Ia! Ia! Judge Steve Power! The Black Goat of the Woods!
A talking H.P. Lovecraft picture thrill!
Meet the HPLHS, or The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a group that started as a bunch of fans dedicated to the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper role-playing game based on Lovecraft's works. They really made a name for themselves with the 2005 film adaptation, Call of Cthulhu. Their first film gained widespread acclaim, based on it's slavishly detailed recreation of the silent film era, which lent itself incredibly well to the tone of Lovecraft's story. Enter The Whisperer in Darkness a more ambitious production, this time with an eye towards the genre flicks of 1930s and '40s Hollywood, a real bonafide "talkie." Does this one stack up to its silent predecessor? Or would you rather take your chances with a Shoggoth?
Facts of the Case
Professor Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) has been drawn to the remote hills of Vermont, amidst reports of bizarre otherworldly creatures. Making a hobby out of debunking claims of the supernatural, he's about to be tested, and learn some startling truths about the things that lay in wait in the darkness.
The work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft has always been a literary oddity; the prolific writer's short stories (usually printed in pulp magazines like Weird Tales) and novels are well known to be certain, but not quite as well read. H.P's dark tales of otherworldly evil and impending doom are a somber, macabre experience in terror that more people know through distinctive titles like Call of Cthulhu than through actual content. Sure, many of us horror guys and heavy metal heads have cracked the spine of a Necronomicon or two in our time, but for an author touted as being such a distinctive voice in horror literature, Lovecraft is surprisingly more of a cult figure (no pun intended) to the mainstream. This extends to Hollywood as well; with very few overtly "Lovecraftian" adaptations outside of the efforts of Stuart Gordon, who brought a handful of Lovecraft's tales to the silver screen with varying degrees of success. What amazes me here is that the HPLHS has not only managed to successfully adapt Lovecraft in a much more authentic fashion than just about anyone else who's tried, but that what is essentially a group of live-action Role-players has managed to do so with such conviction and skill!
Much like their first effort, The Whisperer in Darkness doesn't just use "period recreation" as a gimmick, the 1930s emulation serves to cover some of the ripples; actors can be a little more theatrical in their portrayals, effects can be that little bit less convincing, expense can be spared, and people will just take it as a part of the package. This works as brilliantly here as it did in Call of Cthulhu, though the canvas and ambition is definitely expanded this time around. I don't want to make it sound like the film looks cheap, that's just not the case. It looks like every effort was made by the filmmakers to make this flick resonate to those who've seen classics like King Kong or Frankenstein, and the talent on display is both fiercely inventive behind the scenes, and slavishly studied in just how these classics were put together. Director Sean Branney definitely did his homework, and got the most from his actors. Performances, much like the films of that era, are all over the place, but never "teeth-grindingly" bad.
The team has also managed to put together one fantastic Blu-ray offering. Presented in 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen, the black and white image is stark and clear, if a little too clean-looking to be truly authentic for the period (though I certainly won't deduct points for that). The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is a nice warm mix that fires the surrounds when it needs to, and works very well. The original score by composer Troy Sterling Nies is excellent stuff, and presented incredibly well. Bonus features include a commentary track and making-of featurette (both well worth your attention), and a collection of Deleted and Extended scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As the director of the film says, Lovecraft is much better at setups than endings, thus a third act is tacked onto The Whisperer in Darkness in order to give things a more satisfying conclusion. I can't say I entirely agree with the direction taken here. MINOR SPOILER: The final bit is a little more straightforward and traditional than one might expect from your average Lovecraft yarn, and while I can understand why the crew made the choice they did, I can't help but disagree with the sentiment. Lovecraft typically leaves things on a dour note. No, impending destruction and a loss of personal sanity aren't pretty, but the dread and hopelessness that typically comes with a Lovecraft denouement is a part of the parcel, and the action packed final act, particularly the ending, honestly feel a little "detached" from the rest of the story for me. Admittedly, that may come from my overall familiarity with Lovecraft's work, and this story in particular. While I don't entirely agree, it isn't a deal-breaker either. On the contrary, those with less experience with the tale may indeed garner more enjoyment from the fabricated final act, but as I said, it didn't quite ring true for me, and I felt it was worth mention. Don't take it as something that slows my enthusiastic recommendation of the movie.
This really is one hell of a feat; just one of those tiny cinematic miracles. In spite of my problems with the final act, The Whisperer in Darkness is a cracker of an adaptation, with a wonderful blend of imaginative effects, solid acting from what is essentially a group of amateurs, and tight direction that near perfectly emulates the Hollywood "golden age" style. The film not only manages to accomplish the telling of one of Lovecraft's more ambitious tales on a shoestring budget, but it manages to be—quite possibly—the most accurate depiction of one of his stories to hit the screen.
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