Monday, November 05, 2012

Darkness, Take My Hand

The HP Lovecraft Historical Society returns to filmmaking with their version of The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, directed by Sean Branney). "The Whisperer" is probably my favorite of Lovecraft's stories, so I was keen to see what the HPLHS did with it. I loved their version of The Call of Cthulhu. Like that film, this is made as if it is a contemporary to Lovecraft--an early talkie, rather than a silent film this time. This film's production values are higher than their first film, which is a double edged sword, because it lets the filmmakers attempt visuals that might best be left to the mind. But maybe not. "The Whisperer in Darkness" isn't as replete with gelid monstrosities as some of Lovecraft's other stories, and the Mi-Go, its alien creatures, are well represented in this film version. And while The Call of Cthulhu works as a kind of curio, this film aspires to more. It's a fully fledged feature film rather than a well-executed fan film, though it's not without its problems...

The story finds folklorist Albert Wilmarth investigating tales from the backwoods of Vermont about strange beings from the sky. Wilmarth chocks it up to mass hysteria, and in a radio debate with Charles Fort, decries anyone taking these stories seriously without any evidence to back them up. Much to his dismay, evidence for the veracity of these stories soon presents itself. A farmer in the region, Henry Akeley, sends Wilmarth a mounting pile of evidence in the form of photographs and a disturbing sound recording. When Akeley dispatches his son to Wilmarth with a strange black stone, and when his son never arrives to give the stone to Wilmarth, Wilmarth drops his interest. But not for long. Soon, an invitation to visit arrives, one that is out of character for Akeley. Wilmarth accepts, and soon finds that all is not well at the Akeley farmstead, as those alien beings turn out to be all too real, and they want in to our world...

Every so often, I have arguments with people about how to fractionate various genres from each other. One of the more vexing distinctions is the question of where the horror genre ends and the science fiction genre begins. I think the French have the right of it when they group everything under the umbrella of "le fantastique." Horror and science fiction have been conjoined twins right from the start, back when Mary Shelly dreamed up Frankenstein, and no one mixed the two more inextricably than Lovecraft. "The Whisperer in Darkness" is an early variation of the "aliens among us" story. There's a direct line of descent between this story and, say The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters." Lovecraft isn't normally thought of as a science fiction writer, but perhaps he should be. It's well known that the seed of "The Whisperer" was the discovery of Pluto (which, in Lovecraft's universe, was referred to as "Yuggoth"). Extrapolating on science is a hallmark of science fiction, after all, and this story does it about as well as its contemporaries. Better than most, actually. But, of course, "The Whisperer" is a horror story. I wonder how much our perceptions of genre are shaped by tone rather than content? A lot, I suspect. What pushes this story into the realm of horror is the paranoia at its core. This is the kind of horror story that UFO nuts would embrace two decades later, a conspiracy theory about the way things "really" work. Its aliens are viewed with horror rather than wonder. They are the "other" from the outer dark, monsters intent on knocking human beings from the center of the universe, or worse, that have already knocked us from that place in the sun. Lovecraft's brand of cosmic horror is more a product of humanity's insignificance in an indifferent universe than it is a religious or even a visceral horror (though both of those themes are present in his work, too).

For the most part, this movie version of The Whisperer in Darkness "gets" all of this. I think what separates this movie and its predecessor from so many of the schlocky horror movies based on Lovecraft is the fact that it's made by amateurs (though the line between professional and amateur grows more indistinct day by day as the barriers to filmmaking lower). Amateurs, by definition, do what they do for love. They study the source. They respect it. As a result, more of what makes Lovecraft Lovecraft makes it into the HPLHS's films than in any other versions I can name. More than that, they understand the relationship between Lovecraft and science fiction, and this film is appointed with the trappings of sci fi, including fun electrical gizmos and a retro-futuristic design aesthetic. There's a pleasurable sequence with talking disembodied heads that would be at home in a late fifties schlocker, and which trumps most of them. This has brains in jar. This all tickles the monster kid in me.

The story is intact here, and it's executed with aplomb. The conceit of filming this like it's 1933 is brilliant, and not just from a metatextual point of view. It conceals a lot of flaws (black and white is the low budget filmmaker's friend and always has been), true, but it also makes what would look hand-made in 2012 seem relatively advanced for 1933. The Mi-Go, when fully realized on screen, are digital, which is unfortunate, I guess (black and white disguises this well enough). As a practical matter, I get why they went that route, but I miss the throwback charm of the HPLHS's stop-motion version of The Great Cthulhu in their previous film. In any event, this looks great.

I say that "The Whisper in Darkness" is intact in this movie, and it is, but the filmmakers have chosen to embellish on the story. They add some details (like the presence of Charles Fort, for instance), and turn the film into a race against time adventure film after they present the story's original ending. This seems like a mistake to me, but not much of one. It's all entertaining. The adventure stuff at the end seem more like an homage to the old serials than to Lovecraft, and that's fine. But there's a niggling part of me that thinks this stuff is included as a sop to an audience that primarily knows Lovecraft from roleplaying games rather than from the original stories. It has the structure of a game, in which Wilmarth must defeat minions before getting to the big boss at the end and foil his dastardly plan. It gives the movie a more conventional plot than it might have settled for had it ended with Wilmarth realizing that the title character wasn't Henry Akeley at all. I won't fault the filmmakers for their ambitions, but their film is stronger when they're relying on the original story than it is when it rampages into material of their own devising.

That all said, I had a grand time watching this. It's a better film as film than The Call of Cthulhu was, though money may have something to do with that. It surely had more resources at its disposal. It has good performances, which surprised me, particularly Matt Foyer as Wilmarth. The actors here all inhabit their various types like born character actors. There's not a conventional leading man here, and the movie is all the better for it. They've opened up the story a little to let a few women in, too, which is one of the major flaws in Lovecraft's stories. Women were one of the many things of which old Howard Philip seems to have been terrified. Also, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the "movie-ness" of this. I used to watch tons of movies that were a lot crappier than this one on lazy Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, and this film tickles that nostalgia in me a little. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Current tally: 31 films.
23 first time viewings.

Stragglers From Around the Web

Wednesday's Child recaps her top five British horror movies for the month over at In it for the Kills.

The Rev. Anna Dynamite recounts her Halloween party movie watching at Dreams in the Bitch House.


Darius Whiteplume said...

I was hoping this would be good. I listened to the HP Podcraft episode(s) where they did this story and talked about the film. (first episode here)

I like Andrew Leman's take on Lovecraft, typically. The CGI is a tad disappointing, but I guess rubber monsters cost more these days?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I don't know that rubber monsters are more expensive than CGI, but it's probably a trade off, given that the monsters here are required to fly, which might be difficult with rubber monsters. So I understand it.