Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Review: The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)

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I know, this one’s been out for a few years, but I let this movie fall under my radar for far too long and I want to do what I can to make up for that.

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society landed itself on just about every H.P. Lovecraft lover’s map by making a deliciously ambitious silent film adaptation of Lovecraft’s foundational short story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”  The idea was to present a world – an alternate timeline, if you will – where Lovecraft, instead of dying a virtually unknown writer, had the cred in his lifetime that his name earned after his death, so much so that big-budget Hollywood adaptations of his stories existed.  With that concept in mind, HPLHS’s The Call of Cthulhu was as much a period piece as it was a Lovecraft adaptation.  Naturally, the HPLHS followed up with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s later story, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but, since it was written in 1930, this adaptation would be a talkie.

ImageH.P. Lovecraft has been deemed unadaptable, a judgment borne out more or less by the many adaptations we have seen, from 1963’s famously lackluster The Haunted Palace (which at least deserves some distinction for being a Lovecraft adaptation thinly disguised as an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation for legal reasons) to 2001’s fun but pretty un-Lovecraftian Dagon.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s work can accurately guess why;  in short, Lovecraft was better known – infinitely so – for his ideas and bizarre descriptions than for his plots or characters.  Nearly all adaptations get around it, either by just using the source material piecemeal and slapping it on to a more run-of-the-mill horror story, expanding the story to include far more characters (especially women) and action, or just trying to capture the feel of Lovecraft’s bleak, merciless, and “science-gothic” vision of the universe within a story that really isn’t based on anything Lovecraft actually wrote. It probably says a lot that one of the best Lovecraft “adaptations” out there, John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, isn’t even technically  a Lovecraft adaptation.

Nonetheless, pulling off a good Lovecraft adaptation seems to be the Eldritch Grail for filmmakers.  Besides Roger Corman and John Carpenter, there’s Stuart Gordon, who has basically made an entire career out of trying.  Although I’d be the last one to question Gordon’s chops, his Lovecraft adaptations still try to throw way too many foreign ingredients into the pot.  His best known film, Reanimator, based on Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator”, is a fantastic gory horror-comedy in its own right, but doesn’t really have much by way of Lovecraft’s essence.  Likewise Dagon does feature some of the atmosphere from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, but unfortunately at a certain point almost turns into Die Hard, which isn’t exactly conducive to Lovecraftian dread.

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Just judging from the film, Sean Branney and Andrew Leman seem conscious of the pitfalls awaiting anyone trying to bring Lovecraft to the screen.  While they do expand on the story and add a third act after the ending of the original story takes place, they stick closely to the source material, but not slavishly so.  A professor specializing in New England folklore, Dr. Wilmarth (Matt Foyer), becomes interested in but remains skeptical of reports from a rural Vermont county of strange crablike beings, reports that echo local Native American tales of a creature they knew as the Mi-go.  Wilmarth enters a strange correspondence with an old farmer from the county, Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), who relates increasingly strange and paranoid accounts of discovering unusual carved stones in the mountains and of his farmhouse being increasingly visited by the Mi-go.  One day Wilmarth receives a letter from Akeley claiming that he no longer fears that the Mi-go are hostile and urging Wilmarth to come visit him personally.  Needless to say, the curious Wilmarth is being lured into a trap, set not only by a cult collaborating with the Mi-go led by a man named Noyes (Daniel Kaeman), but by the inhuman visitors themselves, who have an…interesting proposal to extend to select humans.

Like The Call of Cthulhu, this is an impressive effort, especially given the budget.  The acting is professional-grade and the setting, filmed in authentic Vermont country, will invoke Lovecraft for any fan.  The CGI (which at least is used sparingly) might ruin the period effect for some, but not overly so.  It’s also obvious throughout that Branney and Leman love the source material and know it forwards and backwards.  While like other adapters they add a few new elements (although there is only one new character, Hannah, the daughter of one of the cultists), the spirit of Lovecraft is obvious throughout.  In fact, it does seem like the filmmakers are having a bit of fun with audience expectations.  There’s a few moments where the movie seems ready to veer off into more traditional, safer directions, only for the audience to be rudely reminded that, yes, this is Lovecraft Country in just about every sense of the word.

The Whisperer in Darkness comes strongly recommended, not just to even casual fans of Lovecraft but for anyone willing to give an indie black-and-white horror movie based on a classic a chance.  Even though this film unfortunately didn’t seem to make as many waves as The Call of Cthulhu did, I will personally say a prayer to the Black Goat with a Thousand Young that we’ll be seeing more cinematic efforts from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

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