Eldritch Adaptations: ‘Cthulhu’ Rises Above Expectations

Eldritch Adaptations

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.

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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.

Cthulhu (2007)

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?

Even some well-placed brooding would've been nice.

Arkham Northwest Productions
Even some well-placed brooding would’ve been nice.

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.

Still, there are some nice shots.

Arkham Northwest Productions
Still, there are some nice shots.

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

And whatever the hell these things are.

Arkham Northwest Productions
And whatever the hell these things are.

3 thoughts on “Eldritch Adaptations: ‘Cthulhu’ Rises Above Expectations

  1. I really think you gave Cthulhu an overly positive review. I actually prefer Dagon, a risible schlock film unto itself, over the intermittent and incoherent story-lines, like the small child who says Cthulhu for no particular reason, to the raping couple, to the cashier, all of which either don’t pay off in any real way or land with a thud; this parade of incidental events around the main character, which in no way actually add anything to his character development or the narrative of the story, simply makes the film drag on with little or no point.

    Also you didn’t mention the ludicrous overacting/bad-acting–particularly from Zadok Allen, who actually made me miss the incoherent performance from Dagon–which along with the narrative makes me think if I didn’t know the source material I would assume Cthulhu was a cheap syfy channel movie.

    Then again the worst and most incomprehensible part of the film is the end, where he murders his long-time love for no particular reason other than his father/townsfolk, people he genuinely loathes, want him to; in the original story the main character is transformed over to the side of darkness because of dramatic physical/psychological changes to himself, whereas in Cthulhu there’s nothing of the sort, nor any reason given really, so the nature of the ending just feels forced and pathetic.

    • I actually agree with just about everything you said. Most of the plot stuff falls apart, and the acting—although it does its best with a fairly overwrought script—isn’t exactly revolutionary. As faint praise as this might seem, I appreciated that ‘Cthulhu’ tries something different; even if it’s a complete failure, it still stands apart from almost every other Lovecraft adaptation because it is ambitious and tries to actually adapt Lovecraft’s story while maintaining its own style. All the weird stuff, although not necessarily utilized, builds an atmosphere of a creepy small town where everything is slightly off. The changes to the plot actually bring it closer to Lovecraft’s work because the people working on this movie want to adapt the material, and not simply translate or, to consider other attempted adaptations, bastardize it.

      And as much as this movie was often kinda painful to watch, it did get some of the basic ideas right. At the very least, it tried—even if it failed—to capture the essence of Lovecraft’s stories and horror, which as we both know is not the kind that almost every other adaptation has even bothered to think about. And I’m willing to commend a horribly flawed, subpar movie for trying to be great, especially in contrast to anything from terrible (see: ‘Dagon) to excessively average (see: ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’) ones that are lazy in their attempts to handle the material.

      If there were better adaptations of Lovecraft, I’d be more critical of ‘Cthulhu’, but I am willing to praise an original, unique, and ambitious work in the hopes of seeing more that can accomplish what this movie attempted.

      Thanks for the comment, by the way. From what I’ve seen, you make well-thought-out comments, and I really like the conversation you’re creating here. I think it’s important in the admittedly-small realm of Lovecraft and horror fans.

      • Hey sorry for the lateness of this but I didn’t have any way to be alerted that you replied (because I’m an idiot and didn’t originally check it to do so) and I didn’t get around to checking back till now, as my memory is ever so slippery.

        Thanks for the reply, and I do agree that Cthulhu gave a respectively unique slant to a Lovecraft adaptation; more than anything I praise the fact that the filmmakers didn’t succumb to Gordon-esque mutilation or to the temptation to make the film simply monster-driven in nature. Also I certainly saw from the beginning the possibilities of making the protagonist homosexual, which could further express and articulate his reoccurring alienation. And the visually gloomy mood of the film was an appreciative touch.

        Yet beyond the filmmakers’ original desires and aspirations I still have to say that all those interesting ideas and philosophies behind the film were never executed properly, or in the case of several they were barely executed at all, and so the film stands as it does, a mangled and uneven bit of weird-horror. In particular among its many missed opportunities, I think it would’ve been fascinating had they properly executed the father-son dynamic, particularly in light of Lovecraft’s own complex feelings about his own relationship with the memory of his deceased father, yet in the film that dynamic is left largely at the wayside. Though I see your point about the oddball character of the protagonists’ myriad run-ins being similar to certain aspects of the classic weird tale, I feel the abstract nature of these largely unrelated stories doesn’t work in the context of the story—or rather it doesn’t normally work very well in the context of a much larger and longer cinematic narrative framework and is better used in the arena of the short story or short film; two genre/mediums, because of their length, that inherently can use abstraction to their advantage without endangering the movement of the greater narrative or being seen as unnecessarily obtuse or obtusely transient—which is particularly how these vignettes felt to me in Cthulhu. Then again perhaps these near-random actions and narratives could’ve had a bit better chance of working with me if the story, direction, screenplay, acting, ect. had been better executed overall, but in the context of the varying degrees of amateurism in the film they, again, to me, hurt rather than helped–this in a way actually mirrors Lovecraft’s various early rough tales, such as From Beyond, and how their poor overall writing only hurt his concepts, whether they were worthwhile or not. As it’s said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Cthulhu’s intentions are reasonably strong, it’s just that as a film it largely topples over its own aspirations through its ungainly and misguided execution.

        But I think the main difference between our reactions to the film is that to some extent you wish to soften some of its inherent issues in part because of so few qualitative films based on Lovecraft’s works, whereas I try to take all the Lovecraft-based films, each and every one of them, entirely at face-value for exactly what they are as works of cinema, and to a varying extent for what they are as direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. Though I’m tempted to say that part of this difference is because I was separately an enthusiast of both cinema and Lovecraft long before I watched a single Lovecraft-based film, or all that many horror films for that matter, the real cause of my view of his cinematic adaptations is that I objectively would do the same for a poorly adapted film based on the works of any of the other literary figures whose creations I’m passionate about, regardless of the preexisting quality of the vast majority of their cinematically adapted oeuvre. But to put it more succinctly, especially in the case of Cthulhu: lipstick on a shoggoth doesn’t make the shoggoth any prettier, even if its immediate comparisons are even uglier shoggoths.

        And in regards to support v. criticism and to which is better for inspiring better artistic works, I have to say in my personal experience as an artist* that the latter is generally the better, more efficient route toward artistic betterment; I can say without a doubt that the times when I improved the most as an artist was when my work was constructively criticized outright by others. Though I’ll admit praise does help to boost confidence, if I look back at all the times my work was praised and all those times my work was criticized, the praise generally inspired me to do more works while the criticism pushed me to simply do better; I personally think in the current state of Lovecraftian cinema a little quality over quantity couldn’t hurt—particularly in respect to the quality of the all quantity of Lovecraft-based films that have come in the intervening decades–and so a wee bit more criticism could very well go a long way.


        *Not a cinematic artist but a self-taught illustrator, so you can take it with a grain of salt, though I should say that universally each and every medium, genre and style of art has certain applicable parameters for success or failure within their respective spheres and so general aspects such as artistic self-improvement can logically be said to apply to one genre or the other.

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