Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Call of Cthulhu directed by Andrew Leman

Recently I was turned on to the 2005 adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu due to my interest in the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, HP Podcraft. Andrew Leman, who has the voice of an angel and should really become the Shaq of audio books, is a guest reader/Lovecraft expert on the podcast fairly frequently. (I get super bummed when someone else does the readings, sorry guest folks.)

Unbeknownst to me upon my first viewing, Leman's rendition of the Lovecraft tale is done in the style of a black and white, silent film. I loved this idea, first of all because I'm a huge silent film fan and second because these types of films were being made when Lovecraft was writing. So it made sense to me to adapt his writings to the style of film that it would have been done in had the filmmakers been Lovecraft's contemporaries.

Following in this post, I've got some things that could have been done to better mold the film to the style of the period as well as some things that Leman does extremely well. Before reading, I highly encourage you to watch the film first. With a run time of 47 minutes, it's not hard to sit through!

THE NUTS AND BOLTS

Before I get into some other things, I'd like to point out a few things that I think could have made the film better. These are not specific to Leman's film either; they are common hurdles filmmakers have to clear when attempting to make period films. (Films that look as if they were made in the period, not just set in them.) 

The first thing that I noticed right off the bat towards the beginning was that the lenses were too short. Shorter lenses are going to result in a wider range of view and typically when viewing old films we are used to a fixed, longer focal length simply because range in focal length was not the top priority or available resource for filmmakers. Also, wider lenses require curved glass to bend the field of view outward, which wasn't as easy to create or mass produce in the days of early silent film. Shorter focal lengths are very rare in the silent era and typically only occur on films with very large budgets. The variety in focal length unknowingly takes the viewer out of this era. Even if they have no technical knowledge of this, their eyes are accustomed to it.




In addition to this, quite a few of the opening shots have a depth of field that is too crushed. Old time cameras did not have this type of ability, therefore we are used to a very deep depth of field when viewing older films. Shallow depths of field are a newer tactic of cinema. On top of this, some of the shots lose that "natural vignette" look. The vignette feature is on all our retro photo editors because it's something that used to happen naturally on film, still or moving. Some of the shots have no vignette and some of them have too much. This lack of consistency draws the viewer's attention to the absence of vignetting in older frames.

Another error this film makes in copying an older style is the glow effect. Certainly a bit of a glow will happen naturally with filming and projection, but some of the shots are just a bit too overzealous with the effect. This results in a blown out area on the faces of subjects on screen. Typically, older cameras needed LOTS of light to capture a good image, so seeing an overexposed image in this style isn't very believable.



Something else that stuck out to me as out of place was the variation of shots used in the final edit. In a classic silent film shoot, the camera operator is not going to get four different angles of someone's dialogue. It's not part of the style yet and it's also incredibly expensive still. Leman's film has quite a bit of shot variation, which in today's era we would praise, but just isn't true to the period. I feel the same way about the abundant use of cross dissolves. As a stylistic choice for some of the detective, mystery coming together type scenes, I can get behind it. I just feel it was overused for such a short film.

I also would have considered using some grain or softening on the close up shots. Leman is using some pretty decent cameras, so I can see all the little pores of his actors. This makes for a beautiful shot, but not a very appropriate one. Softening up that shot will blur out some of the details an older camera would be unable to capture.


As a testament to his DP and camera operators, the pans, tilts, and rack focuses are just too smooth for the period equipment. That's the kind of talent you have to cover up when making a silent film era style B movie. Lastly, the subjects tends to stick out from the background a bit too much in multishots. During a shot with only one single character, this is acceptable and, indeed, preferred. Lighting technique, as it worked with cameras of the time, could achieve this look. However, lighting multiple characters in a shot and not having it look flat would be incredibly difficult. The depth of field is wide and the camera is not going to pick up the different planes as easily. On the particular shot I've chosen as this example, we can also see the glow effect causing some issues.


THE GOOD, THE GREAT, AND THE EVEN BETTER

All of that being said, there was a wealth of things this film got right. Indeed, I'm not going to have seen them all or written them all down in this blog. The first one I noticed, which prompted me to write the whole blog in the first place, was the tight shots for emphasis. We all know those cheesy shots that spoon feed us information to further the plot or lengthen a dull scene. Leman did this with ease, many times over, which really captured the endearing naivety of the era.



Other things that were subtle, but effective, were the text cards and iris vignettes. The iris in vignettes onto central information in certain shots was timed perfectly and the text/antiquity of the text cards felt very genuine.


There were some exceptions to this, such as the rolling in of the wheelchair towards the end, but for the most part the frame rate was just choppy enough to emulate that immature understanding of the science of the eye. The period costuming and architecture were also very consistent throughout the film. Adding to the effectiveness of these two elements, was the tight framing of most of the group shots. Since our eyes are expecting a longer lens, the framing will be forced to be tighter. The longer the lens, the less space you have in the frame. Leman did an excellent job of cramming in actors in a way that felt both appropriate and outrageous. (The shot below features a lens that may be too wide for the film, but the cramped blocking makes up for most of that warped feeling)




There was also a great deal of physical farce and faked difficulty keeping actors in the frame in the ending chase. This adds to the period feel of clumsiness, emulated by the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. 


There were also very believable canted angles, coupled with outstanding performer makeup. The silent film era was still using theatre style makeup techniques and had not yet been adapted to the up close and personal images of film. This makes the character's face contain deep contrast which would look normal from 20 feet away in a staged performance, but in a filmed performance looks dramatic and intense.





Actor direction was top notch throughout the film, as well as some various swift movements done in what seems to be a higher frame rate during frantic moments. I especially enjoyed the old style "Full Speed Ahead" maneuver in the ending chase.


By far the thing I was most impressed with, was the apparent ease that the dream world had in lighting and classic horror SFX. There were sequences that, coupled with the physical farce and actor direction, I would not have been able to tell were modern productions. They absolutely look like they could have been constructed by pioneer horror filmmakers on a sound stage.







Call of Cthulhu is definitely an indie cultist film worth a watch, which is not something you can say about most modern Lovecraft adaptations. It has most certainly made more room in my heart for Andrew Leman as well. There are always aspects of a film that could be made better, so mostly this was an exercise in asking myself how that would be done, but all in all I loved this film. It's refreshing to know that cultists are experimenting with films styles, even well into the new millennium.