Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cthulhu (2007)

Cthulhu probably stands as one of the more controversial attempts at bringing the Cthulhu mythos to the screen, exploring certain themes completely absent from H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional writing. It’s a totally modern take on the novella The Shadow over Innsmouth that, at its core, still ends up feeling like a very true embodiment of Lovecraft horror.

Taking the more suggestive and indescribable approach, not much is seen yet much is insinuated. Hearing the radio news reporting on wild polar bears going extinct and the oceans rising, amongst others, suggests a kind of world that is falling apart, an uneasy feeling of an approaching end. Blending this with an emphasis on a beautiful but ominous dark ocean, it really feels like Cthulhu might be rising very soon and the Old Ones will be claiming what is rightfully theirs. The East Coast New England settings fans of the author are more in tune with have been transferred over to the West Coast in Astoria Oregon, and the setting is an interesting and fitting shift that doesn’t feel disagreeable at all. There’s just something about seaside towns that work so well for the Lovecraft sensibility. Why, after all, cannot the Old Ones haunt a port town on the other side of the country?

What stands out the most in Cthulhu and seems odd, at first, for a Lovecraft film is the significance of the homosexuality of its main character, history professor Russell Marsh (Jason Cottle), to the story. Though the film has found an approving horror audience, and it was well received at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, from what I understand, a number of people expressed an extreme disapproval for the film on the internet, exclaiming that the movie seems more like a gay love drama than a Lovecraft horror film adaptation. It’s definitely a bold move, one I admire, from the filmmakers, and I’ll admit that it took me by surprise, but I honestly thought Cottle nailed the role and it ended up working really well.

In the film, Russell receives word that his mother passed away and now has to return home to a family he’s distanced himself from for a long time, in order to attend the funeral and carry out the terms in his mother’s will. Aside from Russell encountering a fatal car crash involving a driver that seemed to know him too well, a type of deadly omen, the homecoming seems to start out rather well. However, it is revealed that Russell had a troubled past and an unhealthy relationship with his father, Reverend Marsh (Dennis Kleinsmith), a high priest in the religious order of Dagon. Russell’s father’s formal religious fanaticism and disapproval of his sexuality seems to be the primary reason for the hostility and Russell distancing himself from his family.

A lot of the story setup seems to provide a deep drama feel to the film: Russell’s sister, Dannie Marsh (Cara Buono), and her husband, who’s played by an actor (Rob Hamm) who looks just like Lovecraft, are failing at trying to have kids, and the only light in Russell’s life seems to be from reuniting with his childhood friend, Mike (Scott Patrick Green), who he seems to have unrequited feelings for. Things for the most part seem pretty downbeat and, given the current state of Russell’s life, very depressing. It does a fine job at setting itself up for a down to Earth story, but viewers in the mood for the Sci Fi fantasy escape that Lovecraft’s writing offers might start getting a little restless. Fortunately there’s an occult fantasy horror feel that pervades more and more as the movie goes along, and those Lovecraftian moments we’ve come for start to appear in remarkable ways that the film deserves more credit for, the first, for me, being a kind of twilight black mass procession over a bridge into a fishing net house. There’s a fearful feeling of isolation that begins to grow as it becomes more and more apparent that something is totally screwed up with this place.

The character of Zadok (Richard Garfield) is lifted straight from the novella, and the iconic conversation between the lead character and Zadok, the town drunk who’s old enough to have lived through a lot of its secret horrors, is given a new reimagining. Most might remember a similar moment in Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, but at least here we can understand what the actor is saying. Anyone who’s seen Dagon should know what I’m talking about.

Another odd and strange wild card here is the addition of Tori Spelling (apparently she liked the script) in a role that’s completely unexpected and in stark contrast to her current status as a mother of four reality TV star, but that’s what great actors do. She’s extremely seductive and totally hot, here, which is something I never thought before I saw this movie (I was more of a Tiffani Amber Thiessen man in the 90210 days). Some of her scenes are jaw dropping in more ways than one, and I can especially appreciate some of her overacting since I feel overacting can be quite fantastic when done by a professional.

As long as it’s not cold and rainy, I’m a big fan of cloudy weather, and, from what I’ve seen, it would seem that Astoria is generally cloudy and foggy around whatever time the film was being made, which in the story is from the end of April to the beginning of May. Yes, it takes place over Walpurgis Night, the eve of April 30th just before the first day of May, something that Lovecraft mentioned in Dreams in the Witch House. When Russell is imprisoned in the local jail, following a great nightmare scene involving a huge wooden crate on the beach with a bunch of flailing arms jutting out of it (which I'm imagining is an allusion to the kidnapped children mentioned by Zadok), he wakes up to what seems like an apocalypse taking place outside; it almost seems fortunate that he has his jail cell to hide in. Something indescribable outside his door unsuccessfully tries to break through, and after the commotion has died down, he finds his door opened. Everything seems to have gone to hell in a way that I thought seemed reminiscent to the intro to 28 Days Later. The police station is empty and Russell walks to a calendar on the wall and tears off the April 29th/30th sheet, revealing May 1st and that all that chaos that was alluded to outside of Russell’s cell took place on Walpurgis Night. An example of the film’s many subtleties that I appreciated.

The biggest strength in this film, for me, something I really felt, was how it generated this convincing atavistic desire in its protagonist to return to the sea. Towards the end, everything culminates into something Russell denies and is disgusted with, but all the horror Russell is running from completely seems to deteriorate once he, while trying to escape, opens the backdoor of his family mansion to a terrific shot of the ocean. The view and smell of the sea seems to stop him in his tracks, as all that he was mortified of seems to become his true calling, a realization as to his heritage, what he is, where he’s come from, and where he belongs. This leads into an astonishing shot at the beach with people walking out of the sea, like zombies. The parked, empty vehicles on the beach with open doors and headlights still on sort of suggest an abrupt mass abandonment of life on land. It leads into the film’s final scene, which ends up being purposefully inconclusive, leaving it up to viewers to decide what they would've done. The lead is faced with a final decision, and as it becomes clear that he’s made up his mind, the movie ends without us ever finding out what choice he made. I dig it, but I could imagine a lot of people at theaters and film festivals being like: “Ok, and…?”

In the long run, Cthulhu has become one of my favorite Lovecraft film adaptations. I’ve wanted to review it for a long time, but I just wasn’t too sure how to approach it. As I said, it is very controversial; a look at the polar reviews on IMDB should help attest to that. The director, on the DVD commentary, even mentioned that the movie’s approval/disapproval ratio was 50/50, right down the center. The movie is sort of all over the place with a ton of filming locations, something that scriptwriter Grant Cogswell expressed regret for, but we dig that sort of thing here. Be sure to go into it with an open mind, and you just might be fortunate enough to be on the approval side of the controversy and discover what’s there to appreciate.


  1. Great post and Blog Giovanni. Congratulations from:

  2. The story sounds good. But with all the drama I would really love to see Cthulhu rising from the deep at some point!

    1. That is a good point, actually. It almost seems like a promised pay-off that never happens. The movie still isn’t without monsters. The filmmakers did allude to a different ending which ended up not being possible due to budget problems, but I imagine there was initially an intention to include Cthulhu in the flesh somewhere towards the end.

  3. If only Guillermo Del Toro's take on At The Mountains Of Madness might actually happen . . . I'd definitely rank Cthulhu as one of the best Lovecraft adaptations I've seen, though it is deeply disappointing to not at least have gotten a glimpse of Cthulhu at the end. It seems like usually the best a viewer can hope for with a Lovecraft movie is that the filmmaker at least catches the "flavor" of Lovecraft, and I believe Cthulhu manages that nicely.

    Having only recently seen Del Toro's Pacific Rim - loaded, of course, with Lovecratian beasties from the sea - I'm more convinced than ever that he's the man to finally do Lovecraft justice on the big screen. Let's just hope if he gets the opportunity that he brings the beasties of Pacific Rim and combines that with the story-telling prowess of Pan's Labyrinth. Rim's narrative was, at best, a somewhat shaky framework upon which to hang the FX, but Del Toro is undoubtedly capable of the whole package.

    1. Thanks Brandon! I'm glad to have your take on Lovecraft filming. I agree with you. I also hope ATMOM gets made. It probably would've been out by now if it didn't get canned, but I have a feeling that Del Toro will eventually get around to it.