SIFF Cinema at the Uptown presents a double feature of two dedicated adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories: The Whisperer in Darkness and Call of Cthulhu, both directed in the manner and style of the period in which the stories were originally written.
The 2005 Call of Cthulu is a short feature directed by Andrew Leman as a silent film shot on video in an obsessively antiquated style that pays tribute to 1920s cinema le fantastique. While not quite a full-fledged feature, it more than simply a love letter to the stylized artificiality of silent expressionist horror. Leman resists the temptation to construct a linear narrative around the eerie recounting of the investigation of supernatural phenomenon surrounding the mysterious cult of Cthulu, making it the most faithful screen translation of the author’s work to that time. It’s an admirable approach and a qualified success, at least on a dramatic level—even a simple flourish might provided the anti-climax with narrative bite—but his dedication is commendable and his execution is so exquisite that he creates an atmosphere with a drama all its own.
Leman has an innate feel for silent movie texture and probably comes as close as humanly possible to achieving it, given his budget and equipment. The simple, uncomplicated digital effects that take the place of the trick photography and glass mattes of the silent era artisans is admittedly distracting in a film that otherwise evokes the subtle qualities of silent movie style. It’s forgivable given the intricate sets he creates on a starvation budgets (the ritual sacrifice scene in the jungle and the island altar to Cthulu are deliriously unreal and wonderfully weird spectacles), and the lovingly sculpted totems and icons is a mark of his team’s craftsmanship and devotion to the spirit of the material. The drama is in the atmosphere and the beautiful evocation of Lovecraft’s constant theme: the more you investigate the secrets of the dark dimensions, the more power you feed the hungry god Cthulu at the expense of your own sanity. That which does not kill you only makes you madder.
The Whisperer in Darkness once again approaches its adaptation of Lovecraft in the style of the era in which it was written, beholden to early thirties gothic horror in period style that evoke thirties-era performance, imagery, and lighting. It’s rather talky and not particularly scary or tense, but it is filled with a Lovecraftian sense of dread, of worlds beyond comprehension and a conspiracy of epic proportions.
“I think you’ll find time runs differently here,” our scholar hero (Matt Foyer), a folklorist from Muskatonic University, is told upon arriving in a Vermont farming community, a harbinger of mysteries to come. Lovecraft wasn’t big on endings, so the filmmakers (including Cthulu director Leman as a co-screenwriter and producer) have filled the story out with pieces of other stories, added more fully-developed characters and motivations, and constructed a dramatic plot that takes the original story from a static single-room conversation to a rousing thirties-style thriller.
Director Sean Brannery doesn’t exactly capture the distinctive photography and pace of the films that inspired his approach but again he makes the most of minimal resources thanks to imaginative imagery and evocative effects. The technology is defined by devices seemingly plucked out of Frankenstein’s laboratory and Buck Rogers space ships and CGI is sparingly used and carefully created to match the practical style. The black and white photography, period details, and expressionist flourishes give it a yesteryear texture and a beauty of its own that sets the film in its own netherworld.
The double feature plays through Monday, September 3 at Uptown.
1 Reel Film Festival kicks off at SIFF Film Center with a preview on Friday, August 31 before playing out at Bumbershoot over the Labor Day weekend. Tom Keogh previews the event for The Seattle Times.
Side By Side, the documentary on the impact of digital cinema on contemporary filmmaking produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves, opens for a week at Grand Illusion. John Hartl, writing for The Seattle Times, describes it as “a kind of eulogy for celluloid… But it’s also a valuable history of digital milestones.” It is, of course, shot on digital and screened from a digital source.
Robot and Frank, with Frank Langella as retired cat burger who gets back into the bnusiness with the help of a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), opens at the Egyptian and other screens.
Sleepwalk With Me, developed from a stage monologue into a feature film by Mike Birbiglia with “This American Life” producer Ira Glass, opens at The Harvard Exit.
Beloved, directed by Christophe Honore and starring Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni, is at The Uptown.
Opening at Northwest Film Forum are the documentaries Adendland, a portrait of Europe at play by Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter (details here), and Kumaré, with director Vikram Gandhi playing at being a swami and documenting his followers (more here).