The Call of Cthulhu (1920)

James Lynch penned this review.

The works of H.P. Lovecraft have enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the cinema. While his writings have influenced movies from the Evil Dead trilogy to Creepshow to In The Mouth of Madness, full-length adaptations such as Dagon and From Beyond tend to lose the mythology and focus on sensationalistic gore. (For a great look at Lovecraft and movies, I recommend the book The Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft by John Strysik and Andrew Milgiore.) And Lovecraft’s most seminal story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” has not been filmed — until now. The good people at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have tackled this tale by giving it the silent treatment: Their movie The Call of Cthulhu is a 1920s-style silent movie.

Despite only running 47 minutes, The Call of Cthulhu is remarkably faithful to the original story. The character of The Man (replacing the original story’s late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston) tells three seemingly separate events that combine to reveal a horrible truth. In “The Horror in the Clay,” The Man’s late great-uncle’s files tell of a sculptor whose nightmarish delirium led to unusual, horrible sculptures. Another file reveals “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse,” in which a police officer reveals an unearthly idol to a convention of archaeologists, then sharing its origin among insane cultists in the backwoods of the Louisiana swamps. And a chance discovery leads The Man to discover “The Madness from the Sea,” where a wayward sea vessel’s crew found an island formed by seemingly unnatural geometry — and unleashed the horror that killed all but one sailor, and caused the other events of the tale.

So how does this vast, multi-storied tale come across as a low-budget silent movie? Impressively well. Director Andrew Leman does an excellent job handling The Man’s growing understanding of the connection between events, the calm of characters who don’t know the extent of the events around them, and the action of the swamp raid and frantic flight from the island of R’lyeh. Word cards aren’t used for every utterance, but they provide enough information for viewers to piece together the rest of the dialogue from the gestures and mannerisms of the actors. (Fans of Lovecraft’s most famous story will have no problem reading the lips of the character that first utters that famous unpronounceable name.) R’lyeh’s alien geometry looks like the scenery from a low-budget play, and Cthulhu himself moves with stop-motion animation; the combination fits the feel of the 1920s and provides effective horror for this tale.

The DVD has several extras, and the best one consists of interviews with most of the people involved in making The Call of Cthulhu. Everyone involved has a sense of humor about this movie — you’ll be surprised how many ninjas are there! — but their stories reveal how working with a low budget forced them to be creative instead of cheap or desperate. (Filmmakers behind large-budget Hollywood bombs should be forced to watch, and hopefully learn from, this feature.)

Hear the call of this silent movie and watch The Call of Cthulhu. This adaption would make H.P. Lovecraft proud.

The Call of Cthulhu can be purchased through the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Web site.

(HPLHS Motion Pictures, 2005)

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