Reviewed by D.W. Bostaph
Starring Jason Cottle, Scott Green, Dennis Kleinsmith, Tori Spelling
Directed by Dan Gildark
I have been dreading the arrival of Cthulhu. My fascination with all things Lovecraft is well documented and I have been following this film’s development for a while. As I learned more about the film, I grew ever more skeptical about the final product’s success. It appeared that anything that could go wrong with it had done so; he production had hit money troubles, they had Tori Spelling in the cast, and then there was the “gay thing”.
Cthulhu’s creators had made no secret that they were planning to attack several hot issues within their film, not the least of them was homosexuality. I discussed this with Cogswell when I interviewed him, and while he had good reasoning for his approach to the main character, I found my self still uneasy with the premise. Add to this an attack on American world view and environmentalism and I was beginning to fear that there was no way that this film was going to succeed.
Too often writers and directors add in materials to Lovecraftian stories in order to help translate the premise into a functional film framework. The problem here is that usually the film’s premise just cannot stand up to the weight of the issues presented and one or the other gets lost in the resulting rubble. These films just collapse under their own weight and we're usually left with a mess and another example of why it's so hard to make a great H.P. movie. So, given all that Cogswell has claiming to have done to a simple story like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", it was easy to see why I was so scared that Cthulhu was going to be one of the biggest debacles to ever grace the Old One’s mythos.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Everything I thought that was going to make Cthulhu not work actually ended up making it a stronger, more horrifying experience. The experience of watching this film was as perfect a translation of modern times through the lens of Lovecraft as I have ever seen attempted. Director Dan Gildark and writer/director Grant Cogswell have pulled of the near impossible: They have created a monster that is not only provocative and challenging, but beautiful all at the same time.
I don’t even know where to begin.
The story centers on Russell Marsh, who returns to Rivermouth because his mother has just died. In returning, Russell (played with an awesome quiet cool by Jason Cottle) comes to face the small town he left behind for one of a more accepting size, an odd distant zealot of a father, and a mystery brought about by a “from beyond the grave” message from his mother. The plot is simple, but they way it plays out is anything but.
The town is very off to Russell. They do not accept him and they even shun him a bit. Townsfolk empathic to Russell’s cause are chided and when they offer help, they are terrified to do so. Is this all due to Russell’s lifestyle? Or is there something more sinister at hand? Cthulhu expertly blurs the lines of what the real reason is; I never got a feel that it was really one over the other.
Russell is, for the most part, left to deal with things on his own. There's a passing love interest, a childhood friend now all grown up; Mike (Green). Russ and Mike were once friends (and more), but Mike grew up and got a family and a kid. The family is gone and now Mike may be open to Russ’s advances. This is a complex and tender relationship that is more deep and real than almost any other film I have ever seen on the subject matter. This in itself says volumes about the performances turned in by Cottle and Scott Green. They effortlessly convey the delicate relationship, which makes the rest of the film all the more powerful.
As Russ struggles with the confusing relationship between him and Mike, he also has to face the family he left behind. His father, the head of a weird cult call the “Esoteric Order of Dagon”, is brought to life by the unyielding performance of Dennis Kleinsmith. Reverend Marsh and crew worship the Old Ones and are not about to hide their glee at the prospect of their deities immanent return. Russell feels guilty for leaving and now, estranged from his father, he struggles to make sense of his place within the family now that his one anchor to it (his mother) is gone. It's this type of atavistic guilt that permeates so much of Lovecraft’s work and never before have I seen it fleshed out so well. Cthulhu uses its framework to create, via Russell, a layer of guilt that almost seems suffocating. Again, questions are raised: Is Russell’s father more upset that his son is gay, or that he has not yet joined the fold?
Tori Spelling makes an appearance as a sultry housewife with an ulterior motive. She plays the part with a weird mix of slight camp and sex. She does nothing to really detract from the film, which is what I had feared. She's a strange antithesis to the character of Mike in every way imaginable.
Swirling around all of this is a world that is coming apart at the seams. Global warming, specie extinctions, human apathy, global economics and politics are just a few things that we get a feeling for in the film. It's fed to us by passing news on the television or radio and it serves to paint a bleak world for all of this to take place within.
Painting a picture of this crumbling dystopia is the sweeping landscapes and worn, established buildings that make up the Rivermouth town and surrounding area. Director Dan Gildark and cinematographer Sean Kirby choose to insert wide helicopter shots of landscapes that appear to float beside the ocean. Their vast greens and blues give us the feeling of insignificance that is key to these tales. The art direction team of Liz Cawthon and Etta Lilienthal weave together nightmarish images of unreal rooms, tight terror tunnels and boxes of live human limbs. Whether it dreamt or awake, the images served up by this crew deserve more affirmatory adjectives than my thesaurus has at the moment.
Cthulhu is not a movie for everyone. It doesn't need to be. It's paced and deliberate and doesn't try to be anything it's not. It's the simple story of a man, trying to understand who he is, where he is, and why the world is the way it is. These are questions we all can ask, but a lot of us choose to ignore. Cthulhu is not about squid-headed monsters or formless beasts from the void. It's about the sad fact that humans are not the center of the universe, that in the real game of life all of the big issue we face don't amount to much when the real end comes. Dan Gildark and Grant Cogswell have sculpted an enigmatic look at the reality of humanity, and the persistence of fate. For even when we do come to understand that we are just small insects dancing on the head of a pin, the horror comes when we then understand that even insects have a destiny.
One that there is no escape from...
5 out of 5
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