Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fantasia 2011 Feedback: The Whisperer in Darkness

The Whisperer In Darkness (2011, Sean Branney)

Stories of otherworldly creatures with seemingly god-like powers that came to Earth were a speciality of famed science-fiction author H.P. Lovecraft. Few films, successful ones at the very least, have been translated to the silver screen. Unbeknownst to me was the existence of a H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society who adapted the author’s work into a screenplay and subsequently developed a short film in 2005 titled The Call of the Cthulhu, the Cthuhlu being one of the more popular of Lovecraft’s strange creations. Cast and crew members of the aforementioned picture, like actor Matt Foyer and writer-director Sean Branney joined creative forces several years later in preparation of another Lovecraft-inspired film, this time a feature length one, called The Whisperer in Darkness, which played at Fantasia last week.

Readers of the blog should be aware of the fact that Between the Seats is not at all familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s work. The deep, intricate mythology of the worlds he created and which reached out to the minds and hearts of countless science-fiction literature aficionados remains a mystery to us, meaning that we went into Sean Branney’s The Whisperer in Darkness as cold as can be. The premise seemed interesting enough, and one of the film’s selling points was that the filmmakers had attempted to craft the picture so as to lend it a 1930’s horror movie look and vibe. The plot involves an University professor/scholarly folklorist named Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) heading to the Vermont countryside after a correspondent, Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), pleads the former to come over and investigate the appearance of evil creatures around his home and farm. Wilmarth, being and educated man who abides by reason and facts, believes the claims to be preposterous, but nonetheless accepts to help out a man he considers to be a friend. The cast of characters Wilmarth encounters while on the path to Akeley’s from the chauffeur sent to get him from the train station to one of Akeley’s visibly paranoid neighbours, immediately begin to shake our protagonists confidence level and bravery. Things grow only stranger and more horrific one Wilmarth finally makes to Akeley’s home, at which point the elderly man reveals some shocking news about the extra-terrestrial visitors which roam the Vermont region.

First and foremost, the filmmakers should be awarded credit for pulling off a more than competently well made feature length movie with a reported budget of less than 400,000$. While The Whisperer in Darkness is by no means aiming to be a lavish monster production, what the audience gets is nonetheless a very well made film given the circumstances and a surprisingly well made motion picture when compared to some of the dreck released on a weekly basis at the multiplexes. The black and white cinematography, for instance, is quite stunning in a handful of scenes which are clearly hoping to evoke a blending tones film horror and film noire.  Well, evoke they do, and in the best way possible. It takes very little time for the viewer to be transported to the 1930s, at a time when monster movies such as this one, were so terribly successful at leaving audiences on the edge of their seats in fear. Back then, films such as these were arguably ‘newer’ in a way, and the sense of mystery surrounding the plot and the creatures were key ingredients in building tension. What do the monsters look like? What do they want? Do they even exist? All of these are such basic questions an audience member can ask him or herself when discovering a creature feature, but it requires a special dedication and craftsmanship on the part of everyone involved for those questions to genuinely mean something, that is, for the viewer to ask those questions because they truly are mesmerized by what is happening, as ridiculous and far-fetched may be. It is unfortunate, but there a lot of movies released these days for which those questions are not asked because the audience does not really care. Kudos to Sean Branney and his crew for their successful attempts at creating as immersive a horror film experience as possible. In many ways, The Whisperer in Darkness is proof that the ‘old style’ of horror movies can still produce the desired effects. The re-creation is realized to the fullest extent, yet the film remains sufficiently individualistic and unique, with an off-beat tone that is not just horror-inspired, but slightly comedic and definitely weird.

The work of the actors, in particular leading man Matt Foyer, is also responsible in part for the authenticity and quality on display. Foyer is not a household name, and in fact, judging by the actor’s IMDB page, has not been involved in many projects overall, but his work here as the skeptical professor Albert Wilmarth is spot on. The awkward behaviour of a book worm suddenly working in the field, the brief comedic moments taken from his skepticism towards all the claims, by Henry Akeley and some of his esteemed peers, of the existence of mythological creatures from another world are pitch perfect. The man may not have great range since he only seems to be involved in these sorts of projects, but does he ever have smart timing with his lines. Clearly the character of Wilmarth is supposed to function as the audience’s eyes and ears, and not only does the character succeed at being our avatar in this adventure, but he is a cool avatar at that. Geeky, not very heroic in the traditional sense, but smart, noble determined. The film is littered with an entire host of smaller parts involving an army of male and female actors I had never heard of before, but who for the most part do a swell job. Perhaps the lone exception one might single out is Barry Lynch, who plays the old Henry Akeley. The part is a little bit one-note, with laughter coming from only a single type of line delivery which is repeated again and again as if the audience was not smart enough to catch on to what the secret behind the character was. That is arguably more of a directorial issue than an actor issue though.

Much like in the vast majority of such monster movies, both old and modern, the stakes are raised consistently until the full extent of the antagonists’ goals are made clear and the extra-terrestrials themselves are revealed. Sean Branney then really goes to town with a climax that tries to be as thrilling and complex as some major studio projects. Ambition despite restrictions is a quality many film buffs can admire in a director, but there are times when a misjudged call is just a misjudged call. To put in bluntly, The Whisperer in Darkness is a superior film when the creatures are merely spoken about, heard, or seen as shadows in shafts of light. Notwithstanding some classic exceptions in film history, what the imagination can conjure up is often scarier than what a movie can give. It is not that the monsters do not look inventive, for they are rather eccentric in their oddity, but the action scenes Branney wants to pull off outweigh the capacities of the tools at his disposal. Whether the film could have functioned with a climax smaller in scale shall have to remain a mystery. We can only evaluate Whisperer as is, The creepiness and sense of wonder of the first two thirds is replaced with some clunky balls-to-the-wall action that overall, and despite Branney’s best efforts, does not look very good and does not thrill as much as the bizarre mystery the audience chewed on during the first hour.

The Whisperer in Darkness is an exceptional little experiment from dedicated H.P. Lovecraft fans whose desire to craft a film dear to their hearts and those of Lovecraft admirers around the world resulted in a fun, mysterious and creepy film. It may come undone a bit near the end, but even with those few mistakes, it remains an interesting curiosity horror fans should hunt down.

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