Friday, 31 May 2013

Top Five Cthulhu Mythos Fan-Films

When it comes to cosmic tales of horror and suspense, HP Lovecraft's nightmarish tales, among those of the other writers who contributed to the universe, are among the originals and best regarded. Still referenced in media today and with a strong fandom, they represent classic tales of horror, science fiction and the use of truly alien godlike beings.

While the mythos has spread to every media from comics to video games, film is something which has always eluded it. While there have been one or two minor productions such as the 1993 Necronomicon and others, few have ever had a big enough budget to do many of his stories. They could not feature truly alien locations or directly adapt things like the original Call of Cthulhu which would need to depict alien gods, horrifying environments and the like. The closest we ever got was a potential adaptation of At The Mountains Of Madness, which was promptly cancelled. Reasons for that ranging from similarities to Prometheus to Universal wanting to make it more readily available to younger audiences.

As with many things however, fans have thankfully provided where officially produced material has failed. A fair number of productions from creations in Second Life to live action performances enhanced by animation have been created. Both those trying to put more modern spins on the older tales or trying to remain loyal to the classic narrative and media of the time. Many of these deserve far more attention than they are currently given, so here's a top five list of such productions.

5. Dagon - HP Lovecraft

There's a few obvious reasons why this one is on the bottom of the list, one of which the creator himself admits in hindsight was a major error. The first is the quality of the animation itself. While these are all fan-made productions and you tend to have to be very forgiving of their budgets, Dagon is visibly the weakest of them. Most of the time it's not too bad and only goes wrong when it makes the mistake of showing the monster or using some fairly crude movement. The former being a mistake which the creator of the video himself admitted was a mistake.  

When it utilises only the narrator's voice for the descriptions and still clips to represent the film progressing it works well. Giving the tale the strength of the source material to rely upon and the very disjointed nature of each shot, plus a fairly good voice to use as a narrator, it keeps the strongest elements of Lovecraft's style without the problems of losing the descriptions. Something which was a key element in making the subject matter feel horrific and unnatural. The sound effects are only used to try and enhance the descrptions and compliment them, a decision which works brilliantly here.

It manages to balance out Lovecraft's usual fear of the unknown by telling more than it does show events. Something which would frequently be a huge mark against the film but somehow it manages to work here.

4. H.P. Lovecraft's Nyarlathotep (2001)

The first of the live action productions on this list, Nyarlathotep is one of the more interesting choices for adaptation. Along with the problems involving the titular figure's origins, Lovecraft's insane (even more than usual) descriptions of the environment and his actions made it seem like this would be an almost impossible story to adapt. Whereas at least the other examples on this list stick to locations and situations a reader could comprehend, the entire ending of the tale reads like something which couldn't exist physically in any way. Yet somehow the team behind this film manage it.

Opting to keep many touches dress styles in which would be right at home in the era the story was written, the film has a sense of authenticity to its events and setting. It spends so long constructing the environments and world that it becomes immersive, drawing you in with a unique mixture of the real and supernatural. Something which especially helps this is the mixture of narration and visual devices.

While I might have praised Dagon for sticking primarily to the strength of its source material, this one balances quotes with some fairly good visual explanations. For example, the narrator is seen using a cane and walking with a limp, but uses a silent flashback of his involvement with the first world war to fully explain this. An element which better suited the show don't tell mentality of films than trying to depict mind warping creatures of unreality.
A second, much better example of this would be Nyarlathotep himself. As expected the film shows him on the rise, gaining popularity and interest from the public as we are told of this; but his introduction is used to add further mystery. As the film quotes:

"And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet." 

However it goes a step further by showing him literally rising out of the sands of Egypt in full Pharaoh garb, people worshiping him on his return, and elements of his look being kept even when he takes more contemporary clothing. Something which helps build mystery and suspense quite effectively.

Despite these positives the film does show a few ammature mistakes and its budget on more than a few occasions. Along with some very strange editing choices on occasion, the camera is near constantly overexposed during exterior shots. While this might have been intentional, it's something which quickly becomes quite irritating to watch and becomes continually distracting. Other elements such as Nyarlathotep's beard and a few of the props can't help but look cheap, something which proves to be very distracting even in spite of some fairly good acting and direction. Still, such things are minor flaws and it has easily earned its place on this list.

3. At The Mountains Of Madness - Short Animation Movie

One of the two most recognised names to be adapted on this list, At The Mountains Of Madness was arguably one of the most ambitious to adapt.

While the lacked the issues of the two previous examples, not having to show things which were only scarily effective due to the vagueness of their descriptions, the setting was a big problem. Along with trying to capture a very different looking, very hauntingly described North Pole, everything here was on a massive scale. Alien cities, towering mountains which dwarfed Everest, multiple locations such as caves, camps and ships; it was far more of an adventure than the isolated horror tales of many others. Another was some big pacing problems which are completely at odds with what we know in film today and scenes which would be very expensive to film or animate. Namely things like the dissection of the Elder Thing and similar, very gory and very described, moments. Despite this, the creators of this adaptation managed to make it all work.

The film cuts almost right to the meat of the tale when it begins with the recently unfrozen creatures having escaped and murdered the other encampment. The narration here quickly covers events before moving onto the parts people would want to see the most such as the history of the Elder Things. Showing the impact they had upon the young Earth and the ruins of what remains of their civilisation. Both are depicted in an unnatural state with quite suits the story with an odd combination of CGI and drawn characters and environments, both of which help the feeling of discomfort and uncanny familiarity the story is supposed to give.

The film's core strength however is how much attention has clearly been paid to many minor details. Shoggoths for example were always described as blobs of creatures which could reshape themselves to suit any task but few ever truly showed this. Here we see them not only working but also their creation, the rebellion and even some of the lesser moments briefly focused upon in even the original novel. Aspects which helped to make it feel like the characters exploring the city were looking at the remains of a civilisation, not a series of wars and genetic experiments. Some minor details and expansions to the ending linking in with Lovecraft's famous works also show a lot of care on the creator's part.

Still, with the good comes the bad and in this case it's the CGI. The film's primary maker, Michele Botticelli has some definite talent when it comes to computer generated imagery. While by no means the highest quality of images and with some looking very low resolution at times, he knows how to utilise them to make a scene atmospheric and give events real emotion. Just take a look at his latest film for a good example of this. The problem here is that the CGI for the snow, planes, artic and on occasion the shoggoths look surprisingly bad. These are all elements which would be hard to deliver convincingly but they fail to truly capture the same atmospheric nature as the city or corpses and have the unfortunate habit of dragging you out of the moment. The same also goes for the english translation which, having originated from youtube, has more than a few typos and minor goofs in them.

As with the others on this list however, the good ultimately far outweighs the bad and it's a loyal, extremely well crafted, adaptation of a great tale.

2. The Call of Cthulhu

Easily the best known adaptation on this list, The Call of Cthulhu takes a very different approach to its subject matter than the others. While a few more on this list take certain traits and aspects from the story's era to enhance their quality, the creators of this film ultimately looked at the media of that time. Creating something in the same vein as King Kong or a vast number of silent horror films, ones set on a big enough scale to suit the story which introduced Cthulhu but excuse bad effects. Well, clearly bad physical effects which manage to keep the charm of the original.

The strength of the film is obviously the charm of the old style it has been done in, silent and black and white, but also the fact the creators clearly knew what they were doing. Something all too often not recognised is that there's a specific style silent films need to be done in. A specific manner in how actors have to perform their roles, the film is set up and even the colours are chosen. You can't just have people sitting around talking and then cutting to cards because it will look very still and boring, they need to be alive and selling their performance in far more active ways. Similarly you can't just go with authentic colours for clothing and scenes because of the monochrome style in which it will be presented, with tones and shade having to be completely redone.

A further bonus is that while the horror element is definitely toned down the suspense and creepiness of many scenes is still present. Preserved in spite of the very different format the film has and lacking even a basic narrator to make use of Lovecraft's descriptions to enhance the film's quality. Even Cthulhu himself, the aforementioned intentionally bad special effects bonanza, manages to get a few decent moments where he comes across as genuinely frightening.

The big flaw here of course is the style in which the film has been made. Many people have trouble adjusting to films without sound or using subtitles for dialogue, something which breaks up the pacing of many scenes and drags out the film. It takes some considerable getting used to and means the film will not appeal to certain people. That being said it's still the most acclaimed adaptation on this list and has been near universally praised at film festivals, as such it's definitely one for fans of the original material.

1. HP Lovecraft's The Shadow Out Of Time

This might seem a curious choice to many. The aforementioned examples each have many strengths over this one. Whether it be in terms of the setting, the effects or the sheer concept driving it, the previous examples do each have an edge over this one. However, it's the one which takes many of these elements to a much lesser degree and blends them together. Incorporating them far more effectively and creating something which is basically the jack of all trades on this list.

It utilities the authenticity of the settings, mixture of animated and still scenery, a full narration, physical effects and almost everything listed above. Even the intentional cheesiness of some of the monster effects and the settings are present, stop motion animation, as is the authentic style of filming Call of Cthuhlu had at points. Right from the beginning to the end it displays affection to both the ideas and the settings of Lovecraft's mythos with the story style, the execution of ideas and the hint of things unknown utilised to evoke emotions.

Among the strongest elements within this tale is the narration which displays a level of conviction and delivery above that of the previous examples. Trying to give further emotion to the events the protagonist has experienced and the horrors he has witnessed. Something only helped by the settings and immaculately detailed backdrops which show far more of a world than many previous examples. Giving the impression of a truly vast landscape even in the presence of the almost comical looking Great Race of Yith. 

The pacing of the story is also extremely even and never feels as if it is rushing or skipping events in the effort to contain the story within a comparatively short running time. Exploring each idea in turn to its fullest before moving on, establishing concepts before they are fully explored and giving the idea of a truly vast universe. While it does lack the visual battles and continual scope At The Mountains Of Madness presented, the varying settings and displays of different eras help to truly sell what the story is exploring.

As a result of this and balancing many of the best elements of the above films near perfectly, it is the best among these. One I have yet to see surpassed from the fan productions featuring the stories and races of H.P. Lovecraft's creations.

So those are the top five fan films featuring the frightening Cthulhu Mythos. Ones which, personally, reflect the fear of the unknown, the format of each tale and unnatural races the best. Many of you likely have your own suggestions as to which tales are superior or even which ones deserve far more attention, as such feel free to suggest them in the comments. Otherwise I hope you have enjoyed this list and the films they have featured.

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