In many ways, the ‘30s was the decade of the classic horror film. Out of this era came such classics as Frankenstein, The Black Cat, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, White Zombie, and of course the incomparable Dracula – it’s also essential to note that many if not most of these films featured screen legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. As well, several of these films – based on great works of literature as they were – were among the first instances of Hollywood’s ever growing willingness to alter or even outright butcher original stories down to their base essentials for the sake of cinematic presentation. One need only watch Frankenstein for proof of how significantly the film deviates from Mary Shelley’s book, all in the name of producing a film that would be horrific yet entertaining to the audiences of the time.
In this day and age, it’s now common practice for movies to drastically alter the content of the books upon which they are based, changing endings, character names, or even the very nature of the stories for the sake of entertainment. The works of H.P. Lovecraft have not been spared from this mentality as such films as The Unnameable, From Beyond, Re-Animator, and The Resurrected have taken more than a few liberties with the source material with varied results. Purists have tended to decry this while others enjoy the films on their own merits and consider them a throughway for the uninitiated to become more familiar with the author and his writings.
You, The Whisperer in Darkness, offer a lovely compromise between the two modes of thinking, staying faithful to the essentials of the original story while adding your own indelible facets to make for a version worthy of not only Lovecraft but of the ‘30s horror film. Produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, whose 2005 silent film version of “The Call of Cthulhu” brought one of the most revered and reputedly impossible to film works of literature to the screen, you are faced with the singular challenge of how to present the story to the screen in a manner that is true to the author’s words while conforming to the conventions of cinema; especially cinema of the 1930’s. Given that “The Call of Cthulhu” was originally written in 1926, the producers embraced the idea of a silent film version that would be appropriate to the time period, so it only makes sense that with your original short story being written in 1930 you should be a “talkie” in a similarly contemporary style. Of course, the HPLHS accomplishes this not simply by way of the mechanics of the filmmaking but also in the manner in which the story is adapted.
The plot of your first two acts is more or less the same as the original short story, following folklorist Albert Wilmarth correspondance through letters with Henry Akeley, a hermit who claims to be hounded by otherworldly entities for reasons unknown to him. Eventually, Wilmarth pays a visit to Akeley at his Vermont home at his invitation and after noticing the marked change in his demeanor from fear of the creatures to embrace and praise, carrying on a conversation full of terrifying implications on the nature of the universe and the true intentions of the visitors, with an ending that was perhaps not as easy to predict in 1931 as it is now, although it is no less satisfying.
As a film, you do well to present the key elements of this plot without focusing on the menial details unbefitting of cinematic exposition. Of course, in doing so, you manage to run through the bulk of the original short story’s content long before you reach your end; and here is where you take an interesting turn that truly lives up to your sense of 1930’s style horror as the machinations of the alien race and their human collaborators unravel. Lovecraft and action are not the most comfortable of bedfellows, yet with the buildup of suspenseful chase sequences amid the creatures’ seemingly less than honorable plans evokes an atmosphere that suits the pulpy qualities of the author’s oeuvre.
Lovecraft has often been criticized for his lack of dynamic human characters, preferring to focus on the modes of conceptual horror and sci-fi. His stories are often chockfull of scholars and skeptics, men of science and detached logic whose only discernible emotions seem to be contempt and fear that leads to insanity at the realizations of the ultimate cosmic terrors they discover. While interesting in literature, this has perhaps lent to the statement that his works are “unfilmable.” As such, credit should be given to the HPLHS for adding a fair amount of plausible characters whose presence do well to add the human factor while also contributing to the flow of your narrative. The inclusion of the Miskatonic scholars and Charles Fort – an actual figure from history – lend to Wilmarth’s background, providing depth to his role as the smarmy yet cautious skeptic, while the presence of Akeley’s son George gives weight to the old hermit’s sense of fear of the unknown entities closing in on him, as well as giving him an even greater sense of loss as your third act begins. Your biggest character addition, the farmer’s daughter Hannah, adds the obligatory girl, which is practically unheard of in Lovecraft’s writings but almost always a necessity in any film for whatever reason. The filmmakers justified the addition of her role as a means to give Wilmarth something to be more invested in than just his own survival and interests, which makes sense given the action sequences of the third act and makes your twist conclusion all the more chilling. Without Hannah, Wilmarth’s critical decision would have come across as self serving, but because of her, we are given a delightful sneer of an ending that subtly plays on Lovecraft’s statements of humanity’s insignificance.
All in all, you stand as a fine example of how the Lovecraftian aesthetic can be made entertaining in film, staying true to the source and making changes appropriate to cinematic intrigue. While the CGI effects in your third act felt slightly out of place in some instances, they were achieved with respect to your overall ambiance striving for the look and feel of a 1930’s film, true to the HPLHS’ Mythoscopic process combining classic and modern techniques. Everything from the alien designs to the acting style, from the fantastic score from Troy Sterling Nies to the direction from Sean Branney, all the ingredients come together to make for an effective adaptation that pays reverence to H.P. Lovecraft and to the silver screen of the era.