Russ (Jason Cottle), like most people raised in a small town, moves away after college and vows never to return. However, he has an unusually good reason for not coming back. His father not only disapproves of him being gay, but he's also the head of an apocalyptic cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon that's prone to wearing purple robes and spouting fire-and-brimstone prophecies about "the end." How embarrassing.
When Russ's mother dies, though, he feels obliged to return home to the small island town of Rivermouth, Oregon, where he receives an unusually warm welcome. The cult turns out to have a wide sphere of influence, and everyone around him suddenly seems interested in his destiny.
Thankfully, his sister, Dannie (Cara Buono), and his ex-friend and lover, Mike (Scott Patrick Green), both seem normal enough. Russ and Mike renew their relationship, opening old wounds in the process, but Russ is also the target of the affections of Susan (Tori Spelling), an old classmate who's either oblivious to the fact that she's barking up the wrong tree or who has impure intentions of her own.
As odd events pile up -- a strange relic left in his bed, a kidnapped boy, scribblings of the names of townsfolk left in an old fishermen's shed, a videotaped message from his mother, rumors of human sacrifice -- Russ delves deeper into the secrets lying beneath the town and how they're tied to his fate.
The End Product
Some films based on literary works don't require any prior knowledge of the source material, but you might need to do some prep work for Cthulhu. The first time I watched it, I wasn't sure what had happened, but after reading a summary of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it made a lot more sense. Although some Lovecraft purists might not appreciate the liberties taken with the story, they should enjoy the fact that the Cthulhu Mythos isn't spoon-fed in too elementary a format. Non-Lovecraftians, however, might be left scratching their heads.
That said, even if you're unsure of the plot, Cthulhu is still an effective film. Its primary appeal is its look, which combines the natural beauty of the stormy Oregon coastline with a cool blue hue that ties in the oceanic theme. It's a gorgeous film, given the budgetary constraints (including being shot digitally rather than on film), and it provides stunning visuals that underscore the dreamlike, apocalyptic nature of the story. Even when Russ isn't seeing surreal visions in his sleep, the reality of his world is just a bit off, and director Dan Gildark and cinematographer Sean Kirby immerse us squarely in this universe with scenes like the ambitious single-shot car accident in the film's first few minutes.
Story-wise, Cthulhu has unusual depth and dramatic scope for a horror movie. For those seeking to read messages into the script, there are statements that could be culled about homosexuality, global warming, bigotry, religion, government and war. The fact that the lead character is gay will no doubt draw the most attention, but anyone concerned about there being heavy-handed sermonizing about equality and social acceptance should know that Russ's sexuality actually is a key element of the story that ties into the mythology and ostensibly serves no grander purpose.
Unlike Stuart Gordon's fun Shadow Over Innsmouth adaptation, Dagon, Cthulhu eschews campy, special effects-heavy thrills in favor of the sort of cerebral terror and one-against-many tension that made the original The Wicker Man so popular. The script is literate and smart -- granted, perhaps a bit too smart for Lovecraft novices -- although some of the Russ/Mike background material is a bit unclear (A suicide attempt?). Some viewer confusion could also arise from an editing process that muddies a few scene transitions, seemingly disregarding what just happened in the previous scene.
The cast of Cthulhu is solid, despite few recognizable names outside of Spelling. The few acting hiccups are expected in a small indie flick, but as Russ, Cottle shines with a subtle intensity (aided by the shaved head; not sure why, but it just works) and great "Am I here?" reactions to the oddness surrounding him.
Most of the flaws in the film are due to its small budget, but considering its resources (or lack thereof), Cthulhu is a wondrous achievement that delivers a big-screen product on an indie scale. It's not hard to imagine the sort of spectacle that could've been created if the filmmakers had had studio funding of a "modest" 10 or 20 million bucks. Hopefully, this movie will allow them to move on to bigger things the next time around.