Cthulhu (2007)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 29, 2010  | 
Beyond | All Regions, PAL | 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 96 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Daniel Gildark
Starring: Jason Cottle, Cara Buon, Scott Green, Robert Padilla, Tori Spelling
Screenplay: Grant Cogswell
Country: USA
External Links
IMDB CthulhuPurchase YouTube
One of the great authors of 20th century horror, HP Lovecraft has suffered more cinematic slings and arrows than any other author I can think of. You may think that some of the adaptations of Stephen King's novels have sucked harder than a two-dollar hooker, but they'd be nothing against the average Lovecraft adaptation. I'm sorry to say that Cthulhu is just one more in a long line of low-budget films ruining excellent source material.

The story being sucked dry of any life here is The Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of Lovecraft's very best (although he himself didn't like it all that much), filmed quite successfully in 2001 as Dagon, by Stuart Gordon (there was a big budget studio version mooted not too long ago, to be starring Nicolas Cage (gulp!), and although it got as far as production design of the monsters, the aquatic Deep Ones, nothing came of it). The premise is a simple one – a fella following rumours turns up in a strange, insular little town, and following a brief chat with the town drunk (always an unimpeachable source of information), and noticing that all of the locals have a peculiar look about them ("the Innsmouth look", Innsmouth being the name of the increasingly threatening and quite run down town), decides to hang around after dark, something he's been warned not to do most explicitly by the locals in neighbouring Arkham, as well as by Zadok the drunk. Lovecraft evokes dread as effectively here as he ever did, falling back quite well on his favoured tropes of strange elder gods from beyond the stars, race memory, and most importantly, blood calling to tainted blood. The ending of Lovecraft's novella was nightmarish indeed, and yet also strangely sympathetic. That may appear contradictory, but go read it for yourself and see if you can work out what I'm talking about.

Cthulhu kinda-sorta follows the same vibe, and indeed features a number of set pieces from the above synopsis of Lovecraft's tale, but due to either directorial style or budgetary constraints, falters when faced with the scenes of explicit horror that even Lovecraft himself (notorious for not showing us what actually happened, falling back on words like "indescribable" as a personal shorthand for scenes he didn't want to narrate) displayed in grim, graphic form. Psychological horror is all well and good, but when the actual horror in the text is meant to be physical and not implied (and it is – it's an early and highly effective example of body horror) – well, it's kind of a cheat. If you're not going to show us what Lovecraft on a rare occasion wanted us to see so as to horrify us, then why bother pillaging and plundering his works? Well then, let's see.

Russ Marsh is originally a native of the little coastal hamlet of Rivermouth. Being gay in a small town with a father who's the strictly conservative and disapproving leader of the local church of weirdness, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, has led Russ to the big smoke, but when his mother dies, he heads back to Rivermouth for the funeral. Now here's my first problem with the film: introducing sexuality of any sort to a Lovecraft story outside of slimy eldritch horrors trying to have hybrid children with humans. Please don't read this as homophobia, as I'm not a homophobe, it's just that Lovecraft's own asexuality (possibly repressed homosexuality, who can say?), bordering on a disgust at sexuality, is quite clearly apparent in his own texts, and sadly enough in his own failed marriage, and subsequent accounts of it. Sex produces monsters – and in some case worse – in Lovecraft's body of work, and introducing this obviously subjective thread into the story is treading on dangerous ground if you're trying to target an audience familiar with his stories, who, when all's said and done want a faithful adaptation of the tale being attempted. That said, the gay angle does make sense given later events in the story, but I still think was introduced for reasons extraneous to the original vision of the story. If you are trying to introduce a character as an outsider, there are less obvious and heavy-handed ways of doing so – to me that's as outdated and condescending as having a movie be greatly feted for having a black or female lead. We're no longer in the 1960s, after all.

Secondly, by modernizing Lovecraft's tale (and this is set in the modern day), you immediately weaken the premise of Lovecraft's world-view – the more primitive and helpless we are in the face of the Great Old Ones (the evil and utterly alien multi-dimensional super-entities of his Cthulhu Mythos), the more effective his stories become; and that is what adds to the sense of dread he was constantly trying to achieve. Read At The Mountains Of Madness or The Call Of Cthulhu if you don't believe me – our technology and weaponry in the 1930s were useless against their might. That was the point – our struggles were futile. After all, the Great Old Ones created mankind as a slave race bordering on a joke – hardly "how like a God!/The beauty of the world,/paragon of animals" that Shakespeare saw us as in Hamlet. More like a race of primitives crawling on the face of the Earth, trying to scratch an existence out of nothing, comforting ourselves with ideas of a God who didn't really exist, while the ones who did watched on and laughed…

Throughout the film elements of chaos are broadcast, Greek Chorus-style, over radio and TV news, with mention of the seas rising, which is a nice touch back to Lovecraft (and images of the sea and various characters' connections with it are pretty apparent during the film) – the beings like Cthulhu, Dagon, Mother Hydra and Ghatanatoa coming back to claim their original land, from below the deep. Brief, shocking elements of violence underpin this, but I don't think it was ever done successfully enough – if madness was to be the order of the day, I think it needed to be more pronounced, more present – in Gordon's aforementioned Dagon, he never sacrificed spooks and scares for the sake of violence. Both worked hand-in-hand admirably, as they hadn't in some of his previous Lovecraft adaptations – the much vaunted, but highly flawed Re-Animator and From Beyond, for example – and the less said about his excruciating Masters Of Horror take on Dreams In The Witch House, the better.

So anyway, Russ turns back up to town (highly unwilling to even to be there in the first place), misses the funeral due to trying to help a dying man in a car-crash, and is greatly uncomfortable at the wake – and when we see his father for the first time, it's pretty apparent as to why. The domineering father disappointed in the child is a staple of modern cinema, and given the fathers' stance on Russ' sexuality (and the eventual reason as to why that's so important to the father), Russ' discomfort is pretty reasonable. Escaping the house for a while, Russ comes across a strange building with peoples' names scratched into the walls and floor – pay attention to this, pop-pickers, as it becomes much more important as the film goes on. And who exactly are those guys in robes, beating drums and marching in procession towards the building?

The film lurches back into an exploration of small-town America, when Russ meets up with his ex, Mike, and they play the catch-up game, Russ surprised at how things can change so much so (relatively) quickly in a small town. He then, for no readily ascertainable reason, goes back to his hotel room and gives himself a crew-cut, and is plagued by a reasonably disconcerting dream sequence. And so the film switches back into its original horror vibe, and it must be said, at times Cthulhu doesn't seem to know what it wants to be – psychological thriller, expose on family relationships and attack on small-town culture in fancy dress, etcetera. But this is where the Lovecraftian element really starts to come to the fore – and that whole idea of what family means becomes more apparent, too – and it's not good. Dysfunctional doesn't even come close to summing it up.

Russ and Mike hit a bar the next night and meet a local drunk who seems to know a lot more than the townsfolk want him to tell, and Russ' sister Dani introduces him to her friend Susan (Tori Spelling! ARGH! A woman who should only ever be let back in front of a camera if it's for some Hollywood celebrity mug-shot line-up…), who she, as it turns out, is trying to use to win Russ back over to the side of heterosexuality, as Russ' father wants the seed of his boy's loins to be fruitful in the belly of a woman – despite the fact that Russ has made it very clear that he's quite happy being gay, despite the victimization he receives in his hometown. Funnily enough, while no-one else in town shows signs of the old Lovecraftian Innsmouth look – Tori Spelling somehow does…

The weirdness of the town escalates, and the original story's hostile essence comes back to the fore – but the over-acting escalates at the same rate. Sometimes this film fires, sometimes it misfires like a bastard. This is one of the latter – drunken old Zadok howling, "Do you know what a shoggoth is?!" – talk about over-playing your hand – Julia, the irritating liquor store chick Russ drives home is even worse. Seriously, taking an excellent and terrifying Lovecraft story like The Shadow Over Innsmouth and making a hysterically melodramatic film like Cthulhu out of it is a crime. All of a sudden it turns into a session of the Chaosium modern day The Call Of Cthulhu role-playing game, Cthulhu Now! (with all the terrible acting such an exercise would entail), but with Russ as the investigator character, searching for Julia's brother.

In that very search, after a few ups and downs, Russ gets arrested for murder (again veering well away from the original story) and Cthulhu heads back into nightmare territory for a while, but never the way in which Lovecraft envisioned it. There's some mention of Deep One-like creatures, but it never hits the white-hot terror (or should that be "the slimy black terror") of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This to me is the problem with Cthulhu: it never approaches Lovecraft's evocation of truly suffocating dread. Gordon's Dagon managed it with aplomb – the inescapability of both location and fate was there, but it definitely isn't here. There's a certain slight claustrophobia (the nastiness when the one of the victims is found outside Mike's place, for example) at work here, but it really isn't that strong. Or at least, not as strong as it should be. The town itself should feel more of a prison for Russ, and again, it doesn't. Even when his mother's house – the ancestral Marsh home – gets auctioned off and sold to a mysterious bidder – the mystery seems low-key. As the film moves into it's final act, and some kind of movement towards showing a resistance against the evil in Rivermouth is shown, we still don't get to see any real kind of tension. What's being hinted at just simply doesn't cut it. And worst of all, besides one shot in the last minute (and it's annoyingly enough a long shot with little real detail) it leaves the audience wanting, and there's no greater sin for a horror film.
The picture quality is generally quite good (although some of the interior shots resemble shadows moving in the dark, the lighting is so bad), with a not-so-subtle blue wash all over everything to give it that extra watery coldness. It worked well in Lemora: A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural, but here only so-so, lacking the intrinsic dread of that other film.
The sound is fine, as you'd expect from such a recent film – clear, with no distortion. The sound design and score are nothing to write home about – anyone trying to appropriately score a Lovecraft film should be heading directly for black ambient acts like Lustmord, Amon, Tho-So-Aa or Yen Pox – they'd be much scarier and more apropos than what's on display here.
Extra Features
Absolutely nothing.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Look, Cthulhu is not an awful film, but it's by no means a great one - modernising Lovecraft never really works, and the dialogue (as in Lovecraft's own stories) veers from the reasonable to the truly dreadful. The various actors struggle manfully with what they've been given script-wise, but sadly, it ain't enough. The definitive Lovecraft film is still to be made, in my opinion. Cthulhu is ultimately a failure. Next, please!

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