Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Whisperer In Darkness: Beyond Space And Time

After last week’s film left kind of a gross taste in my mouth, I felt up for something a little more…I dunno, wholesome?...for this week. This is definitely not my usual thing, being all “horror should be bleak and intense, it’s art, not entertainment” and whatnot, but I gotta admit, sometimes I need a break from that stuff and instead spend some time splashing around in the spooky end of the pool. So I thought I’d take a look at another film by the fine folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. They began as part of a group of friends who spent the 1980s doing live-action role-playing of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game, and I’m sorry that they’ve taken the archived accounts of those games off their website, because the amount of sheer theatrical inventiveness that went into some of those games, given the time period and resources available to them, is really impressive.

So two of them went on to found the HPLHS, and they do their primary business in the production of era-appropriate props for role-playing groups, while also working in the film and theater industries in Los Angeles. They’d done radio plays, but in the early 2000s, they produced their first feature-length film, a silent-film adaptation of Call of Cthulhu. It had its weaknesses, as I observed in my write-up, but there’s something I found really appealing about how they approached the material in a way that was budget-effective and made sense narratively. For the time when the original short story was published, if it had been adapted into a film, it would have been a silent film, so in a sense it was like a discovered artifact, a piece of entertainment from a bygone era, telling a story from that era. And it was largely evocative - maybe not as viscerally scary as a modern horror film, but you could appreciate how audiences in the 1920s would have freaked out at what was up on the screen. And for that matter, the genuine affection for the source material really shone through, so it was clear that this film - made on a shoestring budget, filming in backyards and actor’s houses, everyone pulling double and triple duty - was absolutely a labor of love. That’s not something you see a lot of in horror films, and I think it’s important to preserve it.

So it was with all of this in mind that I went into their second full-length effort, an adaptation of The Whisperer In Darkness. It’s a much more ambitious endeavor than the first film, and it has many of that films’ strengths, but also some of its weaknesses as well.

It’s the story of Albert Wilmarth, a folklorist who’s just come into possession of a very rare text - the original annotated manuscript of a long-unobtainable book about myths and legends specific to rural Vermont. Legends about the mysterious creatures that have been living in its hills and caves since long before the land was settled. Wilmarth is, of course, a committed skeptic - these are tales, not truth, and he has an academic’s interest in them, not a believer’s. But he’s also been in correspondence with a resident of the area, Henry Akeley, who insists that the creatures are very real, and he has evidence to prove it. Armed with this manuscript, Wilmarth intends to pay Akeley a visit.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s been experiencing the worst flooding it’s had in years. And things are washing up as the water recedes. Strange things, with an unrecognizable biology.

Just as their first film was done in the style of a 1920s silent film, contemporaneous to the story’s publication, this film is likewise done in the style of early talking films from the early 1930s, when this story was originally published as well. The move from silent to talking films adds a layer of complexity - now they have to actually manage dialogue and sound design along with everything else - as well as the need to flesh out a short story into a feature-length film. I give them a lot of credit here - this is a much more ambitious outing than their first film on pretty much every front, and mostly they pull it off with aplomb. The cinematic details, like title and credit presentation, are period-accurate, as is the camerawork (no drone shots here), dialogue, wardrobe, set design, and most importantly, the acting. There’s a certain mannered delivery to the way people talked in early talking motion pictures - I don’t know exactly why, (I wonder how much of it was a transition from theater and the need for precise elocution, along with broad affectation as a way to establish character) but whatever the case may be, there’s a certain rhythm and melody to how people talk that you don’t hear in modern films. If it hadn’t been present here, the game would have been up immediately. So - some technical details aside - this looks and sounds like a 1930s talking picture, which is essential to creating the feeling the film strives for.

It’s also a story about strange creatures from beyond the blackness of space, as Lovecraft’s stories tended to be, and so this meant a fair amount of effects work. A lot of that is pretty period-accurate too - lots of in-camera and practical effects work, though they did utilize some digital effects to cheat things that would have been more costly in terms of time and money to achieve in a period-accurate way. For the most part, however, it looks period-accurate, leading to the irony that digital effects are being used to emulate early stop-motion. But the upshot is that with a few exceptions, nothing looks too slick or clean to be something from a 1930s film. All of this is important because a film like this is going to work if it draws the viewer into its world - you aren’t just watching a movie about one man’s discovery of horrors from beyond space, you’re watching a movie about those things made in a very specific place and time, so you’re responding not just to the story, but to its time as well. It’s the same reason that filmmakers who attempt to emulate the 1970s-era “grindhouse” style of exploitation film use specific film stocks and editing choices and soundtracks and title cards. Referencing a period-specific set of aesthetics adds an emotional component on top of what’s already there.

So the upside is that for the most part, the filmmakers have made something that looks like it came out of a vault somewhere, as if we’re watching another film adaptation that audiences in the 1930s would have watched, and given that Lovecraft’s work wasn’t getting the film treatment when he was still alive, there’s a really interesting feeling to that, like we’re privy to entertainment from a parallel universe. There are some downsides, however. First, this film doesn’t quite have the emotional intensity of the earlier film - silent films were theatrical by nature, with no dialogue, so the music and the actors’ performance had to sell the whole thing. This made that film much more melodramatic, and thus, more intense. The performances are more subdued here, as befits a talking film, but as a result it loses some of that intensity. It’s a lot of polite, civilized people talking in a polite, civilized way, which is again totally period-appropriate, but it loses some tension as a result.

The second problem is that the pacing is an issue. There’s a nice sense almost from the start that all is not right here, even if you are - like me - familiar with the original story and have an idea of how it’s going to play out. But the last act feels padded with long stretches of expository dialogue, so when it feels like things should be speeding up and getting more tense, they slow down instead and there’s more air between the tense moments than there should be. The epistolary nature of the first film’s story made it a little easier to open things up. but here, there’s a more linear story in play and so it’s much more apparent when things are being stretched out. They made the choice to add new story elements onto the third act, and I understand their reasoning for doing so (mostly fleshing out the main characters a little more and making the end less perfunctory), but it seems to me that if they’d leaned more into the original version of the story, where there’s much more lead-up to Wilmarth’s trip to Vermont and less time actually spent there, making the end more of a rush of revelation after a slow burn, that might have been a more effective way of telling the story in terms of creating and sustaining tension and dread.

There are some technical issues as well, ones shared with their first film. Overall it’s an achievement - it’s tough to emulate a bygone style of filmmaking, and in so many ways they get it right, but the end product looks a little too clean, it’s a little too apparent that this wasn’t actually shot on 1930s film stock and recorded using period-appropriate technology. It’s too clean to be even the best restoration as well, so the conceit doesn’t always hold (there’s one special effect where it’s especially apparent they used green-screen, and it pulls you out of the story some). There are sequences which could have been accomplished in the 1930s through other means and would have been incredibly ambitious for the time, and I’m usually not one for artificially aging films (it’s so easy to go overboard), but I think in the case of this film and their previous work, some post-production dirtying-up would be to their benefit. There was also one monster design choice that didn’t quite land for me, reminding me less of horrors from beyond space and more of characters from an old Flash Gordon serial, which hurt the ending a little too. Then again, for everything that didn’t quite land, there were multiple things that did, but as is so often the case, when it doesn’t work it leaps right out at me as a result.

Like the first film, the result is more a film that you appreciate than one you get swallowed up by, there’s always a little bit of distance there, though I think this would be true of a number of films made during that time period. Still, the Society’s motto is “ludo fore putavimus,” which they translate from the Latin as “we thought it would be fun,” and it’s clear how much fun everyone had making this film. There’s something to be said for that when so many films are marketed and focus-grouped until all the life is sucked out of them. Even if it didn’t really scare me as much as it could have, I’m impressed at how they’ve pushed themselves and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

IMDB entry
HPLHS webstore
Available on Amazon  

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