The indie horror flick Cthulhu takes its name from a character who's both unpronounceable and unspeakable. "Cthulhu" may be the signature creation of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who specialized in memorably purple tales of unthinkable monsters, demons and aliens up until his death in 1937. His stories of malignant gods called the Old Ones are collectively referred to as "The Cthulhu mythos," named for a gigantic winged thingie with a tentacled face.
Lovecraft ranks second only to Edgar Allen Poe as a writer of American horror literature, yet his work usually slips through the fingers of filmmakers. Lovecraft conjures such nightmarish images of primordial terrors that, even if a film could replicate them through a fortune in special effects, they still wouldn't be as scary as what we see with our mind's eye. Stuart Gordon's kinky, splattery Re-Animator and From Beyond are the best Lovecraft flicks, but derive from smaller-scale tales than the Cthulhu-related stories.
The Call of Cthulhu, a recent, 45-minute film available on Netflix, deserves mention as an intriguing experiment. Director Andrew Leman presents Call as an elaborate homage to the silent films of the 1920s, coinciding with the publication of the short story of the same name. The black-and-white photography, pallid make-up and deliberately primitive, expressionistic special effects have a dreamlike quality that suits Lovecraft's work, although the appearance of a stop-motion Cthulhu at the end turns out to be anticlimactic.
Dan Gildark's enigmatic, low-budget feature Cthulhu makes a game attempt to do justice to Lovecraft's themes while touching on modern-day concerns. In an extremely loose adaptation of Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," history professor Russell Marsh (Jason Cottle) returns to his hometown of Rivermouth following his mother's death. Being openly gay, Marsh would probably have had an awkward homecoming in Rivermouth no matter the circumstances. Almost immediately we learn that Marsh's father (Dennis Kleinsmith) leads a peculiar religious sect called the Esoteric Order of Dagon and robed figures stalk the streets at night.
Marsh only wants to settle his mother's estate and get out of Dodge, but strange events occur that increasingly seem to be linked. A burnt-out fisherman raves about creatures rising from the sea. Marsh tries to figure out the nature of the weird artifact that appeared in his motel bed. Tori Spelling, of all people, plays a seductive townie with surprising designs on Marsh. In a welcome moment of comic relief, her infertile husband explains, "Susan needs your swimmers." (Incidentally, Spelling fares better than the small, stunt-casting nature of the role would suggest.)
Contemporary horror films, even smarter ones such as Teeth, put such emphasis on grisly shocks that it's a relief that Cthulhu finds suspense in restraint. Gildark cultivates an atmosphere of dread and dislocation, even during seemingly mundane trips to the liquor store. Marsh hears snippets of news that convey the escalation of civil unrest, and dreams of weird images, such as himself standing on a beach beside a huge cage with hands reaching through the bars. Marsh's relationship with a childhood friend (Scott Patrick Green) provides the rare moments of ease while offering a fresh twist on horror-movie romantic subplots.
Gildark largely keeps the audience and Marsh in the dark about such questions as whether Rivermouth is infested with subhuman entities: We never quite glimpse them from the corners of our eyes, which keeps us engaged. Unfortunately, Gildark ends the film on such an ambiguous note that it blunts Cthulhu's power as both an apocalyptic, occult thriller and a nuanced character study.
Cthulhu's connection to Lovecraft's themes seems tenuous by the film's end, but Gildark's emphasis on mood and mystery probably succeed better than a more literal, visually explicit adaptation would. Perhaps the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company has the best idea by producing audio-only versions of Lovecraft's yarns, retaining the words while leaving the imagination intact. Cthulhu might be better heard and not seen.