The works of the esteemed horror-fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) haven't translated well to film historically. The Dunwich Horror; Die, Monster, Die!; The Curse and Dagon are but a few woeful examples. Lovecraft's more psychological terrors tend to end up dramatically incoherent on the big screen, and his fanciful monsters have appeared immediately, laughably rubbery.
Finally, one Lovecraft-inspired movie has gotten it right. Cthulhu, which Regent Releasing is opening this Friday in LA and across the US throughout the fall, is everything the author's best stories are: creepy, cool and classy. What's more, screenwriter Grant Cogswell and director Daniel Gildark have given their thought-provoking adaptation of what is referred to as Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" a gay twist, which isn't inappropriate given long-standing rumors about Lovecraft's possible homosexuality (for a rather vehement denial of this, check out the H.P. Lovecraft Archive website).
When gay history professor Russ Marsh (a very good, nuanced performance by Jason Cottle) returns after a long absence to his Oregon coast hometown for his mother's funeral, he encounters several unexpected and potentially sinister forces. First is the apocalyptic religious cult led by his father, Reverend Marsh (Dennis Kleinsmith). Next is Russ's former crush and high school-era j.o. buddy Mike (Scott Patrick Green). Last, but not necessarily least, is the seductive Susan and her allegedly physically-disabled husband.
Susan is played by Tori Spelling, the biggest name in the cast. While I thoroughly enjoyed Spelling in the gay comedy Trick, I was skeptical of Cthulhu when I read she was in it. Lo and behold, she is very effective here in her small but significant dramatic role.
The aforementioned "Cthulhu Mythos" of H.P. Lovecraft and several other authors who further developed them generally deal with a number of "Old Ones," supernatural beings who ruled the world before humankind stamped them out. Ever since, they have been plotting their revenge on humanity and waiting for the right time to return.
Cthulhu, the movie, updates Lovecraft in at least two significant ways. Humans are shown unwittingly laying the groundwork for the Old Ones' return through our abuse of the environment. Gildark and Cogswell give their film an eerily prescient doomsday aura, with global temperatures rising dramatically and the oceans receding.
The other significant update is that Russ, the story's protagonist, is unapologetically gay. Long an embarassment to his father and others in the town, no one is more surprised than himself to be anointed the potential savior of the world. However, he could just as well become the Old Ones' pawn in re-establishing their reign. Not too give too much away, but Cthulhu ends on an ambiguous note that will likely disappoint some viewers. (Feel free to weigh in below with your comments.)
I'm very impressed by director Gildark, whose feature debut this is. He wisely suggests the more fantastic aspects of the source material and avoids the explicit representations that have sabotaged other Lovecraft-based movies. His use of limited light, particularly during a subterranean sequence, is masterfully frightening.
I am very choosy when it comes to recommending horror movies, and don't even consider the Saw (aside from the first one) and Hostel "torture porn" series that try to pass themselves off as such today. Cthulhu (watch the trailer here) is that increasingly rare combination of intelligence and technique that reminds audiences of the things we really ought to be afraid of.
UPDATE: Cthulhu is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.