★★★★ out of ★★★★★
It is wholly appropriate that The Whisperer in the Darkness is an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. As in Love + Craft. It is a lovingly and well-crafted period piece creation of Cosmic horror. Not only does the film take the look of the era when the story was written, but it also captures the film noir aesthetic in glorious shadowy black and white. If you like Cthulhu and cold walks in the rain, this is a movie for you!
Directed by Sean Branney
The H.P. Lovecraft Horror Historical Society is an organization that has been faithfully adapting the works of H.P. Lovecraft in film and audio radio dramas since 1986 and has been an integral staple of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival for its entire existence. They often bring stage actors to do reenactments of famous Lovecraftian stories, and made a significant splash with their low-budget silent film creation of the famous tale The Call of Cthulhu back in 2005, with the context set in the 1920s, the classic heyday of the Cthulhu Mythos stories.
The Whisperer in the Darkness celebrated its 10th-anniversary release and was also celebrating a blu-ray printing, and it was a featured film once again on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater for the HPLFF. It will also be playing again at the streaming portion of the festival.
The trick with doing Lovecraftian cosmic horror is that so much of the author’s work is consumed with the flowery and arcane language that he liked to use. The blasphemous beings from another world were not meant to be understood, and those who did see these horrors would be driven mad. How then, do you take something so over the top horrifying and put it to film?
For many people, the association with the sub-genre is with over-the-top gore and plenty of tentacles. Think the Stuart Gordon productions of From Beyond or The Re-Animator, or the nightmarish scenes from At the Mouth of Madness. Campy. Gory. B-movie material.
The HPLHS takes a different approach. It does a more straight-up interpretation of the author’s tales and eschews the more exploitation leanings of previous filmmakers. Director Sean Branney here leans into the mood and tone of a noir-era pulp fiction piece, from which the story was derived, and delivers exposition by way of conversation and academic debate. It’s heady and effective, and when the monsters and the cultists need to be shown, everything makes as much sense as it possibly can.
Matt Foyer plays Albert Wilmarth, a skeptical professor of folklore at Miskatonic University, the hallowed institution of all things Lovecraftian. When confronted with tales of mysterious aliens running loose in rural Vermont, he scoffs at the idea. A man named Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch) has been requesting that Professor Wilmarth investigate the situation, but Wilmarth dismisses these entreaties and takes to the lecture circuit defending science against fantastical claims of monsters and the like.
When Akeley’s son George appears, bearing photographic evidence of potential monsters, and bearing a wax cast audio recording of mysterious rituals, Wilmarth is overcome with curiosity and agrees to make the trip to see the older Akeley. The Professor claims that, without proof, all the stories are just fiction turns to dust when confronted with this newfound information. His colleague Nathanial Ward (Matt Lagan) warns him against it, but the hook has been set and he agrees to travel to meet Henry.
He travels to Vermont to check things out, and he finds that things are just a little bit off. Akeley’s last message to him had a dramatic change in attitude from fearful to confident, but the locals are a largely dour and suspicious bunch, more willing to talk from behind a screen door with a shotgun in hand. When Wilmarth finally arrives at the Akeley farm, he sees mysterious insectoid tracks in the mud. And Akeley himself is not well, speaking with a mechanical rasp, and unable to get out of his chair to properly greet him.
This is, of course, all a cover for something sinister. There is something seriously wrong with Akeley. There is a cult, led by the charismatic F.P. Noyes (Daniel Kaemon), who have been watching Wilmarth the entire time and are running a ritual to open a gate to another dimension and to summon the Mi-Go, some of which have already been on this side of a gate to this other world. Wilmarth has been summoned to eliminate him so that any knowledge of the mysterious goings-on disappears. When things go seriously awry, he is assisted by Hannah (Autumn Wendel), a neighbor girl who can guide him around the backwoods. Will the professor figure this out in time to foil these plans?
The attention to detail is what matters in a little film like this. Everything oozes the look of the 1930s. The tailoring of the suits. The vintage sets and props, including a working dictaphone, a glorious Rolls Royce woodie, and a hand-crafted Curtiss Jenny created just for this film speak to a level of effort normally reserved for bigger studio films. For a movie with very limited funding, the look and feel of the movie are absolutely first-rate. The director, Branney had set out to make a film that looks like a golden age Universal picture, and he succeeded. Crisp shadows, moody backlighting, and the continuous rain all coalesce to a beautiful homage that Val Lewton would be proud of.
As the work of Lovecraft is public domain now, the media saturation for all things Eldritch has never been greater. From the extremely popular board games from Fantasy Flight to plushy shoggoths found on Etsy and high profile proponents like Guillermo DelToro and Mike Mignola, the awareness of the stories is pervasive, and nobody knows how to deep dive and illustrate the fine nuances of the Mythos better than the HPLHS.
For a fan of the source material, this was a great way to enjoy Lovecraft. It’s accessible enough for a layperson to enjoy, and it has the feel of being in a Call of Cthulhu mystery adventure that will please the hardened cosmic horror fan. Sanity Check!
The Whisperer in the Darkness will be playing on the streaming side of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival TODAY October 8, 2021 at 9:00. You can still get a streaming pass to watch the festival through the weekend. If you miss it there, you will have to get the physical media on Blu-ray for only $20 at the HPLHS Website..