Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Whisperer in Darkness

Occasionally, some Hollywood-type will mention how 'unfilmable' the works of H.P. Lovecraft are. The folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society keep proving people like this wrong. Back in 2005 HPLHS released a faithful adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu, filmed as a black and white silent movie to fit the times in which the story was published. It wasn't perfect, the stop motion effects being perhaps the weakest part, but overall it was well executed and succeeded in bringing the 'unfilmable' Lovecraft story to the screen.
Now the HPLHS is back with their second film, The Whisperer in Darkness, and in terms of production values it is miles beyond Call of Cthulhu. The stated goal was once again to film something that looked like it could have been released at the time the story was published, the 1930s, but to my eye it looked more like a Universal Horror film from the 1940s with it's crisp images and stark, almost Film Noir lighting. This one has sound, and though still shot on a reasonably low budget, it also has some professional special effects. It's not quite as faithful to Lovecraft as The Call of Cthulhu film, but I'll get to that in a bit.
Lovecraft's original story concerned Albert Wilmarth, an authority on folklore and the occult, who finds himself in a strange exchange of correspondence with a man named Henry Akeley. Wilmarth has recently been ridiculing newspaper reports and letters about a monstrous extraterrestrial race living in the hills of Vermont and Akeley writes that he can produce physical evidence of the existence of the creatures. A long series of letters follows, in which Akeley becomes more frantic and agitated, speaking of cults and of a growing menace toward himself because of his knowledge and his correspondence with Wilmarth. Then, out of the blue, Wilmarth receives a final letter (typed instead of written) in which Akeley recants most of what he had said about the creatures being dangerous and threatening and invites Wilmarth to Vermont to see first hand what he's talking about. Wilmarth makes the trip and of course finds something horrible.
The script for the film follows this pretty closely, using great chunks of Lovecraft's prose, however this is where the divergences from the written story begin, necessarily, I think, because trying to film an exchange of letters wouldn't make for interesting cinema. The writers had to find a way to dramatize most of the information which was exchanged in the letters and to do this they had to invent new scenes and characters to show instead of tell. (There's a nifty bit in the DVD extras about where some of these characters came from, but I'll let you discover that yourself.)
Still, the first two acts stick very close to the Lovecraft story.
The third act is where some Lovecraft purists may take exception. Basically the big reveal at the end of the prose Whisperer in Darkness takes place at the end of the second third of this film. The third and final act is entirely the devising of the film's writers and extrapolates on what might have happened after the end of Lovecraft's story in order to make a more satisfying movie. I didn't have a problem with it, and in fact really liked most of it. There's a particularly gruesome bit that confirms what Lovecraft's readers must have suspected for years about the fate of Henry Akeley which is great. And really, the actual story is mostly intact if you turn off the movie two thirds of the way through. But don't. The rest of it is a lot of fun and you get to see Lovecraftian monsters gloriously realized and you don't want to miss that.
The acting is very good, particularly Matt Foyer as Wilmarth and Autumn Wendel as one of the new characters, Hannah, a little girl caught up in the horrible events. The overall look of the film is amazing. Sometimes I really felt I was watching a lost horror film from the 40s. And as I noted, the special effects are much better in this movie.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the film and highly recommend it to Lovecraft fans. The filmmakers are fans too and their love of the material shines through. The movie comes with a second disk loaded with behind the scenes extras. Oh, and the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society mailing label and invoice are the coolest things I've seen in a while. You know something's going to be good when even the envelope and invoice are that nifty. I'll be watching this movie again come Halloween I'm sure. Maybe as a double feature with the Call of Cthulhu. I hope they tackle my favorite Lovecraft story, The Dunwich Horror next.

PS you can order the movie from Amazon or directly from the HPLHS here.


JasonZavoda said...

That is an excellent review. I'd never heard of these movies before so it is welcome news that someone is trying to do decent adaptions of Lovecraft's work.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Thanks, both movies are worth seeing. I've added a link where you can order them to the post.

Anonymous said...

The second preview for Whisperer in Darkness is one of the best movie previews I've ever seen. It was exquisitely edited and fairly boiled over with promise.
I figured if the movie itself was only half as good as the preview then it would still be one of the best Lovecraftian films ever made.
Glad to hear Whisperer in Darkness lives up to its promise.
I was going to wait for Netflix to get it. Now I'm just going to order it. Thanks.

John Hocking

Charles R. Rutledge said...

John, I think you'll like it a lot. And it's worth having the two disk set for sure.

Riju said...

Although my query is not exactly related to the content under discussion, I would like to know your "take" on Alan Moore's 'Neonomicon', as a work on mythos, as well as a graphic novel. Would you recommend it to others?

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Truthfully, Riju, I didn't finish it. I read the first two issues and it just wasn't working for me. It was well written as you would expect, but I felt that Moore was trying to be shocking with the level of violence and profanity, so I bailed after issue two. I know a couple of other Lovecraft fans who felt the same. So the honest answer is, I can't recommend it based on what I read, but then I also didn't finish it. The whole might have been superior to the parts. Hope that helps.