Gabby: We switch on our brain boxes and open a doorway between worlds to find Jeremy’s pick…
Jeremy: The Whisperer in Darkness. H.P. Lovecraft’s working title: My Ovaltine with Akelely.
I’m glad we were able to watch this, Gabby. Our one rule for the movies we pick is that they have to be accessible to UK and US readers. Since this was a super low-budget film, I wasn’t sure if it made its way to the UK.
Gabby: I managed to rent it off iTunes!
Jeremy: Wait – it’s available digitally in the UK? That’s some bullshit, right there. I would kill to have a legit digital copy.
Gabby: That is weird, you should be able to get it! Give this to Jeremy digitally, powers that be.
Jeremy: Before we go further, let me say why I picked this movie to defend. This is the second independent film made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) based on Lovecraft’s stories. Their first film, The Call of Cthulhu, was released in 2005. From everything I can gather, it was a minor cult hit on DVD. I know horror fans really embraced it.
And it’s how I discovered Lovecraft. I was a Lovecraft virgin when I bought a copy of Call of Cthulhu on a whim from a used video shop. I was immediately taken by the cover, to say nothing of the hook the HPLHS devised for filming this supposedly unfilmable story: make it a black & white silent movie, as if it was produced in the year the story was published, 1926. Thanks to that movie, I became a huge Lovecraft nerd. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough geeky obsessions already…
Adapting Lovecraft stories to match the films of the era they were written in – which the HPLHS coined as Mythoscope – was such an inspired idea. First off, Cthulhu was a micro-budget production made by fans, so it hid a lot visual shortcuts they had to make. It also allowed them to make a movie that ran under 60 minutes, as was the style of the time. Most importantly, a silent movie provided an opportunity to adapt Lovecraft faithfully while circumventing his purple prose and the near absence of dialogue in his stories.
Working on and off over the next six years, the HPLHS were finally able to make a follow-up with The Whisperer in Darkness. The production was certainly more ambitious. Since this story was published in 1931, they were now making a “talkie”, heavily influenced by the Universal Horror movies of the period.
I wish I could say Whisperer was met with as much enthusiasm as their first film. It didn’t get bad reviews – but the initial reception was fairly lukewarm. All the reviews I read hit upon the same thing: it feels less and less like a classic horror movie as it goes on, which was their aim with the Mythoscope hook. During the last half-hour of new material devised to give the story a third act, it feels more like an ’80s James Cameron movie than ’30s horror.
I, too, was put off by the final act during my first viewing. The more times I revisit the movie, the less issues I have with it. If Lovecraft fans were disappointed the first time, I recommend they go back and give it another chance. It’s not entirely the movie I would’ve made – but guess what? It’s not my movie. I love what the HPLHS does and want more people to see their films. So that’s why we’re talking about one of ‘em today.
Brett: So the third act was okay until the airplane came along. We didn’t need the airplane chase or the close-ups on the Mi-go, showing off just how computer animated these monsters were. The very last shot made up for it, though. Odd how I could basically tell where Lovecraft’s story ended without Jeremy telling me, though that helped. Lovecraft always wrote as if he were saying, “Yeah, but their imagination won’t have the budget for that.” Lovercraft never showed things as much as I wanted. You never seem to get a full sense of exactly what the hell was going on with him.
We should make it clear where the story ends and where the movie ends. In the story, our hero, Alfred Wilmarth, is shown that the Mi-go can put brains in metal containers so humans can journey, in spirit, across the cosmos with them. He speaks with a human brain who tries to sell him on all the wonders the Mi-go can show us. Wilmarth discovers soon after that the man, Henry Akeley, who discovered the Mi-go and their followers wasn’t a man at all. It was a Mi-go in a face mask and human prosthetics. Wilmarth runs away back to Arkham to never do anything interesting ever again.
And in the movie, Wilmarth tries to stop the Mi-go from opening a portal between their world and ours. He’s hurt in a plane crash while doing so and his brain is removed. We then see him as the new sales pitch man, using the exact same words as the last guy, explaining why it would be so cool if we let the Mi-go put our brains into jars.
The tone shifted once the original story ended. I liked the movie overall. There were only a few things that jumped out, but none of them ever spoiled the scene. I found the guy who was just a brain in a jar – who was giving the sales pitch to Wilmarth – pretty goofy, but then it turned out he was supposed to be.
Jeremy: I get where they were going with the third act. Lovecraft was all about the horror of discovery, of digging too deep and learning too much. You can’t end a movie with your protagonist running off into the night after realizing he had a not-so-pleasant chat with a monster in a human suit.
Whisperer is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, though I’m curious why they chose it for a second film. While the source material reveals a lot about the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s actually a story told on a much smaller scale than his other stories from the period. The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, At Mountains of Madness – they all feature something resembling a third act, with some sort of action or chase scene.
My guess is they were realistic enough to acknowledge that Whisperer was the best story to adapt with the resources available. (They’ve made audio dramas for most of the big stories by this point. If you’ve been following us at all, you know how much I dig that.) I wish someone would hand these guys a few million dollars and leave them alone to do their thing. If you’ve seen either one of their movies, you know they can stretch a budget like you would not believe.
Gabby: I am impressed by the movie’s use of its budget. They managed to create a terrific looking movie. I say that as a big old horror movie fan (as well as old movies in general). They’re playing right into my wheelhouse with their shot framing, lighting and edits. I too hope they get a really good budget to do another Lovecraft story.
Brett: It’s fine, the story is there in its complete form, they just added a bit. I actually read an interview where the director gave a good justification for the third act. He said that Lovecraft’s stories basically end at what a movie would call act two, that he never knew how to resolve a story, but we’re making a movie here and we have to close it with a third act.
Basically, the same thing you were saying about the horror of his work being in the discovery.
Jeremy: I’m glad we’re starting with the third act, so I can get my quibbles out of the way and move on.
My big problem is the additions made to give Wilmarth some emotional complexity. In theory, I should love that. I care more about character than plot. It’s just these changes don’t add up to much. To start with, they make him more incredulous of the creatures’ existence. Dramatically, that makes sense for a movie, but they seem to be setting up this idea that his faith in science – at least so far as he understands it – is a weakness. If that’s supposed to set up something, it’s a setup with no payoff.
Then there’s giving Wilmarth a dead family to mourn and the introduction of Hannah, a character created for the film. The filmmakers are going for a Ripley/Newt dynamic between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong – the Ripley/Newt bit is a great bit. One of my favorites. The characters don’t have time to form a connection. They don’t meet until the third act and only share a few minutes of screen time.
It occurred to me on this viewing that they set up this relationship as a bit of narrative sleight of hand. Of course they’re going to be fine! They’re gonna become a family!
Brett: I kind of liked the ending. I would have been okay with the plane just crashing, though.
Gabby: I really enjoyed the first ending with the plane crash too. I have no idea why they felt the need to add another ending. I thought when it faded to blackout, ‘That ending was neat! I like being unsure what happens ne… oh.. wait… what the fuck is happening? What… what just happened?’
Brett: I kind of thought that would be the end too. However they did need to clear up the fact that he’s narrating the movie. By the way, add this to the short list of movies where the voice over doesn’t detract from the movie. I don’t say it helps, but it doesn’t hurt.
Jeremy: It’s a good example of how to do narration. It’s creating a mood, not covering for gaps in the story.
Gabby: And I agree about painting him as a skeptic. It seemed designed for him to use that book of folklore from the first act to save them, which he became so obsessed with and yet believed as pure fiction. So making a complete turn around in terms of beliefs might be a predictable character arc, but one that seem to be hinted at. But instead, that idea literally gets shot to pieces.
Jeremy: In both versions of the story, the Mi-go and their human cultists steal back all the evidence of their existence from Wilmarth. To me, a “We don’t have to kill you. No one’s gonna believe you…” ending is way more terrifying. Even if the HPLHS had stayed closer to the original ending, they still had to come up with a way for Wilmarth to have a dramatic escape. In a movie, he has to accomplish something, even if it’s a minor victory, like the way he now discovers the Mi-go’s lair and disrupts their ceremony.
And while Wilmarth’s dramatic arc doesn’t entirely work for me, I was surprised on this viewing by how unnerving the real Akeley’s final moments are. He’s summoned back into existence only to discover he’s a brain in a jar and his son’s most likely dead. That’s rough, man. I also appreciate the addition of seeing Akeley’s body hanging in the monsters’ lair like a piece of meat. Getting to see the bullshit the Mi-go are shoveling actually enhances the story for me.
So much of the movie works because of the actors playing Wilmarth and Akeley, I’m impressed by both of them. Matt Foyer is, like, the perfect Lovecraft protagonist. Barry Lynch gets to be both creepy and sympathetic in dual roles, and he’s great in both of them. The rest of the cast ranges from solid to a little amateurish. But a lot of the cast are amateurs, as I understand it – so it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. This is a movie made out of love, so I’m on board with everyone’s enthusiasm.
Brett: I had no complaints about the actors. Even when they come off as a bit hammy or amateurish, that’s got a lot to do with the style of the time they’re recreating. The sales pitch brain guy is a bit hammy, but his part should be hammy. He should be one of those old stage actors who never really got the idea of acting on film and does everything broad and over expressive.
Jeremy: The first head in the jar is the director, Sean Branney. And the actor playing Charles Fort, the character Wilmarth debates at the beginning of the film, is Andrew Leman, who co-wrote and produced the film with Branney.
Brett: The effects for the guy’s head when he talks to Wilmarth kind of jumped out as being way too modern. It was too clean. Kind of jarring.
Jeremy: I know they wanted to use practical effects whenever possible, like monster suits and puppetry for the Mi-go. Based on their time and resources, it wasn’t feasible. CGI had to do for the most part.
I really like the design of the Mi-go, especially their mechanical wings and various do-dads. The brain’s sales pitch being such a sales pitch didn’t bother me, though I see where you’re coming from. I know it bugged you during the live-tweet. It reminds me of Wilmarth’s increased skepticism at the beginning: they’re getting it to play dramatically, even if it’s playing to the cheap seats.
And to go back a minute, I can’t imagine ending on just the plane crash. I love that Wilmarth delivers the same exact sales pitch as the previous brain. It leaves you wondering if the brains are reprogrammed somehow or if their experiences traveling to other worlds are too wondrous to deny. Personally, I lean to the former idea.
Brett: It’s not the sales pitch that bothered me. It’s that it looks so much like it was done on a laptop with After Effects and doesn’t match everything we’ve seen until then.
Jeremy: Ah, I get it, yeah. I’m trying to imagine what a ’30s version of that would look like. In the story, it’s a voice coming out of a speaker. That wouldn’t work on film.
Brett: Less clean, more matte lines probably. A little more like Universal’s The Invisible Man. And the head works way better on screen. The fact that the movie was in black and white helped mask that they’re using some cheap computer effects.
Jeremy: Speaking of The Invisible Man, there are some great moments where they capture that classic Universal Horror magic. It’s never scary, but it’s atmospheric as hell all the way through, which is exactly what I want out of classic horror.
Gabby: It is very effective at that at times. One example, for me, was the lead up to the presentation of the first brain in a jar and it transforming into a man’s head.
Jeremy: My favorite scene is the group of learned men assembling in an office and pouring over the evidence Akeley’s son brought to the university. It gets the closest to evoking Universal Horror. For an exposition scene, it really moves and holds your attention. The actors do a great job of vacillating back and forth between reason and fear – especially Matt Foyer.
Brett: Yeah, the office scene is nearly perfect.
Jeremy: My favorite part of horror movies is the setup, of the possibility of things that go bump in the night. So I eat exposition scenes like this up. Take Stephen King’s short story, 1408: half of it is just one man telling another man about the terrible history of a haunted hotel room. Delicious.
For that reason, the entire first act works for me and works in a big bad way. My only real quibble with the second act is the same one I had with the story: there’s no room to question Noyes (the cult leader) and faux-Akeley’s intentions. Wilmarth seems particularly dense about the whole thing… though maybe that’s what Lovecraft was aiming for.
On the other hand, I like that we never hear the story faux-Akeley tells Wilmarth. That tale is basically Cthulhu Mythos porn in the novella – interesting only to die-hard fans. The notion of creatures and horrors too terrible to explain is a big part of Lovecraft – and I like how they preserve that sense of mystery while simultaneously dealing with the proverbial Tom Bombadil in the room.
Gabby: I noticed the vibe they were going for from the opening logo. I admire that choice and think it adds a lot to the movie. I agree that the office scene is really well delivered, especially in capturing that ’30s Universal Horror vibe. I do love classic Universal Horror, so this made me grin a lot.
Jeremy: It’s cool to hear you guys enjoyed this movie, because I was curious if it would work for anyone who wasn’t a Lovecraft fan. Keep in mind where I’m coming from with this. It’s hard to be objective about something that feels made just for you.
Gabby: Have any of you seen Son of Frankenstein?
Jeremy: I have. I’m nuts for Universal Horror and have all those DVD collections with the films for each monster made in the ’30s and ’40s.
Gabby: When the head was raving about how great it is to be chosen, it reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All the propaganda that could easily connect to communist propaganda and the Red Scare. But then again the first World War was advertised as a chance to fight for your country and gain glory…
Anyway, I ask as Son of Frankenstein has some really beautiful looking shots. At times, the way they lit this was similar. I really love that old-fashioned craft of cinematography, seen with the use of shadow across the characters’ faces. The encounter with the monsters really went for the King Kong vibe.
Jeremy: That’s a great observation, Gabby. I’ve always thought the plane chase was a little out of time, but you’re right: it’s right there in King Kong.
Gabby: Anyone else get a ’50s sci-fi vibe with the brains in jars? I can tell Lovecraft was ahead of his time. What did people think when this story was first published? I found that an odd transition though.
Also, I was getting more of The Village of the Damned vibe off that young girl…
Brett: Frequently, at that time anyway, books were 10-20 years ahead of the movies. Most of the film noir from the ’40s and ’50s was based on stories and books published in the ’20s and ’30s. Same with sci-fi. Interestingly, Lovecraft was one of the best kept secrets for a long, long time. He influenced lots of writers, but his work didn’t really get much popular exposure until the last 20 years or so.
Jeremy: Speaking of which, Gabby, you mentioned not having any experience with Lovecraft before this. Does this pique your interest at all for reading his stories?
Gabby: It does for sure. As we were speaking about this movie I have wanted to read the original story. So I have been reading it on and off throughout today. I think I will be delving into his works more this year.
Jeremy: I’m happy to hear that. Just keep in mind that he’s kind of a racist monster who created incredible monsters.
Brett: There are shockingly few movies based on his works. So many other writers were influenced by him though. He’s like the Mötorhead of horror.
Jeremy: I would amend that to there are very few faithful adaptions, that keep the spirit of the stories and set them in their proper time period. Even the more notable movies baring his name – The Dunwich Horror, Re-Animator – are loosely based on his stories at best. I’m not a purist by any means – but you lose a lot by taking these stories out of a time where technology was on the cusp of making our world feel smaller and less unknown.
Gabby: In a similar way that War of the Worlds was published in the age of the Industrial Revolution and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Where people started questioning and reshaping their religious beliefs.
Jeremy: And to your question about how the story was initially received. Lovecraft’s imagination was ahead of its time, his values were not. From what I’ve read, this story and At the Mountains of Madness were difficult sells for the pulps, since they explicitly say the monsters aren’t monsters and are, in fact, aliens. These stories were supposedly too sci-fi for the weird fiction magazines and too weird fiction for the sci-fi rags.
Wow, I just realized that this is our longest discussion yet. We better wrap this up. Final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: My last thoughts: this film is definitely worth a look. They put a lot of effort in and it shows. Though not a big fan of the last few minutes of the film, the rest of it has an atmosphere and visual design that adds a lot. On top of that, I enjoyed the performances and the fun way they approached the story. It’s bonkers. In a good way.
Brett: I don’t dislike the movie. I think it’s pretty good, but, yeah, it would have been that much better if they kept the tone consistent.
Jeremy: What more can I say? The mixture of old and new sensibilities doesn’t entirely mesh, but goddamn, do I love this movie. There’s more passion and enthusiasm on display here than in most of the movies we covered. May the Dark Gods of Old bless the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.
And this ends our round of movies based on pulp/weird fiction. It’s been a blast. We’ll back soon, talking about three sequels to blockbuster summer movies. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment below.
Thanks for reading, everyone.