Reviewed by Andrew Kasch
Starring Tori Spelling, Cara Buono, Amy Minderhout, Scott Patrick Green, Jason Cottle
Directed Dan Gildark
Distributed by Liberation Entertainment
Let’s get one thing straight: If you’re watching Cthulhu hoping to see a giant squid-like monster run amok like Godzilla, don’t even bother. The big guy never makes an appearance. However, if you’re actually familiar with the bizarre writings of H.P. Lovecraft, love art-house horror, or are just in the mood for a good mind-fuck, this latest adaptation might just be right up your alley.
Loosely based (aren’t they all?) on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Cthulhu follows estranged college professor Russ (Jason Cottle) who returns to his hometown in Oregon for his mother’s funeral. His homosexuality has made him an outcast among his family, particularly with his father who is a high priest in the Esoteric Order of Dagon – a cult with an unhealthy obsession of the sea. As Russ explores his old stomping grounds, he stumbles onto a series of strange events and slowly discovers the creepy townsfolk have plans for him…and the end of the world.
Cthulhu is the first film to really grasp the author’s offbeat, atmospheric style which meant it was pretty much panned immediately. Fans decried it as “that gay Lovecraft movie” and the handful of merciless reviews seemed to focus on the casting of supporting actress Tori Spelling more than the actual film. Because of this, Cthulhu only had a brief skirt with a couple of festivals and sat on a shelf for several years before the filmmakers finally settled with gay cinema distibutor Here! Films.
Unfortunately, it was never promoted outside the gay/lesbian community and its target audience of horror devotees didn’t even know it existed. I still remember driving all the way out to the single gay theater in Los Angeles where it played for its opening night premiere/Q&A to find four other people sitting in the audience. It was damned depressing.
Cthulhu deserved better.
The film more or less plays out like Shadow Over Innsmouth re-imagined by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. There are heavy shades of Phantasm, J-Horror and Bush-era panic melded into a disjointed, dreamlike narrative, and just like the author’s scattershot mythology (largely pieced together from half-finished and discarded stories) Cthulhu feels like a wild fever-induced nightmare. We get hints of the larger picture (the cult of Dagon, human/fish hybrids, and references to the big cheese himself) but nothing is ever explained or resolved and all the horror lies in the unknown.
In essence, this the first adaptation where the filmmakers have successfully captured the apocolyptic paranoia and dread that made Lovecraft so inspirational.
The much-ballyhooed gay content plays more to the lead character than the film itself. Russ’ homosexuality is written to be more of a catalyst to keep him away from his family and the horrors of his hometown and it works. It’s never the dominating factor and Cthulhu is in no way “gay horror,” just a horror film where the protaganist happens to be gay. Aside from Spelling – who shares brief screentime as a creepy sexpot rapist(!) – the entire cast is comprised of unknowns and they all turn in solid performances (despite some wild overacting from Russ’ father). Mix in gorgeous cinematography, a creepy sound mix, and subtle scares and you finally have a serious-minded Lovecraft film that rises above its meager budget (no offense to Stuart Gordon’s silly creature features).
The DVD (if you can find it) is fairly bare bones with a photo gallery and trailer, but is worth checking out for the commentary alone. Director Dan Gildark and screenwriter Grant Cogswell detail the struggles of shooting on a shoestring budget, their problems with the movie, and ponder the industry’s dying market for low-budget original films (thank Hollywood and their fucking remakes). After listening to so many masturbatory, back-patting commentaries, it’s engaging to listen to two intelligent filmmakers who are vocal about their mistakes (Cogswell practically rips the film a new one). The two are almost a little too hard on themselves in the end, but any indie filmmaker can relate and learn from this track.
While it has a few shortcomings in the pacing department, Cthulhu is high on ambition and originality and the closest we’ve come to a true H.P. Lovecraft film. Hopefully this little movie will one day find an audience, because this pitiful fanfare is a bad reminder of what it’s like to be the little fish in the big pond (no pun intended).
4 out of 5
3 out of 5
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