H.P. Lovecraft’s clammy, paranoid tales of ancient horrors come to life generally defy straight adaptation. His ornate prose comes off as reactionary: “The Call of Cthulhu,” one of his most prototypical stories, was written in 1926, but the synax goes straight back to the Augustan era. Lovecraft identified with writers like Joseph Addison and Henry Fielding; his sentences are long, full of baroque verbal flourishes that accrete power as they go on. His extremely literate, old-fashioned tone of a rationalist sneaks up on you as it calmly describes one potentially civilization-ending catastrophe after another.
That makes for a distinctive style (and a tremendous cult following), but a nearly-impossible assignment when it comes time for cinematic adaptations. The best ones ignore the tone, style and setting altogether: Stuart Gordon’s Dagon keeps the fish monsters but otherwise delves into gory, modern places Lovecraft would never have entered, and other adaptations are even less effective. Andrew Leman and Sean Branney’s The Call of Cthulhu gets around this problem by pretending to be a film from 1926, which is a tricky thing to do: there’s always the risk of using flashy editing techniques anachronistic to the time period; of black-and-white that looks too flat and dull and far too modern in its light intensity; of obviously fake celluloid scratches; and of the one thing no one can really do anything about — people who don’t look like they belong to the time period, which takes a semi-intuitive divining process rather than a simple casting call.
By jumping over all those hurdles, The Call of Cthulhu passes the baseline standard of plausibly seeming like a dug-up artifact. Sticking closely to the original story both in incidents and structure, the movie’s big strength is most silent films’ biggest potential weakness: expository dialogue scenes heavy on title cards. As befits a Lovecraft adaptation, the longer strange-looking men speak wordlessly against ominous lighting, interrupted only by increasing bizarre details and occultish imagery, the better it gets. What otherwise would be a huge momentum killer is the film’s biggest strength. The dread’s in the telling.
The deliberately convoluted structure makes the film analogous to Lovecraft’s prose style in all the ways that matter: the punchline isn’t the big final horror set-piece (when Lovecraft’s unnerving man-fish creations come out to play) but having all that knowledge pieced together in a pattern that’s only plausible and convincing to you. The fun’s in all those conversations: in a hospital, in a turn-of-the-century parlor, at an academic party where professors are drinking and kibitzing. The real horror’s not the monster at sea, but the sculpture in the room suggesting more than you want to think about. The Cthulhu film isn’t for everyone: it’s mainly for Lovecraft people, where the delay is the pleasure. Because when you finally do see what everyone’s been talking about, it’s quite something — the sequence is like Godzilla in the style of Lang — but the true payoff is in the down moments.