Russell Marsh returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his mother. The reunion with his family is sober, especially with his father, who cannot accept his homosexuality. His father is also the high priest of a cult worshipping The Old Ones, an alleged ancient line of pre-historic gods. As Russel lingers around for a few more days, he experiences harrowing nightmares, encounters townspeople that are terrified by of the church of the Old Ones, and discovers a vast subterranean tunnel network inhabited by deformed creatures. Russell hears rumors of human sacrifice by the cultists, and starts to look for a young boy that has gone missing. He realizes too late that he has become entangled into the workings of the cult, who are trying to summon a race of monstrous humanoids from the sea.
Cthulhu is based on the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft, who is considered by many as one of the founding fathers of modern horror literature. The horror in Lovecraft’s stories is often evoked by unseen things that gnaw on the minds of the protagonists. It can never be truly grasped or located, and there certainly is no chance of defeating or escaping it. These elements are challenging to visualize, and so it may just not be the best material for making movies with the primary purpose to entertain.
Still, there have been a number of adaptations of different Lovecraft stories, a good overview is given here. Some of them were fairly straight forward monster horror movies, such as Re-Animator and Dagon by Stuart Gordon. The Lovecraft Society produced two movies, The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness. While being good movies in their own way, for me they were a bit too gimmicky with heavy emphasis on visual style that distracted too much from the actual story.
So how does Cthulhu fare as compared to the other adaptations? The first thing we can state is that it follows the source material pretty well, maybe not in terms of exact sequence of events, but certainly in spirit and atmosphere. A good dose of personal drama was added to the plot, though, which is something typically absent from Lovecraft’s stories. That could have been a compromise to make the movie more approachable for the non die-hard Lovecraft fans, but it also works as a convenient way to lay bare the inner workings of our main protagonists. But this may be a point of criticsm, as much of the movie revolves around personal tragedy rather than the tragedy of human existence itself in the big cosmic picture, which was a theme that was always lurking beneath the surface in Lovecraft’s stories.
From the onset, the mood of the movie is very bleak, and becomes more and more uncomfortable as the story progresses. There are no cheap jump scares, just a slow, but noticeable buildup of tension and negativity which culminates in a particularly disturbing sequence in the middle of the movie, when reality gradually transforms into a grotesque nightmare for Russell. The chilling atmosphere is supported by the outstanding cinematography of the village and the surrounding coastal area, which are portrayed in a bleak and eerie way. In the end, madness spreads throughout the province, which is visualized in a compelling sequence, when Russell drives over roads littered with burning cars and raging people.
The movie was not made on a big budget, but that does not impact the quality in any way. The acting is decent, special effects are practically absent, but are also not required. Tori Spelling is in the movie, which may be off-putting for some people just because she’s Tori Spelling. Her role is a bit bizarre, but she plays it well, so it’s all good. Many things remain unexplained throughout the course of the story, some as they make particular references to the Lovecraftian universe, some others for no apparent reason. While this may be attributed to a sloppy script, I think in this case the loose ends point to even more terrifying machinations waiting to be revealed, and thus actually contribute to the uncanny atmosphere of the movie.
Cthulhu is not perfect, but it is the best Lovecraft adapatation that I have seen so far. The desperate and nihilistic atmosphere is omnipresent, and the bleak cinematography of the desolate coastal villages and shorelines provides a perfect backdrop for the tragic story, where the main protagonist is drawn ever deeper into the workings of the cult of the Old Ones.