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Whisperer in Darkness, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A Lovecraft adaptation in love with its craft."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There was no small amount of tooth-gnashing earlier this year when Universal backed out of a big-name, big-money production of H.P. Lovecraft's "In the Mountains of Madness", and I certainly hope that all those saying that the studio was leaving money on the table are seeking out "The Whisper in Darkness". It doesn't have nearly as much money behind it but it has a lot of love for the material and makes that work for it.

Rumors abound in regards to strange things up in the green mountains of Vermont, but Professor Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts gives them very little credence as modern, genuine phenomena, though his friend, cult investigator Nathaniel Ward (Matt Lagan), says these beliefs are nonetheless dangerous. Wilmarth has been studying them as folklore, and to that end has been exchanging letters with Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), a fellow folklorist who lives much closer to the scene in Vermont. Akeley asks his son George (Joe Sofranko) to deliver a strange black idol found in a nearby cave to Wilmarth on his way to California, but George never shows, and when the elder Akeley invites Wilmarth to pay him a visit, things in this small Vermont town seem very strange...

Despite his long-lasting and highly devoted fanbase - and, in some ways, because of how demanding such groups can be - H.P. Lovecraft's works have often been considered unadaptable. This project comes from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, and like that group's previous go at the task of making a movie from the author's works (2005's The Call of Cthulhu), the first half of this movie is burdened with a great deal of narration that presumably works better on the page than the screen. More so than Call, Whisperer has a number of characters running around with minimal involvement in the plot;, presumably they are significant to the Lovecraft mythos in some other way. Also pulled in - to engage Wilmarth in a debate on science and the unknown - is real-world figure Charles Fort.

What the HPLHS continues to do that serves them well is to go a step or three beyond just shooting their movies as period pieces. Instead, they strive to create adaptations that are of the original story's time, so they shoot in black & white, frame the shots in the way a director of early talkies would have done it, and have the actors work in a perhaps somewhat less natrualistic way than is currently the standard. It's an effective way to make these passion projects on a budget; since the filmmakers play things straight, it tricks our minds into making the same allowances we make when watching a classic film, even for things like budget CGI effects.

One the movie gets rolling, it does become a tremendously entertaining mixture of slow-burn horror and pulp science fiction. Director Sean Branney and co-writer Andrew Leman keep the audience a step or two ahead of Wilmarth, just enough for the viewer to have a few shocks but also to let them feel the impending doom as Wilmarth walks ever deeper into a trap. And while there are some storytelling shortcuts along the way (some awkwardly shoehorned in, some "aw yeah, that'll be fun" foreshadowing), Wilmarth's eventual attempts to bust out of the trap - and save humanity in the bargain! - add an almost swashbuckling element to the horror and sci-fi. The details would sound ridiculous spelled out, but everything the filmmakers do makes it pull together.

The effects, admittedly, aren't as polished as they would be on a film with professionals rather than hobbyists in charge, and in some cases the same can be said about the cast. Most are, in one way or another, variations on the characters seen in 1930s horror movies, confident men of science from a period where that meant going on adventures as much as supervising grad students. Matt Foyer is, happily, the best of that group, able to slant Wilmarth a toward the ivory tower side of that characterization but also keep him humble and with just enough in the way of hidden steel to be a believable action hero when it comes to that. The villains are admittedly one-dimensional much of the time, but Barry Lynch is actually fairly impressive as Henry Ackley - after a less-than-stellar beginning, he's able to add genuine pathos to a potentially ridiculous scene.

As with its predecessor, I'm not sure exactly how much appeal "Whisperer" will have outside of die-hard H.P. Lovecraft fans. Certainly, it's also fun for fans of this sort of bygone style of genre movie, but these are two niches that may not add together perfectly well, even more more polished products. Those who fall into either category should give it a look, though - the love put into it is certainly visible in the final product.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=22635&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/01/11 15:16:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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