Review of The Call of Cthulhu, Directed by Andrew Leman
By ALEXIS NEAL
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn …
In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming …
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die …
These cryptic phrases appear in a manuscript found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston of Boston. The manuscript is full of curious things—feverish dreams of Cyclopean cities and green ooze, a bizarre octopus-looking-dragon monster, and a dark book known as the Necronomicon; of unsettling cult rituals, mass sacrifices, evil ‘Esquimaux’, and disturbing idols; of a horrifying sea voyage, an undiscovered island, and the utter terror of non-Euclidian architecture.
“The Call of Cthulhu” is widely regarded as one of the best short stories penned by master of pulpy weird fiction H.P. Lovecraft. Its titular monster spawned the well known—at least in pulp and RPG circles—Cthulhu mythos, which was further developed and expanded by August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and others. Later writers and filmmakers have since incorporated the Cthulhu mythos into their work as well–Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Guillermo Del Toro, Sam Raimi, and Neil Gaiman, just to name a few.
“The Call of Cthulhu” was considered by many to be unfilmable—that is, until the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society took a crack it in 2005. Since Lovecraft’s brilliantly dark short story was written in the late 1920’s, director Andrew Leman (and company) decided to render their adaptation in the medium of the times—in other words, as a silent film. Lovecraft is notorious for deliberately affecting an older voice than was then in use, so the use of such a ‘dated’ medium is doubly appropriate. The effects are low-budget at best (but in a good, cheesy, Medusa-in-Clash of the Titans way), and the absence of audible dialogue takes some getting used to, but the end result works surprisingly well. Fans of The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast will particular enjoy seeing Chad Fifer all kitted out in silent-film-era glam makeup as the beleaguered artist-cum-prophet, Henry Wilcox.
The Call of Cthulhu (both the movie and the short story) is a great example of Lovecraft’s worldview, at least as demonstrated in his writing. For Lovecraft, the world is a horrible place, full of hidden knowledge and dark forces. The human race stands on the brink of disaster, and the only thing keeping us all from panic and despair is ignorance of our true circumstances. And Lovecraft encourages this ignorance—for him, it is the only thing keeping us sane. With true knowledge of reality comes madness. If we really knew what was ‘out there’ we would go stark raving mad, and we would be thankful for the blissful respite of complete mental collapse. In The Call of Cthulhu, this worldview is demonstrated by our narrator’s discovery that a malevolent and unthinkably powerful being lies sleeping under the ocean, and when Great Cthulhu wakes, he will rule over—and possibly destroy—mankind. There is no hope—no chance of defeating this ancient monster. He is too strong. This is one of Lovecraft’s more optimistic works, in that there is a partial victory for humanity as a result of quick thinking and bold action by a certain Norwegian sailor, but it is only a temporary respite—they are just postponing the inevitable. The only true hope lies in ignorance of the doom that awaits.
For Christians, there is a kernel of truth hidden among the nihilistic weeds of Lovecraft’s worldview. We know that there is a powerful enemy set on the destruction and domination of mankind. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5:8). This enemy is compared to a great dragon, hurled to earth from his original home in heaven, furiously pursuing humanity with an eye to its destruction (Revelation 12). This has been his goal, ever since Eden, when he tempted and corrupted our first parents (Genesis 3), and it is still his goal today (Revelation 12:17). He accuses (Job 1), he tempts (Matthew 4:1-11), he leads us astray (Revelation 12:9-10), he plots against us and attacks us with fiery arrows (Ephesians 6:10-17). Martin Luther was right—this world is “with devils filled.” In our materialistic society, we are tempted to ignore or deny the reality of the enemy, but the Bible tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). And those powers are scary. The devil doesn’t just want to destroy humanity—he is fully capable of doing so. “His craft and power are great, / and, armed with cruel hate on earth is not his equal.” The whole world is under his power (I John 5:19). If we truly understood our predicament, we would cower in hopeless terror before the forces of darkness, as millions before us have done.
Lovecraft is not wrong about our situation. He sees something that we all too often miss. He understands the problem—we are opposed by ancient, malevolent beings who want nothing more than to completely enslave and obliterate the human race, and we are powerless to defend ourselves.
But for Christians, that’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. See, this powerful enemy, he’s way stronger than you or I could ever be. But he’s not the strongest thing—the strongest person—out there. Someone else is stronger. Someone else made him and rules over him (Colossians 1:16), and someone else can bind him (Matthew 12:22-29; Revelation 20:2). This Creator God is powerful enough to protect His people (Job 1:9-10; II Thessalonians 3:3; I John 5:18), and nothing can snatch them out of His hand (John 10:27-29) or separate them from his love (Romans 8:37-29).
Nowhere is this victory more apparent than at the cross, where Christ paid the penalty for our sins, absorbing the wrath of God and triumphing over (Colossians 2:13-15). God promised to crush Satan (Genesis 3:14-15), and that promise was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. The victory is won. As a result, we who are in Christ need fear him no longer. Because we have been forgiven on account of Christ, because we know God, the Word of God lives in us, and we have overcome the evil one through the blood of the Lamb (I John 2:12-14; I John 5:5; Revelation 12:10). We are indeed “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37)—God gives us victory through Christ (I Corinthians 15:57), “and He must win the battle.” Through Him, we have the power the resist temptation (I Corinthians 10:13), to resist the devil himself (I Peter 5:9)—and when we do, he flees! From us! (James 4:7)
We still have an enemy—Lovecraft is right about that. “For still our ancient foe / doth seek to work us woe …” Satan’s final destruction has not yet come. But unlike Lovecraft, we have hope for the future, because with God we will gain the victory (Psalm 60:12). Satan’s end is coming (Romans 16:20). And he will be punished (Revelation 20:10).
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.”