‘Eldritch USA’ Review: A Horror Musical Hit
One of the most important rules for social media is that nothing good ever comes from your unread message requests. But if there is an exception that proves the rule, it exists only for the hard-working publicists behind Ryan Smith and Tylor Foreman’s Eldritch USA. Pitched in direct messages as a midwestern Lovecraftian horror musical and coming in at a surprisingly un-brisk 108 minutes, Eldritch USA is the sort of premise that overrides one’s self-preservation as a social media user. And in this case, the risk is worth the reward, because the film is sure to be a new cult classic for a certain breed of horror fans everywhere.
Geoff (Graham Weldin) may live in the small town of Eldritch, but he has big dreams of one day being the star reporter for the local television news station. The only problem? His brother Rich (Andy Phinney) is the face of the news team, and nobody – not members of the community or even his own parents – regard Geoff as anything more than the person who holds the camera. Even when the station hires Jill (Aline O’Neill), a new research assistant who expresses an intense interest in his reporting, Geoff relegates himself to second fiddle.
And then Rich dies in a woodcutting accident gone wrong. Forced into the spotlight for the first time, Geoff panics, convincing his best friend Colin (Cameron Perry) to accompany him as he chases down a blind item about a local cult that can resurrect people from the dead. Soon they learn that the cult, who stumbled across a copy of the Necronomicon in a storage unit auction, is only vaguely in control of the power they possess, leading Geoff to bring back a noticeably undead Rich, who seems to have an appetite for human flesh.
The only question that matters is whether Eldritch USA is truly a horror musical, and yes, Eldritch USA is absolutely a horror musical. The music comes courtesy of indie band Fox Royale (formerly Guys on a Bus), who describe themselves in their marketing material as purveyors of “anthemic, jangly indie-rock.” Adopting the conventions of Hollywood musicals, here you can expect heartfelt ballads about missed romantic opportunities and power anthems leading into a climactic final act. There are also overhead shots of (loosely) choreographed crowd numbers and more than a few breaks of the fourth wall.
The songs here are shorter and often more conversational; think Cannibal! The Musical or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog more than Anna and the Apocalypse. But if you can allow for a more transitional mode of music, directors Smith and Foreman play with our expectations to give the entire thing a kind of Waiting for Guffman charm. Arguably the best song in the movie is the resurrection song, which features a four-part band of bluegrass cultists attempting to remember the words from the Necronomicon. What works as a clever bit of repetition in the moment becomes a nice little sight gag later when subsequent resurrections go horribly wrong.
Of course, audiences shouldn’t expect an abundance of polish. Eldritch USA earned a total of $12,000 in its 2020 Kickstarter campaign, and odds are that the budget did not ultimately rise above the five-figure number. Many of the people who populate the screen—residents of Eldritch and cultists who are most often seen as backup dancers in musical numbers—feel like amateurs enlisted by family members and friends, and a big chunk of the movie appears to have been re-recorded in post-production.
But there’s an intentionality to the special effects and the musical numbers that allows the limitations to work for the movie, not against it. Even in a horror musical, there are countless ways to present the undead onscreen, but Eldritch USA chooses to follow in the footsteps of George Romero and paint its undead characters an almost laughable shade of blue. This is just one of several clever ideas by the filmmakers to get around their financial limitations: blue zombies allow the movie to overtly reference Dawn of the Dead while also keeping the prosthetics budget manageable, and what could have felt like a reach instead becomes a mode of VFX nostalgia for discerning horror fans.
And for all the rough edges on display, Eldritch USA earns points for telling an original story and avoiding indexing too hard on other horror films. In one scene, Geoff and Colin try to teach the undead Rich how to value human life by running him through the trolley problem, only to grow confused by their exercise and abandon it entirely. Many low-budget horror films can earn some love from their audiences by nudging and winking their way through a half-dozen horror references, but original character beats like this will always separate the wheat from the chaff.
What does the future hold for Eldritch USA? According to the filmmakers, the movie has already accomplished a sold-out run at its hometown Alamo Drafthouse in Springfield, Missouri, and more screenings are on the way. It would not surprise me to see the film slip into genre festivals in the coming month as something of an audience favorite. But no matter the mode of distribution, Eldritch USA now sits alongside musical episodes of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Todd & the Book of Pure Evil as campy, low-budget musicals that should be on the shortlist of every horror fan. The only question is when the soundtrack will be available to stream.
‘Eldritch USA’ is rough around the edges, but its catchy songs and camp sensibility make it a must-watch for every horror fan.