Written by Max Naylor
Everyone enjoys H.P. Lovecraft.
That is to say, I think there’s something universally appealing about Lovecraft’s strange and terrifyingly unique mythos. Something about the truly alien and unnatural images he conjured out of his fevered mind that tickles at some primitive part of our brain in a modern world almost completely explainable through science and study. There’s an irresistible draw to something that, as it is told to us, is completely unfathomable to the human mind. Even those who aren’t necessarily drawn to his storytelling, which is long-winded and expository, can find some draw in the unworldly qualities of a mythology he invented out of nightmares.
Because of this, I find the idea of transferring that canon onto film very exciting. You find a lot of his imagery bleeding into other works, Hellyboy 1 and 2 being probably the most popular examples, and indeed Guillermo del Toro was at one point developing an on-screen adaptation of another Lovecraft title, At the Mountains of Madness, with del Toro’s work having been pervasively influenced by the writer. However, with that project now scrapped, we’re lucky to have independent features like The Whisperer in Darkness being produced at a level that, while maybe not at a major production level, is still very enjoyable and serves as wonderful supplemental viewing to the stories.
Most of the period pieces produced at a low-independent level like this are difficult enough to pull off. The budget constraints on any project that’s going to require so much costuming and historically accurate locations, props and post-production, can be enough to throw the entire film into a limbo of disbelief, the viewer constantly reminded of the modern elements that accidentally or unavoidably leak into an otherwise acceptable film, but Whisperer… does a lot right to offset these problems.
For one, shot entirely in black and white, the film has excellent cinematography, and with the exception of a few sequences where a scene was unconvincingly shot rain-for-daylight or perhaps a study seemed too suspiciously to have been shot on a not-perfectly disguised soundstage, it does a wonderful job of strikingly and dramatically portraying early 1900s New England, the atmospherically dominating and eerie location of most of Lovecraft’s work. The dense forests, suffocating fog, and disconnected rural settings are well-implemented in the film, and the filmmakers have done a wonderful job in using the stark, contrasting images to convey a feeling of danger and foreboding.
The unlikely leading man, Matt Foyer, originally coming across more like Peter MacNicol than the hero of a horror story, carries the film as a straight-laced man of science who discovers along with the audience how unfortunately narrow his rationale has been. There are great performances ranging from the smug and cloying fellow scientist of Charlie Tower to the truly excellent performance from the youngest member of the cast, Autumn Wendel, who sincerely gives any of the actors in Super 8, the last widely-released film with a main cast dominated by child actors, a run for their money.
Even with the limited budget, the creature effects were fun and a shot in the right direction of paying credence to the legacy of Lovecraft. Even for a major production studio, the creation of the nightmarish Elder Gods that populate Lovecraft’s stories isn’t an easy job. If any complaint can be made, it certainly isn’t on the production aspect, but more a desire that more design would have gone into the monsters to begin with. We know that much of the Lovecraft mythos is essentially crustacean, betentacled, bat-winged monstrosities, and because of the film’s adherence to re-creating the mood of a Lovecraft work rather than a word-for-word adaptation, we know we’re not going to be seeing all that much of the creatures, but the monsters themselves came across slightly under-imagined, and once you’re past the soul-crushing epicaricacy of turn-of-the-century New England, what else really is there in a Lovecraft story. Not really something that’s going to make or break someone’s enjoyment of the film as they’re still perfectly fine in their monstrous way, but I could hope for more, if not expect it.
The Blu-ray contains the basics, commentary tracks and trailers, but also has a great making-of documentary featurette that is really fun. Watching someone put together this film on a shoestring budget, fueled by nothing but a passion for filmmaking and, clearly, an almost-unhealthy devotion to Lovecraft is something anyone who enjoys film can appreciate. It’s at this level, where the money’s not always guaranteed and creative solutions must constantly be found to keep you within the razor-thin margins of production, that the bravest kind of filmmaking comes out.
There have been a few Lovecraft-inspired indies coming out recently, and while certainly no big-studio CGI blockbuster, this is by far the best. Not enough to really cast your mind babbling into madness, screaming the names of beings too old to be gods, but as long as the director keeps making films we still have a chance.