Thursday, March 1, 2012

REVIEW: The Whisperer in Darkness

Even with all of its divergences from its source text -- some forgivable, some not -- The Whisperer in Darkness is still one of the best movies directly based on an H.P. Lovecraft story ever made. Its competition in this area is both small and not especially praiseworthy, but I mean this most sincerely as a compliment. I can't count how often I've heard it claimed, generally by people only passingly familiar with his work, that Lovecraft is "unfilmable." Despite that, the good folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have succeeded not once but twice in adapting a Lovecraft story to film. Of the two adaptations, I think the 2005 silent film version of The Call of Cthulhu is the greater success, both in terms of fidelity to its literary source and in finding a medium almost perfectly suited to it, but The Whisperer in Darkness is nevertheless noteworthy, if only as a reminder that, in the 21st century, dedicated fans now have the tools to do what Hollywood has either forgotten or, more likely, no longer cares to do: understand classic literature as more than just an IP mine for the creation of its next soulless blockbuster.

The Whisperer in Darkness is a 104-minute long adaptation of Lovecraft's 1931 short story of the same name. The story concerns the investigations of a Miskatonic University professor named Albert Wilmarth into strange events occurring in backwoods Vermont. These events come to Wilmarth's attention in part because of letters he receives from a man living in Vermont, Henry Akeley. Akeley explains that the remote hills of Vermont are home to an extraterrestrial race with sinister intentions and that it is they who are behind the recent oddities. Wilmarth, a skeptic, dismisses Akeley's claims out of hand at first, only to second guess himself after more letters arrive from Akeley, some of them providing proof, such as a phonograph recording of the aliens speaking. Later, Akeley seems to change his mind, claiming that his initial fears had been unjustified. He urges Wilmarth to visit him and to bring with him all their correspondence, especially the phonograph recording he sent to him. Intrigued by the sudden change, Wilmarth heads to Vermont and there, bit by bit, learns the truth.

Like many Lovecraft stories, "The Whisperer in Darkness" has two "problems." The first is that much of its "action" takes place in the form of letters between Wilmarth and Akeley. The movie deals with this by introducing several new characters, as well as beefing up the role of Akeley's son, George (who's only mentioned offhandedly in the short story), so as to make them rather than letters the conduits through which much of the exposition is conveyed. It's a perfectly reasonable approach and one that (largely) didn't bother me, because it didn't affect the flow of the story itself. Indeed, this approach facilitated the story. The second issue with many Lovecraft stories is that they quite often present only the first two acts of what would seem to be a three-act drama. Lovecraft's stories frequently end just as their protagonists make some startling, mind-blowing discovery, leaving what happens next entirely to the reader. The filmmakers decided that this would be unsatisfying in translation to cinema and so invented a third act of their own.

It's this third act where I think The Whisperer in Darkness falls down and not merely because it introduces original material. With the third act, the entire tone of the film shifts. Whereas the first hour or so is moody and tense, as Wilmarth's skepticism slowly erodes in the face of evidence even he cannot deny, the last three-quarters of an hour feel much more like an adventure film -- or a Call of Cthulhu adventure. That's perhaps not surprising as the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has its origins in a Colorado gaming group (and several new characters are named for old CoC investigators from their campaigns), but, even so, the shift is a obvious and jarring. It's as if The Whisperer in Darkness is two different movies stitched together rather than a single, seamless whole.

Now, the argument could be made -- and, indeed, should be made -- that, just as their previous The Call of Cthulhu mimicked the conventions of silent movies in adapting its source material, so too does The Whisperer in Darkness mimic the conventions of horror movies from the era in which Lovecraft wrote his tale. Remember that, in 1931, the year the short story was published in the pages of Weird Tales, Universal Studios released both Dracula and Frankenstein. Viewed in that context, I think The Whisperer in Darkness holds up quite well, though I can't deny that this nevertheless irks me slightly. The first hour of the movie is so good and so true to the content and spirit of Lovecraft that the last 45 minutes seem that much worse in comparison. They're not worse, but they are different and not, in my opinion, particularly Lovecraftian.

All that said, The Whisperer in Darkness is an amazing piece of work, all the moreso because it was done on a limited budget by talented amateurs and semi-professionals. The decision to film in the style of a 1930s black and white film is a brilliant one, not only grounding the film in the era of its inspiration but also solving certain technical problems that might have been intractable had its creators opted for a more modern look. The acting is generally very good, particularly the two leads, Matt Foyer (Wilmarth) and Barry Lynch (Akeley), both of whose performances make what could otherwise have been a shlocky B-movie work. The cinematography is also quite good and gives one a real sense of place, something that I think is vital to any Lovecraft adaptation that strives to be true to its source material. My only real technical complaint about the movie is its use of computer graphics to depict the Outer Ones/Fungi from Yuggoth. Not only is such technology out of place in what is otherwise a film striving for 1930s authenticity but I didn't find the aliens all that convincing in any case. I think a lower-tech solution (which was used in some scenes) would have been better and that the decision to go for CGI was necessitated by the "need" for an original third act that upped the dramatic stakes beyond HPL's original.

In the end, I judge The Whisperer in Darkness a qualified success, where the filmmakers' reach exceeded their grasp. I fully understand why they made the changes they did and might well have been tempted to make them myself were I in their shoes, but the fact remains that the additions are noticeably weaker than the original material and that brings the whole movie down somewhat in my estimation. As I said at the start of this review, though, even with all the issues I take with it, The Whisperer in Darkness is an amazing piece of work and one of the best adaptations of an H.P. Lovecraft story to film ever made. I'm frankly astounded that it's as good as it is, though I shouldn't be, given the obvious love for and knowledge of Lovecraft that its producers have demonstrated time and again. I sincerely hope they'll one day make another adaptation -- The Shadow over Innsmouth would be my pick -- because goodness knows I'd like to see it.

15 comments:

  1. While I would not call it "unfilmable" (see unfilmable.com for a great database of HPL inspired movies, btw) Lovecrafts works does often present challenges that regular film makers either fear or just don't want to deal with and so choose an easier route, allowing oftentimes for an inferior product. I think that this is the real attraction of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival- if you can film a Lovecraft story adequately you can probably film anything else quite well. It means that you can convey contrasting emotions, know what looks good, wrong, and how to captivate an audience to face something they may never have considered before. I have long thought that HPL in film is a great proving ground for the budding film maker.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh and obligatory linkys:

    http://hplfilmfestival.com/
    http://unfilmable.blogspot.com/p/filmus-mysteriis.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've heard about this before through the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast. It's decent, so check it out if you haven't.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for the review! I recently received this film, and am saving it for a 'movie night' with some friends in a few weeks. I'm grateful for the warning about the new third act.

    I agree that The Shadow Over Insmouth would make for a good film. And it wouldn't require the addition of a 'third act'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of The Earth, while having some flaws in gameplay, was an incredibly cinematic experience in and around Innsmouth. It really captured the feel. They only need look to that for a good idea of what they could do with an HP property.

      Delete
  5. I'm looking forward to the movie, although one of my problems with The Whisperer in Darkness is that it largely relies on the characters acting foolishly in order to keep progressing. It's entertaining but not among Lovecraft's top works, IMO.

    I'd love a really faithful Shadow Over Innsmouth adaptation. I wonder if these filmmakers shied away from it because Stuart Gordon's Dagon is basically an adaptation of it and is only a few years old? Dagon was okay but I think the HPLHS could do better.

    ReplyDelete
  6. James,

    I don't know if you've seen the movie Dagon, but it's essentially a transplanted version of The Shadow over Inssmouth. "Transplanted" meaning, it's set not in Innsmouth, but in a Spanish coastal town (Spanish film financiers), and there's a love interest to motivate the protagonist. In the middle of the movie, though, is a pretty good retelling of Innsmouth, although I could hardly call it a purist's delight.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have also described the movie as something that feels like a Call of Cthulhu adventure, which is one way to think about the adaptation. As a CoC adventure, it works - and the central antagonist, in his persona and mode of speech, is perfect, even if at odds with the original story.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I largely agree with your review, except regarding the Act III; I think it was a necessary addition and improved the story, providing (for me) a satisfying payoff to the moody build-up. Of course, I was expecting a Universal-style horror film "based on Lovecraft," rather than total fidelity to HPL, so perhaps this is a difference in expectations.

    FWIW, I wrote my own review here: http://is.gd/w3nwkd .

    Regarding the CGI, I think they discussed this in the extras, but I can't recall what they said was the reason for using it. (And the extras are well-worth watching.)

    And, oh yes, I hope they do Innsmouth next. I'm confident they'll do a great job.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I wonder what the odds are this could ever end up on Netflix? Though curious, I doubt it is something I would watch more than once (or foist on friends or girlfriend to watch one night).

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Brunomac:

    I think their version of Call of Cthulhu is (or at least was) on Netflix...

    ReplyDelete
  11. I didn't object to the third act (it was necessary) or the use of CGI (the filmmakers explained at the HPL Film Fest that CGI was the only option financially -- they tried to give the models an older, maquette-like appearance, with mixed results). I did think they missed an opportunity at the end of the film by presenting the migo as monsters rather than as cold, calculating aliens. But that's really just a quibble over what is otherwise an excellent film and one of the best HPL adaptations.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The HPLHS *has* done an adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"... it just happens to be an Audio Drama and not a movie. They've said in interviews in the past they probably won't turn their AD into films.

    See link below for the CD.

    http://www.cthulhulives.org/store/storeDetailPages/dart-soi-cd.html

    ReplyDelete
  13. I saw this a couple weeks ago on the big screen at a film festival. I share many of your views on the film, positive and negative. My theory on the final 45 minutes, the abrupt change in tone, and the divergent ending from the story is that Wilmarth was actually captured by the Mi-Go in Akeley's house. He never escaped, he never went on to lead a daring attack on their mountain hideout, he never flew the airplane with the little girl, and so forth. These are all just fantasies and dreams he has created after his brain was excised, placed in a canister, and brain-washed by the Mi-Go.

    A couple more points. I thought the visuals for the Mi-Go were interesting...not exactly as I would have wanted, but interesting. I haven't quite made up my mind if I like the fact that they are depicted as cyborgs or not. I would have really liked to have had much of the content of Akeley's letters shown. There was a genuine sense of menace in those letters: one man holding out against the aliens, in the dark, alone in his house with just the police dogs to protect him. And he faced very real danger every time he traveled down those remote country lanes just to send a letter or package to Wilmarth. All that could have been depicted in the film, though maybe their budget would have made these scenes cost-prohibitive, I don't know.

    All in all, it was good, though I liked what they did with Call of Cthulhu better.

    ReplyDelete
  14. back in about 2002-2003 i was watching the tv was on while i read the latest wheel of time book and i noticed a scene while i was channel-surfing that was familiar, it took a few minutes but i realised i was watching a version of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward which was the first HPL i'd ever read(on a dreary and dismal late afternoon alone in the house and with a possible cyclone looming of the northeastern coast of oz). the film was The Ressurected and starred Eric Roberts as Ward and his necromantic ancestor and was an extremely good adaptation of the novella but i haven't been able to find it since and neither have a few friends or my brother who are better at net=searching than i am. i would recommend it to any HPL fan as worth watching on a dark and quiet night

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.