“If I am mad, it is mercy! May the gods pity the man who in his callousness can remain sane to the hideous end!”
— H.P. Lovecraft (The Temple)
H.P. Lovecraft would seem a creature of the night. But let’s suspend disbelief and imagine this legendary horror scribe rising at dawn, not dusk, to greet the day. Donning a black bathrobe, Lovecraft pours a cup of dark-roast java to jumpstart his writing routine. Staring into his percolating coffin-pot, however, Lovecraft quickly notices that there’s no room for cream or sugar. His sludgy brew is already teeming with squishy creatures. Squid tentacles and snapping crab-claws break the surface.
Whether or not this scenario has ever played out, it’s clear that the nervous, anxiety-plagued author had no business chugging caffeine. Among his sizable cult of admirers, it’s common knowledge that Lovecraft spent his life worrying about having a few screws loose. Several years ago, I interviewed director Stuart Gordon, whose body of work includes several lurid Lovecraft adaptations (including “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”). “Lovecraft’s parents both went insane,” explains Gordon, “and were committed to psychiatric hospitals. He was afraid that the same thing would happen to him.”
Lovecraft’s writing has always embraced characters grappling with the uncomfortable knowledge that their minds are insidiously slipping away. Perhaps through the invention of these tormented men, Lovecraft was somehow purging his own fear of impending insanity. Sean Branney’s “Whisperer in Darkness” is the latest filmic adaptation of Lovecraft’s work. “A lot of his protagonists,” suggests Branney, “are like shadowy reflections of himself.”
Currently slithering across the country via film festivals, “The Whisperer in Darkness” follows this pattern. Its hero is Albert Wilmarth (
Stephen Blackeheart Matt Foyer), a cynical folklore professor who balks at urban legends and superstitions. UFO’s are hooey. The Loch Ness Monster is a hoax. And tales of crustacean-like creatures roaming the hills of Vermont are pure crab crap.
Initially, Wilmarth shrugs off a growing stack of letters sent from Henry Akeley, a crusty farmer from the rural Vermont countryside. Akeley insists that sinister creatures are roaming his surrounding hills, with malicious intent on their possibly-extraterrestrial minds. Akeley’s letters initially convey a sense of creeping terror and dread. Suddenly, however, Wilmarth detects a strange resignation bleeding from Akeley’s pen. Don’t worry about me, the farmer suggests. I’ve chilled out. It’s all good.
Wilmarth, however, knows better. Akeley’s abrupt change of heart lingers in the professor’s perseverating mind. Is it any stretch to predict that this elitist educator will betray his better judgment, pack his bags, and investigate what is truly going on in those Vermont hills? Suffice to say, Wilmarth’s meddling opens an unpleasant Pandora’s Box of unattractive truths. As with most Lovecraft excursions, things don’t end well.
“Pretty much everyone who goes to Vermont does not make it,” laughs Branney. “It’s wild country up there.”
Alongside fellow “Whisperer…” producers David Robertson and Andrew Leman, Branney slouches forward over a sprawling black table in the hip, blue-toned lounge of Seattle’s W Hotel. Decked out in black t-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Miskatonic University” and “Cthulu Lives,” this enthusiastic “Whisperer…” crew has invaded the Seattle International Film Festival to screen and promote their unsettling film.
The trio casts a refreshingly geeky vibe across the hotel’s sea of self-conscious yuppies. Like many potent filmmaking teams, the clashing appearances of all three fright-mongers create a startling visual contrast. Robertson’s bald bean. Branney’s full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Leman’s mad-scientist spectacles and scruffy beard. In comparison, Siskel and Ebert look like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
Visual differences aside, the three filmmakers engage in a relaxed conversational synergy. Often finishing each other’s sentences, these Lovecraft scholars are longtime friends on a mutual mission. In the paragraphs that follow, Branney, Leman, and Robertson educate yours truly (a self-confessed Lovecraft greenhorn) on the Angel Box, the staying power of “The Mummy,” and how Lovecraft fanatics with a thing for capes, canes, and coffins are actually “the sweetest people on earth.”
“The Whisperer in Darkness” really took me back to those pre-adolescent years of watching Universal Pictures classics on Creature Features. It looks genuinely retro, like something created in the thirties. What were the challenges of doing a film that was unashamedly trying to look several decades old?
Sean: We’re a small company. You’re seeing the core of our production team right here (laughter). David also worked as the film’s cinematographer, and Andrew co-wrote the script. We all wore several hats. We have limited resources for doing a period film that authentically conveys 1931, with the vehicles, costumes, haircuts, and locations. Then you bring to that the aesthetics of thirties-style cinematography, and how it’s lit and the theatrical nature of the performances… make a movie that’s got the flavor of those old thirties pictures.
David: The story was written in 1931. Our first film was “Call of Cthulu” (from 2005, named after Lovecraft’s most famous being – a satanic, skyscraper-sized sea monster). It was based on another Lovecraft story that was written in 1926. We tried to match that time period. With “Whisperer…”, we’re doing it from the 1931 time period. We will probably do the next one the same way.
Andrew: We hope to make more (Lovecraft adaptations). Sean and I have been doing Lovecraft-based projects for over 25 years, and still find it fascinating. We keep striving to top ourselves and I think we still have heights to reach and will keep reaching.I read that much of the Lovecraft material written prior to this story was horror based, while this one also added science fiction elements. Was this combination of sci-fi interjected into a horror mix something that you found attractive?
Sean: I think something that differentiated Lovecraft as a horror writer was his notion of “Cosmic Horror.” He’s thinking not on a scale of Man versus Zombie, but instead as the universe being a very vast place in which humanity plays a small role. In “Whisperer…”, you sort of get “Man and Creature,” in the sense that you run from them and don’t want them chasing you. But these creatures, the Mi-go, are part of a much bigger system. We don’t learn why they’re out there, or where they come from, and the situation isn’t resolved or fixed in a tidy way. They’re just OUT THERE. Space became a playground for writers of all stripes. But Lovecraft had kind of already been there, conceiving the universe as a place full of horror – not just Earth or graveyards.
Andrew: Although Lovecraft is famous as a horror writer, he personally was a non-religious, hard-headed literalist and very scientific. He brought a sort of skeptical, scientific eye to cosmic horror topics. Albert Einstein is mentioned in this story. Molecular vibration, space travel, and all these things that are mentioned in his work were cutting edge at the time. He wasn’t a scientist per se, but had a very intelligent layman’s perspective on the latest scientific developments.
David: Lovecraft worked somewhat like J.R.R. Tolkien. He created a mythology with recurring creatures and characters that are the foundation of his universe.
Andrew: Another thing cool about Lovecraft is that he created this world, and encouraged his friends and correspondents and admirers to take it and run with it. It wasn’t just Lovecraft contributing to the world that he created. It was a lot of other people too, so it’s a very rich fictional universe to play around in.
Sean: And it’s an inviting one. You feel sort of welcome to make your own riffs on it, which we certainly have here.
The visual aesthetics employed in today’s horror films focus on gory, visceral effects. But many scenes in “Whisperer” include more subtle, retro effects, as if they were shot during the time period of the story. At one point, Wilmarth stumbles upon a man whose brain has been extracted and stored in a canister. But the man’s face can still be generated and communicated with through an electrode-powered projector called a visualizer. How difficult was it to film a scene which intentionally looks like an older, more primitive style?
David: The challenge of that scene is performance-based. The actor playing opposite the machine is actually talking to no-one. But keeping him engaged and making that face a part of the scene is part of the challenge. There was someone there, on set, feeding the lines. When we make movies we don’t want the effects to be more important than the story and characters. The effects should cut away as much as possible, to let characters and story exist. We tried to make them very subtle. It’s a character movie. It’s not about the effects.
Sean: In the original Lovecraft story, the visualizer machine is only a voice. Well, in a movie it’s like watching a radio. It’s not very exciting. We came up with idea of the projection of a face, so that we have something we can emotionally respond to. We wanted audience members to feel as empathetic for the poor guy as you could. I mean, his brain has been sucked into a can (laughter). And also empathy for Wilmarth, who discovers this and is powerless to help the guy. He’s feeling like, “What am I possibly gonna do for you?”
David: We’ve discussed how modern horror movies are more graphic. But with “Whisperer…” we were trying to stay relatively true to the period of the story. Those movies aren’t very graphic. What’s great about that is that the pit is scarier than the pendulum. Things are more hidden, and you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks.
Andrew: That’s why these stories are so compelling. You’re participating in their creation. We’ve done some radio adaptations, and our previous film (“Call of Cthulu”) was a silent one. The more you let the audience bring to the experience, the more engaged they are and the more they get out of it.
Often Lovecraft stories present someone describing some horrible revelation… some encounter that stole their sanity, without it actually being shown onscreen. Often, hearing about it can be more disturbing than actually witnessing the experience.
Sean: In a lot of Lovecraft’s stories, he uses a framing device in the narrative, where a character might say, “I’m writing down my last description of the terrible thing I went through.” He does that in a literary way. Certainly in our film “Call of Cthulu,” we did that by having a man talking with his therapist, someone who is treating him for his mental health. The whole story becomes this guy’s explanation of “what happened to me, why I am the way I am, and why my sanity can no longer endure the world.”
Lovecraft stories seldom end up very happily, do they?
Sean: Noooo. We had a pretty good body count at the end of this one (laughter).
“The Whisperer in Darkness” makes great use of shadows. There’s one scene in which hands are seemingly being pulled off of a body. It’s one of the film’s important revelations, and you could have simply shown the scene head-on. Instead, it’s presented as a shadowy silhouette.
David: I think it’s more of a storytelling choice than a cinematography choice. There’s a bigger reveal later. Originally, we thought of doing that first scene as the big reveal, and ultimately, we said no. We should hold off a while longer. So we used that shadow puppet effect.
Sean: In keeping with the spirit of Lovecraftian horror, as the protagonist goes through his journey, it becomes a confirmation of his worst fears. For Wilmarth, at every step along the way, this myth is becoming increasingly true. When he sees that shadow puppet image, it’s still not quite real. Not until later does the reality of the situation becomes undeniable.
The skepticism hadn’t completely evaporated…
Sean: It’s not quite gone. It’s just being chipped at every step along the way.
David: It’s very important that experientially, the audience feel exactly as Wilmarth does at each point. While looking at the shadow, you still don’t know exactly what’s going on yet…
Sean: ….but it’s not good! (Laughter.)
David: It has more limbs than it should. (Laughter.)
The actual creatures don’t appear until very late in the movie.
Andrew: The basic theory is that the thing you imagine is usually scarier that the thing that you see. If you withhold until the last possible minute, you’ll get the most bang for your buck.
Sean: There’s the “Jaws” adage, “Don’t show the shark.” And you don’t show the shark for a long time. You spend a long time worrying about the shark (laughter). But if you get to the climax of the movie, if you never show the shark, I think that’s going to be frustrating for the audience. They’ll go, “We never got to see the fish,” and the protagonist never got to go face-to-face with it. In this story, we had a lot of hints, and suggestions, and descriptions, and they’re very hard to picture… but by the time we got to the climax of the film, we wanted to see what these things look like.
Andrew: We used the same strategy in “Call of Cthulu,” where you see one kind of sculpture of it, then another, then pictures, and finally, you see the creature.
Sean: We hardly invented it. “Alien,” and a lot of other horror films do that.
David: Lovecraft’s stories are a series of reveals. In “Whisperer…”, it starts very slowly, and you get very little information. Then the pacing picks up until the end.
Were there any older films from the thirties that inspired the feel and look of your movie?
David: Sure. We watched “Frankenstein” and the “Invisible Man.”
Sean: “The Mummy” holds up surprisingly well. Better, perhaps, than even “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” where pacing is slow. The “Mummy” moves. There were also some shots in “Whisperer” that were inspired somewhat by “King Kong.”
Andrew: Our opening title sequence is inspired by Hitchcock’s film, “The Lady Vanishes.”
There’s a thriving H.P. Lovecraft festival in Portland, Oregon. His following is huge. Were all of you fans before becoming filmmakers?
Sean: Andrew and I are from Denver. Twenty five years ago, we met while working on a play together. There’s a role-playing game called “Call of Cthulu,” which is a “Dungeons and Dragons” kind of thing, but set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft. As high school students we would play the game. From there, we went, “instead of sitting around a table rolling dice, wouldn’t it be more interesting to go out in the woods…”
Andrew: …and act it out. It was so much fun to play it around the table, and more fun to go out and do it.
Sean: Over the years, our games got bigger and bigger, to where they were almost as complicated as putting on a film. There was no camera or lighting, but we’re in locations and renting vehicles, with herds of horses and dozens of extras, and complicated props and things. We then did “Shogoth on the Roof,” a humorous mockumentary filmed in 2000, which was well-received. Then we wanted to try something more serious, and we made our film “Call of Cthulu.” That was also well-received, and put us in a position to take on making a period feature film like “Whisperer.”
David: I met Andrew working in the film industry, after we were all living in Los Angeles. We were both working on production design. I saw “Shogoth on the Roof,” and was impressed. He asked me to shoot “Call of Cthulu,” and I got more and more involved. It was an 18-month project, so we all got very close over that period. We were all surprised by the film’s success, and said, “We’ve got a great thing going. Let’s stick with it.”
Were you a Lovecraft fan from way back, like Andrew and Sean?
David: Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Lovecraft through the films of Stuart Gordon, “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” Stuart Gordon really made Lovecraft famous. I loved those movies. But I didn’t know of Lovecraft as a legitimate author until I met these guys. I hadn’t really investigated him on that level.
I understand that Sean and David run the H.P. Lovecraft Society, featuring an elaborate web site of trivia and mail-order products.
Sean: Andrew and I have, for many years, run the H.P. Lovecraft Society. Its web site is Cthululives.com. We have more than a hundred different products, including coffee mugs, t-shirts, playing cards, and replica props from “Call of Cthulu.” We’re probably the biggest provider in the world of Lovecraftian products. We sell our own movies, and radio plays. That’s how we make a living.
What’s one product that’s especially unique to someone who would stroll through the site?
Sean: The radio shows are quite broadly popular. A lot of people have never heard them actually being aired over the radio before. They’re produced in a very authentic, 1930’s style. But just like we did with the movie, we kind of goosed the pace up so that they move quicker and the acting is generally better than that of the old radio plays.
Andrew: Another one – just for the geek factor – is something called the Angel Box, which is from “Call of Cthulu,” the movie. In the story, it all centers on this collection of documents and evidence that the great uncle has held. It is the story of “Call of Cthulu,” told through those props. It is a locked steel box full of hundreds of newspaper clippings, telegrams, letters, and photos. It’s expensive, but jaw-dropping for the hardcore fans. There’s a museum in Switzerland of science fiction that made an exhibit out of it. Separated all of the things out for display. Labor-intensive, heavy duty thing.
At the H.P. Lovecraft festivals, have you met any fans who are really over the top? What’s the vibe of these events?
David: I went to the festival for the first time last October. I had not really been face to face with the true hardcore Lovecraft fans until October. My reaction was simple. They way the fans seemed to me was “grateful.” The biggest success of “Call of Cthulu” in terms of press reviews was about how faithful it was, and what a true adaptation it was to the story. And the fans are so hungry for it.
Sean: I think the Lovecraft fans are a fascinating group. The high school and college age Goths are into dark literature. Lots of tattoos, lots of piercings. Then there’s a whole intellectual squad, who are scholars of the material. Many are fifty-plus years old and have been reading it for years. They argue about the punctuation, the way they would about Shakespeare. Then there’s the Satanists, to whom Lovecraft appeals on a theological level – a Pagan level.
Andrew: They feel that he was a prophet. Whether they really take him seriously or pretend to take him seriously is hard to tell.
Sean: Then there’s the fanboy crowd, who really like the movies and don’t really care that there’s literature. They just like monster movies and are glad to be there.
Andrew: Generally speaking, I’ve found the fans to be well-read, smart, funny, and inquisitive.
My stereotypical assumption was that you’d find lots of black capes and walking sticks.
David: There are a high number of cloaks and walking sticks (laughter). But those black caped people are the sweetest you’ll ever meet.