Oct 15 – The Call of Cthulhu (2005): If The Call of Cthulhu came out in the 1920s, audiences would have freaked right the hell out. It would be heralded as a special effects extravaganza—a piece of cinema of remarkable importance. After all, this was a movie-going public that thought the KKK galloping to rescue oppressed white farmers was “like writing history with lightning,” a pretty easily impressed lot to say the least. So, you can imagine what they’d do if they saw a shifty-looking claymation monster tromping around throwing sailors left and right. Oh sure, there’s Max Schreck in Nosferatu to contend with, but that’s just a German guy with big, fake fingers, not some jacked looking tentacle-faced Hellfiend.
It’s too bad that the 2005 faux-silent film TheCall of Cthulhu really didn’t come out in the 1920s, because rather than being an exciting piece of cinema antiquity, what we have here is a novelty picture that’s passively interesting to a small niche of Lovecraft fans. While Lovecraft’s original story is renowned for being difficult, if not impossible to adapt to the screen, the folks at the HP Lovecraft Historical Society managed to succeed well enough. It juggles several narratives coherently and it’s technical aping of the era’s effects is an achievement in its own right. The problem, really, is that because of the story’s 20’s setting, and because of its faux-vintage sheen, it comes off looking far too much like King Kong for its own good—and, unfortunately, it loses a lot of the apocalyptic dread that propels Lovecraft’s work.
Oct 16 – Carnival of Souls (1962)
There’s a moment early on in Carnival of Souls that took me by surprise. Up to the point in question, the movie’s battered print; tinny, overdubbed dialogue; and its troupe of apparent amateur actors all gave the impression of watching public access at television at 3 in the morning, the kind of programming typically reserved for stoners and insomniacs. But occasional moments of artistry burst through the murk—with elegant camera movements to capture the lingering swirls of a current, and the distant whirl of a wandering organ on the score. As if out of nowhere this ultra-cheap B-movie just seems so … competent.
This potential comes to a head in a skin-crawler of a scene where the film’s protagonist, an emotionally stunted organist played by Candace Hilligoss, is driving along a lonesome Utah road and her radio suddenly begins to short out. As she scans for other stations, she finds that each one is playing the same haunting melody. Just as she reaches to switch off her radio, she begins experiencing visions of a ghastly face in her windows, causing her to lose control of the car and crash off the road. This isn’t the stuff of low rent horror—this is a well crafted, spooky scene. The remainder of the movie is a simple ghost story told with confidence and a tense sense of mood—no cheap shocks or pointless splatter in sight. And despite an ending that’s too heavily telegraphed, Carnival of Souls managed to be one of the best movies we’ve surveyed this month. Also, because the film lies in the public domain, you can watch it pretty much anywhere. Right now on Youtube, for instance:
Oct 17 – Dark Shadows TV Series (1966)
Okay, full disclosure. I probably didn’t watch enough of ABC’s long-running gothic soap opera Dark Shadows to get a solid grasp on the series as a whole. It is, after all, over 1,200 episodes long. So, you’ll have to forgive me that I only covered about 0.25% of the series and then called it a day. Still, despite my limited exposure, I was able to gain a fairly solid (I guess) idea of what to expect from future episodes. From the outset, Dark Shadows clearly has pretty severe budgetary concerns, sets are sparsely designed and seem to be about paper thin, there are boom mics and camera shadows every which way, and most of the action takes place right in the main foyer.
When compared to the serialized horror of today, like True Blood, The Gates, and about 10 million others, Dark Shadows takes its jolly good time getting going. For being as short as they are (21 minutes), the episodes are in dire lack of actual things happening. It’s kind of like that old Simpsons adage of Poochie and the fireworks factory--enough with the talk already, make with the vampires! The series’ vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) doesn’t hit the screen until the third episode, and even then the show seems to be struggling to gain any sort of traction. Still, even in the first handful of episodes, the show’s charms slowly started to reveal themselves. Collins is a character of remarkable charm, a paradigm vampiric charisma in the traditional sense, but compared to him the rest of the cast comes across as dry and lifeless.
Gothic novels are works of deliberate pacing. The supernatural creeps into these stories like an icy hand creeping slowly up your spine. So when watching a show whose aim is to capture the feel of a classic gothic novel, to complain that takes too much time to get going does seem, admittedly, a bit daft on my part. So, had I the time to slog through an entire story arc of the series, my opinion on it would probably improve.
Tomorrow: Three tales of horror from Mario Bava in Black Sabbath
Photo Credits: H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, 2005; ABC, 1966