Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
I sometimes wonder why the best film adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s body of work—a corpus consisting of short stories and novellas written largely in the late 1920s and early 30s that has defined an entire subgenre of horror and influenced the likes of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman—is a short, faux-silent film made by a bunch of dudes who aren’t professional filmmakers. I am referring to the first movie I discussed in this series, The Call of Cthulhu (2005), which was directed by Andrew Leman for the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which as far as I can tell—and I mean this lovingly—consists of a bunch of nerds who dedicate their free time to something they’re passionate about. The Call of Cthulhu adapted the story of the same name pretty well, hit the mood of fun silent monster flicks (not necessarily major works like Nosferatu, but enjoyable old-school movies), and made good use of the small budget. Maybe it didn’t instill terror in viewers, which Lovecraft’s stories might not do for most modern audiences anyway, but it knew what it was and achieved its goals. I can’t say the same for most of the other adaptations I’ve looked at.
So, naturally, I was excited to watch The Whisperer in Darkness (2011), the most recent HPLHS movie, this time directed by Sean Branney. The intended style has jumped forward a decade, trying to capture the feel of early “talky” horror movies like King Kong and Frankenstein. Unfortunately, with the new direction and added dimensions to the story-telling—not to mention a runtime that is over double that of The Call of Cthulhu—a slew of new challenges have come up but not been overcome by the filmmakers, creating an adaptation that is both intriguing and lacking.
The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
Plot: Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer), a scholar of folklore at Miskatonic University, is intrigued by recent reports of alien creatures in the crazy wilderness of Vermont. He is especially intrigued by letters from a man named Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), a farmer who claims that these creatures are attacking him and his home. Wilmarth arranges a visit but finds that things are rather amiss on the Akeley farm. Further, the presence of the strange creatures, a species known as the Mi-Go, might have terrible implications for humanity.
I guess the Mi-Go are as good a place to start as any. First off, they are creepy little buggers, especially in the story. They’re clever, powerful, and tricky, with a technological prowess that endangers all of mankind. That being said, they do not make for good 30s style monsters. While Cthulhu fits perfectly for a 20s silent monster flick, the Mi-Go are not as impactful as, say, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or Kong. They don’t have a strong screen-presence by nature of the story, and their place in the story is periphery. The style of the movie indicates that they’ll be a terrible, growing presence, but ultimately they appear and don’t seem all that frightening or impactful.
Even the baddies of 1950s sci-fi flicks—this movie’s other major influence—surpass the Mi-Go in daunting presence and looming terror. While that type of movie does have an influence here—seen most succesfully in the top-notch tech props—it is largely superficial, as is the influence of 1930s monster movies. Some visual signifiers are there, but no deeper understanding or even consistently superficial understanding is present, and thus the attempted relationships are unwarranted.
That might not sound fair—basing expectations of the movie on other ones—but the entire point of this style is to invoke those films. Why do so if you have no intentions of working within that framework, or capturing what made those films great? In The Call of Cthulhu—which I’m referencing not only because it is the precursor but also because it had similar goals and managed them well—Leman and everyone else fully invested in the style of silent films, which made any weaknesses or budget constraints forgivable. Getting lost in the style was easy because the film didn’t break character, so to speak. But The Whisperer in Darkness seems to only want to fit into that style when they need to save some money or hide the small budget.
I understand that this is more or less a high-quality fan film, and I respect the work that they all put into it, but attempting to make it fit a certain aesthetic while ignoring almost all redeeming factors of that style is misleading and can’t lead anywhere but disappointment. The contrast of modern methods of storytelling—including overly “gritty” scenes like SPOILER a father shooting himself and blood spattering on his young daughter END SPOILER—and merely passable animation with a classic style misses the strong points of both aspects and instead reveals their weaknesses.
I think that the filmmakers might have benefited from looking at the movies that influenced them in deeper ways. Oft-quoted guest columnist (and witty friend) Will Standish pointed out to me that if the filmmakers of The Whisperer in Darkness had adhered to that style, they would have had curt, pointed dialogue; a steady rhythm; and well-paced sequences containing only the necessary details and characters. Instead, Whisperer has a surprising number of characters early on that seem to know more than they let on or give off malevolent vibes, but end up having zero impact on the story. Why are they there? What do they add?
Apparently, they were developed by Leman and Branney in the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. While that certainly reveals why such seemingly important characters exist without much purpose, it also reveals a lack of comprehension in regard to storytelling necessities. To reference Will again, this would be like Peter Jackson incorporating a D&D character into the Hobbit. Imagine if the dwarves and Bilbo were inexplicably joined by Skull-Rash the Ball Crusher? The addition would be not just pointless but confusing, and thus are these characters in Whisperer.
Moreover, there is an additional subplot concerning Wilmarth’s family that ties into a new character, a little girl named Hannah. While the actress, Autumn Wendel, provides one of the most emotive and solid performances of the entire movie, her presence isn’t necessary. She provides another motivation for Wilmarth’s actions later on, but they already have sufficient rationale: fear and survival. I admire the attempt, but it’s superfluous. The development doesn’t occur throughout most of the movie, making the payoff negligible. There is no further identification with 1930s or 50s movies, revelation of the story being adapted, or insight into Wilmarth’s character and motivations. If Branney were married to the idea, he and the other screenwriter, Leman, would have done well to make it a more important part of Wilmarth’s story throughout, rather than a single pan over a picture of Wilmarth’s late daughter.
All of that being said, though, I do not mean to imply that The Whisperer in Darkness is a terrible, unwatchable movie. In fact, it’s possibly better than many of the other ones I’ve reviewed in this series. The filmmaking, although amateurish, is competent. The story is adapted effectively enough, meeting most of the plot points of Lovecraft’s story, even if it never quite matches the eerie atmosphere besides a couple of scenes of dialogue between Wilmarth and Akeley. A faithful reworking of the plot is certainly unusual for Lovecraft movies. And for what is at heart a fan-film, the amount of fun you can imagine everyone having does count for something, since most people checking this movie out are likely to be Lovecraft nerds themselves.
Maybe my expectations were too high based on The Call of Cthulhu. And I am, to some extent, filtering my viewing of Whisperer through that, because in less time that movie managed to cover the story more effectively and maintain a consistent rhythm and style that made for an exciting and fun viewing experience. The low-budget aspects are effectively masked by the dedication to an idea, and Whisperer attempts to do something similar but cannot make up its mind. Mix that in with a script that lacks economy of dialogue and utilization of time spent in-scene, and ultimately you have something that can’t reach beyond its limitations in the same way that its predecessor did.
And above all of this, ignoring the stylistic quibbles, I could forgive everything if I thought that Lovecraft’s themes and evocations were properly captured. But the half-hearted attempt to make a 30s monster movie takes away the quiet creepiness of the original story, and while it seems fun, it is not a serious take on what is meant to be a serious story. I would suggest either going all out on the creepiness, or on the poignant but fun and engaging stylized movies that it attempts to match. Going halfway between them means that neither are well-met. That’s unfortunate, too, because—while Whisperer in Darkness has its moments—it ultimately falls outside of the realm of great adaptations like The Call of Cthulhu and into the slew of forgettable ones.
I respect the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society enormously for their efforts, but cannot applaud them, and indeed am perplexed by the extent to which they don’t hit the thematic or atmospheric notes of Lovecraft’s work. There are a lot of takes on Lovecraft’s stories, but almost no good adaptations of Lovecraft. The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society would do well to use what I assume is a vast knowledge-base and understanding of the material in order to make something that stands out, instead of something that floats amidst the pack like The Whisperer in Darkness.