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HomeCraftsThe Call of Cthulhu: Back to the Past

The Call of Cthulhu: Back to the Past

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H.P. Lovecraft is renowned for his atmospheric tales of gothic horrorpublished in the pulp magazines of his time. His celebrated story TheCall of Cthulhu, written in 1926, is a stylized yarn filled withnightmares, fear and madness. A professor’s deathbed bequest sets hisnephew (Matt Foyer) on a global search to unravel an ancient cult andthe supernatural horrors lurking just beneath the fringe of awareness.Writer/producer Sean Branney and director/producer Andrew Leman,cofounders of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, have created anentertaining and faithful adaptation of the chronicle for the silverscreen. Says Leman, “A lot of Lovecraft adaptations have been made andin our opinion have not been particularly successful because they tendto introduce a lot of stuff that’s not in the story and don’t payenough attention to what’s in the story.”To keep the film authentic to the time period, as well as to keep thesense of atmosphere in which the story was written, the filmmakerschose to make it in the style of a classic 1920s black and white silentfilm, relying on action, visuals and music to appeal directly toviewers’ emotions. They looked to period films such as Nosferatu, TheCabinet of Dr. Caligari, Faust and Metropolis for inspiration. And theyused a mixture of modern and vintage techniques to achieve the desiredeffect.Cinematographer and editor David Robertson is largely responsible forpulling off the vintage style of the film, developing his own techniquefor transforming mini DV color video footage into the look of old,grainy and scratched black and white film stock. Robertson started bylighting the film with super-high-contrast—really dark blacks andbright whites. He then used a mixture of techniques—including compositelayering, filtering, transparency modifications and an aged filmeffect—to create the period replication that the filmmakers decided tocall “Mythoscope.”As much as they possibly could, the filmmakers used traditionaltheatrical and special effects techniques that could have been used in1926. Puppetry and stop-motion animation brought the monster Cthulhu tolife. Digital compositing was employed, but there is no digitalanimation of any sort in the film. The filmmakers even borrowed tricksfrom swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks movies; a stylized sea, createdfrom moving fabric was used for the difficult scenes of the shipsailing the ocean.All of Wilcox’s (Chad Fifer) dreams were created with forcedperspective on miniature sets. The miniature alley was a multilayerminiature done on flat panels with a huge sky backdrop behind it thathad a hole in it. The actor was really about 30 feet away in a parkinglot. A two-by-four was put on a sawhorse; Robertson put the camera onthe end of the board and then pulled back through the miniature so thatWilcox got smaller and the city got bigger.There were also many in-camera, smoke and mirror effects. Ahalf-silvered mirror was used to catch the reflection of the actorstanding off camera. Robertson shot the actor’s reflection on themirror, which they were also shooting through to see the set. “We useddouble fraction techniques as much as possible,” explains Leman.Although the visuals were vintage, editing was done at a contemporarypace to appeal to the current sensibilities.The 47-minute film was in production for over 18 months. It has a castof more than 50 and was shot in over 40 locations. Due to very limitedresources, scenes were shot in available locations, including thebackyards and homes of friends and family. Scrap wood and cardboardwere used to construct both full-size and miniature sets. “We had to gobit-by-bit,” explains Leman. “We would build a set. Shoot it. Tear itdown. Take six weeks to build the next set. Shoot it. Tear it down. Ourcast was on the hook for a ridiculously long amount of time. I knowthat they had problems maintaining a look for 18 months.”Rounding out the classic style of the film is a haunting symphonicscore, by Troy Sterling Nise, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic and ChadFifer. Each composer connected his individual contribution to theoverall musical composition with the use of common themes. One of thegreatest challenges for the composers was tweaking theircomputer-generated orchestrations—a budgetary necessity—to sound likethe live instruments that would have been used at the time.The Call of Cthulhu premiered at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival inPortland, Oregon, winning the audience award for Best of Show and thejury award as Best Short Film. It has subsequently been making thefestival rounds, including screenings at the 2006 Slamdance FilmFestival. The film is available on DVD through the HPLHS website atwww.cthulhulives.org. Additional DVD features includebehind-the-scenes-footage, interviews, slide shows and deleted scenes.The score is presented in both a high-fidelity version and an agedversion that captures the feel of an old phonograph record. Because thefilm is silent, it was easy for the filmmakers to have it translatedinto 24 languages, including Luxembourgish, Euskera and Galician. And,say the filmmakers, if you think the Lovecraft story is frightening,wait until you see it in Welsh!

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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