Monday, August 9, 2010

Cthulhu: Lovecraft, Reconsidered

I didn't plan to do two Lovecraft-related movies so close together, but this provides a nice counterpoint to my last post. Where The Call of Cthulhu was neatly period-appropriate, Cthulhu is boldly and ambitiously modern, to the great benefit of the movie and the source material.

Most attempts to bring the stories of H.P. Lovecraft to film have updated the setting - direct adaptations like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon preserve the original story to a reasonable degree and just set it in the modern day. These adaptations also tend to bring along the pulp aspects of Lovecraft's writing as well - they are often feverish, intense, and lurid in their imagery. I think this is totally appropriate, but Cthulhu forgoes pulp intensity for slow, mounting dread, like the storm clouds that come rolling in just before the thunder starts. It earns its name not in purple prose, but in a careful, contemporary examination of some of Lovecraft's consistent themes: The secrets that families hold, the inevitability of destiny, undeniable essential nature, and how we first resist then eventually accept these things, no matter how monstrous. All set in a world in which apocalypse approaches as a steady hum in the background.

Cthulhu opens with snatches of news broadcasts interspersed with long shots of the ocean as it swells and crashes. The news is fragmented, cuts in and out of hearing. We get hints of disaster, political strife. The last audible broadcast is the phrase "the oceans are rising." Indeed they are. The water moves like a living thing.

In Seattle, history professor Russell Marsh receives a phone call. His mother has passed away and he is required at home to help with execution of the will. He doesn't seem thrilled with the prospect, and the man in his bed wants to know if he can bum a few bucks. Maybe Russell is estranged from his family. Home is Rivermouth, Oregon. Small town in the Pacific Northwest, Russell wouldn't be the first gay man to leave his family behind for the city. The drive is fragmented like the news, shards of different highways as the radio tells of disaster, refugees, terrorism. 

Russell's approach into town is marred by a sudden car accident. One minute two teenagers are taunting him from their pickup truck, the next they are overturned, dead and dying. As will be the case throughout the film, there's no dramatic camera angle or musical sting. Things happen without drama, in the quiet, waiting for us to notice. Cthulhu's approach to storytelling is anti-pulp - it relies on quiet, on stillness, on small, important details framed by silence. Careful watching isn't just rewarded, it's necessary. People speak haltingly, sometimes in a stilted, awkwardly formal manner. Other times, they seem just a half-beat off from what you'd expect. Life moves at a different pace in Rivermouth, a pace governed by the ebb and flow of the sea. By the movement of stars.

Russell's appearance at the funeral home stirs a lot of old memories - his sister is happy to see him, his father is loving in tone but distant in manner. Things are definitely unsaid, in the way they are when the estranged are forced to reunite for some common purpose. Russell's mother is dead, and the prodigal son has come home. A young gay man fleeing his family and small town for an open life in the big city? Not too different from any of Lovecraft's other errant inheritors, come back to the family mansion to reluctantly accept their birthright. The why is new, but the what is unchanged. Dad's the minister in a local church - more like a cult, actually - and there are some questions about the rituals they hold in an old building by the docks.  Dad wants Russell to rejoin the fold, having spurned him years before, presumably for his homosexuality. Things are tense - Dad really wants some grandchildren, and Russell's sister and her husband keep trying to no avail. Children are an important part of the family legacy.

The first 30 minutes build so slowly it almost seems like an hour - not tedious, just measured. It's a much slower pace than we expect from contemporary horror movies, but it works here because it immerses us in the town, in the feeling of being surrounded by the townspeople and by Russell's childhood history here. Things start off a little strange, but as Russell gets more and more curious about what's been happening in town - especially about a rash of missing children - it becomes clear to both him and us that what is happening in Rivermouth goes beyond strange into the monstrous. The world outside is beginning to crumble - disaster, terrorism, chaos. The oceans are rising. The end times are not just upon us, they're already here and have been the whole time. Russell's homecoming wasn't unexpected at all.

More than anything else, Cthulhu feels like a Roman Polanski film - important revelations are made in small, apparently innocuous details against a backdrop of increasing tension and paranoia. Everything is a trifle odd - stilted, bizarre, quirky - without moving into the grotesque. Horrors are suggested or dimly recalled, rather than displayed. And like two favorites of mine - Rosemary's Baby and The Ninth Gate - the net closes slowly, and by the time we and the protagonist know the truth, it is too late. Not only can you go home again, this movie says, you are damned to.

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  1. You had me at the Roman Polanski comparison. I gotta see this!

  2. I had never heard of this movie at all before this post (presumably because the company that released it is likely shunned from most mainstream attention) but I was pleasantly surprised by this cool little indie flick. The Polanski comparison is valid. Not everything works here (something even the creators freely admit in the commentary), but I think more of it works than not. Heck, I was even impressed that they managed to wrangle a mostly competent performance out of a notoriously laughable daughter/actress.