Lovecraft binge-watch: The Call of Cthulhu and The Laplace’s Demon

This post is #3 of a series.

In “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft introduced his most famous monster, an alien god with the body of a dragon and a head shaped like a giant squid. Cthulhu currently waits, dead and dreaming, in his house in “the nightmare corpse-city” of R’lyeh, which lies hidden beneath the waves in the most remote region of the Antarctic Ocean. From time to time—when the stars are right—R’lyeh rises to the surface and Cthulhu sends out a telepathic call to his human worshipers around the globe, whose assistance he requires to complete his resurrection. “Call” tells the story of one such moment in the spring of 1925, when the apocalypse was barely averted. But the cult of Cthulhu endures, and one day, inevitably, R’lyeh will rise again, and Cthulhu will emerge to destroy human civilization.

A Hollywood adaptation of this story could easily cost tens of millions in special effects alone. But in 2005, Andrew Leman and Sean Branney filmed The Call of Cthulhu on a shoestring budget of $50,000 by staging it as a classic silent movie, with many of the same effects techniques that would have been used in the 1920s. The waves of the Antarctic Ocean are billowing sheets of fabric with glitter for spray; R’lyeh is a stage set built from plywood and cardboard; and Cthulhu, when he appears, is a stop-motion animated model. Shot on video and computer processed to look like old black-and-white film stock, it’s surprisingly effective. And if you watch it on DVD (which you’ll have to, since it’s not available on streaming), you’ll have a wide choice of languages for the intertitles, including Basque, Romanian, Welsh, and Luxembourgish. Be sure to check out the “making of” featurette, too.

And if you’re up for a black-and-white double feature, I’d recommended pairing Cthulhu with The Laplace’s Demon, an original Italian-language film directed by Giordano Giulivi. The title refers to a hypothetical being imagined by Pierre-Simon Laplace, an early French scientist who believed in a deterministic universe; the demon knows the position and momentum of every atom in the universe, and can calculate with perfect accuracy any past or future event, including the actions of sentient beings. In other words, with enough information and processing power, free will is revealed to be an illusion.

In the film, a team of seven researchers working on predictive software are invited to the remote island home of the mysterious Professor Cornelius. Upon their arrival, the researchers and the boat captain who brought them to the island find themselves trapped inside the professor’s mansion. A videotaped message informs them that they are to be the subjects of an experiment. The same room where they found the videotape contains a scale model of the mansion, and looking inside they can see eight white pawns—one for each of them—whose clockwork driven movements exactly mimic their own. A careful examination of the mechanism reveals that the pawns are not being manipulated by remote control; their movements are pre-programmed. And every so often, the uncoiling of a large clock spring triggers the appearance of a black queen—corresponding to a mechanical monster inside the real mansion—that zeroes in unerringly on one of the pawns. This is the experiment: If they cannot figure out a way to defy the model’s predictions, they’ll all be dead by dawn.

The Laplace’s Demon is available to rent or purchase through Amazon Prime.