Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Whisperer in Darkness [dir. Sean Branney]

Putting aside my view of the movie itself for a bit, The Whisperer in Darkness (WiD) is a wonderful example of independent film-making. It has been produced not by some major league studio with millions of dollars to burn, but by the fine folks at the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), a group that has turned their love for the writer and his works into a lovely little cottage industry catering specifically to the fans of Old Providence. They made their first big splash with their 2005 film of The Call of Cthulhu (CoC). Cinematic adaptations of HPL's stories are not uncommon (although good ones certainly are), but what this group specializes in is developing projects that set the stories in the time they were written. So CoC was presented as a 1920's style B&W silent film with animation and visual FX techniques that might conceivably have been employed in that period, even a faux aging effect given to the image to make it appear like a long forgotten relic of that era. This was an experiment that turned out incredibly well, especially given that few of the people involved had long-time experience in movie-making. They have also turned out some very effective radio play adaptations of HPL stories under the Dark Adventure Radio Theater label. (All of this material and several other interesting collectibles may be obtained from their website When I first heard that they had embarked on this new project, which would be done in the style of early talkies I was understandably excited, even though I had not by then read the original story.

Having since rectified that deficiency (and you can too, read the FREE e-text here), I can say that this film is a good adaptation of the story. Lovecraft's prose is not exactly friendly to developing movie scripts. A lot of his narratives are essentially monologues or descriptions, and feature very little character interaction, emotional variation or, heavens, action in the conventional sense of the term. The best HPL film adaptations try their best to work around these difficulties without defiling the spirit of the source material, and the WiD film is to be complimented on having *mostly* succeeded. The film has atmosphere, yes. The characters are very much in the mold of Lovecraft's prose, the script for a good way sticks to the events of the story, the production design is sometimes astounding for the film's roots (love that vintage train and those retro-futuristic electronics) and the deep contrast B&W compositions are strikingly good (the inkiness of the blacks is so good it's almost hard to believe this was shot digitally). The background score is wonderfully reminiscent of those old Universal horror films.

Where things fall a little apart is when the film tries to do its own thing. Now I'm not advocating slavish devotion to the source, far from it, but it attempts to introduce some action-heavy sequences and conventional character relationships towards the end, which detract from the tone of the story till that moment and are not the strong point of the production. Also, the move from silent to talkie exposes the stagey performances of some of the supporting actors. Yes, some of those classic horrors also had hokey acting but the problem here is that WiD does not go as far enough as CoC did to give us the “vintage” experience. The image is widescreen, as befitting more modern productions (am I a hypocrite for being simultaneously gratified that it fills my 16:9 viewing screen?), and it's pristine scratch and grain-free surface also reminds us that we're watching a contemporary effort. If you're a Lovecraft fan and liked the film of CoC, you definitely owe it to yourself to see WiD because it is made with ample knowledge of and affection for its source material, and has enough good moments to make it worthwhile. That said, I still rank its predecessor higher.

No comments:

Post a Comment