Film Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

I’ve been waiting for this film to come out on DVD for a long time, since I first saw and fell in love with the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s (HPLHS) 1920s-style silent film The Call of Cthulhu. This latest film from the HPLHS is a talkie, done in the style of an early ’30s horror film.

The Whisperer in Darkness isn’t as close an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story as Call of Cthulhu. The first thing that struck me when I began to watch it is that there are a lot more people here than appeared in the written story. New characters are introduced, and characters that were no more than alluded to by Lovecraft are present, fleshed out with dialog, and given roles to play in the drama that leads our protagonist Albert Wilmarth to his fate.

We meet Albert Wilmarth (played by Matt Foyer, who also starred in Call of Cthulhu)–a professor of literature and mythology at Miskatonic University in Arkham Massachusetts, and a generally nice fellow but something of a ninny–as he rescues an illustrated manuscript written by a collector of New England folklore a century before and displays his find to his friend Nathaniel Ward. Since the reported sightings of peculiar creatures washed up in Vermont rivers during the historical 1927 floods, Wilmarth has been drawn into discussions of ancient legends of similar creatures in the same area. This conversation also alludes briefly to “that business with Dr. Armitage,” a cute in-reference to the events of The Dunwich Horror. It seems unlikely, however, that Wilmarth is aware of anything more than the break-in at the university library and attempt to steal their copy of the Necronomicon.

If he did know more about it, he wouldn’t be so skeptical about the existence of alien creatures who have lived for centuries in the remote hills of Vermont nor be so ready to attribute the recent reports entirely to old folk-tales and the overactive imaginations of the locals.

Radio debate

In support of his opinion, Wilmarth agrees to a debate on the radio with real-life collector of weird phenomena, Charles Fort. The cause of skepticism does not triumph–but perhaps that’s just as well if one is living in a Lovecraftian universe.

Wilmarth’s disbelief suffers a further blow when young George Akeley arrives during the post-debate party, bringing evidence from his father Henry Akeley; the elder Akeley has been sending Wilmarth letters about these creatures, and now the son produces photographs of crab-like footprints–and even an elusive image of a dead creature–along with a wax cylinder recording of the creatures and one human performing a ceremony at a circle of standing stones atop a hill near the Akeley farm.

Photo of Akeley with dead creature These items and some goading by Fort lead Wilmarth to question his earlier opinions. His friend Ward, an expert in unspeakable cults who knows something of what goes on in obscure corners of the world, tries to warn Wilmarth against doing anything stupid… like going up to Vermont to investigate things for himself.

So guess what Wilmarth does after young Akeley disappears while trying to bring him further evidence, and the elder Akeley sends him a typewritten letter saying that everything’s fine now, the creatures are no threat, and why doesn’t Wilmarth come to Vermont for a visit? Oh, and bring along the photos and cylinder.

Wilmarth does precisely that, and without telling anyone where he’s going. Ninny.

The middle part of the film follows Lovecraft’s story more closely. Wilmarth arrives one rainy day at the nearest train station to Akeley’s farm to be greeted, not by Henry Akeley, but by a man named Noyes who tells him that Akeley is very ill but is still eager to see him regardless. Noyes has a strangely familiar voice, which Wilmarth doesn’t immediately identify as the human voice on the cylinder recording. A bridge washed out forces Wilmarth to leave Noyes’s car and walk the last mile or so alone in the rain. It’s here that we meet the last of the important additional characters, a neighboring farmer named Masterson and his little girl, Hannah.

Akeley and Wilmarth

The sequence beginning with Wilmarth’s entrance to the Akeley house is the most creepily effective in the film. Even if you don’t know the story and don’t know what’s really going on, you can still sense that something isn’t quite right. Wilmarth finds his host seated in the corner of a darkened front parlor, well-wrapped up except for his face and hands and only able to speak in a faint, hoarse whisper (a nicely eerie performance by Barry Lynch).

The information Akeley has to whisper to Wilmarth is both astounding and horrifying: Not only has he made friends with the creatures–a winged species called the Mi-Go who are capable of interstellar flight–but he intends to go with them on their travels through space. Human bodies are too fragile to make such journeys through the vast voids, but human brains do just fine once they’re removed from their skulls and popped into specially designed canisters. The bodies are stored safely away in a cave not far from Akeley’s farm, in case the brain ever wants to return home again.

Wilmarth is naturally dubious until Akeley introduces him to a human brain that has already undergone this process. There are several canisters in a cabinet in that very room; at Akeley’s direction, Wilmarth connects one labeled B-67 up to apparatus that allow it to see and speak and project an image of its former face on an electronic-ladder gizmo similar to ones seen in Frankenstein movies of the era.

Brain in a jar

B-67 (a small role for the film’s director Sean Branney) makes his existence sound like a fabulous adventure. He has visited the farthest reaches of the galaxy and beyond, enjoys near immortality, and claims to further the betterment of humanity through his work with the Mi-Go. Wilmarth can no longer doubt the truth of what he’s been told, but in spite of B-67’s fulsome speech and Akeley’s enthusiasm, he remains unconvinced that the brain-in-a-jar lifestyle is all it’s cracked up to be. Actually, he’s horrified at the idea.

Later that evening, his suspicions are confirmed when he overhears a conversation between Noyes, B-67, and at least one hissing, buzzing alien voice. They don’t consider him a good candidate for the brain-in-a-jar program either (apparently, they share my assessment of his ninny-ism). Wilmarth isn’t relieved to hear this, since he also learns that they think he can be put to use in some other equally horrific way. Convinced that he is in great personal danger, Wilmarth makes his escape from the Akeley house with the help of Hannah Masterson, but he is reluctant to leave his friend Akeley behind.

After the others have gone in search of him, he sneaks back into the house to find that Akeley too has gone and, discarded on the chair where Akeley was sitting, are three rather grotesque and suggestive objects.

Lovecraft’s story ends here, but the movie has a third part still to go. Once he learns about the plans the Mi-Go and their human collaborators have made to open a portal between the two worlds that very evening, Wilmarth can’t simply run away; he has the world to save from invasion by countless numbers of Mi-Go. To prevent this, he must go to the stone circle atop the hill–and while making his way through the cave beneath the hill, discovers what I’ve long suspected: The Mi-Go don’t always take good care of the human bodies left behind while the brains are elsewhere.

Portal between worlds

Can Wilmarth save the world from invasion from beyond? Can he at least get little Hannah out of danger? The ending is heavy on decidedly non-1930s-style CGI action, which came as a disappointment to me since I was expecting period special effects along the lines of the stop-motion Cthulhu, and there is one transition where I’m not certain how we got from point A to point B. But the final note the movie ends on is appropriately Lovecraftian in tone. I found it reminiscent of the end of Shadow Over Innsmouth, if that’s not giving too much away. There are also some genuinely disturbing moments during this final section of the film–things that stayed with me long after I’d gone to bed and turned out the lights.

Hannah and a Migo claw

The second disc in the DVD set has a number of short features about the making of the film and the various special effects used. After viewing these, I became more forgiving of the CGI Mi-Go, since the filmmakers did try period effects like stop-motion animation and puppetry first; some of the puppet limbs can be glimpsed in earlier scenes.

I was also delighted to hear that they’ve kept some of the models of Miskatonic U for future films. Future films! What next, I wonder? The Dunwich Horror? The Thing on the Doorstep? And so I’m back to waiting… waiting…

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