A lot of viewers may think that the 2011 Oscar winner for Best Picture, “The Artist,” was a remarkably innovative achievement because its filmmakers made it look like an old, black-and-white silent production. However, the folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), a group of people dedicated to reenacting and keeping alive the works of the famous writer, have now made two feature films in the style of older movies. Lovecraft published “The Call of Cthulu” in 1928, and the HPLHS turned it into a silent, black-and-white film in 2005. Their follow-up movie, the one reviewed here, is 2011’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” based on a story Lovecraft published in 1931. Accordingly, the HPLHS do it up in the B&W style of an early 1930s’ horror film, in a sort of “Frankenstein” or, more accurately, “Bride of Frankenstein” manner. And, of course, since 1931 was several years into the era of talking pictures, it’s in sound.
Now, here’s the thing: Lovecraft has long been a favorite horror, fantasy, and science-fiction writer among followers of the genre, but his stories haven’t always translated well into movies. Many filmmakers have tried and many have failed. While I admit it’s been over fifty years since I last read a Lovecraft tale (I was quite a fan in high school), I remember the stories being more atmospheric than they were action oriented, more subjective than objective; Lovecraft intimated, suggested, insinuated more than he showed. As a result, readers conjured up in their minds horrific landscapes, creatures, monsters, and gods that Lovecraft never actually described in much detail on the page. Needless to say, movies need solid imagery, so filmmakers have often resorted to making up a lot of the visuals that Lovecraft merely implied, and suddenly, when audiences actually saw these things on screen, the pictorial representations didn’t always match their imagination.
The filmmakers at the HPLHS have tried to be as true to Lovecraft as they could in their films, attempting to replicate the tone and feeling as well as the dialogue, costumes, and settings of the original stories. Judging by “The Whisperer in Darkness,” I’d say they came closer to succeeding than most anyone else, although the film may not appeal to every modern horror-movie or sci-fi buff.
The motto of the HPLHS is “Ludo Fore Putavimus” (“We thought it would be fun”), perhaps parodying Charles Foster Kane’s famous line in “Citizen Kane” when he says, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” It also indicates they probably don’t take much of this stuff too seriously, even though they never play any of the film for laughs. They keep a straight face throughout the movie, doing it as poker-faced as they can (but obviously enjoying themselves in process).
Anyway, things begin with our meeting the main character, Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer), a professor in the English Department of Miskatonic University, Arkam, Massachusetts, a man who specializes in folklore. He has just uncovered a manuscript called “Tales of the Old Ones” that includes references to “a hidden race of monstrous beings” said “to lurk somewhere in the remoter hills” of Vermont. He has also been receiving a series of letters from a Vermont farmer named Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), who claims he has seen the creatures all around his house. Then the farmer’s son, George Akeley (Joe Sofranko) visits the professor, imploring him to help them with the “hill creatures” and even offering photographic proof of their existence.
So, Wilmarth goes off to Vermont to investigate, where he’s picked up at the train depot by a mysterious character named P.F. Noyes (Daniel Kaemon), who lets him off several miles from the Akeley farmhouse, explaining that the rain has washed out the bridge to the old place, and Wilmarth will have to go it by foot. From there, Professor Wilmarth learns more than he wanted to know about the phenomenon, and the audience learns the secrets of the place as the professor does, the story opening up to Lovecraft’s usual cosmic dimensions.
OK, here are a few of the things I liked about this film: I liked very much the look of the whole affair. I liked the eerie, sometimes expressionistic lighting; the creepy, occasionally surreal set designs; the period costumes; and, especially, David Robertson’s cinematography, which itself may be worth the price of the movie. I also liked the melodramatic musical score by Troy Sterling Nies, which fits the photography well and helps build the tension and suspense in any number of scenes. I liked the many suspicious characters lurking about in the shadows, and I liked the location shooting in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Taken together, they go a long way toward making the film look and feel as I remember a Lovecraft story.
What didn’t I like as much? I didn’t care for the filmmakers’ decision to frame the movie in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. If they were going for a look of the times, the early 1930’s, they might have done what they did with their previous film and given it a proper 1.37:1 (1.33:1) ratio. I suppose the 1.78:1 was a nod to modern viewers with widescreen TV’s, but, really, widescreen wouldn’t come to the movies for another two decades or more. The result of the wider screen for “Whisperer” is that it looks more like a low-budget film from the late Fifties than from the Thirties.
Likewise, I found the DTS-HD 5.1 surround track an odd choice. Sure, it’s a terrific-sounding track; it just doesn’t reflect the era. In 1931, movies had barely gotten monaural sound. This circumstance reminded me somewhat of “Cloverfield,” where the filmmakers wanted us to believe their movie was a piece of lost footage from a video camera, yet the soundtrack was in 5.1 surround. It spoils the illusion.
Then, there’s the matter of “Whisperer” being quite talky. Sure, this is Lovecraft, and this is why most other Lovecraft film adaptations have failed. It’s the nature of the beast; if you’re going to do Lovecraft, people are going to talk and talk and talk some more, and a narrator is going to have to fill in details, too. This doesn’t exactly make for the most-riveting horror movie.
In addition, the film’s acting runs the gamut from good to less so, and director Sean Branney, doing his first feature film after co-writing “The Call of Cthulhu,” doesn’t seem able to keep a steady pace, with some of the movie’s forward momentum falling flat. And, finally, the film’s ending gets awfully silly, even corny, an ending that Lovecraft only hinted at but here gets a full visual treatment.
Nevertheless, the plusses outweigh the minuses, and “The Whisperer in Darkness” has its undoubted charms, particularly for any serious Lovecraft fancier.
The folks at the HPLHS use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the film and its extras to Blu-ray disc in high definition, retaining the movie’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio. It appears the filmmakers shot it digitally, by the way (in a process they humorously call “MythoScope,” playing on the idea of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos). The picture quality ranges between crystal clear and razor sharp to slightly soft and flat. Black-and-white contrasts are usually just ordinary for high definition, but given that it is HD, after all, that’s still pretty good.
As I mentioned before, the filmmakers use 5.1 DTS-HD for the audio, which is technically the absolute best part of the picture, whether it reflects the era of the 1930’s or not. There is excellent bass when called upon, a good front-channel stereo spread, and an effective use of the surrounds for occasional environmental noises and ambient musical bloom. The sound is clean and polished, doing justice to the musical soundtrack, even if it may remind you more of today’s films than those of the Thirties.
There is a surprising lot of material among the extras, all of it in high def, the total timings of which exceed that of the movie itself. First up, there’s a commentary track with the filmmakers, Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and David Robertson. After that is a main making-of featurette, “The Whisperer Behind the Scenes,” forty-seven minutes; and nine shorter, technical featurettes, about 108 minutes. There is a good deal of repetition among these various featurettes, but they can be revealing in their way. Then, there are six deleted or extended scenes; a healthy twenty-eight scene selections; and four trailers, three for “Whisperer” and one for “The Call of Cthulhu.” English is the only spoken language available, and there are no subtitle options that I could find.
Of the many screen adaptions of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, the ones from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society are among the best you’ll find, although one wishes for a steadier tempo in “Whisperer” and a greater building of tension and suspense. Still, the atmospherics are in place, and the filmmakers catch the essence of Lovecraft’s expansive horror with efficiency. The film is genuinely entertaining without attaining greatness. The Wife-O-Meter thought “Whisperer” was a good Saturday-afternoon popcorn flick. Fair enough.