Monday, January 26, 2015

Microreview [film]: The Whisperer in Darkness

Almost (but ever so slightly not) as wonderful as its predecessor

Film adaptations of Lovecraft are almost universally terrible. Until I watched the special features on the second disc of The Whisperer in Darkness (totally worth the purchase price), I never really had a clear idea as to why. But very astutely, writer/director Sean Branney and co-writer Andrew Leman pointed out in a behind-the-scenes featurette that the eponymous story this film was based on was really only the first two acts of what needed to be three acts in order to make a complete film. Most Lovecraft stories, they said, left off the third act to which they were building. That wily Lovecraft — giving you a beginning, a middle, and leaving the end to your imagination so he'd never get caught writing The Matrix: Revolutions. Maybe that's the real heart of why so many of the films have been terrible — filmmakers either had to scrap everything but some basic idea of the story and then build something entirely new, or invent a third act based on what Lovecraft only hinted at in his actual story.

Branney and Leman decided to go with the latter approach. They fleshed out the characters, built out the world a little, but tried to stay pretty true to the source material for about an hour. After that, it was off to the races with new material to bring the whole thing to a satisfying close. The result is as good a Lovecraft film as you're likely to see...unless you see these guys' earlier version of The Call of Cthulhu (which was one of the first film reviews I wrote for this site).

The Whisperer in Darkness centers on a folklorist and skeptic named Albert Wilmarth who gets invited to a remote Vermont farm by Henry Akeley and his son George to investigate the Akeleys' claims that terrible crab creatures were washed up in a flood and began slinking about the woods. Now I'll admit I had the "crab pe-pole, crab pe-pole" chant from the "South Park is Gay" episode of South Park stuck in my head for the rest of the movie, but that says more about me than it does about the movie. When Wilmarth arrives at Henry's farm, Henry informs him that he had been wrong to fear the crab people, and they were actually benevolent travelers from outer space that were going to open a portal to a select few humans and allow them to travel among the stars with them, in the form of disembodied heads existing in steampunk electrical jars...but Wilmarth smells a rat. If you're not already getting all tingly because of that sentence, I'm afraid there's no hope for you. 

This film was created by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which tries to create films as they may have been if Lovecraft's stories had been adapted at the time of their initial publication. So The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1926, was made as a silent film, with stop-motion effects and German Expressionistic lighting and set design. The Whisperer in Darkness was written in the 1930s, so the film is a black-and-white, creepy thriller in the vein of a Universal monster movie, made with miniatures and dramatic, high-contrast lighting, a mid-Atlantic accent or two, and a lot of suggestion. It mixes in some 21st century digital technology, too, sometimes for good and other times less so. On balance, it feels slightly less engrossing than Cthulhu in part because it's less foreign to present sensibilities, but it shares a wonderful sense of immersion in Lovecraft's world, despite the feeling that it could've been a bit shorter and all the more improved for that leaner narrative.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for doing just a hell of a job on an effect- and atmosphere-heavy film made using severely limited resources; +1 for the head-in-a-jar effect, which must've been some badass Frankenstein dream-come-true for the filmmakers to shoot; +1 for a real 1-2 punch of an ending

Penalties: -1 for playing the same dramatic moments too many times as the film pushed toward the finish line

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10. The dread lord Cthulhu would find it a worthy offering.