Monday, February 10, 2014


Sean Branney's adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story is the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society's follow up to The Call of Cthulhu (2005), which Branney wrote. He co-wrote and co-produced Whisperer with Andrew Leman, the director of Cthulhu. Both films were made in the Mythoscope process, in which the producers employ such modern production techniques as they can afford to recreate the sensory experience of antique film. The idea behind Mythoscope is to imagine that movies had been made of Lovecraft's stories at the time he wrote them. Thus Call of Cthulhu is one of the 21st century's neo-silent movies, while Whisperer adds sound to the mix to adapt a story published in 1931. Both films, of course, are staunchly monochrome. Of the two, Cthulhu is the more ingenious imitation of its era. Whisperer bears little resemblance to a 1931 movie apart from its lack of color. The widescreen presentation could be excused as a nod to the Grandeur process, Hollywood's early but Depression-aborted widescreen format (The Big Trail, The Bat Whispers, etc.), but Branney's technique is mostly alien to the period. There's an anachronistic film-noir approach to some scenes that might be dubbed "Expressionist," but the main problem is the director's reluctance to hold shots as long as Hollywood movies did back then. While an authentic 1931 movie would film dialogue scenes mostly in mid to long shots that had all the speakers in the frame, Branney constantly cuts back and forth between close-ups of his actors. The more-or-less amateur standing of his actors may explain why he didn't opt for long takes that required extensive memorization, but whatever his reasons it kills the illusion of period filmmaking for anyone familiar with period films.

What Branney, like Leman before him, is much better at is reviving the iconography of authentic pulp fiction. Their images often look ripped from the pages, or better yet the covers, of the magazines that published Lovecraft and his peers. Their strategy of using high tech to achieve a low-tech look often pays off. Anyone who reads and loves these stories as they were originally presented will smile in recognition of how right Whisperer's communication device looks, which enables disembodied brains preserved in canisters to communicate with ordinary humans. Plug in the components and Strickfaden-esque circuits crackle until a face appears between the device's antennae. If Branney doesn't quite succeed in imitating 1930s film directors, he makes up for it by capturing much of the genuine imagination of the period.

The Whisperer screenplay turns out to be an extensive elaboration of the Lovecraft story, padding it to a length (104 minutes) rare for the horror or sci-fi of the period, though 1939's Son of Frankenstein is almost as long. Lovecraft's story is a straightforward account of skepticism debunked. Professor Wilmarth dismisses accounts of weird creatures in rural Vermont, exchanges letters with a scholar on the ground, and finally visits the man only to discover that he isn't what Wilmarth thought he was. Branney and Leman expand on Wilmarth's skepticism by staging a radio debate between him and real-life paranormal research pioneer Charles Fort, who gets the better of our protagonist by pointing out his prejudice against observation on the ground. Wilmarth is increasingly intrigued by photographs appearing to show alien footprints, and one that reveals an alien corpse when viewed with the right lenses, and by a phonograph record of human and apparently alien voices mingled in prayer to strange gods. While for Lovecraft it was enough to horrify readers with Wilmarth's discovery about his correspondent, Branney and Leman use that as a jumping-off point for a more familiar scenario (for modern audiences) in which an evil priest (his outfit is another cool pulp visual) plots to open a portal between dimensions so the aliens can take over the world. They cap this new plot with a barnstorming climax from beyond Lovecraft's imagination in which Wilmarth and a young girl battle flying aliens in a biplane. While Merian C. Cooper and Willis O'Brien probably would have filmed this better than Branney does, the ineptitude of the aerial battle isn't really untrue to the period.

If the film feels padded compared to genuine genre films from the Thirties, it still tells its story effectively. And if the cinematography isn't what you'd see in a 1931 picture, it's often evocatively effective on its own terms. It's easy to make an inexpensive movie look good these days, or so you'd assume from this one, but credit is due to committed craftsmanship all around. The acting is hit or miss; some are flat but others sound so true to the period that they could have worked in radio. It's easier to see how Whisperer could have been a better film in more experienced hands, but that shouldn't make what the H.P.L.H.S. has accomplished with their modest resources any less impressive. Since Lovecraft died in 1937, I guess there's nothing left to do in a third film but introduce Technicolor, but if they want to give up the Mythoscope gimmick and just keep making Lovecraft movies, I'll be all for them.

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