Rule 2 of the supernatural thriller is having a title people can pronounce. Rule 1 is having some thrills. “Cthulhu” may be recognizable to fans of sci-fi pioneer H.P. Lovecraft as the literally unspeakable demon of pre-humanity, but it doesn’t bode well that this is the clearest aspect of a film that doesn’t quite deliver on any of its myriad plotlines. Look for anemic theatrical (pic began a limited Los Angeles run Aug. 22) and enfeebled ancillary.
Set in a near future of eco-disaster and worldwide unrest, “Cthulhu” initially seems to be a gay-enlightenment melodrama: Russell March (Jason Cottle) is a Seattle history professor whose personal life is just a tad tacky: When he gets a call telling him his mother has died, the man in his bed expresses sympathy and a desire for 20 bucks. Russ is less unhappy about this than he is about the prospect of returning to the island village and family he fled years before.
You can certainly see why he rowed his boat out of Dodge: His father, Rev. Marsh (Dennis Kleinsmith), is as mad as a hatter, and his sister, Dannie (Cara Buono), isn’t far behind. His old flame Mike (Scott Patrick Green) has married, fathered and divorced and refuses to say he’s gay; his old friend Susan (Tori Spelling) and her infertile, wheelchair-bound hubby Ralph (Ian Geoghegan) drug Russ so Susan can rape him. His Aunt Josie (Nancy Stark) is in an asylum, speaking in tongues. And, oh yes, the entire town is involved in a church-led plot to take humankind back to the sea, whence it all began.
The most fantastical plotline can be a perfectly convincing movie, but in “Cthulhu,” the acting is so emotionally unhinged and erratic it borders on camp, diluting any suspense as Russ tries to get to the bottom of why townspeople keep disappearing and why an ancient-looking object d’art has appeared on his motel-room bed while he dreamt about adolescent sexual encounters and hideous creatures invading the earth.
Generally speaking, sex in horror movie is a Freudian avenue to unspeakable atrocity, so it’s be a bit difficult reconciling Russ’ homosexuality with all the odd goings-on in the story. As it is, each aspect of the movie already seems like a universe out of control.
Helmer Daniel Gildark has a strong visual sense — he and d.p. Sean Kirby make great use of Pacific Northwest land- and seascapes, and although they overdo it, their wide-angle shots are painterly and stirring. Gildark has less facility with actors, however: Cottle’s Russ isn’t particularly sympathetic, and while Green’s Mike is likable enough, the other thesps are cartoonish, because they’re playing cartoons.
There are moments of pure inanity-insanity — the sheriff (Greg Michaels), having arrested Russ for a young boy’s murder, starts quoting Yeats. “Cthulhu” has a few of these disorientingly nutty moments, but not enough.