The Call of Cthulhu ★★★★★

Watched as part of the June 2018 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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#29: A film based on any of the works of H.P. Lovecraft

It's funny that this task should just happen to pop up in this month's scavenger hunt, because I just so happen to be in the middle of reading The Complete Works of HP Lovecraft right now, after recently reading a brand-new biography of him that reminded me all over of what a fascinating and complicated person this Early Modernist horror writer and notorious misanthrope was. So when it came time to watch a movie based on his work for this scavenger hunt, I decided to skip the much more famous '80s modern ultra-gore adaptations by Stuart Gordon (which admittedly had a huge impact on bringing Lovecraft to a much bigger new audience), and instead rewatch one of the most clever movies I've ever seen, Andrew Leman's to-the-letter-faithful 2005 adaptation of Lovecraft's most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu.

Leman's version is at once extremely simple to describe, and complex in its execution and resulting implications -- it's designed to look exactly like if Fritz Lang had decided to make a silent, black-and-white, German Expressionist adaptation of the movie in the exact year of 1926 that the story was first published, which he pulls off by pulling a little here from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, a little there from Nosferatu, a bit from Metropolis and a bit from modern no-budget indie film sensibilities. That makes the finished film bigger as a total than as a sum of its parts; because it reminds us of just how many similarities there actually were between Lovecraft and the German Expressionists, who after all were contemporary peers who were all making new work at the exact same time as each other, even though as far as we know, no German Expressionsts ever got the chance to read Lovecraft's work at the time, nor did Lovecraft ever see any German Expressionist films.

That said, both were fascinated with the waking-dream state that exists on the edge between the conscious and subconscious; both were obsessed with the then-new fields of psychoanalysis and quantum physics; and both were preoccupied with monstrous visions capable of driving men mad from the sheer horror of gazing into the black abyss of a meaningless universe, all of which Leman reminds us of here in his infinitely clever, unbelievably well-done 60-minute film. It reminds us that none of these artists worked in a vacuum, but were actually part of a larger movement within all of humanity to be fascinated by these particular subjects at this particular moment in history; and that certain moments in the arts happen precisely because they were the exact right moments for them to happen, just like how the mainstream adoption of Lovecraft's ideas* in the last twenty years has also been happening precisely because this is the exact right moment in history for them to happen.

[*For those who don't know, everything from Hellboy to Cloverfield to the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones have been primarily based on concepts and creatures first created by Lovecraft, a proto-"franchise" in which humans are merely the pesky gnats getting in the way of all-powerful and madness-inducing creatures known as the "Old Ones" who are the true masters of the universe, as best visualized by the monstrous kraken-like creature known as Cthulhu.]

It's too artsy to be everyone's cup of tea, but I especially encourage existing Lovecraft fans to seek out Leman's Cthulhu, to see a particularly loving and exact adaptation that would make Lovecraft himself proud. (And for my fellow Chicagoans, an added bonus is that Leman was closely associated with the revered Defiant Theater Company back in the 1990s, where among other accolades he worked with Nick Offerman to design the horrific giant puppet at the center of their nightmare-inducing play The Skriker.) But of course, as anyone who's seen my scavenger hunt list knows, this is actually just one of a Lovecraft double-feature I'm doing this month; the other entry is decidedly different, the 2014 over-the-top erotic splatter comedy Call Girl of Cthulhu, whose thoughts I'm excited to be sharing with you tomorrow. I hope you'll stop by again for that!

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