Saturday, July 09, 2011

Lovecraft Festival: Call of Cthulhu & Reanimator

Often described as a part octopus and part dragon creature with bat wings, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu inspires existential dread, but would be difficult to render on-screen, even with an army of CGI animators. Frankly, Lovecraft’s work would have been perfect for the golden age of radio, but unfortunately he was busy dying in obscurity during the 1930’s. Championed by the likes of Stephen King, Brian Lumley, and Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft is now recognized as a Twentieth Century master of horror fiction, but his work remains devilishly difficult to film, making it an altogether fitting project for the Radiotheatre group. As part of their ongoing Lovecraft Festival, Radiotheatre’s two-man cast stands and delivers Call of Cthulhu and Reanimator old school radio style in a new production now running at the UNDER St. Marks Theater.

Director Dan Bianchi cleverly adapted what are arguably Lovecraft’s two signature novellas into two-handers for Eric Whitten and Frank Zilinyi, who play off each other rather nicely. The first, Call, lends itself particularly readily to this approach, because there is a lot of telling in Lovecraft’s tale. Indeed, the first section is entirely flashbacks, as John Raymond Legrasse of the New Orleans Police Department seeks some background information from an anthropology professor regarding the Cthulhu worshipping voodoo cult he recently busted. Of course, the academic is only too familiar with Cthulhu, who has been driving the psychically sensitive mad with bizarre dream imagery. When Call’s narrative finally starts advancing forward, Legrasse and the academic set out to find the ancient entity’s lair guided by the professor’s own dreams. Unfortunately, they find it.

Though it is still cool and creepy, Reanimator does not work quite as well in this format, perhaps since it was originally written as a serial novella, there is just so much accursed plot. Also, many will be familiar with the good Dr. Herbert West from Stuart Gordon’s loose film adaptation of Reanimator, which made a cult superstar of Jeffrey Combs among the Cheetos-smelling fanboy set, so some may compare and contrast accordingly.

In both radio-plays, Whitten takes on the role of the twitchy man of science, while Zilinyi plays his man-of-action partner. Yet, the latter are hardly boring characters. In fact, Zilinyi is especially unsettling in Reanimator as West’s loyal narrator-colleague, who might have harbored a latent homosexual attraction to the mad doctor and is most surely insane (whether that was a result of their misadventures or a preexisting condition is open to interpretation).

Though Lovecraft hewed to decidedly leftwing economic positions, he was considered distinctly conservative in his critique of social decay. Throughout his canon, society is in irreversible moral decline while evil is always an ancient, cosmic, and tangible presence. Bianchi’s take on Call directly addresses these archetypal themes in a manner faithful to Lovecraft’s vision. His original music and sound effects further heighten the mood of primordial horror, as does the thick stage smoke (asthmatics should probably be warned beforehand). Well conceived and executed, the latest installment of Lovecraft Fest is highly entertaining genre theater that is respectful but not slavish to its source material. Recommended beyond Lovecraft enthusiasts to general audiences, the 2nd Lovecraft Festival runs through July 31st at the UNDER St. Marks.

(Photo: Dan Bianchi)