He Who Cannot Be Pronounced
A Novice Director Brings An Ancient Horror To Unsuspecting Audiences Via Silent Film
“This is something we’ve long wished we could do. Then we decided, Why are we waiting? Let’s do it,” says director Andrew Leman, speaking about his film The Call of Cthulhu from the waiting lounge of the Bismarck, N.D., airport. This 47-minute silent horror film, shot in the historically accurate and appropriately aged “Mythoscope” style, has attracted considerable attention on the festival circuit, hence Leman’s Bismarck stopover and a forthcoming visit to the Maryland Film Festival.
The enthused timbre of Leman’s voice is the adult version of the bright, charismatic, slightly theatrical kid whose vivid imagination and force of will could lure classmates into epic playground make-believe. That’s not far from the truth, as Leman, along with Cthulhu co-producer and writer Sean Branney, has headed the live-action role-playing club the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (www.cthulhulives.org) since its inception in 1984. The group disdains the passivity of the usual “throw the dice” role-playing games and instead stages baroque narratives complete with sets, props, costumes, and real, far-flung locations. “Our games have gotten more elaborate and more complicated over the years,” Leman says. “When we run a game it’s like a movie, except without the camera.” Adding the camera was the next logical step.
Based on the most famous story from Lovecraft’s ultragothic oeuvre, The Call of Cthulhu follows the unraveling secret guarded by the now-deceased Professor Angell, a dark truth that links outbreaks of mass hysteria, mysterious cult rituals, and a disaster at sea. Angell’s too-curious great-nephew decides to follow the trail hinted at in Angell’s papers, only to discover the unspeakably evil monstrosity whose unclean presence runs like a vein of corruption beneath human history.
“Sean and I have been Lovecraft fans for many years and artistic partners for just as long, and we were talking about it,” Leman explains. “Sean said, ‘I’d like to write the adaptation,’ and I said OK. And I said, ‘I’d like to direct it,’ and he said OK. And it was a given that we’d both produce it.” Leman makes the endeavor sound like a much more casual pastime than its proper inception would prove to be.
Leman, a self-described “picky about the details” graphic and font designer, took pains to ensure Cthulhu’s look was historically accurate. Studying technique from a palette of silent classics—from Sunrise to Metropolis to, of course, the silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—cemented a historically grounded stylebook that encompassed everything from font choices to camera angles. “We wanted to use filmmaking techniques like forced perspective, miniature sets, and stop-motion animation that were true to the spirit of filmmaking at the time,” Leman says. Aside from some digital compositing (optical compositing, a staple of silent-era illusion, would have been impossible to do with video), Leman stresses that “there are no digital effects in this film.”
Even though shot on appropriately “distressed” video, the end result vibrates with a palpable fool-the-experts authenticity. From the opening title’s flawless abstract Deco background, to the actors’ darkened eyes and lips, to the way flashbacks are subtly framed with peephole vignettes, Leman has absorbed the tropes of pre-sound film perfectly. When the narrative veers into ooky-kooky Lovecraft territory, Leman’s vision grows even more striking. The nightmare of a young artist one-ups Caligari’s flat-painted sets with a dolly shot through a retreating hallway of helter-skelter Expressionist doorframes. Even when the effects wouldn’t pass the critical muster of modern eyes—such as the steamship bobbing on “water” of undulating fabric, pearly moon and clouds of suspended fluff above—they achieve a Noh-like poetry.
Lovecraft’s short story was not the sort of indie cheapie that could be shot in a weekend in an obliging friend’s apartment. To keep the film as close to the original text as possible, Leman needed to find locations in the Los Angeles area that could reasonably stand in as ship mess halls, archaeological societies, the suburbs of Oslo, and uncharted islands. Over the course of 14 months, Leman shot scenes at a mix of existing structures (including a warehouse used to archive vintage erotica) and massive constructed sets erroneously termed “miniatures” for composite shots of fantasy landscapes. The climax in R’lyeh, the submerged city that serves as the alien fiend Cthulhu’s underwater mausoleum, was shot on a multiscaffold set fabricated in a friend’s backyard. “Had they known how big this thing would be and what we’d do to their yard,” Leman writes on his film’s web site, “I’m sure they never would have agreed.”
Since premiering last October at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Ore., the response to Leman and Branney’s labor of love has been tremendous. The Call of Cthulhu has screened at festivals as far-flung as Helsinki and Buenos Aires, and its DVD boasts volunteer-translated title cards in 24 different languages. (“We had multiple volunteers for a Klingon translation,” Leman notes. “We had to turn them away.”) Plans are afoot for a second Mythoscope feature, this time in the style of a 1930s horror talkie, but Leman is enjoying his creation’s unexpected dividends.
“We knew Lovecraft fans would like it, but it’s also been an enthusiastically received by film fans in general,” he says. “It’s making Lovecraft fans out of people who have never heard of the stories. It’s far beyond our wildest expectations.”
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