12 October 2011

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '11: THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS (SEAN BRANNEY, USA)

Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/12
World premiere: 12 March, 2011, Athens Sci-Fi & Fantasy Film Festival

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is at heart a wildly ambitious fan club whose mission is to celebrate the work of the horror author through the creation of multi-media projects: music, games, curios, and two feature films, beginning with 2005's The Call of Cthulhu. This film, done in the style of a late-'20s silent movie (that is to say it tries to imitate a version of itself made when the story ws new), is one of the most faithful and visually creative films based on a Lovecraft story, an impressive feat indeed given that "The Call of Cthulhu" is one of the author's pieces least concerned with telling a cinematically viable story, and that's by the standards of man whose work very frequently climaxes in a sequence where the narrator is reduced to assuring us that the unspeakable, indescribable things he is seeing are horrifying indeed, not least because they could not exist in Euclidean space.

It's taken a few years, but they've come out with a follow-up, The Whisperer in Darkness, which reunites most of the same people, though in different permutations (the last film was written by Sean Branney and directed by Andrew Leman, this one is directed by Branney, and co-written by both men); instead of copying the idioms of silent film, this one seeks to replicate a mid- to late-'30s horror picture, which it does with somewhat indifferent results: while cinematographer (and editor, but that doesn't matter in this context) David Robertson gets the lighting right, he and Branney aren't otherwise as strict with camera angles and the like as Robertson and Leman were in making Ctulhu. It doesn't really look like a found-footage piece from the '30s, in other words, but a film made in the present day only in black-and-white, and with unusually diffuse lighting (the film proudly describes itself as being "shot in Mythoscope" during the opening credits, which are the most period-authentic bit of the entire film), sharing Cthulhu's chief flaw of being obviously shot on video, and marrying that to decent but not-all-there sound recording.

Not being a satisfying throwback is a very different thing from not being satisfying at all, and the good news about Whisperer is that it still manages to be, if not an absolute top-tier Lovecraft movie, undeniably in the front ranks (this isn't a very serious achievement: Lovecraft films tend to be disappointments if not outright failures; that whole "horror that cannot be imagined by humans or depicted in normal space-time" thing). It helps the film out considerably that it's already one of the story's in Lovecraft's body of work best-suited for cinematic treatment: Miskatonic University folklore professor Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) begins corresponding with Vermont farmer Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch) about the strange phenomena that followed a recent series of floods: strange crab-like beings that correspond to the mythological beings noted in that area since before the first white settlers. Wilmarth is pleasantly dubious, but as evidence mounts up and people start to go missing, he begins to wonder if there might be truth in those folk stories after all; and when he visits Akeley, he is confronted first-hand with the proof of these beings' existence, and the rather hideous explanation for what they're up to.

In adapting the story, Branney and Leman made one absolutely vital decision. Lovecraft's actual story is compressed somewhat, so that we get to the meat of it faster: a weird choice, given how much of the original is effective because of the slow accumulation of curious and unsavory details, but they way they are presented, it's simply not possible that a cinema audience couldn't get ahead of the plot (Wilmarth is not a terribly bright protagonist in the story, and that would only be exaggerated if we saw and heard the same things he did). So the filmmakers simply brush right over anything that might trip themselves up, and replace it at the end with a solid 40 minutes of new material that turns the "I observed with dread" of the story with action - not tremendously Lovecraftian action, but it's an ending that makes sense in terms of the experiment of making the film in the style of the 1930s.

Taken on its own merits as a horror/sci-fi/mystery, it's a fun lark: Foyer makes for a wonderful academic hero, affably smug and uniquely able to act with the candor and earnestness of a '30s B-movie actor (if some of the other actors come off somewhat like a LARP group making home movies, that's sort of in the neighborhood of what goes on). And by relying mostly on atmosphere, with an almost comical amount of nighttime thunderstorms filling up the story, the filmmakers are able to stretch their tiny budget enough so that when they absolutely need to bring in special effects, those effects are fairly credible; the monster design is a tad disappointing - as it almost has to be in any Lovecraft picture - but only in a few shots look unabashedly cheap. Anyway, the two-thirds of the movie based directly on the story are a great exercise in low-budget horror, managing to capture the author's pet theme - nothing is so horrible as that which violates our scientific sense of reason (Lovecraft was as a dedicated atheist and rationalist) - as well as I have ever seen it done in a movie.

The Whisperer in Darkness is only a playful horror picture, where Cthulhu was actually a great & largely successful experiment; but it still gets to the heart of why Lovecraft works as well as anybody ever has. I will not lie, I think it might be nice if the HPLHS folks took a different tack for their next project than "do it in period style!", but they're two-for-two with making that gimmick work tolerably well now, and that's a pretty impressive track record for something so esoteric and prone to failure.

7/10

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