Arran, the Other Half and I had a chance to watch the silent-film adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society ( HPLHS) silent-film adaptation of Call of Cthulhu.  I have to say I'm impressed. There were a number of hurdles that this film had to clear, perhaps more than are readily apparent. 

The most obvious of those is financial, of course, but that's not really particularly of interest.  Years of watching '60s and '70s Doctor Who has pretty much inured me to cheap SFX, as oppose to cheap-looking SFX, or sub-par SFX which have been used as a lazy stand-in for imaginative approaches (see Jackson's King Kong, for a good example of this: close-ups of actors by cliffs do not require that the rock face be CG-fucking-I).

Indeed, the only way in which this issue becomes relevant is in conjunction with a larger and much more interesting consideration: how well does the film recreate the artistic ethos and production approach of the 1920's.  The answer to that, from my admittedly limited experience, is "pretty damn well, actually."  The island of Ry'leh, all unsettling asymmetry and contempt for right angles, looks like it came directly out of German Expressionism.  The heavy make-up and slightly overstated body language likewise is reminiscent of, say, Metropolis (though from the clips I've seen of Rudolph Valentino's work it's just as likely - and intuitively reasonable - that this was a general silent movie trend), and both of us independently thought that some of the lines we saw being spoken were actually German from their delivery.  This ultimately proved not to be the case, but it's interesting that we both had that same reaction, despite The Other Half both being fluent in German and never seen any silent cinema.

In general, then, the illusion is expertly maintained.  The only real problem on display was, as I read it, a difficulty in deciding upon exactly what budget the '20s film they were pretending to make actually had.  This is where the budget issue does become relevant.  The effects of the Emma as she arrives and leaves Ry'leh look desperately cheap, but would probably seem entirely of a piece with say, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  In contrast, some of the (gasp!) green screen work is both very shoddy (hardly surprising) but clearly intended to give a sense of scale to the Ry'leh sequences that might conceivably have been possible with actual sets had the film been on the scale of Metropolis.  Even then, I'm not completely convinced it would have been feasible.  I was willing to forgive this film almost anything if it had been clearly done in the service of aping its chosen style, but every now and then the film over-reaches itself, and doesn't really have any good reason why.

That's a minor quibble, though.  This is an excellent stab at dramatising Lovecraft's story, especially since - the final hurdle - I've long considered it to be very close to unfilmable.  Three distinct stories, of which only two have real conclusions (and one of those is entirely free of suspense given the nature of the person telling it)?  An ending which is absolutely reliant on the relationship the reader develops with the narrator?  Those are difficulties enough without the extra level of dissociation from the events on-screen that silent movies suffer from, and this is compounded still further by the degree of information that must be imparted to the viewer.

Despite all these potential pit-falls, though, the HPLHS have managed to pull this project off with a truly impressive amount of success.  Definitely recommended, especially for those amongst us who can watch Metropolis without bitching about all those biplanes.

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