Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Adaptations are a funny thing, especially when the material being adapted has taken on a life outside of the source material. In terms of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, his monsters—especially Cthulhu—have taken on a cultural significance that is far removed from his original story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” The name Cthulhu now represents giant monsters, madness-inducing evil, and Lovecraft’s mythos entirely. It is a name simultaneously tied to Lovecraft and representative of a new set of ideas only loosely attached to his stories. Thus, it makes sense that Dan Gildark titled his 2007 film Cthulhu, because in many ways he takes the idea of the Lovecraft mythos and reworks them entirely into a new story—albeit with varying success.
Plot: Russ (Jason Cottle), a History professor, returns to his hometown when he learns of the death of his mother. He struggles to connect with his family, including his father, who is the head of a cult worshipping the Old Ones and great Cthulhu. The town is insular and Russ left due to his loathing of the people and their disapproval of his homosexuality. During his stay, he begins to uncover many strange goings-on, ultimately learning of a plot to destroy and overtake the world.
Much like Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, the title of this movie references one story while actually adapting the popular Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which a surveyor goes to a bygone town and learns of a horrible secret surrounding the townsfolk. Also like Stuart Gordon, Gildark chooses to alter the source material to create something new. Fortunately, Gildark does not reshape the material just for cheap horror tricks and lazy directing (see Parts 4 & 5), but instead attempts to create something new with reshaped intentions, most notable in having a homosexual lead—something that Lovecraft not only never wrote, but probably would’ve been against.
I think that this idea is actually quite fantastic, as it both emphasizes ideas of the original story and furthers it in a unique direction. One of the major points of The Shadow Over Innsmouth—and most of Loveraft’s stories—is that the narrator is isolated from everyone else, hopelessly alone in a crazy world. Russ’s homosexuality is a modern way to evoke that same sense of isolation in a small town. I think that the decision to incorporate homophobia also gives a distinctly human quality to the movie, making the protagonist’s story more engaging. If we care more about our avatar in the story, then we care more about his world ending.
There is, unfortunately, another connection to Stuart Gordon: a questionabe rape scene. In Gordon’s movies, it’s absolutely unnecessary, although I can see why Gildark might have included it. The townspeople need an heir from Russ, and he obviously won’t provide one as he has no interest in having children, and so he is drugged and raped by Susan (Tori Spelling?). Okay, maybe that makes sense plot-wise (although considering that Lovecraft’s protagonists were often avatars for himself, the decision to name this character after his mother is accidentally a little bit gross). But it’s almost never brought up again, except for one line between Russ and Susan. Wouldn’t that have more of an effect on someone? Isn’t that a pretty big deal?
The reason it bothered me more than just at face value—which still warrants a lot of bother—is that Gildark spends so much time early on attaching significance to past events through melodramatic and purposeless flashbacks. He doesn’t need any of it; the plot up front is interesting enough. Why not develop the incredibly important rape scene instead of portraying scenes from the past that are largely covered in dialogue and detract from the rhythm of the movie? The horror is in the present, and there it should remain. The effect of the movie as a whole is dragged down by these issues.
Despite that grievance, I will say that Cthulhu, once it gets rolling, has a pretty solid rhythm. The story begins personally and develops the madness that will consume the protagonist, as per norm in Lovecraft’s stories. Gildark’s willingness to take his time benefits this movie greatly, which makes some of the detractions—not only the unnecessary flashbacks, but also some of the acting—all the more disappointing. There are some intriguing aspects to Cthulhu that ultimately can’t escape the experience-disrupting tendencies to over-do it: the acting, storytelling (flashbacks, expository dialogue), and jump-scares all stop this movie from being as good as it could have been.
In terms of Lovecraft’s presence in this movie, it’s fairly light. There are some references to elements of the mythos, but—outside of the interesting reworking of Shadow Over Innsmouth—they’re pretty skin-deep, largely name-drops. Still, the attempt to rewrite the original tale makes these references relatively inoffensive.
Ultimately, Cthulhu is ambitious and above par for the course, but not exactly a must-see. I encourage curious Lovecraft fans, and perhaps general fans of slower-paced horror, to give it a shot