Friday, October 03, 2008

Son of Silent Scream Series: Calamari gods from since before time and space and stuff.

For this final entry in ANTSS's second annual series on silent shockers, I'm throwing you, dear screamers and screamettes, a curve: The Call of Cthulhu, a feature-length silent flick shot in 2005 under the auspices of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Here I was going to bust out the trailer for this flick, because it is so rare to have a trailer for a silent flick that I thought it would be a novelty. But, it occurred to me that it might not be obvious why there are so few trailers for silent era flicks. So, if you'll forgive the tangent, a short explanation of the role of trailers in the silent era:

Many claim that the first trailer ever shown was screened in 1912 at a showing of an episode of action/romance serial "The Adventures of Kathryn." The trailer appeared at the end of the film – as did most trailers in the early years of film, which is why they're still called trailers even though they appear before the film. The trailer was produced by the New York exhibitor showing the film, not the film studio that produced the serial. It consisted of two title cards, the first asking viewers if Kathryn could possibly escape the den of lions she was trapped in. The second told viewers that the answer to that burning question would be answered in the next episode of the serial. (She did.)

The first trailers were mostly homemade title cards. The exhibitors didn't have copies of the films until it was time to show them and they couldn't very well cut up the copies they got. Some historian claim that exhibitors would preview flicks by running the first, and only the first, reel of new films for potential ticket buyers, though how common this was is unclear.

Studios got into the act in 1916. Paramount was the first studio to create a trailer and other studios quickly followed suit. However, because production schedules were insanely tight in the silent era (an individual director might shoot a dozen or more films a year) and footage wouldn't be available in time to cut a trailer, most trailers were slideshows made from production stills. Before the end of the decade, there were enough trailers being made that independent trailer-production companies actually appeared in NYC.

In 1919, three Madison Avenue advertising men formed the National Screen Service, a company that would cut and distribute trailers in exchange for early access to footage. The NSS made money by renting the trailers to exhibitors. Slowly, as NSS obtained contracts throughout the biz, film trailers replaced slide shows. From the late 1920s to the 1970s, NSS was the dominant producer of trailers in the US.

So, that's why trailers for the silent era are rare – there's really only a few years in there when film trailers, rather than ad hoc slideshows, were being made. Studios didn't make them, so they weren't archived. Because exhibitors rented them, they were returned to NSS after they had served their purpose and were therefore unlikely to trickle into a secondary collectors market the way, say, lobby cards did.

And now you know.

Back to Cthulhu. Here's the trailer:

When the HPLHS decided to pool their talents into making a film adaptation of one of Lovecraft's most famous – and least adapted – works, they hit on a truly brilliant concept. Instead of simply shooting a modern adaptation, or even a period piece, they would shoot the film that would have happened had some enterprising studio picked up Lovecraft's story when it was published in 1928. The results are made of awesome.

Plot-wise, the film is extremely faithful to the source text. In fact, Cthulhu might be the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation ever made. The story begins with the now insane Francis relating the discoveries he made in the manuscripts and files of his deceased Uncle George, a professor of Semitic Language at Brown University. Francis relates three major narrative threads culled from the files.

First, viewers get the story of an art student named Wilcox. For nearly a month, Wilcox existed in a delirious sleep-like state. During this time, he was haunted by terrible dreams. Worse, when Wilcox dreamed, his fevered mania seeped into the world: riots and mad outbreaks of random violence occur in various cities around the world. When Wilcox finally roused himself from his nightmares, he created a carving of the vision he saw – a monstrous, tentacled creature called Cthulhu.

The next tale involves a New Orleans police inspector who traces a series of kidnappings and murders to a cannibal cult that hides in the depths of the Louisiana swamps and makes blood sacrifices to unknown gods.

Finally, the third tale involves a ship's crew that discovers and uncharted island that, somewhat predictably, is not much a tropical getaway. Upon landing, the crew discovers an abandoned and rotting ancient city. As they explore the ruins, they unintentionally revive Cthulhu, a squid-headed monster god with little to no sense of hospitality.

With the exception of a few scenes, a viewer could easily mistake this for a genuine product of the silent era. The decision to shoot it as if it were made in 1928 could have simply been used as a clever way to turn technical limitations into period-appropriate details; but the cast and crew actually go all out, drawing inspiration from silent era films. The alien city of Wilcox's dreams and the ruins the sailors of the Alert discover come straight from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Metropolis, and Waxworks. The original score, with instrument produced sound effects, is great (better than many of the soundtracks that have been grafted onto silent restorations by various DVD production houses). The acting incorporates the theatrical flare modern viewers equate with silent era films without lapsing into parody.

Call of Cthulhu is a great Lovecraft adaptation, a testament to the creative possibilities of film as an outsider art, and a wonderful love letter to the innovative geniuses of the silent era. Good stuff.


AndyDecker said...

As a Lovecraft fan I had to buy this. And this is so great. More fun than a lot of big budget movies.

spacejack said...

Ha, I read up to the trailer, somehow missing the "shot in 2005" part. I ended up watching it under the impression it was from 1928. I was actually pretty convinced through a lot of it, until the soundtrack started sounding a bit too modern, the film looked a bit too sharp and finally some dude's hair just looked too fluffy.

But anyway, that's pretty impressive. Who knew there might be a future in silent film acting?

Speaking of using modern soundtracks on old films, I think Metropolis has been abused more than once. But it was mostly because of the 80s version that I first saw the film.

Shon Richards said...

It's a really great movie. The scene with the crazed worshipers in the woods is creepy and the time when someone falls through an angle is just perfect. I've shown this movie to people who would never pick up a Lovecraft book and it is universally loved.

Anonymous said...

As a Lovecraft fan I had to buy this.