Tried and true horror fans the world over know what H.P. Lovecraft’s legendary Old One looks like—Scaly body, tentacled face, beady eyes, vicious claws and bat-like wings. Cthulhu is a monster for all ages. But those of you who are looking for “that” kind of Cthulhu movie are looking in the wrong place when you sit down to view Director Dan Gildark’s version of the mythos. Like Lovecraft, Gildark is telling a story, a story with supernatural elements that could almost be non-supernatural elements. It relies on subtlety and an overwhelming sense of dread. But it’s not a movie about a monster. It’s not really a movie about the end of the world. It’s not even a peculiar Lovecraft inspired fable like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Really what CTHULHU is, is a deep character study about one man coming to grips with his past and the unforeseeable future that lies ahead of him.
When Russ, a young history professor returns to the ramshackle town of his youth to attend his mother’s funeral, he is forced to confront the bizarre memories and demons that he left behind so many years before. Memories of a strange cult lead by his father and the possibility that the numerous disappearance of townsfolk might be in someway connected to the cult. But not everyone in town is as helpful as one might imagine and soon Russ begins to wonder if his real reasons for leaving were as clear cut as he remembers them. And now that he has returned, is the cult waiting for him.
Lovecraft purists are going to have a field day debunking the merits of this film. Right off the bat it appears to be borrowing most of its main idea and its setting from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” but even that comparison is stretching reality a bit. Most will complain that the film focuses too much on the main characters homosexuality—being that Lovecraft lore is generally devoid of any type of sexuality (either hetero or homo) and that the asexual nature of Lovecraft is one of its defining characteristics. But if you accept that the filmmakers only take the story’s inspiration from Lovecraft and choose to create a tale that might have existed within the broadest reaches of the universe then I think CTHULHU is wildly Lovecraftian. I would specifically defend the decision to make the characters sexuality a cornerstone of the story since in this tale it is the catalyst for ultimate dénouement. One that works perfectly I might add. The other point I can imagine that will draw endless debate is the casting of former TV Star and Reality Television staple Tori Spelling.
Truth be told, I was taken aback at the Spelling casting decision and I can’t quite place my finger on how she was brought into this little film’s world. But, I will say this. Spelling’s screen time is only about 6 to 8 minutes spread out over the course of 3 scenes. Her character is of paramount importance to the film and her performance as that character is absolutely adequate. It is not a role that provides for a broad scope of range and the actress proves herself more than capable of delivering a convincing portrayal. In reality none of the cast is forced into fits of grandiose histrionics or overbearing scene chewing. All the performances are nuanced and subdued and the cues are taken by the pacing of the film as well as the desolate and desaturated backdrops.
While the film is subtle, I would never go so far as to call it boring. It’s exacting and dishes out revelation in decidedly measured doses. But when Russ ventures down into the town’s sewer system, the film’s tension increases ten-fold. In fact for a 5 minute sequence which is shrouded in so much blackness that the viewer is equally as disoriented as the main character—only ever given lighting fast glances at the horrors that hide below the quite streets—the movie very nearly attains perfection. Once Russ surfaces and realizes what is going on the film picks up steam toward an expected and only every so slightly disappointing conclusion.
Without giving too much away—the film tries to make its ominous ending a bit broader than the seemingly low budget would allow. I don’t know if the constraints of money or the rural location are what failed the film more at this point but I guess it’s like T.S. Elliot once said. “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”
So purists beware, you probably won’t find anything in this film to make your dreams of an epic CTHULHU monster-movie come any closer to reality. But for those of you interested in a serious dramatic horror film that offers some sheer moments of brilliance on screen and an overall satisfying psychological tale, then I can’t imagine not telling you to check out this film. It delivers when you least expect it, but you have to give it time to develop—no cookie cutter, MTV music video montages to set those synapses firing…like reading a good novel, you’ll need to let your imagination help you along the way.